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Viva Zapata!
  • Composed by Alex North
  • Varèse Sarabande CD Club / 2008 / 72m

Film music changed in 1951.  Not in some superficial way – the whole game changed.  A new set of rules was introduced.  That set of rules was written by Alex North.  There was more than one way to skin a cat, he showed.  His four scores written that year – A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, The 13th Letter and (though the film was not to be released until the following year) Viva Zapata!  Four completely different scores, which in general were not anything like what the majority of film music had sounded like before that point, which was 19th century European romanticism.  Streetcar is generally considered to be the one that broke the mould (and it did – here was jazz, here was sexiness – a body called The Legion of Decency even requested the removal of a sax solo because it was “too carnal”) but a case could certainly be made too for the same being said of Zapata! – a big studio movie, an epic – with modernist, fiercely intellectual music.  Nothing would be the same again.

It was Elia Kazan who brought North to Hollywood.  North had scored Kazan’s Broadway production of Death of a Salesman and the director had seen a new kind of dramatic underscore.  He faced resistance from the Hollywood establishment about bringing North out west to work on first Streetcar and then Zapata! – to the extent that he made sure that the hiring of North was a stipulation in his own directorial contract – effectively saying “you want me, you get him too.”

Alex North

Alex North

The genesis of Viva Zapata! came from Kazan and John Steinbeck, who would write the screenplay.  The men were irresistibly attracted to the story of Emiliano Zapata, leader of the Mexican peasants during the Revolution, who gained power but then walked away from it, afraid of its corruption.  Darryl Zanuck was happy to finance the film at Fox, the incomparable Marlon Brando was enticed to don the famous moustache and play the lead, with able support from Anthony Quinn and Jean Peters – and of course Kazan did get his composer.

North had spent a year living in Mexico in the late 1930s and even studied under Silvestre Revueltas, an experience which allowed Mexican music to permeate into him; and in Viva Zapata! we hear the result of that, a score that does what North did so brilliantly, so often – the apparently incongruous juxtaposition of brutally fierce orchestral modernism with the most astonishingly lilting, heartstring-tugging melodies, infused here also with some Mexican folk tunes.  It’s an exquisite score, one so beloved that both Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Goldsmith – the latter of whom idolised North – conducted re-recordings of it (Bernstein’s in 1977, Goldsmith’s in 1998).  In 2008, the Varèse Sarabande CD Club finally released the original tracks, conducted for the film by Alfred Newman.

The score opens with astonishing vigour with the extraordinary main title, Mexican flavour immediately apparent thanks to the trumpets and guitar in particular, the score’s main theme pounded out at an incredible pace before finally slowing, allowing a period of contemplation.  In “Zapata” we hear more of that frantic pace, though not the theme this time – explosive action music, an element of chaos from the xylophone, the ferocity of the brass enough to send a shiver down the spine.  And then – the exquisite love theme is introduced to open “Zapata’s Love”, turning into a playful variation of the main theme – the ability to turn from the aggressive and fierce to the sweet and moving seemingly at the drop of a hat has always defined North’s unique brilliance for me.

“Gathering Forces” is the score’s most famous piece, frequently included by Goldsmith in concerts of his own music over the years.  In the film, peasants gather together in support of Zapata, tapping stones together to create a stampede of support for their arrested leader; North mimics this with his percussion, his main Zapata theme slowly building on top before positively exploding into life.  It’s every bit the masterpiece Goldsmith always said it was – the energy and passion, the beauty of the melody, the countless images it evokes.  None of the re-recordings of the piece that I’ve heard has ever quite matched the energy Newman got from the orchestra in this performance.

North was so brilliant at scoring tension – both inner and outer.  The use of strings so piercingly for anguish and inner turmoil is so brilliant; that contrast between brutality and beauty that I’ve mentioned, so arresting – listen to the emergence of the main theme from chaos in “Morelos”.  Then the heartbreak of “Eufemio”, a character musically disintegrating right in front of us.  “Josefa’s Love” presents a last reading of the sublime love theme before the end title, “Zapata Falls”, an extraordinary climax to the score which – as the well-known Mexican folk song “Adelita” appears in its closing bars – sees, as Julie Kirgo writes in her incisive liner notes, the man turn to myth.

Viva Zapata! is a phenomenal piece of work.  It was North’s fourth film score – and netted him his third Oscar nomination, which shows what a profound impact he had on his colleagues.  Despite all the great works to follow, I think this remained his high water mark.  Varese’s album features good sound (bearing in mind the music was recorded over sixty years ago) and excellent notes (from which I pilfered various information for this review).  And it also contains a whole extra film score, the 43-minute The 13th Letter, an Otto Preminger psychological drama which North scored not long before Zapata!

From the arresting opening title piece, highlights abound.  “The Ferry”, with aching, yearning romance expressed by the strings, is beautiful.  Those strings – those patented “Newman strings” in fact, though it’s Lionel and not Alfred conducting on this occasion – betray that this is a more conventional score by North’s standards; but that doesn’t make it feel any less personal.  “Pearson” is a moving, complex cue – once more the composer’s ability to express inner turmoil at the fore.  I’m not as keen on the “happy” music that emerges for a while after that – I’m not sure how comfortable North would have been writing it, either – but it’s not long before the tortured drama returns.  “Driving” and the subsequent “Doc Leaves” are mostly as black as night, a little glimmer of warmth opening and closing the second of the pieces all that punctuates the darkness.  The 13th Letter isn’t in the class of Viva Zapata! or various other Alex North masterpieces, but as a bonus to the main event it’s very welcome; the delicately dark way the composer expresses such a range of feelings is very impressive.

Rating: ***** | |

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  1. Yavar Moradi (Reply) on Saturday 26 July, 2014 at 19:41

    Neat review James! Shouldn’t you including “The 13th Letter” in the title heading since you review it too?

  2. James Southall (Reply) on Saturday 26 July, 2014 at 21:18

    I should have done, really. I love Zapata so much, I didn’t want to detract from it.