Music Review: ‘Music’ by Madonna

Madonna Music album cover

After the memorable introspection of “Ray of Light,” Madonna headed back to the dance floor with “Music.” It’s a throwback of sorts to her first few albums as she gets her listeners excited about her just like they did when she made her breakthrough into popular culture. While she works with her “Ray of Light” producer William Orbit on a few songs, Madonna’s chief collaborator here is Mirwais Ahmadzaï, a French producer, songwriter and one of the leaders in progressive electronica. Together, they create an album which stands on its own from what its predecessor, and it proved this queen of pop music has yet to run out of inspiration.

The title track has us hooked instantly as she celebrates the power of music and how it brings us all together. This is Madonna at her most upbeat, and the song’s tempo never lets up. She’s out to dance up a storm with her “baby”, which made sense since she became involved with film director Guy Ritchie whom she would later marry (and later divorce). Many out there will continue to scream out how Madonna’s music career is all but finished, but from the start of this album she lets you know this is not the case, and how dare you think otherwise.

With William Orbit, she worked on three of the album’s songs: “Runaway Lover,” “Amazing” and “Gone” (which was also produced by Mark “Spike” Stent). “Runaway Lover” is a dance tune fueled by a propulsive beat which sounds so different from anything on “Ray of Light.” Neither artist is focused on achieving musical perfection this time around, but are instead determined to let their emotions and passions flow out without any attempt to quell them for the benefit of the easily bothered.

On “Amazing,” both Madonna and Orbit get introspective as she becomes enraptured by a lover she can’t quite tear herself away from. Through the electronica, we go through the tumult of emotions we experience when we find that one person we feel is meant for us. With “Gone,” she sings with sheer conviction about how she will not compromise herself by selling out or abandoning what she was brought up to believe in.

With Mirwais, she finds a new musical direction, and two follow up the title track with “Impressive Instant.” This album could have easily peaked with the first song, but he and Madonna increase the tempo and get our adrenaline running even faster with this dance track. Still, not all of Mirwais’ contributions to Madonna are confined to the realm of electronica. He captures Madonna in a moment which feels purely honest with “I Deserve It.” However you perceive Madonna as an artist or a person, she makes us believe she deserves that one loving relationship which had long eluded her.

On “Nobody’s Perfect,” Madonna makes us see she is perfectly aware of her own flaws and that she’s just doing her best. Even with all the fame she has acquired through decades of work, there’s still a part of her which is never fully satisfied. Mirwais does even better with Madonna on “Don’t Tell Me” as she is pleasantly defiant against those who attempt to crush her desires. Madonna is determined to live life on her own terms regardless of what others think.

But the album’s best song is “What It Feels Like for a Girl” which deals frankly with the men’s shameful misperceptions of women. Whereas some feel a girl being a guy is no big thing, a guy being a girl just seems flat out wrong to so many and for no justified reason. Opening with dialogue spoken by “Antichrist” actress Charlotte Gainsbourg from the film “The Cement Garden,” Madonna confronts this senseless contradiction head on. But instead of being overly aggressive like the music video it inspired, she and Mirwais create a really beautiful song that gets to the issue by giving us a soothing melody which puts us in a euphoric state. Not once does she try to bang us over the head with how absurd our attitudes to sexual orientation are, but instead make us see those absurdities in a rather calm fashion.

With “Ray of Light,” Madonna set the bar very high for herself, and it felt like her next album would not even compare. But she has constantly surprised and enthralled us throughout her career, and “Music” proves to be a strong follow up containing memorable songs and strong introspection. It’s not better than its predecessor, but it remains one of her best albums from the first decade of the new millennium. Almost 20 years after its release, it remains as tuneful as ever.

Gaspar Noe’s ‘Climax’ is a Hypnotic Descent Into Hell

Climax movie poster

I will never forget when I first watched Terry Gilliam’s cinematic adaptation of “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.” Seeing the main characters played by Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro descend into a drug-fueled inferno proved to be one of the most insane and chaotic cinematic experiences I’ve ever had to where I felt like a hammer was constantly bashing at my head. I was in college at the time, and I described it to my friends as being one long acid-trip nightmare. One friend, her name Wendy, looked at me and said, “Oh yeah, like you would know!” This led to another person, Matthew, across the table laughing and responding, “Hey Wendy, he’s right.”

Seriously, you don’t need to have any experience with drugs of any kind to call “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas” an acid-trip nightmare, and the same goes for “Climax,” the latest cinematic opus from Gaspar Noe. Like the majority of his films, it proves to be exhilarating, hypnotic and gloriously out of control as we watch a group of dancers try to get a hold of their sanity after they discover the sangria they have been drinking has been spiked with LSD. Whether or not you have had any experience with this drug, you will agree the trip these characters go on is not the least bit pleasant.

“Climax” takes us back to the winter of 1996 and opens with a series of audition tapes featuring dancers who are being considered for a French dance troupe being created by Selva (Sofia Boutella) and DJ Daddy (Kiddy Smile). Each dancer makes clear how intense their passion is for this particular artform and what they will do to make a career out of it. What’s interesting about this opening we are watching them on an old-style tube television which is surrounded by VHS tapes and books, all of which have influenced Noe’s filmmaking and personal beliefs. This includes such cinematic escapades like “Suspiria,” “Salo,” “Hara-Kiri” and “Possession,” and among the books are one by Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, famous for his ultra-negative views on life and humanity, “Junkie” by William S. Burroughs, “LSD Psychotherapy” by Stanislav Grof, and “Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo” (“We Children of Bahnhof Zoo”) by Christiane F. Seeing these materials around the TV set should make it clear that Noe is not about to play it safe for anybody.

Following this comes one of the most exhilarating dance sequences I have in a movie in a long time as we watch a five-minute-long scene in which characters perform with utter abandon as they contort their bodies in ways which amazed me to no end. As the camera swoops over the performers, we are sucked into their dance space to where I wanted to feel the passion they felt. Seeing this reminded me of when I first watched the music video to Madonna’s “Lucky Star” on MTV, back when they actually showed music videos, and of how I wanted to experience the same level of joy she was having.

Noe is up to his old tricks again as he starts “Climax” with the end credits first and then give us the opening credits about 45 minutes later. As for the title, it appears exactly where it should. It does take a while for things to get crazy as Noe takes his time introducing us to these dancers as they discuss the sexual conquests and/or the future they hope to have sooner rather than later. As this goes on, the techno music plays non-stop, and once you notice it slowing down all of a sudden, you know this shit is about to get real.

Once the characters begin to realize they are under the influence of a psychedelic substance they were not planning on ingesting before their performance, the movie becomes a slow descent into chaos, and I could not take my eyes off the screen for one second. Even as the events became more and more horrifically chaotic, I was sucked into the madness everyone was trapped in, and I had no idea of where the story was going. This kind of unpredictability is very rare in movies today.

It’s especially impressive to learn that “Climax” was shot in just 15 days and with a script only five pages long. Learning of this made me believe this film could have been an enormous mess were it in the hands of another filmmaker, but Noe gives this sheer chaos a structure even as the performers let themselves run wild with the material. Some will complain this movie has no real story or plot, but I am certain anyone who has taken LSD can assure us how most psychedelic trips do not come with a three-act structure.

Once again, Noe employs his and Harmony Korine’s favorite cinematographer, Benoît Debie, who gives us such striking and absorbing colors throughout. Whether the lighting is dark green or blindingly red, Debie captures the insane madness in all its visual beauty, and when the white of the snow appears it feels like such a relief. This makes me look forward to Korine’s upcoming movie “The Beach Bum” all the more as Debie is the cinematographer on it too.

Noe has gone on record in saying the production of “Climax” was the most peaceful he ever had as a director, and this is regardless of the movie’s content. Apparently, there were no arguments on set, and no drugs or alcohol were used by anyone during filming. The latter is worth pointing out as the cast does an excellent job of looking like they are being ravaged by a narcotic they didn’t plan on taking. They could have easily looked ridiculous to where the movie could have been laughable, but everyone looks to be on their game here.

The cast is made of both professional and non-professional actors, and the one who stands out the most is Sofia Boutella. The French-Algerian actress has long since made a name for herself with such memorable performances in “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” “Star Trek Beyond” and “Atomic Blonde,” and watching her here is mesmerizing as she takes her character of Selva from a place of sanity to the polar opposite of it. She could have easily fallen into the trap of emoting here, but she never does as she makes Selva’s helpless predicament all the more frightening as this trip she is forced to take offers no easy escape for her or anyone else.

“Climax” may not reach the nightmarish heights of “Requiem for a Dream,” but it stands out as one of Noe’s strongest efforts. It doesn’t reach of what I feel is his masterpiece, “Enter the Void,” but it is stronger than his last movie, “Love 3D” which many were quick to dismiss as just another porno flick (I disagree). I for one am glad such daring filmmakers are still working in a time where superhero movies continue to dominate everything in the cinematic landscape. We need at least one filmmaker to break the rules, and Noe is no doubt one of them.

Again, I don’t think you need any experience with psychedelic substances to realize “Climax” is one long acid-trip nightmare. While the late Steve Jobs found an amazing level of creativity after experimenting with LSD, I don’t think the characters here will be anywhere as lucky, assuming they survive.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Alan Howarth Discusses Working on Film Scores with John Carpenter

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A screening of John Carpenter’s “Assault on Precinct 13” at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood brought out a number of guests such as Austin Stoker who played Lieutenant Ethan Bishop and Douglas Knapp who was the film’s director of photography. But the one guest I was really interested to hear from was Alan Howarth, the composer and sound designer who collaborated with Carpenter on a number of his film scores from “Escape From New York” to “They Live.” Howarth even took the time to do a live performance of his and Carpenter’s music, something I never thought I would ever see in my lifetime.

During the Q&A, Howarth talked about how he came to work with Carpenter, their process for scoring his films and his favorite film scores of the ones they worked on together. Howarth wasn’t actually on board for the original “Assault on Precinct 13” though he did work on a remastered version of the soundtrack for it and “Dark Star” for BuySoundtrax.com. It wasn’t until he worked on his first big film when he became inadvertently acquainted with Carpenter.

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“I came on board at ‘Escape from New York,’ and that was kind of happenstance because my very first movie, less than a year earlier, was ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture,’” Howarth said. “I had come on as the sound designer and created the sounds of the Enterprise like the warp drive and the transporters and stuff like that. The picture editor from that movie, Todd Ramsay, his next assignment was ‘Escape from New York,’ so I had slipped him some cassettes and he knew I was a musician. John had worked with another fellow on ‘Halloween,’ Dan Wyman, and there was some change up there, and so literally the guy comes over to my little, rented house in Glendale and set up in my dining room. It was nothing formal. I sat down and I played him a few things and he goes, ‘okay, let’s do it.’ That was it.”

“John always wanted somebody who knew about the technology,” Howarth continued. “In fact, a couple of times I tried to explain to him how it worked and he was all, ‘I don’t want to know that. It’s your job to make it work, make it in tune, and when I push down the note the red light is on.’ So that’s where I started, but he’s a collaborative person. I love working with people. I’m from the bands and rock & roll. I was one of those people. So, it was really great and my first film score was ‘Escape from New York.’”

escape-from-new-york-soundtrack

From there, the two of them worked on several projects all the way to “They Live.” As he continued discussing the work he did with Carpenter, we came to discover he played a larger part in Carpenter’s film scores than we ever realized.

“Next, he went off to do ‘The Thing’ and they wanted to make ‘Halloween II,’ so again John said, ‘I’m going to be busy. You’re going to have to do Halloween.’ Same thing, so I did ‘Halloween II’ and I used his original ‘Halloween’ music, overdubbed it and created new stuff.”

 

After “They Live,” they seemed to part ways for reasons Howarth never explained, but it gave him the confidence to start scoring films on his own. Of course, he was still eager to get Carpenter’s blessing when it came to a franchise the director never planned to start.

“I found out they were going to do ‘Halloween 4’ and I said to John, ‘they asked me to do this and you’re my buddy and I want to do something with this.’ He said sure, so I wound up doing ‘Halloween 4, 5 and 6’ and that really launched me as a composer which is what I love to do the most, and as we are in a world of economic stasis, I had to do it all by myself. As you see, this is my studio right here. It’s all down to a laptop and a guitar and some recorders when it used to be a million dollars’ worth of stuff. Not that that stuff isn’t valuable, but you can do without it now,” Howarth said.

 

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One audience member asked which of the scores he did with Carpenter is his favorite, and the answer was a little bit of a surprise.

“I think ‘Halloween III’ because it was really an artistic departure for both of us, and ‘Big Trouble in Little China’ is the most produced and has the widest range,” said Howarth. “We had rock and roll and scary things and chases and this whole Asian influence, so it was really a broad scope of things. That’s one of my favorites.”

halloween-iii-soundtrack

Like many in the audience, I was eager to hear how Howarth and Carpenter would go about working on a score. Did they start working on it before shooting began? Did they work on it after shooting was finished? Did they think about the music while making the film? We hear how composers spend so much time preparing the perfect score for a movie, but Howarth made his process with Carpenter sound quite simple.

“It’s all one big jam. It’s improvised,” Howarth said. “Sometimes he would come in with a theme in mind. I’d set up the piano before he came over and started something. A lot of it we just made up on the spot. In fact, I introduced him, because I’m a technical person, to the synchronization between a videotape and a tape recorder. It almost seems like we were the first to do it. Before that, everything was done with a stopwatch. So, you would make a cue that was three minutes long and kind of set a tempo, and then you would go back and literally copy it on a Moviola and fool around with the scene.”

“This was the first time you could watch the movie and play at the same time, so he referred to that as the electronic coloring book which made it even easier to improvise,” Howarth continued. “Through that whole period we also benefited from the evolution of electronic music instruments, so from analog synthesizers and a 24-track machine to midi and digital sequencers, these scores had a new installation in the progress of musical instruments, so it’s almost a chronology or a music lesson in the gear.”

Another audience member asked Howarth how long he and Carpenter would jam until they found something they really liked. His answer illustrates how fast these two worked on their music.

“We did a cue a day,” Howarth said. “One quote I always get from John, and it’s just really true, he said, ‘Alan if you want to be a director you only need two important words, yes and no. Just be very decisive. Even if you say no today or yes today and tomorrow, you change your mind. You got twenty or thirty people that are taking direction, and you don’t want to leave them in a lurch, so it’s better to just be decisive.’ So, it was a couple of times we did something and came back and said that wasn’t working, but it wasn’t very often.”

Having worked in movies and music all these years, Howarth clearly has a wide knowledge of musical instruments and electronics. When asked what he would consider as the go to synthesizer, Howarth’s answer shed some light on how far musical technology has come over the years.

“I chose all the gear and I arrived at being a fan of the Prophet 5,” Howarth said. “It sounded good, but the other reason was that it was the first programmable synthesizer. Prior to that, you had to literally make little diagrams of where all the knobs and switches were to get back to the same sound, so this was the first time you could do something and save it. That really moved things forward a lot, and I brought in the programmables and the sequencers.”

One big question many had about the music Carpenter and Howarth worked on was the score to Carpenter’s remake of “The Thing.” This was Carpenter’s first big studio movie, and it allowed him to work with his all-time favorite composer Ennio Morricone. However, when you listen to the score, some it sounds like it was done by Carpenter and Howarth, and this is especially the case with the movie’s main theme. Howarth went into detail about who really composed the score to “The Thing.”

“They (Carpenter and Morricone) took a meeting, and he (Morricone) saw a little bit of the footage and he scored his score,” Howarth said. “He comes back and, of course, how does John talk to his hero about what just went down and where he wants to go? And there’s a translation issue between English and Italian and all this other stuff. So John played the stuff we did for ‘Escape from New York’ and he says, ‘Can you do something like this?’ Ennio goes back for a second pass now with keyboards, and that’s where ‘The Thing’s’ theme came from. So it’s Ennio Morricone doing John Carpenter really. At the very end after all that, there was one more pass on about four or five cues where John came over for just an afternoon and we did some cues that kind of sound like ‘Christine’ that you can tell is basically our synth stuff. So basically, it took three scoring passes on the show to get it.”

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It was a real treat to have Alan Howarth talk about his musical collaboration with John Carpenter. The film scores they worked on are among my favorites of all time, and I never get sick of listening to them. Howarth continues to work as a film composer, and his more recent credits include scores for “Backstabbed,” “The Dentist” and “House at the End of the Drive.” Here’s hoping we get to hear more scores from him in the near future.

Perseverance Records’ Deluxe Edition of Tangerine Dream’s ‘Thief’

thief-soundtrack

Tangerine Dream kept composing one great film score after another back in the 1980’s. Whether it was “Risky Business,” “Firestarter” or “Miracle Mile,” the German electronic music group lent their own distinctive sound to some of my favorite movies from my youth. One of their best efforts was “Thief” which marked the feature film directorial debut of Michael Mann and starred James Caan as Frank, a highly skilled jewel thief and ex-convict who is looking to achieve the American dream. With Mann’s meticulous detail to cinematography and the ways in which jewel thieves, several of which were hired as technical advisors for this film, carry out a robbery, Tangerine Dream’s music proved to be the perfect complement to the style he ended up capturing to such an unforgettable effect.

Thief” has now been given a deluxe soundtrack release by Perseverance Records, a small label specializing in film scores which have either not been given the proper releases they deserve or are in need of a remastered edition. Their edition of “Thief,” to no one’s surprise, sounds better than ever, and it also includes the track “Confrontation” by Craig Safan who is best known for composing the score to “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins.” This particular track has been omitted from previous soundtrack releases, but the good people at Perseverance Records did the right thing by including it here. It would not have earned the status of deluxe soundtrack had it been left out.

Now anyone who knows me best understands how much of a sucker I am for electronic film scores, and “Thief” is one of my favorites which wasn’t composed by John Carpenter. My favorite track is “Diamond Diary” which underscores the first big robbery Frank commits in the movie as it captures the intensity of it as well as the amount of time he has to complete his job in, which isn’t much. Then there’s “Dr. Destructo” which focuses on Frank’s determination to rid others of the control they have over him. As for Safan’s “Confrontation,” it is terrific in scoring how Frank gets his revenge and accepts the inescapable reality of who he is and what he cannot change.

Is there any downside to this edition of the “Thief” soundtrack? Well, there are no additional or alternate tracks to be found here. Since this movie is now over 30 years old, I figured there would be more music included which we haven’t heard on vinyl, cassette tape or compact disc before. Having watched Mann’s movie again recently, there are portions of Tangerine Dream’s score which sound different from what’s on the soundtrack, and I would have loved it if the film versions had made it onto this edition as well. Still, Perseverance Records has gone to great lengths to make this terrific film score sound better than ever before, and it makes revisiting this soundtrack all the more necessary.

“Thief” also comes with liner notes written by James Phillips which looks at what inspired Mann to make this movie, how Tangerine Dream came to compose the score for it, and of how Craig Safan was brought in to write music for the movie’s ever so violent climax. It was a surprise to learn Mann originally considered using blues music to score the criminal lifestyle this movie sucks us into. It turns out it was William Friedkin, who had just worked with Tangerine Dream on his underrated cult classic “Sorcerer,” who recommended the band to Mann for “Thief,” and back then the band was on the cutting edge of a new kind of music.

Phillips quote Edgar Frosse, the founder of Tangerine Dream, as saying he wanted to create “timeless music” and that the “exotic and shifting moods” of “Thief” fit in perfectly with the kind of music the band played. Just from listening to this soundtrack, you can tell Frosse and his collaborators, Christopher Franke and Johannes Schmoelling, were very much into experimenting with music and sounds, and it all makes for an unforgettable score which for some utterly ridiculous reason got a Razzie nomination for Worst Original Score. Go figure.

Another interesting section of Phillips’ liner notes is of how Safan was brought in to compose one piece of music for “Thief.” I was always under the assumption the track Safan composed was actually taken from a soundtrack to another movie as Mann got into the habit of doing this with his later films. However, it turns out Tangerine Dream was unavailable at one point due to their being on tour in Europe, so Safan was brought in to finish things up.

Granted, a lot of electronic scores from the 80’s sound hopelessly dated these days to where you can’t help but snicker at them, but Tangerine Dream’s score and Safan’s contribution to “Thief” really has stood the test of time. It perfectly captures the adrenaline rush of stealing stuff which doesn’t belong to you as well as the inevitably of how you can’t escape the life you were destined to leave. Perseverance Records has done an excellent job in making Tangerine Dream’s music sound better than ever. Like many of my favorite movie soundtracks, I never get sick of listening to this one.