Stanley And His Monsters: ‘Kubrick’s Music’

❉ The ideal accompaniment to the strange, beguiling, infuriating and fascinating films of the auteur himself.

“If you’re looking for the works of Laurie Johnson or Wendy Carlos, then you’re going to be disappointed – fittingly this box set from Cherry Red, as with the man himself, largely eschews the obvious routes to travel.”

If there are two things that everybody seems to know about Stanley Kubrick, they are firstly that he was an enigma, and secondly that he was a perfectionist. The workings of his mind as a director and an auteur frequently remained a mystery, while the jocular tales of ‘Fifty-Eight Take Stanley’ remain legion to this day.

What should also be borne in mind, though, is that he was a brilliant, idiosyncratic genius in his choice of projects. Other people had already told war stories, science fiction tales, and historical yarns on celluloid. There had been other film-makers who’d adapted novels which were generally considered to be unfilmable. But Stanley’s real brilliance lay in his ability and his willingness to do these things more flamboyantly, more memorably, more strikingly than his fellows.

And an important part of this was his approach to scoring his films. In an era where certain ‘approved’ composers would be hired regularly to score a certain type of cinematic story, he approached skilled but comparatively obscure figures such as Laurie Johnson and Alex North. He’d often score his works-in-progress with what were initially intended as ‘temp’ tracks, mood pieces that he originally planned to replace with original material, only to find that many of the stock pieces worked so well that they ended up as part of the final soundtrack. As a result, the aural atmosphere of a Kubrick film frequently became as memorable as the visuals that he conjured up, often giving the final product a decidedly idiosyncratic quality that only served to make it even more noteworthy.

Which makes it even more fitting that the new four-CD box set from Cherry Red, as with the man himself, largely eschews the obvious routes to travel. The listener will find many familiar pieces, but maybe not the ones that they expected. The result is a winning concoction – you’ll remember the films, you’ll remember the set pieces, but rather than a parrot-fashion instant replay you’ll be given evocations, flavours of the films, rather than slavish note-for-note recreations. Consequently, what you’ll hear is at times more like a privileged glimpse into Kubrick’s thought processes than simply sitting in a screening room and watching the rushes. Rather than the purely passive experience of re-living the films, you start to feel some small measure of what Kubrick was pondering over and musing about as he assembled the pieces to start with.

So, if you’re looking for the works of Laurie Johnson or Wendy Carlos, then you’re going to be disappointed – in fact, the only sizeable section of specially-composed-for-the-film music that you’ll find here is the stridently, then lushly, memorable work of Alex North for Spartacus, the single soundtrack represented here that’s probably been heard the least. The first disc covers Paths Of Glory, Lolita, and Dr Strangelove (Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb) – kicking off with a traditional rendition of La Marseillaise before careening through the likes of Chopin and Oscar Peterson, taking in Sue Lyon’s near-novelty track Lolita Ya-Ya, before eschewing the ominous variations on When Johnny Comes Marching Home which Johnson provided for Strangelove in favour of Toots Thieleman’s Try A Little Tenderness and Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again – a song suggested for that closing sequence by none other than Spike Milligan.

Leapfrogging amongst Kubrick’s works, the second disc covers the previously-mentioned Spartacus and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Here, we find the expected selections of Strauss, Also Sprach Zarathustra and The Blue Danube both present and correct, but you’ll also be treated to Sidney Torch’s Off Beat Moods, used as the theme to a television news programme in the film, and Gerald Adams And The Variety Singers’ 1931 recording of Daisy Bell, better known as A Bicycle Built For Two, as warbled by HAL 9000 in his final moments. It had been Arthur C Clarke himself who suggested the use of this song to Kubrick, having heard an IBM 704 computer’s rendition of the song in 1962.

Disc three, apart from Prokofiev’s The Battle On The Ice from Alexander Nevsky – included purely because it was a big favourite of Kubrick’s – is given over, unsurprisingly, to what probably remains his most notorious film, A Clockwork Orange. And yet, from what’s presented here, an ignorant listener wouldn’t be outraged at all – the selection could also be a primer for a young listener in classical music, full orchestral selections taking in Purcell, Rossini, Rimsky-Korsakov and Elgar, as well – of course – as a decent slice of lovely, lovely Ludwig Van. But perhaps the simplest yet most effective trick is that the finale of this selection is dear old Gene Kelly, gleefully crooning his way through Singin’ In The Rain.

The fourth and final disc starts out with more classical delights, as the likes of Handel, Schubert and Vivaldi are called upon to provide suitably period sounds for the 1750s shenanigans of Barry Lyndon, before they become mixed to eerie, unsettling effect with lighter music of a more recent vintage for The Shining. While Sibelius, Berlioz and Bartok – the latter represented by a piece which will be very familiar to Web Of Fear fans – provide stately and spooky sounds, the likes of Jack Hylton, Ray Noble and their Orchestras (not forgetting Henry Hall And The Gleneagles Hotel Band) chip in with light swing and big-band standards from the 1930s that somehow manage to be even creepier, possibly even providing inspiration for David Lynch’s similar use of such pieces in productions like Eraserhead and Twin Peaks.

This winning combination of accepted classics and more seemingly trivial pieces from the recent past was carried over into his final completed film, Eyes Wide Shut – and the juxtaposition of Mozart and Lizst with more from Oscar Peterson and his Trio and the Victor Silvester Ballroom Orchestra ensured that, for all that it was seen as something of a lacklustre headstone to an amazing career, it still sounded not quite like any other film soundtrack that you’d find at the time – to winning effect.

This is a marvellous collection, assembled with patience and love, and is one of those compilations which will continue to reward with repeated listening, with fresh facets of each gem being brought to light. In this regard, it’s the ideal accompaniment to the strange, beguiling, infuriating and fascinating films of the auteur himself – Stanley Kubrick.

Cherry Red’s packaging is both pleasingly eye-catching and interestingly utilitarian – a basic cardboard box and card photographic sleeves for each CD, and an interesting booklet which, besides the track-listing, contains nuggets of intriguing trivia and some wonderful photographs of both the films themselves, and their inspirations. The resurrected Cherry Red, in fact, is fast carving itself a niche as distributors of fascinating and off-kilter compilations, and this one serves well to reinforce that it’s a company to watch and support.

❉ ‘Kubrick’s Music: Selections from the Films of Stanley Kubrick’ (ACME338BOX) is available now from El Records/Cherry Red Records RRP £16.99.

❉ Ken Shinn is a lifelong fan of all things cult and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. His 54 years have seen him contribute to works overseen by the likes of TV Cream and the British Horror Films Group, as well as a whole batch of short stories of the fantastic, with his first novel on the way. Whatever the field, he intends to enjoy Cult in all its forms for many years to come.

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