Michael J Lewis, is one of those composers who we as film music collectors adore and adulate, why? Because he writes such brilliant music that is why. Music that not only supports the cinematic and television projects it is written for, but also because it is just such great music as a whole and because it stands alone as entertaining and inspiring pieces of thematic and melodious music, that are absorbing, affecting and memorable. I was a little shocked in recent days to discover that there were a lot of collectors that have been fans of film music for years that had never heard this composers music, I made it my mission if you like to remedy this, pointing them in the direction of places such as you tube etc to go and sample it and also showing them where they could get the now quite scarce compact discs that the composer had produced as promos a few years ago.
I still remember his epic sounding score for JULIUS CAESAR (1969) after seeing the movie, a film that I have to say I felt lacked in many areas, the score is a monumental soundtrack, which had to it a sound and style that although was richly epic was also somewhat contemporary for a Shakespearean drama, thus appealing to two very different schools of soundtrack connoisseurs who were lucky enough to experience it. It added much to the movie, lifting it, adding depth and I think making it more enjoyable for some members of the audience. I think I am correct when I say that JULIUS CAESAR is one score that has not received a full soundtrack release, with just three sections from the score being represented on the first compact disc of a two compact disc set entitled FILM MUSIC 1969-1994 which the composer released as a promo, and is probably one of the best ways to become acquainted with the music of Michael J Lewis for anyone who has not had that privilege. But I warn you once you hear this collection you will undoubtedly want more and I promise you it will send you on a quest to find more of the composers works.
The three cues that represent the composers imposing and powerful work for JULIUS CAESAR on the double disc set are. OVERTURE, CAESAR’S TRIUMPH and PORTIA’S THEME. The OVERTURE opens with a brief fanfare on trumpets, in some ways it is a subdued fanfare compared to say the one’s we had experienced from Rosza back in the day, but still it grabs one’s attention and leads into a rich and eloquent theme performed by strings in the main, underlined by subtle use of harp and delicate placing of woods, the strings then begin to stir as the composer hands them the core theme, they build and grow stronger, but do not intensify until approx. One minute and forty-five seconds into the piece, at which point they surge and purvey a sense of passion, romance, pomp and grandeur.
After which the cue returns to its beginnings and becomes more subdued and emotively infused. CAESAR’S TRIUMPH is just that musically a triumph, filled with a fresh and robust air, brass, strings, wood wind and percussion all come together to create a brilliantly vibrant and inspiring piece. PORTIA’S THEME is for me personally one of the scores highpoints, it is a cue that totally consumes and engulfs the listener, the composer fashioning a mesmerizing composition that is exquisitely romantic and a sensitive and poignant tone poem. Melodious and delicate it purveys a sense of fragility but at the same time is filled with a passionate and haunting musical persona.
JULIUS CAESAR was directed by Stuart Burge and starred Jason Robards, Charlton Heston, Sir John Gielgud, Robert Vaughn, Diana Rigg, Richard Chamberlain and Jill Bennett. Despite the all-star cast the movie as I have already hinted at was met with a mixed reaction from critics and audiences alike, I am not sure if it was the abundance of American actors that made it a little harder to swallow, but maybe it is time to re-visit the production to see how it has fared over the years? The only saving grace for the picture I think was Michael J. Lewis’s outstanding musical score and it is a work that so deserves to be released in its entirety. It is a surging and emotive score, that is probably one of the composers best. Lewis returned to Roman history in 1976, when he scored George Bernard Shaw’s CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA which was produced for BBC television, a production that starred Sir Alec Guinness as Caesar who seemed a little akward in the role and a young Geneviève Bujold as Cleopatra. Directed by James Cellan Jones, the composers score was sparse, but supportive of the drama. The music has unfortunately not been released on any form of recording.
Michael John Lewis was born in Aberystwyth in Wales on January 11th, 1939. He received his musical education at the Guild Hall school of Music and Drama, He is mainly known for his work on writing film scores, he first came the notice of cinema audiences and critics alike with his debut score THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT which he wrote for director Bryan Forbes in 1969. The composer winning an Ivor Novello award for best film score for his work on the movie. At the premiere in the Bahamas in the June of 1969, Danny Kaye the actor who played the Ragpicker in the movie stood and shouted that the music was “Sensational” midway through the seven-minute opening sequence of the movie. Which contains the cue AURELIAS THEME, track one on the composer promo compact disc of the score.
The film had a cast of so many well-known actors, including, Yul Brynner, Paul Henreid, Richard Chamberlain, Donald Pleasance and Edith Evans contained screenplay that was based upon the play LA FOLLE DE CHAILLOT by Jean Giraudoux, and cinematography by Burnett Guffey and Claude Renoir who was the Grandson of the acclaimed painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The story centres on a plan to drill for oil in the centre of Paris. But Countess Aurelia (Katherine Hepburn) discovers the plans and decides that she will put a stop to them by announcing that she has in fact already discovered oil in Paris enlisting a group of friends to assist her.
The composers music is filled with a delicate and highly melodic air, utilising harpsichord, subtle guitar performances, accordion, solo violin and touches of mandolin in places, add to this a lush and sweeping employment of strings and up-tempo choral performances and we are treated to a vibrant and joyful sounding score that is attractive because it is simple and also because it has to it an alluring aura which is difficult not to become involved with.
In 1970 Lewis composed the score for the psychological thriller THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF, although box office returns were disappointing mainly due the mismanagement of marketing and distribution on the movie it has during the years following its release attained the status of being something of a cult movie. THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF was directed by Basil Dearden and starred Roger Moore and Hidelgarde Neil. With supporting roles from Anton Rogers, Thorley Waters and Freddie Jones, a strong cast and a riveting storyline, which was based upon THE STRANGE CASE OF MR PELHAM by Anthony Armstrong. The films storyline being a contemporary twist on the DR JECKLE AND MR HYDE scenario. The production was one of the first to be given the go ahead by Bryan Forbes when he was the head of EMI films.
Harold Pelham (Moore) is a successful businessman and a director of a marine company, he is normally a creature of habit and has conservative tastes and ways. But Pelham undergoes something of a personality transformation and begins to do lots of things that would normally not be in character, such as driving recklessly, in which he is involved in a high-speed collision on the motorway. Rushed to hospital he undergoes emergency surgery but whilst being operated on dies but is soon revived, and at this point the surgical team notice that there seem to be two heartbeats. He recovers but soon begins to notice that not all is well, friends and colleagues tell him they have seen him in places that Pelham has no re-collection of being in. Thus, starts the tense and somewhat edgy storyline, with Pelham becoming obsessed with having a double. The musical score is an upbeat affair, with the composer creating a modern as in sixties/seventies sound to underline and support the film and it many twists and turns.
The main theme is an impressive one and for me sets the scene perfectly for the storyline and the period in which it is set. The composer utilising upbeat percussion, guitar and strings that are laced with brass and harpsichord flourishes, the opening is one of the most infectious and memorable themes I think from a Lewis score. The composer also provides a more easy listening arrangement of the central theme that is at times used as source music, for example when a record is seen playing in the movie it is Lewis’s pleasant and haunting composition that is heard, the cue entitled THAT RECORD AGAIN on the more recent edition of the score. This itself I think could have been a chart hit at the time of the pictures release, as during the 1970’s the music chart was much more varied than it is now and often included an instrumental or a film theme. The striking and instantly likeable central theme that we are introduced to within the main titles, is heard throughout the movie in varying arrangements and guises but is orchestrated in such a way that it remains fresh and vibrant on each manifestation. THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF is often the score that is thought of straight away when discussing the music of Michael J Lewis, it is after all an inventive work, with percussive elements, that are laced with brass, and semi atonal sounds being used in an innovative way to create maximum affect I also think it comes to mind simply because it was on so many collectors wish list.
THE MEDUSA TOUCH is another film that was not successful as it deserved to be. Directed by Jack Gold the movie was released in 1978, it starred Richard Burton, Lino Ventura and Lee Remick. So an impressive cast. Burton plays a novelist Jack Mortar he has the ability it seems to make deaths and disasters happen just by thinking of them. The film opens with Molar watching the news on TV and seeing that astronauts are trapped in orbit around the moon, suddenly he is attacked from behind being struck viciously with a figurine, we see his blood spattered over the TV screen and are led to believe he is dead. However, when the investigating police inspector Brunel (Ventura) arrives, he discovers that Morlar is still hanging onto life, he is rushed to hospital and placed on life support with one machine monitoring his brain activity. The inspector discovers that Molar has been under analysis by a Doctor Zonfeld (Remick) because from a child he has witnessed so many deaths and disasters that have befell others. Brunel finds Morlar’s diary and begins to read it, and whilst doing so begins to wonder if he is investigating a victim or indeed a murderer.
This is an unsettling yet at the same time a thought-provoking film that has certain affiliations with a Donald Pleasance movie entitled THE MAN WITH THE POWER, although the central character in that movie was more sympathetic even if he was still bringing about the deaths of certain people.
Burton is a cold and calculated character, with a complex personality. The film also included supporting performances from Harry Andrews and Gordon Jackson, which brought an even greater degree of credibility to the production. THE MEDUSA TOUCH has over the years been compared with films such as THE OMEN or other movies that had at their core the subject of demonic occurrences, in my opinion it has a far greater quality and also is a far classier and in depth look at the subject and also again in my opinion is far better structured than the OMEN or indeed it’s sequels. The musical score by Michael J Lewis is again an impressive one, dark and virulent, with a powerful and commanding style that at times is hypnotic as in the cue, GRAZIOSO, which combines low key organ with guitar and subdued strings, but the soundtrack as a whole is more often menacing and chilling and has to it an imposing and fearsome sound. The music plays an important part in the movie at times becoming more of an integral component than a background or musical wallpaper to the action on screen, the composer at times utilising church organ to create affecting and atmospheric moments within the score which is a masterful and effective piece of scoring by the composer at it instils in the watching audience a sense of reverence or maybe has the opposite effect and conjures up a more irreverent direction. Released on a composer promo, with twenty-three cues and a running time of just over fifty-one minutes, this is a superb soundtrack from Michael J Lewis, again no official release yet, but maybe one day?
THEATRE OF BLOOD is possibly my favourite Michael J Lewis score, and a film I enjoy immensely and never seem to tire of. Released in 1973, the movie directed by Douglas Hickcox, starred the brilliant Vincent Price, in a role that was made for him. Price takes on the role of actor Edward Kendal Sheridan Lionheart, who is a favourite from matinee performances at the theatre and has acted in numerous Shakespearean plays during his career. He is a veteran actor and has been trained in the old ways and is beginning to find it difficult to master newer roles. After he is snubbed by critics and loses out on an award to a young up and coming actor who he is not impressed with, the actor decides that he will have his revenge on the critics who denied him the award and sets about ensuring their demise, but he does this in a very theatrical way, as you will see when you watch the movie. Price was as always marvellous, giving a wonderful and suitably hammy performance which is a joy to watch.
He was supported by an excellent cast of British actors, Diana Rigg who played his loyal daughter plus Ian Hendry, Arthur Lowe, Sir Michael Hordern, Robert Morley and Dennis Price. Essentially a horror movie, with touches of humour scattered throughout, the musical score is superb, the composer opting to score the production with a heartrending and melancholy theme performed in the main by the string section, which I suppose scores away from the horror element in the storyline, thus giving the scenes of murder etc more impact because the audience are taken by surprise and are not expecting it because the music is so full of romanticism and rich in melody. There are action cues within the soundtrack as in THE DUEL and DEATH IN THE THEATRE and these too are a brilliant touch by the composer adding excitement and pathos that evokes the music of the golden age of film music at times adding atmosphere and tension to the proceedings. The soundtrack was released initially on a composer promo of twenty-four tracks, but received an official commercial release in 2010 by La La Land records, which contained fifteen cues, but had the same duration as the composer promo, with many of the shorter cues being combined on the commercial release.
Other scores of note by Michael J Lewis are, THE PASSAGE, NORTH SEA HIJACK, ISLAND OF ADVENTURE, ON THE THIRD DAY, SPHINX, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, 92 IN THE SHADE, THE UNSEEN, 11 HORROWHOUSE, YES GIORGIO, THE STICK UP, THE NAKED FACE and THE LEGACY.
The composer also worked on several TV scores including CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA as already mentioned, THE LION THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE, ROSE AND THE JACKAL, JESSIE, UPON THIS ROCK, SHE STOOD ALONE and KEAN. His score for THE LION THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE was released on a composer promo, it included thirty cues and had a running time of forty-eight minutes. The work is filled with a mysterious and magical aura and has touches of comedy, it is a highly thematic work, that is enchanting as well as being majestic. The film was awarded an Emmy for its excellence in animation.
Many of the titles mentioned have selections or cues featured on the double compact disc set, FILM MUSIC 1969 TO 1994, and it is as I have stated probably a good starting point if you have never experienced this composer’s music for the cinema and TV.
It is exceedingly rare that one finds a compilation of film music where every track is good or in this case beyond good. Opening with JULIUS CAESAR (3 tracks) and taking us through THE MEDUSA TOUCH (6 tracks), THEATRE OF BLOOD (5 tracks), THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT (3 tracks). THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1 track), NAKED FACE (1 track), THE PASSAGE (4 tracks), 92 IN THE SHADE (1 track), SPHINX (2 tracks), THE STICK UP (2 tracks), ROSE AND THE JACKAL (1 track), THE UNSEEN (2 tracks), NORTH SEA HIJACK (1 Track) and ending with 2 selections from UPON THIS ROCK. It is a comprehensive collection of outstanding music penned by Lewis that has a duration of nearly two hours.