Sergei Stern is a classically trained composer with a rock band background, the composer conductor has an intense interest in the use of electronic music, but also writes rich and affecting symphonic scores for both TV and Cinema. He has scored more than a dozen motion pictures and worked on nearly 100 short films, his music can also be heard in various TV shows and he has also scored video games. His credits include The Envelope (2017) and Queen of Spades 2: Through the Looking Glass (2019) and AK-47 Kalashnikov. He is a composer who I am sure we will be hearing a lot more of.
My thanks to the composer for his time and patience and for answering my many questions so fully. JM.
Can I begin with asking was film music always something that you looked at to becoming a career?
I got into actual film scoring pretty late. First, back in my childhood, I’ve been a pretty good classical pianist. Then I got a bit tired of all that and decided that I want to become a rock star, so I wrote songs, started a rock band, and performed. My first paid musical job was a ringtone arranger and producer and my second one was a songwriter – I wrote songs for artists who just started their careers. Then I felt I was missing classical music, so I did my four years bachelor’s degree in music composition. During that time, I had a pleasure of scoring mobile video games – that was the first job where I wrote music to visuals. After finishing my bachelor’s degree, I applied to Columbia College Chicago, since I realized that combining movies and orchestral music could be a dream job, but I still didn’t know how to actually score films. I got accepted to Columbia and that is where my film scoring experience started, back in 2011.
What musical education did you have and were there any instruments that you focused upon more whilst you were studying?
I have seven years of a Russian piano school, four years of Bachelor’s degree in Music Composition, two years of Master’s degree in Music Composition for Screen and two years of a musical theatre education.
As a child were you aware of music at home and are any of your family musical in any way?
My mother is a violin and piano teacher and my father had a rock band back in his college years. Music always has been part of our home culture.
What would you say is the purpose of music in film?
I think the main purpose of music in film is to trigger something in us, humans, that could not be triggered in any other way than music.
Your latest score is for Dark Web cicada 3301. This has some brilliant orchestration within it, and is filled with a tense and edgy atmosphere, but also has to it a more calming style and sound, and even some easy listening type cues. Did you have any specific instructions from the filmmakers about the score and what percentage of the score was performed by live instruments, and did you perform on the score at all?
Thanks! My main direction was to create a score that has a big, orchestral sound with lots of action for most of the scenes. Alan, the director, is a musician himself and has a great music taste. He had a great reference material already set up for the light, non-orchestral cues and these references were my main guide for those scenes. I tried to come up with something new, of course, and tie up the entire soundtrack into something cohesive, homogeneous although we had at least four different musical styles in our soundtrack. I would say around 30% of it was played by live instruments. I recorded a great violin and cello players for most of the orchestral cues and I played guitar, bass, my hardware synthesizer, some pipes and small percussion for non-orchestral cues myself. I find it much more difficult to do music with non-live instruments since I still have to perform each part with my keyboard and the emotion of the performance of each instrument, I use in my score is dependent on me and me only. I love that challenge!
How many times do you like to see a potential project before you begin to formulate any ideas about style, sound and where music should be placed?
I always ask to read the script first, if I’m fortunate to be hired in the developing stage of the film, as I enjoy getting into the project entirely so I am consumed by it mentally and emotionally, and I’m also curious to see how the script would be portrayed by the director later. I also love to be on set to meet the crew and cast, see the director working, get into the mood of the film creation. I am fascinated by all aspects of filmmaking and I always try to find an excuse to escape my studio to meet people and to breath some air. Nevertheless, all the above usually has a little contribution into the final tone I would use for the soundtrack or almost any music decision I would make later. I find that the final decision for the music tone, music placement etc. is best done after I get the final cut, honestly.
I loved the score for Kalashnikov or AK 47, how did you become involved on the movie, and what size orchestra did you have for the score?
I had worked with Konstantin Buslov, the director and producer of Kalashnikov, before – I had scored Envelope and Queen of Spades 2: Through the Looking Glass movies that he had produced, and he was generous enough to invite me to score this film as well. We used a 40 piece strings orchestra for Kalashnikov, recorded in Moscow.
Do you conduct at all, and if so, do you like to conduct all your film scores, or is this sometimes not possible?
I do conduct. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to travel to Moscow to conduct the Kalashnikov score. We had a brilliant conductor, Alexey Sobolev, who knew the musicians well and had a direct communication with me during the recording. I’d love to conduct some of my work in the future but having a professional conductor is always great when the opportunity and availability are there.
Kalashnikov or AK 47 has some sweeping and dramatically lush sounding cues, plus there are as many emotive interludes, do you orchestrate all your own music, and do you feel that orchestration is an extension of the composing process?
Yes, I always orchestrate my pieces. I feel the orchestration is an essential part of building my sound and I just love to do it.
What composers or artists would you say have influenced you in the way that you create music and add it to film?
As far as classical music, I loved playing Bach while I was a piano school student back in my childhood – he was my favorite composer back then and stays one my favorites still. Later I got into Romantic composers, especially French and Russian ones, and during my college years I got into 20th century composers. Now I listen mostly to Baroque – these guys can really move me. Besides academic music, I enjoy probably all the music styles there are in existence. I find it fascinating to get deep into a particular style of music – getting to know it and come up with something of my own in that style.
Where are you based? And do you have a preference for any particular studio or recording stage when recording a score for a movie or TV project?
I am based in Los Angeles. So far, I’ve been fortunate to record in Capitol Records, Skywalkers Sound studio, The Village, a few studios in Chicago and Mosfilm Music Studios in Moscow. I enjoyed all of them since each has it’s own, unique flavor. I would love to experience as much studios in the world as possible.
You have scored movies and television shows plus worked on several shorts, and Documentaries, is the composing and scoring process the same for all, or does it varying depending on the size of project and of course the budget?
I find the emotional process is very similar among all of them. The differences for me are more technical and organizational if live players or singers are involved.
You have scored various genres of film, comedy, war, horror etc, would you say that there is a particular genre that is harder to work on than others?
Comedy is probably the trickiest as humour is such a fluent thing which changes so fast with time, geography, culture, age.
The Chosen Path is one of your most recent scores, will there be a soundtrack CD release or maybe a digital release, and when a score of yours is to be issued onto a recording do you have any input into what cues will make it onto the release?
Yes, we definitely will release this soundtrack. We are in negotiations with a certain label right now for the digital release as well as a CD release. We will talk with the director about the cues that would make it onto the release.
Are you working on anything at this time?
I’m working on three projects right now. A dramedy TV show called Instalife, a martial arts TV show called Dan Show and a film for Andrey Konchalovsky productions.
To say that composer Mark Korven is inventive, innovative, and pioneering is such an understatement. I loved his score for VVitch and am in awe of his work for the latest Amazon original TV series Them. One can never say that this composer writes themes so that fans or collectors can listen to them away from the project that they are composed for, he writes to serve the picture solely and foremost, and his work within the horror genre is outstanding and highly original.
Them contains a score that in one word is Harrowing, the composer making brilliant use of voices, to further unbalance the watching audiences and punctuate, enhance, and support the visuals. His use of percussive elements too is striking and imaginative. This tense and unsettling soundtrack is a treat for true horror fans as they will understand fully that the composer is creating an even greater atmosphere for an already unnerving series. This is a truly remarkable work, modern sounding, at times guttural and for most of the time dark to the point of engulfing any listener. The orchestrations and performances are wonderfully shadowy and resoundingly affecting. It is a driving work at times, vibrant and electrifying as in it never holds back and always delivers that unexpecting twist and shock. A great score, worth a listen, but not alone.
Another score that must be heard is The Unholy by Joseph Bishara, this unbelievably talented actor, filmmaker and composer once again creates a score that sends a succession of shudders through one’s body, this is a tour de force of the scary and frightening. The music never relenting in its job to underline what is occurring on screen and at the same time sending panic and distress to the audience before anything has happened, Bishara is a master at creating music and sounds that are like a pre-cursor to the horror or the violence, As any film music fan that decides to listen away from the movie will tell you. Like his scores for movies such as The Conjuring and Insidious it never allows the audience any respite, and at times Bishara’s music and soundscapes are in fact more terrifying than what is happening in the story on screen.
TheUnholy however does have a kind of celestial sounding side to it, with the composer employing voices to great effect, which do create a false sense of security for any audience or listener, but this is good, as he is doing his job and fashioning a score that not only supports but becomes a part of the story. If you are a connoisseur of horror score’s then this and Mark Korven’s Them is right up your dark, foggy, sinister alley. May I recommend that you listen to Them, then The Reckoning by Christopher Drake followed by The Unholy, a great trio of music from modern day horrors and its nowhere near Halloween yet. .
Il Triangolo Della Morte: I Mostri di Firenze—The Triangle of Death-The Monster of Florence, is an Italian made documentary, which investigates and brings to the forefront the story of a serial killer who murdered sixteen victims in a relatively confined area that was later referred to as The Triangle of Death. The killer was dubbed by the Italian press and authorities The Monster of Florence. The documentary examines the crimes and the implications and the aftermath of the killings in great depth, the film is so well made that at times one forgets that this is a documentary. Its an absorbing and interesting watch.
The music for the documentary is by singer, song writer, and composer Silvia Nair Viscardini. Her score does much to enhance and support the proceedings on screen, and at the same time adds depth and atmosphere to the investigation as it unfolds. At times it evoked the style of Ennio Morricone, and the work of Italian Maestro’s such as Stelvio Cipriani, Gianni Ferrio, and Pino Donaggio. Silvia Nair Viscardini, creates and utilises a subdued air of tension throughout the work, lacing the images and various discoveries eloquently and effectively. The music is highly effective within the context of the movie, the composer fusing both conventional instrumentation with electronic support flawlessly combining both. The score is not just successful within the film itself but also has much substance and entertainment value away from the images and is well worth a listen even if you cannot get to see the documentary. Her use of voices is stunning and chilling, the compositions evoking sounds from several the Giallo movies that were released in Italy during the 1960’s and 1970’s. The cue Serial Killer is a dark and meandering piece, that repeats it’s core theme but does so in a menacing way with the composer adding to the composition as it develops, performed on piano, it is unsettling as well as being attractive, with controlled stabs from the string section punctuating the performance and then strings eventually taking on the central melody and performing it in conjunction with the piano as if they are shadowing or stalking it. This is at times a fearsome and dark sounding score which given the subject matter is fitting, a low key but driving score that includes imaginative use of percussive elements, and one that is inventive and innovative. Available on digital platforms, check it out, Recommended.
Three new releases from the ever-industrious Movie Score Media, and all are interesting as well as being entertaining and innovative. The first is from a drama come comedy about the Irish mob, entitled Be Good or be Gone. The score which is a mix of both comedic interludes and highly emotional passages, is the work of Joseph Conlan, the sound that he has achieved for this soundtrack is a fusion of the quirky and the romantic and dramatic. I have to say I like the way in which the composer utilizes the piano and the way in which he manages to purvey a delicate yet at the same time powerful musical atmosphere. The music manages to weave its way throughout the storyline adding depth and conjuring up dark and light moods with its textural shading, and colorful ambience. The movie is billed as a dramedy, which of course is a combination of both shadowy and lighter elements. The music conveys these varying atmospheres perfectly and although is not a large scale or indeed grandiose work, is still an immensely enjoyable one. The composer makes imaginative use of percussion throughout, but I thought was more prominent in the cues entitled Mr. Darius and the Histrionics, and Robbery Gone Wrong. The composer fashions a rather subtle and low-key score to be fair, and at times I was reminded of the subdued and sparse sound that is sometimes employed by the likes of Thomas Newman, with hints of themes and a gentle but affecting musical persona being developed as the score itself grows and progresses. The movie which is directed by Cathal Nally focuses upon two petty thieves who are also cousin’s Ste and Weed, who receive a temporary release from prison. The story unfolds over a four-day period, where we witness just what kind of misfortunes befall them both. This is certainly worth checking out and will be available on April 9th.
The next release from MSM, is the score for the drama The Lawyer, music courtesy of Lithuanian composer Ieva Marija Baranauskaite. The soundtrack is a mainly a jazz orientated work, but has to it a rather downbeat sound, this however does not spoil in any way the impact and the excellence of the work. The movie which focuses upon a gay corporate lawyer who after the death of his long absent Father finds unexpected love with Ali a Syrian refugee who is stranded in Belgrade. The score smolders and becomes sensual and pleasingly melodic as one gets further into it. The composer utilizing piano, sax, and brushed percussion to create an easy going but at the same time rather sad sounding work. It’s a score that one can easily leave in the player to repeat over and over, and never tire of it. Worth a listen and again available on April 9th.
The third release on the Movie Score Media label which will also be released on the 9th of April is the music from the Lockdown horror movie, Held, music by Richard Breakspear. Which is totally the opposite in sound, style and direction to the two previous releases. The atmospheric and at times chaotic and harrowing movie tells the story of a couple whose marriage is beginning to fall apart, and their relationship is put further to the test when they are held hostage in an out of the way holiday home. Their captor is an unseen voice who gives them instructions and runs their lives. Directed by Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff, the musical score is in no way a melodic one, the composer opting to score the film in a more atonal fashion, creating harrowing sonic sounds and edgy backgrounds, making it sharp and claustrophobic in its overall sound, this is not a work for the feint hearted, the music is tense, dramatic, and intense. Recommended for the jumpy and apprehensive components within.
Ever thought about your favorite heroes on the big screen and where they came from, what were their beginnings and who created them in the first place. Well, many of the superheroes began life as characters in comics, or American comics as I used to call them back in the 1960’s when I first got a taste for them. Other characters were just a random individual within a story about a more prominent super-hero and would eventually become part of the establishment as time went on as either an ally or an enemy of that superhero. Then there were other characters that were the creation of an artist that began to become popular because they were featured daily in a newspaper, or in the funnies as they were referred to in the States. Whichever way it happened these characters have in recent years been elevated to super star status and have become live action incarnations on the cinema screen, and thanks to state-of-the-art special effects, are able to do exactly what they did in the various comics that they were originally featured in. Because of the popularity of comic characters such as Superman, Batman, Thor, Wonder Woman etc etc, maybe it would be better to focus initially upon lesser-known characters that have come to the cinema screen and the TV screen from the pages of a comic book. So where to start, well there is such a wealth of material that is a difficult question, so, I am going for.
The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, which made its appearance in a comic book back in 1976 and is still in circulation today, the character was committed to celluloid in 2010 by ground-breaking French filmmaker Luc Besson. The films that are made by Besson always seem to be either controversial or complex but saying this they are thought provoking and above all entertaining and exciting. The director’s movies have always had a strong link to comic books as in the style that they are conveyed in and the fashion in which he films them/ With classics like Leon and even more so The Fifth Element coming to mind, in fact Besson had comic book writers work on the production design for The Fifth Element, and I think you will agree it shows. It was not until 2010 however that the filmmaker dipped his toe into the waters and made a movie based upon a comic book character. Which came in the form of one of Jacques Tardi’s creations.
The French director remains faithful to the spirit and mostly the look of this long running serial, and it garnered him numerous positive reviews, in fact it was his most widely accepted and applauded film since Nikita (1990). The movie I felt was a fusion of Indiana Jones and maybe the haphazard and slapstick comedy of films such as The Mummy Returns, and I also have to say I thought it contained something of a comedy element that we normally associate with films such as those made by both Peter Sellers and Blake Edwards in the Pink Panther series or even the comedy purveyed by Lemmon and Falk in the Great Race, but it certainly had its moments and the leading lady, Louise Bourgoin who plays the title role is excellent and believable. It’s a rather enjoyable romp if you do not attempt to take it too seriously, and I think that’s the secret, watch it with an open mind and also be prepared for some rather unusual goings on.
Music for the movie was the work of French composer Eric Serra who has been a long-time collaborator with Besson. The score is a varied one with the composer enlisting both symphonic and synthetic elements to fashion the music and musical sounds, but nevertheless I for one have to say it is probably one of Serra’s better scores as it contains just about everything, including full throttle action cues, choral interludes, expansive passages and cheeky and mischievous pieces for woodwind and pizzicato strings that create a light and airy mood, there is even a banjo solo that sounds rather similar to the introduction to Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head, (just an observation) before it gets into the actual swing of things, overall the composer created a charming, at times lush and romantic work for the movie that is interspersed with 1920’s style performances on piano.
It is such an eclectic sounding work and one that is also enjoyable away from the images on screen. In the context of the movie the composers timing is impeccable, the music being robust and vibrant throughout, and it is the music at times that lifts and punctuates the action and the comedy. Certainly, worth checking out as in the movie and the score.
The Road to Perdition also started life as a comic book, it first saw light of day in 1998, and the original story spawned several spin offs. It was later given cinematic life by director Sam Mendes in 2002. The story for The Road to Perdition was also based upon a Japanese Manga series from the seventies entitled Lone Wolf and Cub, the combination of the two stories proved to be a winning one for the director. The author of the story was Max Allan Collins, whose original writings on the subject took it across decades and generations that started at the Depression in America through to the period after the Vietnam war.
The film however did not stray outside of the 1930’s. When watching the movie apart from the rain-soaked photography of Conrad Hall and shadowy characters one would not have a clue that this was once in the pages of a comic book or at least the beginnings of it were. Music was by Thomas Newman, who provided the movie with a stunning score. It starred Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Jude Law, Liam Aikin and Stanley Tucci.
Timecop, was also a comic book, maybe not an immensely popular one as it had a short run of just three issues, which began in 1992. Nevertheless, it was engaging enough to raise interest from filmmakers and was made into a movie in 1994, with director Peter Hyams helming it, it starred Jean Claude Van Damme, who was hot property at that time, and was surprisingly good in this. It was for all intents purposes a big movie at the time, with author Mark Verheiden providing the screenplay for the picture. It also extended its appeal when it was made into a TV series and a video game followed in 2007, however the sequel Timecop 2, was not so well received.
The musical score for Timecop was by trumpeter and synth programmer turned composer Mark Isham, who fashioned a pleasant enough soundtrack for the movie, and supported the action wonderfully throughout, with a symphonic/electronic work filled with tense strings and jagged brass stabs underlined by percussive elements that kept the momentum going. It is a more than serviceable score, with the composer heightening the action and creating tense atmospheres and moods. For me personally it evoked the style and presence of composer Jerry Goldsmith but it also contained many innovative and inventive moments.
Barb Wire, is a movie that if you mention the title raises a smile or two amongst movie buffs, or generates grimaces on the faces of many others, but was it that bad? Based upon the dark horse comic series, the movie was not actually true to its comic roots, instead it was indeed more faithful to the storyline of the movie Casablanca, with Bogart’s character being replaced by the corset wearing Pamela Anderson in the title role. The backdrop of the films storyline however was different with the second world war staging being replaced with the scenario of an on going second American Civil war. So, Barb Wire was based upon a comic book series and characters, but also one could see its connections to Casablanca in the references and certain scenarios that had already manifested in the 1942 Classic film noir. With Anderson taking on the role of a club owner who decides to give refuge and assist her ex-partner Alex Hood played by Temuera Morrison and his wife who are attempting to escape to Canada.
The movie was panned by critics and audience alike, and for me focused more upon Miss Andersons ample assets rather than concentrating upon any feasible or convincing plot. It’s a movie that once seen that you would rather forget but saying this many including me have revisited it in recent years and found it not as grating or annoying. And to be fair Anderson did at least try and give a performance that in some ways mirrored that of Bogart in Casablanca even if not that convincingly, what she lacked in her acting skills she certainly made up for in the appearance department with lots of leather and high boots replacing Bogarts overcoat and hat, but Barb Wire is certainly not a movie that is remembered for anything indistinctly entertaining in many people’s eyes.
The movie had a rather banal title song which was performed by Tommy Lee who was Anderson’s partner (its not what you know etc applies here I think). And a video game version based on the movie soon followed. Released in 1996, the movie was directed by David Hogan (Life in a Basket and Most Wanted). With a rather limp and lacklustre script by Ilene Chaiken and Chuck Pfarrer. The movie attained its R or restricted rating in the U.S.A. because of its nudity and sexuality.
The music was by Michel Colombier, who in the same year scored Foxfire and a decade previously had re-scored the Eddie Murphy movie The Golden Child replacing a score that had been written by John Barry. Barb Wire is definitely not one of the best adaptations of a comic book character to the cinema screen, but does this make the actual comic book creation any less thought of I am not sure, but the movie has since its appearance gained the status of being a cult movie, love it or hate it Barb and her antics are imprinted on our mind forever and are also here to stay.
Surrogates is another from comic book or graphic novel which ever you prefer to silver screen adaptation, but in this case, I think the cinema audiences that did go and see the film would have preferred that the story stayed firmly within the realms of printed matter. The comic book was first published back in 2005 and lasted for approx. a year, the film burst or should I say more like whimpered onto the cinema screen in 2009 and skulked off without leaving much of an impression at all. Many thought that with Bruce Willis involved it would have been a runaway success, but things do not always work out how one thinks they will. It is indeed a great pity that the movie was not accepted by audiences, because the director Jonathan Mostow made a fairly good job of it and for the most part kept true to the original notion behind the story from the graphic book by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele firmly upfront.
The fact that Bruce Willis was given a ridiculously ill-fitting hairpiece for his role did not help and it was at times hard to take his performance seriously because of the focus that was being afforded on this wig. Willis plays an FBI agent Tom Greer who ventures out into the outside world where humans each have remotely controlled androids to do their everyday things, Greer is attempting to track down a murderer. The director did add elements to the storyline, because in the comic book the murderer only destroys the Surrogate or remotely controlled android. Whereas in the movie the killer sets about destroying both the Surrogate and its human controller. This is I have to say not a great movie but has its moments, however it is also not one that I would rush to re-visit anytime soon, but I suppose if there is nothing else to do one day soon, I might just dust it off.
One thing on the positive side about the film is that it does attempt to and to a certain degree succeeds in adding or expanding upon the original storyline.
The music score is the work of Richard Marvin, who provided a more than atmospheric soundtrack, which had to a a scattering of dark and brooding themes, and surprisingly although the storyline was one that concentrated upon a futuristic dateline and also upon androids and a hi tec environment the composer utilised symphonic sounds more prominently within the score, with driving strings, female voice and percussion, which were supported by synthetic and electronic sounds. Marvin has also worked extensively on TV scores and composed the music for popular series such as Grimm, In Treatment, Without a Trace and more recently, Lincoln Rhyme Hunt for the Bone Collector. He also had success with his score for the WWll drama U-571 in 2000.
The next entry started out its life as an idea for a movie but was thought that it would not be a viable or worthwhile project by a handful of studios, because at the time the special effects that were required were thought not to be possible to achieve. However, undeterred the writer Chuck Pfarrer decided to present the story in the form of a graphic book, and in 1992 Virus was published by Dark Horse comics, it ran as a comic book for three years, and in 1999 director John Bruno took up the gauntlet and began work on turning the story into a feature film. By this time the special effects required were starting to become quite common place in movies, sadly things did not go well for the movie and it was a commercial and critical disaster.
With cast members even making critical remarks about the production. An American crew do deadly battle with an alien life form on a Russian ship that has been abandoned, maybe a little bit too much like Alien but a maritime version. Just a thought. There was one good thing to come out of the movie and that was the superb music penned by composer Joel McNeely, his score is supporting, and wonderfully melodic, it is certainly a case of the music being far superior to the film it was composed for, the score was released on a compact disc and it is always the superbly thematic end titles I head for when listening to this soundtrack, it is six minutes of gloriously anthemic music.
A History of Violence (2005), is without a doubt a classic piece of cinema and that is because it is probably one of the best adaptations of a graphic book which appeared in 1997 to cinema screen that has ever been carried out although saying that writer Josh Olson did drastically alter the story to fit Cronenberg’s requests. It is without any contradiction a David Cronenberg masterpiece, but there again aren’t all his movies little masterpieces that are iconic pieces within the cinema history puzzle?
The comic book was a lengthy affair with the story being told in a flashback that went into the background of the central characters association with the mob. The movie however was more of a gradual progression and took the story on a step-by-step basis, with the central character of the film being altered from a childhood friend into the hero’s brother who is a ruthless and unforgiving mobster boss. Both characters are marvelous and each give something to the respective storylines both in the comic book and on screen.
Music is by Howard Shore, who else? Shore and Cronenberg have a long history of collaborating on movies, and it’s a partnership that can be likened to that of Leone and Morricone, or Hitchcock and Herrmann, Shore just gets what Cronenberg is trying to achieve and scores each movie accordingly, A History of Violence is no exception. It is one of Shores more melodic but at the same time edgy and understated and unsettling works, with at times a gentle nod in the direction of John Barry via the breathy woods. It is a score that I would recommend you listen to if you have not heard it. Its majestic, dark and sinewy, but also contains real thematic properties.
I think that most people associate the likes of Batman, Spiderman, Superman, and other such heroes with the comic book, and to a degree yes, I suppose up until recently I did also. But as you have probably guessed on viewing the first few entries of this article that there are far many more characters to be explored and uncovered from the world of the graphic novel. Comic book characters began to adorn the silver screen over 70 years ago, and it is probably these characters that have become the basis for many feature films and TV productions over the years, so much so that maybe just maybe we have kind of forgotten where these characters began their lives.
Flash Gordon for example, I remember well going to the Saturday morning picture club at the Astoria cinema in the mid 1960’s as a kid and being served up episodic instalments of Flash Gordon, in glorious black and white, I watched wide eyed not knowing that Flash had been a comic book character before transferring to celluloid, the central character is the protagonist of a space opera adventure comic strip created by and originally drawn by Alex Raymond. It was first published in the January of 1934, the strip was inspired by the already established Buck Rogers adventure comic strip and also would be a rival to it in the coming years.
TheFlash Gordon comic character has been the subject of many movies and TV projects, including an animated series and also a rather offbeat and over the top cinematic version which was released in the 1980’s and had songs by Queen on its soundtrack, whilst the score which was virtually ignored because of the success of the song score, was by Howard Blake. At the time of its release the movie was looked upon as a hammy comedy rather than a serious attempt to establish Flash as a hero to cinema audiences, but because the film is at times quite bad and also because of the involvement of Queen on the soundtrack the movie has since it’s initial release gathered a cult following. The latest version of the story was a Flash Gordon television series, that appeared on the Sci-Fi Channel in the United States in 2007–2008. The original serial film versions were produced in 1936 and four years later in 1940,
Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, a serial of short episodes was released in cinemas, it starred Buster Crabbe, Carol Hughes, Charles B. Middleton, Frank Shannon, and Roland Drew. Also mention must now be made of Buck Rogers, another comic book hero who transferred well to the cinema screen in the early days, like Flash Gordon, the adventures of Rogers were filmed in serial form and shown each week in a programme alongside other movies.
Buck Rogers premiered in cinemas in 1939, three years after Flash Gordon, which was ironic as Buck Rogers was partly the inspiration for Flash Gordon, the series of short but exciting films also starred Buster Crabbe who was at times billed as Larry Crabbe, it was based upon the character in the novella Armageddon 2419 A.D which in turn crossed over into a comic strip character and began to appear in comic books and magazines as early as 1928, the character was created by Philip Francis Nowlan. The music for the serial was the work of a handful of composers, but not specifically written for the serial, it was stock music from the likes of Franz Waxman and Heinz Roemheld, which was placed on the film by musical director Charles Previn, which was the norm in those early days. But saying that, Flash Gordon which premiered in cinemas in 1936 three years previous did have some original score, that was used in conjunction with classical music, the original music being the work of Clifford Vaughan, who had sections of his music along with other stock music recycled for the score to Flash Gordon Goes to Mars in 1938.
Then in 1940,for Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, the producers utilized more classical and stock and library cues which included, Les Preludes written by Franz Liszt which was used to enhance the main titles sequence and also popped up during the film, behind main title and throughout the serial. Other music cues used included, compositions by some well-known composers, The Sun Never Sets (1939) music composed by Frank Skinner. Bombay Mail (1934) and Die Weifse Holle Vom Piz Palu (1929) by Heinz Roemheld, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) by Franz Waxman and The Invisible Man from 1933 also by Roemheld. There was also a TV series that aired in 1954 of Flash Gordon, and this ran for over a year and comprised of thirty-one episodes, with Steve Holland taking on the central role. It was a US/German/French co production and had a theme by German composer Kurt Hueser and an incidental music score by Roger Roger, (no that’s not a typo). He was a composer and a performer and played on the soundtracks for other TV shows in the UK such as Dr Who and Adam Adamant lives. In fact, some of his compositions have been used recently in movies such as Hidden Figures, Blood Father, The Stepford Wives and Captain Underpants.
In the 1970’s a TV series appeared that was produced by the same team that created Battlestar Gallactica. In Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, we find a slight adaptation of the original story and Buck is a NASA astronaut William Rogers who has met with an unfortunate accident, and therefore his body is frozen in time. Many years pass and a team of scientists manage to revive him in 2491. The series began to air in the late summer of 1979 and was popular with viewers of the NBC network who also sold it to channels around the world, it continued to be a regular of Saturday evening entertainment in the UK until 1981. Producer Glen A Larson, also produced shows such as The Fall Guy and Quincy M.E.
The musical score for the Buck Rogers series was credited to the composer Stu Phillips and it is certainly this composer that one thinks of when discussing the series or when hearing the music, it was also Phillips, who was responsible for creating the music for Battlestar Gallactica. But, as for Buck Rogers Phillips was not the only composer involved, Phillips only scored three episodes of Buck Rogers in its two seasons. The main composer for season one being Johnny Harris and additional scores being provided by veteran composer Les Baxter, JJ Johnson and Richard La Salle. The main composer for Season two was Bruce Broughton with additional work by Herbert Woods and John Cacavas. It’s funny that in the series they used a phone type instrument which was worn on the wrist like a watch on which they spoke to each other but also could see each other a bit like what we know as facetime. Or whatever the individual social media site calls it nowadays At the time we all thought wow wish we could do that, now its “Oh no not another facetime call”.
From Super-heroes and fighters of evil and saviours of the world to something a little lighter. Comic book characters do not have to don capes, wear a mask or even have super-human powers to be interesting you know! They can be actual comic characters. Some can use a catapult to do their work, others can just have lots of disposable cash and there was one that got famous by eating spinach and let us not forget a friendly little guy who just happened to be a ghost. So, Dennis the Menace, Richie Rich, Popeye, and Casper. The friendly ghost Casper, I think came to the big screen relatively late, as did Dennis and Richie, although all three had been the subject of animated shorts and films, the live action or maybe dead in the case of Casper all seemed to get filmed at around the same time. Its funny that Hollywood seems to go through fazes of what genres they are filming, and once one of these characters starts to get a live action version then everyone decides to start production on another four or five.
So, let us go back a little way and focus on Popeye and the movie that starred Robin Williams in the title role. Released in 1980, it was directed by Robert Altman, and received mixed reviews most of which were less than positive, it was a musical comedy with a score and songs written by Harry Nilsson. The film just did not seem to sit right or have any kind of flow. There was an awkwardness about it, with much of the humour falling flat. Williams was brilliant as always but even with him and Altman on board this supposedly mirth filled maritime slanted adventure things did not go well, and one could hear the cries of women and children first as the movie began to take on water and then eventually sink.
The film which was a joint effort between Walt Disney, King Features, and Paramount cost 20 Million dollars to produce, and although it did make over 60 million at the box office, it is a movie that many would prefer to forget and is referred to as one of the many classic catastrophic flops in Hollywood history. It co-starred Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl, with Paul J Smith as Bluto and Ray (My favourite Martian) Walston as Poopdeck Pappy. The characters of Popeye and Olive Oyl were both created in 1919, with Bluto being brought into the equation in 1932 by creator Elzie Crisler Segar. The original cartoons had always proved popular, and it was said that because Paramount lost out to Columbia pictures to bring Annie to the big screen, the studio rushed into the deal on Popeye to try and save face, which proved costly for them.
The character of Popeye initially found popularity in 1919, but it was not until 1929 that the character of the jaunty sailor was introduced into an already existing newspaper comic strip, the jolly joker Popeye gains what are likened to being super-human powers when he cracks open an ever handy can of spinach. Which I am sure you will agree inspired the saying “Eat your Greens”.
So. the character and also his co-stars were already popular in comic strips and shorts for TV and cinema, before being transferred to live action big screen entertainment, and maybe that was the problem, audiences had become used to the animated version of the character on screen, and on seeing the live action incarnation were not impressed? The same I suppose can be said forDennis the Menace, there are two Dennis’s, the Beano comic being the home of the British attitude riddled naughty schoolboy and the American version which appeared on the same day as the British character in an American daily newspaper. The British version of the character remained more of a popular comic character, but the American version of the ill-mannered, mischievous, lad after a successful TV outing became a big screen incarnation in 1993 and spawned too sequels. Based upon the Hank Ketcham comic strip of the same name. The first movie was helmed by filmmaker Nick Castle and written and co-produced by John Hughes (Home Alone) and distributed by Warner Bros. The American produced cinematic adventures of Dennis the Menace concern the chaotic life of a mischievous child, Dennis Mitchell portrayed by Mason Gamble. The character like his British counterpart wreaks havoc on many people but mostly in this version of the story his neighbour George Wilson played wonderfully by Walter Matthau, Dennis usually hangs out with his friends Joey and Margaret Wade, and is followed everywhere by his dog, Ruff.
The movie featured a cameo appearance by Jeannie Russell who was a cast member on the original television show (1959). Despite negative reviews from critics, it still proved to be mildly popular at the box office. A direct-to-video sequel called Dennis the Menace Strikes Again was released in 1998 without the cast from the first movie. Another direct-to-video sequel called A Dennis the Menace Christmas was released in 2007 with a different cast from both the first and second films, it was a case of the films becoming weaker as the series progressed, very much like the Home Alone movies, with the gags becoming less funny and the scenarios also getting silly rather than entertaining. The British version of the character remained one of the main stays of the Beano comic, plus there were several animated shorts produced which were shown on British TV.
Dennis alla’ Gt Britain first made his appearance in 1951 and at times was accompanied by his dog Gnasher, his trademark being his bright red sweater which had black horizontal stripes and at times a catapult being his weapon of choice. But the British Dennis has yet to make his debut on the big screen.
The music for the first Dennis the Menace movie in America was written by Jerry Goldsmith, it is not in my opinion one of the composers best works, as I also think he never did particularly well when scoring comedy, but it is serviceable and does have some nice moments. To a character now that Dennis probably would have loved to have met just to terrorize him, or take his pocket money.
The poor little rich boy Richie Rich. The character first appeared in 1953, in Harvey Comics in the U.S.A. Created by Alfred Harvey and Warren Kremer, Richie, is the only child of extremely wealthy parents and portrayed as the worlds richest kid. The character appeared in his own Saturday morning animated series in 1980 and then in the 1990’s two feature length films were produced, the first was released in theatres in 1994 entitled Richie Rich and starring Macaulay Culkin which bombed at the box office not even taking as much as it cost to produce.
The second was a straight to video movie, Richie Rich’s Christmas Wish, which was even greater disaster with Culkin not returning in the title role, instead this being taken up by David Gallagher, who had previously featured in movies such as Look Who’s Talking Too.
So, Moving swiftly on, and to Casper, The friendly Ghost. This amiable character was originally created during the late 1930’s by Seymour Reit who put together the idea of the stories around the character, and then teamed up with Joe Oriolo who provided the now iconic illustrations. It was originally supposed to be the foundation for a children’s storybook in 1939, but when the idea was pitched there was no or at least little interest in it.
However, whilst Reit was away on active service in WWll, Oriolo decided to accept an offer to purchase the rights from Paramount Pictures for whom he worked for on occasion previously. Six years later The Friendly Ghost a cartoon that featured Casper appeared, it was somewhat different from the original story as envisaged by Reit and Oriolo, Casper is in the cartoon a cute ghost-like boy who speaks with a New Yorker accent, he is different from other phantoms as he prefers to make friends with people rather than scare them, but sadly animals and others do not see the cute side of Casper and run away when ever he introduces himself. Casper becomes sad and decides to commit suicide by laying on the train tracks, but he is forgetting that he is already dead. But then he meets two children who befriend him and take him to their house, their Mother is at first a little scared but soon warms to him and even sends him into town with her children after realising that he is a friendly ghost. Casper reappeared in other cartoons, but his appearance was to alter from an obese looking child to a slimmer more streamlined figure in later productions, Casper became one of the most popular commodities from Paramount’s Famous films studio.
The cartoon series also boasted a catchy title song which was the work of Jerry Livingston and Mack David. By 1955, however, composer Winston Sharples was commissioned to write a whole new instrumental theme for Casper’s cartoon escapades. The story or stories involving the friendly ghost were too become even more popular, and a series of animated shorts were soon on TV and also in cinemas, Casper’s popularity endured down the generations, and is still popular today. In the 1990.s there were feature films that starred Casper, the most notable being the movie directed by, Brad Siberling, and starring Bill Pullman, Eric Idle, Christina Ricci and Cathy Moriarty, the story focuses upon a teenager Kat (Ricci) who has recently lost her Mother and moves to an old mansion house her Father Dr. James Harvey (Pullman) who is an afterlife therapist. They move to the house so the doctor can carry out tests to see what is haunting the place, on the instruction of the villain of the piece Carrigan (Moriarty) and her partner/dogs body Dibs (Idle).
Shortly after moving in Kat and her father meet a friendly ghost called Casper, and a trio of not so friendly ghosts who are Casper’s uncles, Stretch, Fatso, and Stinkie, who are the three spirits responsible scaring everyone that enters the building.
The movie has a surprisingly clever screenplay which deals with the subject of loss with sensitivity, as in Casper’s Mother and Kats Mother, which brings the girl and her Ghost friend closer together and as their friendship grow’s we see the similarities between both. It is a touching and emotive movie, and although aimed at the younger audience is also pleasing and entertaining for all ages. The musical score is the work of Hollywood giant the late James Horner, who provided the movie with a soundtrack that was not short of the dramatic and even the madcap, bit also oozed poignancy and was filled with lilting and memorable themes.
Casper’s Lullaby being one of the composers most heartrending melodies for film, the theme which Horner utilised for Casper, ran throughout the movie and added a fragility and delicate air to the proceedings. Richly symphonic, heartbreakingly affecting and a comedic joy because the composers timing for the more humorous scenes is impeccable. The movie itself had mixed reviews but was praised for its faithfulness to the original character of Casper and its soundtrack but criticised for dark humour in what was conceived to be a children’s story.
Although a popular character from the pages of a comic book, the original live action film from 1995, failed to generate enough interest for more features to receive a theatrical release, but there were some interesting sequels which went straight to video or DVD, Casper a spirited beginning (1997), Casper meets Wendy (1998), Casper’s Haunted Christmas (2000) and Casper’s Scare School (2006).
From the light-hearted and funny side of the comic characters who have made it to the silver screen, lets once again dip into the world of superheroes, anti-heroes, villains and the unusual.
In late 1992 a group of artists that were working for Marvel began to become disgruntled at the way that they were being treated. And the way that Marvel were exploiting their artwork, consequently these artists parted company with Marvel and set up Image comics, this was a company that allowed each individual artist to retain the rights to their creations. One of their original creations SPAWN would prove to be one of their most popular. Spawn creator Todd McFarlane also was responsible for creating the striking art-work for Marvels Spiderman. SPAWN is a CIA agent who has met his end by being murdered, but he makes a pact and a deal with a demon called Malebolgia and returns to earth as an immortal being. Initially Spawn was a good guy fighting crime wherever he could, but as the stories develop and progress the character becomes increasingly dark and malevolent.
Sliding into an anti-hero persona, and as he did so, so the story lines also altered and became more twisted and a lot shadier. In the late 1990’s there was an HBO animated series for television, which was applauded and won awards, however the big screen version of the story which starred Michael Jai White, was not received as well. Released in 1997, it was directed by Mark A.Z. Dippe, and featured Martin Sheen, Nicol Williamson, and John Leguizamo. But even having good actors onboard was not enough to save this and the movie just seemed to fade away. The soundtrack was made up of a variety of grime and rock songs by the likes of Prodigy and Marylin Manson and had an original score by composer Graham Revell who was born in New Zealand in 1955,
He was graduated from The University of Auckland with degrees in economics and politics. A classically trained pianist and French horn player, he worked as a regional planner in Australia and Indonesia and as an orderly in an Australian psychiatric hospital. Revell was a member of SPK, a 1970’s Industrial music group, for which he performed keyboards and percussion. “In Flagrante Delicto” which was one of their single releases became the foundation for his debut film score which was for the movie Dead Calm and won him an Australian Film Industry award. Since this he has worked on several film scores, which have been big box office draws such as The Craft, Sin City, The Crow, The Saint, and Chinese Box amongst them.
His music for Spawn is created via electronic elements and is at times as harsh and crashing as the songs on the soundtrack. But totally supports the action on screen, it is a case of film music being just that and doing a job enhancing and underlining situations, scenarios and sequences, rather than being a collection of nice tunes to listen to on a sunny afternoon. The score is dark, and vituperative sounding, and at times contains a real sense of foreboding, but its not one for the feint hearted as there are many crashing and chaotic sounding passages.
The Japanese Manga series, Old Boy has inspired the production of two movies thus far, the original stories were the work of Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi appearing in comic book form in 1996 and staying in circulation until 1998. There are however many differences between the Manga and the live action versions. Although the foundation is the same, we find that in the Manga original the central figure is imprisoned for ten years, but in the first live action movie from 2003 directed by Park Chan-Wook, this increases to fifteen years, and then in director Spike Lee’s adaptation from 2013 this increases again to twenty years. The 2003 adaptation there is a more apparent dark element, but in the original manga there are no deaths until the film reaches its climax. Plus, there is no mention of the Hammer fight in the original, but has been added to the 2003 movie, and filmed in such a way that one would automatically think it was taken straight out of a comic book environment and placed into live action. The Park Chan-Wook film too includes a plot that has at its core incest, but again this does not materialise in the original Manga. Music for the 2003 production was the work of three composers, Jisoo Lee, Choi Seung-Hyun and Yeong-Wook Jo, which was a fusion of styles ranging from romantically and dramatically symphonic to electronic and upbeat synthetic pieces. The score for the 2013 movie was by Spanish Maestro Roque Banos, which was a vastly different take for a movie based upon the same elements, the composer created a dark and brooding work that although contained some conventional instrumentation was largely an electronically fashioned work but saying this still retained a melodic foundation.
Swamp Thing, first made his appearance in comic book form back in the 1970’s and since then has also appeared in five American comic book series to date, which included a number of specials. The character also crossed over into other DC comics and became popular right from the start. The popularity of the character endured throughout the 1970’s and also into the 1980’s, when Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette and John Totleben, collaborated on the comic series. The series of comic books garnered Awards but also generated criticism from some.
However, in the ensuing years Swamp Thing comics sales declined and struggled to recover from low sales, which then had a knock-on effect with various re-boots and series being cancelled. Director Wes Craven, was responsible for transferring Swamp Thing from the pages of a comic book to the cinema screen, released in 1982, Cravens take on the story starred Louis Jordan, and had a score by American composer Harry Manfredini.
The film came in for a lot of negative criticism but has since its initial release became something of a cult movie. Then came Return of The Swamp Thing, which was directed by Jim Wynorski, and had a music score by the director’s long-time collaborator and friend Chuck Cirino, now personally I prefer this score to the original movie, for me it has far more appeal, but there again I have always enjoyed most things that Cirino has done.
He works on mainly low budget movies but his scores are in no way budget sounding, and Return of the Swamp Thing is no exception, it’s a great listen, and also a score I have returned to many times, the track Love in The Swamp sounds somewhat out of place for this type of movie, but it’s a delight when you first discover it and subsequently repeat playing it, its tender, emotive and delicate. The movie too is quite appealing even if it does at times lack finesse, but I am sure we can forgive it seeing as the budget was so small and the there is always the score for us to fall back on. It’s a rather tongue in cheek version of the story, with the weed covered creature falling head over heels in love with the rather attractive daughter of Dr. Arcane, played by Heather Lockyer. Swamp Thing decides that she needs rescuing from her own Father and all sorts of malarkey ensues. All good fun though. Cirino’s score is a sheer delight as the composer also throws a spaghetti western vibe into the mix, which is brilliant.
TO BE CONTINUED.
TUNE IN SOON TO MMI FOR THE NEXT THRILLING EPISODE…When you will believe a man can fly, and Holy film and tv score could this be the most annoying Television theme ever?
FILM AND TELEVISION MUSIC FROM AROUND THE WORLD AND MOVIE REVIEWS AND NEWS.