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dvd extra: September 2004

DVD Review

by Mark Richard Hasan:

Over the past two years, Home Vision Entertainment [HVE] have gradually released twelve DVDs featuring the substantive work from Merchant Ivory [MI]. Since 1965, American director James Ivory and Indian producer Ismail Merchant have been a steady team, and are still best known for their beautiful film adaptation of E.M. Forster's A Room With A View.

That film, which also received an Oscar for Best Screenplay (authored by the team's long-time, and principal scribe, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala), also brought composer Richard Robbins to mainstream record buyers, via the best-selling soundtrack album, and alerted film music fans of another new talent. (Released in a recent two-disc edition from Warner Bros., Room, however, doesn't contain any composer material; it's a bit ironic, considering the album's legacy.)

Impressed by the team's 1965 film, Shakespeare-Wallah, Robbins eventually approached them with the idea of filming a documentary on a special music programme, initiated by the composer himself, for children at Manhattan's Mannes College of Music. The documentary, Sweet Sounds, enjoyed modest distribution, and was broadcast on American TV by PBS.

Released in 1976, the doc is now available as part of the special features on HVE's The Europeans DVD.

The 28-minute doc basically has the camera playing fly-on-the-wall, as ten children from diverse ethnic backgrounds are given the chance to learn musical concepts via inventive games. The doc's best moments capture the excitement of the group's most gifted children, as they learn rhythmic patterns using their names. The length and pacing of the doc makes it suitable for family viewing, in the sense that the games are followed in detail, so even children seated in front of the TV can join in and have fun.

This affectionate portrait of young musical minds is also accompanied by a separate and brief composer interview. However, as with several of HVE's MI discs, Robbins is also included in a making-of featurette for the feature film, intercut between interviews with director Ivory, producer Merchant, and screenwriter Jhabvala. The doc's focus is clearly on the film's production, so Robbins' comments are brief (we're talking less than 2-3 minutes here), and restricted to very short thematic descriptions over film clips.

In the featurette for Quartet, Robbins reflects on the qualitative differences between the film's jazz performances with Parisian influences, and a more American-styled underscore the composer admits he prefers today. In Heat and Dust, Robbins mentions the cultural conflicts between East and West, and his admiration for tabla performer Zakir Hussein, with whom Robbins worked on the score. (Hussein, a maniacal percussionist of incredible intensity, also appears in the film as a love interest).

Functioning as composer, arranger, and adapter of specific musical genres and cultural styles, the brief composer bits are more complimentary than the real documentation of his work, and in spite of these 3 DVDs, there remains a lack of information concerning Robbins' own assessment of his work with MI, and the effect their films have had on his growth as a composer. More so, even comments from Zakir Hussein (himself having dabbled in film scores) would have broadened the musical scope among these discs. Robbins fares slightly better in the densely-packed two-disc edition of Maurice, but it's a pretty standard segment of film clips, coupled with the composer's thoughts on being given greater musical freedom to develop themes, and explore larger orchestral writing.

That said, HVE's MI DVDs are attractively designed releases that offer film fans an excellent series of chat sessions with the writer, director, and producer. Where professional relationships tend to falter after a decade of career successes and artistic failures, the four core members of Merchant Ivory have managed to sustain a remarkable consistency of filmic output, and HVE's releases make available titles in beautifully mastered transfers, and engaging featurettes.

Another composer who remains largely unknown outside of independent films is Joe Delia, one of a handful of creative colleagues who's managed to maintain a long professional association and strong friendship with iconic, self-appointed anarchist and director Abel Ferrara. Delia's participation in Artisan's two-disc of King of New York, however, is as moderator rather than straight commentator on his own musical contributions.

Previously available as a single disc release, the new two-disc is an excellent presentation of arguably Ferrara's best film - a work where the obsessions of the director and writer Nicholas St. John gel into a coherent, exciting narrative of brutality, and the downfall of a vicious thug.

Delia introduces each participant in the commentary track (which includes producer Mary Kane, editor and fellow anarchist Anthony Redman, and associate producer Randy Sabusawa) and then pretty much disappears; he pops up once in a blue moon to note a rap song, and indicate transitions between score and original songs. From a musical standpoint, Delia's reduction to the extreme margins of key participants is a disappointment, though the track provides an excellent overview of the crew's abilities to create a potent film under low-budget conditions, and the eccentricities of director Ferrara.

The director has his own commentary track, and he's just as loopy as in previous efforts on DVD to discuss his craft. (Just try to sit through Driller Killer in one sitting. I dare you.) Ferrara revels in pushing and indulging actors to moments of raw and frequently overlong swirls of onscreen misery, and more candid thoughts of scoring a Ferrara film vs. more accessible fare should have been addressed.

Luckily, Delia also appears in the excellent documentary on Ferrara's career, with the composer nestled between his co-commentators discussing the director's work and offering many funny anecdotes. Very little scoring talk, but the stories and Ferrara imitations are hysterical; Delia's a great moderator, and puts skirmishes, falling outs, and bad behaviour into more sobering perspectives.

King of New York's second DVD is identical in content, save for a full screen film transfer. (It's a largely unnecessary inclusion, as the duplication of material means the label can proclaim the DVD release as a two-disc Special Edition).

Candyman also gets the special edition treatment from Columbia, and there's a funny anecdote from writer/director Bernard Rose in the DVD's concise making-of featurette about snagging Philip Glass as composer. Never having scored a horror movie, some good luck and Rose's very particular sonic sensibilities convinced Glass to accept the job; the result, of course, was a chilling enhancement of an already frightening little film. That's it for the music, but the featurette offers some good production stories, and Bernard Rose further elaborates in his feature-length commentary track.

Singer/songwriter Mary Margaret O'Hara (sister of actress Catherine O'Hara) scored her first feature in 2000, and managed to transcend writer/director Bill Robertson's overly anxious attempt to make a likable quirky romance-comedy. Apartment Hunting benefits from an excellent mix of blues and jazz-flavoured instrumental material, and O'Hara also contributes a few excellent songs; two of them are done onscreen, with O'Hara crooning her material as a local vagrant.

Though released on CD, O'Hara's complete score is isolated on the DVD, but is affected by the familiar volume changes at certain moments, and a few sound effects manage to sneak into some good tracks towards the end. Released on an independent label, Apartment Hunting also includes a featurette with O'Hara and her superb musicians in the recording studio, plus two music videos.

Last is Ray Faiola's commentary track for Fox' latest Studio Classics release, Alexander's Ragtime Band. Composer Irving Berlin didn't want a bio of his life, so the studio constructed a fictional riff, leading up to some new thing called "swing." Like several of the Classics titles, the DVD includes a Biography episode on actress/singer Alice Faye, and composer Walter Scharf appears in several interview segments in the bio-doc.

Faiola's commentary creates a pleasant journey via film facts, fun trivia, and good historical sketches for many of the film's actors and key personnel. The added benefit is Faiola's involvement with the soundtrack album (given a lengthy plug on the track), and his obvious affection for Hollywood history; his involvement with many classic soundtrack albums - those exhaustively researched and restored CDs, with meaty booklets - reveal a producer, technician, and cineaste who's done his research, and knows how to construct an educational narrative for an engaging commentary track. Faiola (incorrectly credited as Ray Fiola on the sleeve art) also cites deleted musical numbers, three of which actually survive and are included in the DVD's Special Features section.

Next: George Lucas finally releases the first three revised Star Wars franchise (now formally re-branded as parts 4-6), while Warner Bros. quietly rides the wave by releasing Lucas' first feature, THX 1138, with an interesting collection of musical and sound design goodies.

 
 
 
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