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Unusually bleak music shows a rarely-heard side to Bernstein
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
* * * 1/2
Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 1980 ITC Entertainment Ltd. and Transcontinental Films; review copyright (c) 2006 James Southall
Nothing about Saturn 3 is anything other than eclectic and bizarre. The cast - the 64-year-old Kirk Douglas and 33-year-old Farrah Fawcett frolicking around naked, Harvey Keitel having his whole vocal performance in the film being dubbed in a bizarre monotone by a different actor - Singin' in the Rain director Stanley Donen helming a gritty sci-fi horror and including some outlandish song-and-dance numbers which don't actually feature songs - the fact that it's written by Martin Amis!!! - and Elmer Bernstein's score is a mixture of grand orchestral gestures, Gregorian plainchant and disco!!! - films don't get much stranger (nor much worse).
Bernstein started his career with science fiction movies he would probably later rather have forgotten (like Robot Monster and Cat-Women of the Moon) but then he went decades without doing any - before bizarrely finding himself scoring several of them in the early 1980s. I'm sure he would much rather have forgotten the likes of Saturn 3 and Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone too! This disc's liner notes rightly assert that Star Wars proved to be a boon to old-school composers like Bernstein who had found themselves marginalised beforehand, but I do wonder whether the short-term bonus in terms of them finding gainful employment more easy to come by was outweighed in the long-run by them being reduced to scoring trash like this (and John Barry on The Black Hole) for which they simply weren't ideally suited - and also saw an end to the kind of fiercely original, daring film music being written by the likes of the two Jerrys, Goldsmith and Fielding, immediately beforehand just as much as it (temporarily) reduced the predilection for pop-based music in all kinds of films which had thrived after The Graduate.
Most of Bernstein's music was ultimately removed from Saturn 3 for some reason, but that which remains was enough to make this one of the most-requested unreleased scores in Bernstein's canon, and finally Intrada Records managed to secure the rights (and find the tapes) to release it in their Special Collection.
I've always felt that, regardless of how magnificent some of Bernstein's larger-scale scores were, he was really at the peak of his powers when he worked on films which really spoke to him personally, which inspired him way beyond the norm - and where he worked with smaller forces. I just can't believe that the veteran composer could have thought very highly of Saturn 3, and while his score is extremely ambitious in the way it tries to combine such disparate styles of music, the magic which pervades this great composer's finest works just isn't here, with one exception.
The score's opening cue, the nine-minute "Space Murder", pretty much sums it up - it opens with a portentous orchestral explosion perhaps designed to echo 2001, before quickly moving into disco territory which would have been more at home in Saturday Night Fever (though the deep male choir which accompanies the guitars and drums might not have been) and then finally moves into the score's love theme, which was eventually entirely excised from the film - but turned up later as the truly exceptional "Taarna's Theme" in Heavy Metal. The version here has no ondes martenot, but does have a choir, and whether in this veign or in the later score, it's one of the composer's most inspired and inspiring themes of this period.
"Peeping Toms" is the score's most dramatic, and probably most impressive, cue - the throbbing electronic pulse is extremely effective, and some of the brass writing later in the piece is intensely dissonant in a way I can't remember hearing from Bernstein in any other score (he rarely scored horror, and never wrote music this cold and clinical). This piece alone makes one long that this had been a better film which had allowed the composer to explore this side of things more - without wanting to succumb to over-generalisation, he was evidently an extremely nice man, and similarly most of his music could also be described in that way - extremely nice - but in this piece he is unrelenting in unleashing musical brutality, and it would have been truly fascinating to hear a full score written in such a way.
The composer does continue the darker material for a while in the score in the cues which follow "Peeping Toms" - most fascinatingly in the outstanding "Training Hector", a very dark piece of action music which includes whispering voices and that throbbing electronic pulse, which again are unique in the Bernstein ouvre and display a side to the composer which one wishes could have been heard more frequently elsewhere. The sweeping theme which concludes "A Head for Hector" is quintessential Bernstein, full of the life and soul and grace which ran through the vast majority of his music, and is one of the warmest moments of this score.
This is a hard score to surmise - it is technically accomplished, extremely ambitious, and its second half is uniformly impressive - but it just doesn't have that sense of joy which was uniquely Bernstein's and was arguably what made his music so wonderful. The album is certainly an impressive one and represents a little-heard side to the composer, but for all the positives I'm not quite sure Bernstein's experiment was an unqualified success and the somewhat similar territory explored later in Heavy Metal was probably a safer home for Bernstein and a more satisfying score overall.