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FILM IN FOCUS No. 15:

SPARTACUS

and Alex North's Film Score

 

Special Merit

SPARTACUS (1960)

World Premiere of the Complete Film Score.

Music composed and conducted by Alex North (1910-1991)

6 CDs and 1 DVD plus 167 illustrated book.

Disc One: All surviving stereo masters of the original film score (72:40)

Disc Two: The complete original soundtrack - Act I (70:40)

Disc Three: The complete original soundtrack - Act II (65:29)

Disc Four: Alternate and preliminary cues (Mono - 43:17)

Disc Five: Spartacus Love Theme and Variations (Part One) -
1. Bill Evans (5:09)
2. Yusef Lateef (4:11)
3. Mark Isham (11:09)
4. Dave Grusin (2:53)
5. Nathan Barr and Lisbeth Scott (5:08)
6. Carlos Santana (6:48)
7. Terry Callier (4:28)
8. Patrick Doyle (5:01)
9. Joel McNeely (2:27)
10. Lalo Schifrin (5:17)
11. The Ramsey Lewis Trio (7:12)

Disc Six: Spartacus Love Theme and Variations (Part Two) -
1. Bill Evans and Jeremy Steig (5:00)
2. Alexandre Desplat (2:36)
3. Regina Carter (6:21)
4. Diego Navarro (3:54)
5. Fabor Szabo (3:13)
6. John Debney (4:45)
7. Brian Tyler (7:08)
8. Randy Edelman (3:49)
9. Richard Stolzman (4:49)
10. John Neufeld and Marty Krystall (4:01)
11. Eric Stern and London Symphony Orchestra (4:14)

DVD:Conversations on Alex North's SPARTACUS - The Celebration of a Masterpiece (96 minutes/NTSC Format/ 16:9/Playable in all regions)

DVD Interviews with:
Alexandre Desplat
Mark Isham
David Newman
Lalo Schifrin
Robert Townson
Brian Tyler
John Williams
Christopher Young

Bonus Features:
Recording SPARTACUS Love Theme with
Mark Isham
Diego Navarro

DVD produced by Robert Townson and Laurent Bouzereau.

Album produced
by Robert Townson. Recorded by Murray Spivack. Scoring Mixer: Vinton Vernon. Performed by the Hollywood Studio Symphony. Mastered by Erick Larson. Art Direction: Robert Townson. Package Design: Matthew Joseph Peak. Additional Design: Bill Pitzonka. Illustrated book written by Robert Townson.

Originally recorded at Samuel Goldwyn Studios, Hollywood, California on March 21-23, May 4-5 and 12, June 9-10, August 5, 1960.

Varese Sarabande VCL 0610 1109

Rating: ****

 

I may be coming along after much of the hoopla about this milestone preservation release has been discussed, yet I join with those who have praised it. Since this is such an important release I have written a much longer review than usual. Are you ready?

Read on...

 

SPARTACUS has been one of the most often requested soundtracks that classic film fans have been asking for (often pleading!) to have in its complete form. Now it is finally here.

It is pointless to try to discuss all the discs in detail on this box set, so I'll just comment in a general way.

First, what I liked the least, and none are major complaints.

I believe this box set might have been better served as three separate releases.

First, and most importantly, the 4 CDs of the original soundtrack recordings in Stereo and Mono. Second, the 2 CDs of variations on the SPARTACUS Love Theme. And third, the DVD with composer interviews speaking about the SPARTACUS film score. If that were done, then the price may have been more affordable for those who really want the original soundtrack recordings on the 4 CDs. That is the main course. The other discs are the desert. Yet they make a very tasty and satisfying meal of music. Okay, enough of my food analogies.

Unfortunately, the printed texts on the CD cases and booklets are hard to read. I'm not a big fan of tiny white texts on black backgrounds unless they are large enough to be read without a magnifying glass which I needed to read any of the titles. It's unfortunate that this major CD box set didn't follow the design of classical music CD booklets which have a more easily read format of black text on white background. Also, why no separate CD booklet for the 4 CD set? It is awkward to have to refer to the illustrated book for all the track titles on these CDs.

Now, for what I liked the best.

Naturally I'm thrilled to hear the complete soundtrack available for the first time. Though only the first CD of the four CDs has the music in Stereo, the three discs in somewhat distant Mono provide a valuable addition to the release because they provide a large amount of music not heard before.

What results is an even greater film score than what is on the film's soundtrack. There is no doubt that this is Alex North's masterpiece and one of the greatest film scores of its era, or any era for that matter.

The greatness of this score is acknowledged by most classic film fans and critics. As for my opinion, I have listed SPARTACUS in the Top Ten of my 100 Essential Film Scores of the 20th Century.

Listening to the two SPARTACUS Love Theme CDs, it is difficult to choose among the many diverse interpretations by such talented musicians, film composers, and arrangers. It seems that many musicians have been attracted to this exquisite love theme by North. I even took a stab at writing an arrangement of the love theme many years ago when I was music composition student but my arrangement got lost somewhere along the way.

I don't know if anyone has mentioned it before but the opening notes of the love theme are the same as the beautiful song, "Emily," from Johnny Mandel's film score, THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY. I'm not suggesting that Mandel stole it or used it on purpose. I'd bet it is just pure coincidence that both themes start out the same way and are both very simple in their melodic structure.

I'll just mention a few of the variations on the SPARTACUS love theme that I especially enjoyed on the two CDs.

On Disc One, it opens with a classic interpretation by the superb jazz pianist Bill Evans, recorded in 1963. There is a long description of this interpretation by critic Gene Lees in the CD booklet. This sentence seems to sum it up best:

Here, he plays more than the essence of the love theme, he plays the essence of love itself, the essence of all tenderness.

Then there is jazz trumpeter Mark Isham's expansive treatment on track 3, the longest and perhaps the most magical of all the arrangements. Isham writes an explanation of his inspiration, writing that

The theme itself is so simple and yet so strong that it can almost be looked on as a motif. I mean, there's a motif in that theme that could be taken and, for an improviser, this is fabulous.

Another unusual effort is the one by singer/songwriter Terry Callier on track 7. He has written his own lyrics to the Alex North love theme and is accompanied by guitarist John Moulder in a beautifully nuanced interpretation.

Following Callier's song on track 8 is a very subdued piano solo arrangement by Patrick Doyle which is beautifully performed by him.

The last track on Disc One has a stylish and swinging arrangement by the popular jazz group, The Ramsey Lewis Trio, from their best-selling LP album, The In Crowd, from 1965.

Moving on to Disc Two, there are several variations I will mention as favorites.

The first track features Bill Evans again, this time with jazz flutist, Jeremy Steig, recorded in 1969. This is another classic gem of jazz artistry.

One of today's best film composers, Alexandre Desplat, has arranged the love theme on track 2 for the amazing combination of 12 flutes, beginning with a bass flute, and in a most engaging arrangement full of charm and dance-like delight.

The next track has newly discovered talent, Diego Navarro, in his hypnotic "tango for arecia" in a rhythmic dream dance of love and a complete delight from beginning to end. There is also a video feature on the DVD of the musicians recording this terrific tango.

Yet, even with all these talented musicians and composers working their magic on the love theme, in the final analysis it is the 4 CDs of the SPARTACUS score that make this such a significant release.

It is also worthwhile to have the Love Theme CDs and the DVD is very interesting to watch for different composers offering their views on the epic SPARTACUS score.

The DVD is fascinating 90 minutes to watch since many of today's best film composers speak so highly of Alex North, as they should. Of these composers, I especially enjoyed the the sensitive evaluation of North's music by Alexandre Desplat, the jovial and sensible comments by Christopher Young, and the wonderfully personal and persuasive remarks made by John Williams.

If you're a fan of this Alex North score and can afford the high selling price, it is well worth your investment. Who knows if it will be re-issued again or in several CD different packages as I suggested? I'd recommend purchasing this box set now while copies last as it will probably become a collector's item in the future.

Special praise must go to album producer, Robert Townson. It is astounding to consider that this his 1,000 CD release. But there are more reasons for this special box set, as he explained in the beginning of the accompanying book,

This particular moment in history does seem to align a trio of stars from the film and film music universes, very worthy of celebrating even on their own. This production emerges in the year that observes Alex North's 100th birthday, as well as the 50th anniversary of the release of SPARTACUS! For both of these events to coincide with the release of my personal 1,000th album completes a truly uncanny coincidence. You couldn't write a better script than that!

That's quite remarkable. But of all the many CD soundtracks Townson has worked on, this is his most impressive one and he deserves high praise for pulling it off. I applaud you, Mr. Townson! As he wrote so enthusiastically at the end of his introduction.

SPARTACUS has arrived! Cue the Overture!

And when you do, you will be off on a long and wonderful journey of incredible music listening.

Indeed, SPARTCUS has arrived on this amazing gift package in memory of one of the greatest film composers from the second half of the 20th century, Alex North.

This SPARTACUS box set is one of the greatest restoration film music projects ever undertaken.

Because of its significance, this superb box set is fully deserving of a Special Merit rating for its excellence.

-- Roger Hall, 6 January 2011

Extra Notice:
This massive 6 CD/1 DVD set has been awarded a Sammy Special Preservation Award for Best Album Producer, Robert Townson --
CLICK HERE

 

 

 

 

SPARTACUS (50th Anniversary Edition - Blu-ray)

 

 

 

 

 

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