LOOKING BACK AT THE WORK OF PINO DONAGGIO.

 

Pino Donaggio

Pino Donaggio is a composer who had much success in the early days of his career, at one time being hailed as the new Bernard Herrmann, he scored predominantly horror movies and his name became synonymous with films such as CARRIE, TOURIST TRAP, THE HOWLING and PIRANHA. After which the composer seemed to fade away a little and began to focus upon Italian productions. Donaggio worked with Joe Dante in the States and because of his reluctance to move away from his homeland of Italy and set up in Hollywood he possibly missed out on scoring other Dante movies that came later such as GREMLINS and THE BURBS. The composer also scored many Brian De Palma movies. These included, DRESSED TO KILL, RAISING CAINE, PASSION, DOMINO, HOME MOVIES and BLOW OUT. He also wrote a score for SNAKE EYES but this was rejected.

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I thought it might be an idea to go back to the start of the composer’s film music career and look at scores he composed in the early years. Beginning with the composer’s first foray into the world of scoring films which was the Nicholas Roeg movie DON’T LOOK NOW. I think this film had a profound effect upon me, it was a movie I saw after I had heard Donaggio’s music, and in effect it was the music that made me want to see the film, and also the art work on the Carosello original Italian import LP record. It’s a weird thing because although the music lent much to the movie and made it an even more compelling piece of cinema the composer never worked with Roeg again. Released in 1973 DON’T LOOK NOW or A VENEZIA…UN DICEMBRE ROSSO SHOCKING (IN VENICE A SHOCKING RED DECEMBER), Is a creepy thriller that was adapted for the screen from a short story by the author Daphne De Maurier that was written in 1971.

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The movie starred Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, who are a married couple that suffer a tragic loss when their young daughter Christine is drowned in an accident. The couple travel to Venice where Sutherlands character has a commission to restore a church. Whilst there they meet two sisters, one of whom says she is a clairvoyant. She tells the couple that their daughter is trying to contact them and warn them that they are in danger. The husband dismisses her claims and refuses to have anything to with them, but he soon begins to experience strange occurrences and sightings. Although essentially a thriller, the director Roeg focuses more upon the grief of the parents and their sense of loss, and upon the psychology and the effect that death can have on people especially when it is a child that has died.

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It is a polished and well-made film, with special attention being centred upon the way in which the loss of their daughter effects the couple’s relationship, the plot of the movie obviously features a strong supernatural element, but it is the concentration of the more personal aspects of the story that in my opinion make this a classic in every sense. The subject of grief being handled with great sensitivity throughout. The picture is also edited marvellously, the director making effective use of flashbacks, and flash forwards that are intercut and fused so that at times its like watching two different storylines, and this gives the watching audience a greater perspective of what is actually happening but also at times this approach can alter ones opinion and maybe confuse a the storyline a little. The music that Donaggio composed for the movie, added a chill to the proceedings, lifting the story at times, but mostly adding to it a greater sense of tragedy and apprehension.

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It is in certain places a mysterious yet alluring work, the composer on certain occasions fashioning an almost Vivaldi musical persona. Donaggio,s lilting and haunting theme for John (children’s play) is simple but effective both in the movie and away from it, the solo piano performance sounding almost clumsy in a way, but this I think is its appeal and also why it is such an effectual piece of scoring. The cue CHRISTINE IS DEAD, is spine tingling, with icy strings opening the cue, which are replaced by a wolf like howling effect that is underscored by dark and ominous low string, this sound would become a musical trademark that became familiar in later Donaggio soundtracks, PIRANHA and THE HOWLING for example, the sound achieved is not only unsettling but purveys a sense of disbelief and great emotional pain. Johns theme is repeated throughout the score in varying arrangements and is featured within the Love Scene which at the time was a controversial section of the picture, but one that was vital to the rest of the storyline. Donaggio utilising piano as before but then adding, guitar and woodwind to the performance making it lighter and easy listening in it’s overall style. The cue STRANGE HAPPENINGS is where we see the more foreboding side of Donaggio, dark strings become taught and stressful, and the composer punctuates these with pizzicato commas and full stops, until the strings reach a tense crescendo, he then introduces more strings which build and create a even greater sense of uneasiness, these are as they build interspersed with frantic woodwind stabs that also add a greater sense of urgency. For a first score this was indeed a great achievement, especially as Donaggio had previous to this been predominantly a singer song writer. One can understand why he was being called the new Bernard Herrmann, with his inclusion of ominous and sombre strings that seemed to drag the audience down to a new and evil level, that was murky and gripping.

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The soundtrack did also feature a song, which is the first track on the soundtrack recording, with the composer presenting it as an instrumental on two further occasions within the recording. Donaggio’s music is perfect for the unsettling persona of the movie and is also a wonderful accompaniment to the location in which the movie was set. The Compact Disc was issued in the UK on the That’s Entertainment Records label.

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From a thriller to a more openly horrific picture and score, but still a mystery. In 1976, the composer was assigned to write the music for a Brian de Palma film entitled CARRIE. De Palma had originally wanted composer Bernard Herrmann to work on the movie, but whilst negotiating with Herrmann the famed film music composer was taken ill and subsequently died after finishing work on Martin Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER. This left De Palma without a composer, and an ever-looming completion deadline, De Palma and Herrmann had worked together on SISTERS and OBSESSION, so the director was obviously looking for something which was akin to the style of Herrmann. A friend of De Palma’s had been impressed with Donaggio’s music for DONT LOOK NOW and gave De Palma a copy of the soundtrack album. After listening to the recording the director was convinced that Donaggio was right for the movie, so Donaggio was sent a rough cut copy of CARRIE which had been temp tracked with selections of Herrmann’s classic PSYCHO soundtrack, this was to give Donaggio an idea of what was required, the rest as they say is history. CARRIE the movie went onto attain cult status and was acclaimed by all who saw it, and Donaggio’s atmospheric and darky unsettling score gained much attention and recognition and placed the composer firmly on the film music map.

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The score was not all virulence and fearsome jagged cues, in fact for a horror movie it contained interludes that were very melodic and verging on the melancholy and becoming romantic at times. Although, the majority of the score was filled with a sense of impending doom with starkly dramatic cues that built upon the already tense and nervous content of the film. Donaggio employed icy and sharp sounding strings that could stop anyone in their tracks. The cue CONTEST WINNERS contains elements of a beautiful and haunting melody which opens and closes the composition. The track BUCKET OF BLOOD is ingenious scoring, as it lulls us all into a false sense of ITS GOING TO BE OK and then turns into a sinister and totally unsettling piece that says THERE IS NO ESCAPE, I AM GOING TO GET YOU, RUN! The movie quickly attained a cult following and is applauded by critics, audiences, and filmmakers, many of whom it has influenced in their own movies and TV productions. Donaggio’s tense score aids the storyline greatly and is the driving force behind many of the scenes. At times being full on and at other moments acting as a smouldering presence that warns that all is not well or good.

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I think my favourite Donaggio score must be DRESSED TO KILL, there is just something about the sound he achieved in this that attracts me and totally mesmerises with its luxurious yet threatening persona. Working with De Palma must have inspired him to write in such a grand and opulent way, the track THE MUSEUM I think being one of his finest scoring moments within his entire career. It is a simmering and brooding piece, which is inspired I would think by Herrmann, the strings are gloriously dark but at the same time have a bitter- sweet aura about them. The film which was a thriller is filled with intrigue and has more twists, turns and ups and downs than a fairground rollercoaster ride.

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And the music compliments, enhances and underlines all of these, the composer punctuating, supporting, and giving more depth to the film and its unfolding plot. Although Donaggio is associated with a great deal of thrillers and horror related pictures, his music at times is highly lyrical and emotive, the composer fashioning affecting, haunting, and delicate tone poems that ingratiate and give power to many of the scenes, making horrific scenarios even more shocking and adding substance and texture to any storyline and it is the way in which he fuses these quieter and calming moments with the more fearsome ones that makes him the masterful Maestro that he is.

 

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In 1978 Donaggio scored the western, AMORE PIOMBO E FURORE (LOVE LEAD AND RAGE). Aka CHINA 9. LIBERTY 37. Donaggio has a co-writing credit for this movie with John Rubinstein, but essentially the score was Donaggio through and through. The movie which was an Italian/Spanish co-production starred Fabio Testi, Jenny Agutter and Warren Oates, with famed director Sam Peckinpah taking a small role. Directed by Monte Hellman this was probably one of the last Euro westerns that was released, coming after CALIFORNIA which is noted as being the last official Spaghetti western which was released in 1977. The western genre was a rare excursion for Donaggio in fact I think I am correct when I say he only scored two, the other being the comedy western BOTTE DI NATALE, CHRISTMAS BARREL aka- THE FIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS. (1994) which was an attempt to revive interest in the Italian western by Terence Hill and Bud Spencer.

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The score for AMORE PIOMBO E FURORE was supportive of the movie, but was it a genuine spaghetti western score, in my opinion it contained some lilting and melodic themes, but it lacked the savagery of past scores by the likes of Morricone, Nicolai and De Masi, in fact it was more akin to the Western score as envisaged by Hollywood before the spaghetti western genre became popular. The composer utilising strings and harmonica to create his core theme for the score. Nevertheless, the music supported the action and was an entertaining listen for collectors away from the movie.


I do not think it’s possible to discuss Pino Donaggio without mentioning the scores for THE HOWLING and PIRANHA, both films directed by Joe Dante, and both being somewhat tongue in cheek parodies of past horror movies. The director infusing his own brand of black comedy into both. PIRAHNA was released in 1978, with THE HOWLING following three years later in 1981. Although neither movie can be taken totally seriously there are some great moments of horror in each of them. THE HOWLING in my opinion being the better of the two. Although saying this PIRAHNA had its moments both cinematically and musically. The opening theme for THE HOWLING is typical horror movie stuff, with a howling wolf leading into a great musical statement that crashes in and heralds the start of the proceedings, the composer kicking things off in a grand style off in a grand style, purveying, uncertainty and the unexpected, the track then alters and goes into a more sinister sounding piece which is somewhat of an anti-climax to the robust opening, but the music sets the scene perfectly for the film and as the story unfolds the composer develops a collection of unnerving and creepy sounding interludes that are overflowing with tense sinewy strings and jumpy breathy woodwind stabs with only little snippets of respite in the form of a romantic and delicate theme performed on solo piano and then later given a fuller rendition with the string section taking the lead.

Donaggio is a master at scoring horrors and has a commanding talent for underlining the horror without being over blown or too bombastic, his scores for both THE HOWLING and PIRANHA are superbly written and in PIRAHNA we hear a Vivaldi influence in the opening theme, which is strident and filled with to overflowing with an energetic musical persona. Both scores contain beautiful themes for the few quieter moments they allow us, again the composer making excellent use of the piano and strings combination, fashioning romantic and melancholy pieces, that although are essentially filled with a melodic romanticism, they too also possess an underlying sense of apprehension.

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Both soundtracks were released on the Varese Sarabande label as LP records, with both releases boasting stunning cover art. Each has received compact disc re-issues; THE HOWLING being given an expanded release on LA LA LAND records a few years ago. PIRANHA being issued on the Varese Sarabande club label with same running time as the original LP record.

From two horror movies to something less taxing on the emotions, well at least something that won’t, jangle your nerves and send shivers up you back. It might however, make you laugh when you are not meant to and lose a little faith in cinema along the way that’s if you actually manages to stay in the cinema or in front of the video/DVD to watch it. HERCULES was released in 1983, and starred INCREDIBLE HULK star Lou Ferringo, let’s just say it will probably be better to focus on the music rather than even mention the film itself. This was a cheap looking, no storyline extravaganza, filled with bad acting, dodgy camera work and a lack of any type of direction whatsoever, and we wont mention those special effects, will we? (I said don’t mention the special effects).

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Donaggio fashioned a suitably Majestic and rousing theme for the production, and the score itself was good, but it became lost in the debacle that was HERCULES, the thing is because Donaggio had found favour at around this time, a soundtrack LP was issued, ironic because during this period many good films with equally good soundtracks did not get their music issued onto a recording some only recently having a soundtrack issued. HERCULES is a score I have to admit I rarely as in never return to, the LP and also a CD of the score has sat on the shelf for years where it has gathered the proverbial dust of time, and on listening to it again recently for the purpose of this article I still found that the music brought back memories of the awful movie, with the failings of the production clouding my ability to get past track three.

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The same can be said for a few scores that the composer produced at this time,  THE BARBARIANS comes to mind, not that often but only on bad days. The score was a mixture of both symphonic and synthetic with the latter having the larger slice of the pie as it were, it was at times effective but more often than not the music did little to enhance or support, but with a film like this I think it must be very hard for a composer to become inspired into writing anything that is remotely appealing or in tune with the films storyline.

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It is a great pity that Donaggio in my opinion made the wrong decision about re-locating to the United States, because if he had and also had worked on bigger production for De Palma, Dante etc you never know it might have been his name on the credits for THE UNTOUCHABLES etc.

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