Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Music to make merry by...

‘Christmas is coming, the Goose is getting fat…’ though if I continue to stick my hand in the various boxes of biscuits and sweets that are the desk fodder of the festive season then I won’t be far behind the Goose myself. Thankfully I walk everywhere, so any gluttony on my part is soon forgotten with a few strides. Where am I going with this? Oh yes! Christmas music. There is of course an abundance of the stuff and whether you’re a fan of classical, pop, rock, hip hop (shudder) or folk music then chances are there are an array of festive themed tunes and ditties available for your listening. When it comes to film music there is of course plenty to choose from and my iPod’s Christmas Playlist (oh yes, it’s true…) is chock full of some real classics. There is something about a Christmas film score that manages to set the mood just right… Sure there aren’t as many opportunities to sing along, but put on a few cues from, say, Home Alone or Miracle on 34th Street and I guarantee your heart will be full of cheer and all the lovely fluffy feelings that the Big C is supposed to invoke.

While I haven’t got everything that’s out there, my playlist does include some of the big ones and I urge you to grab the following and play them now (well, after you’ve read this perhaps… actually stick something on to listen to while you read, I can wait a tick…)
SO as I was saying… Top of the list for me personally though is the aforementioned Home Alone by John Williams. Not only is it full of warmth and sparkle (celeste and sleigh bells aplenty) there are actually some rather brilliant ‘action’ cues, full of Williams’ trademark brassy flair. If that weren’t enough there are two original songs – ‘Somewhere In My Memory’ and ‘Star Of Bethlehem’ – which are given a handful of airings. The songs were written with Williams’ lyricist of choice during this period, Leslie Bricusse and both were instant classics in 1990 and the former at least has gone on to become a fixture in Christmas concerts the world over. I don’t think ‘Star Of Bethlehem’ is heard enough though, the melody and orchestration being suitably heavenly. Throw in a handful of well chosen source tunes – including Mel Torme’s version of ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ and The Drifters’ ‘White Christmas’ – and you have what is probably the quintessential Christmas soundtrack album.

With the sequel two years later came not one but two albums, this time giving Williams’ second score more room to breathe on its own release, with a collection of songs nicely filling the standard soundtrack disc. Once again the composer deftly created a whirlwind of comedic action, syrupy sparkle and yet more original songs – this time the sweet ‘Christmas Star’ and the joyful ‘Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas’ (again both composed with Bricusse). While it faithfully follows in the (snowy?) footprints of the first score, there are plenty more highlights and with the addition of an adult choir rather than the children of the first score, it all feels just a bit more mature. ‘Christmas at Carnegie Hall’ finds Williams putting together a lovely selection of traditional melodies, a highlight of the playlist for sure.

Using traditional/existing music within a Christmas film score is something that composers tend to rely upon more and more these days and a wealth of scores – including Alan Silvestri’s most recent offering for Disney’s A Christmas Carol – are guilty of this. One of my favourite examples of this came years before Home Alone was even thought of though, and the score is itself one of the hardest to find and even then Santa Claus – The Movie has only been released on LP and Cassette! Henry Mancini’s ‘Christmas Rhapsody’ is a brilliantly arranged selection of Christmas tunes, used over a montage of decades and centuries passing as the legend of Santa Claus evolves and engrains itself into the world’s consciousness. The album – released by Polygram in 1985 – is fairly short and it remains a sought after title on CD… The reasons for it not being available on CD in any form are unclear – likely complicated and legal - but with the recent surge of unreleased scores in mind, perhaps it’ll happen one day. Like Home Alone, Mancini’s Santa Claus features original songs co-written with Leslie Bricusse and with the rest of the composer’s very listenable score in mind, it’s a fine companion piece to Williams’ later work.

Flash forward nine years and pick up Bruce Broughton’s Miracle On 34th Street, which was thankfully released in complete form by Intrada Records a few years ago now. The original Fox Records soundtrack album was a major find for me years and years ago and the ‘Overture’ never ceases to bring about a real feeling of the season. The larger score features a scattering of lovely thematic threads and some wonderfully festive fare, including several Bach-style original source cues. The soundtrack album is brief-ish, but is very well considered collection which features the likes of Kenny G, Natalie Cole and Elvis Presley – great tunes!

James Horner’s The Grinch (aka How The Grinch Stole Christmas) divided many upon its release in 2000, much like the film itself. The film is kinda crazy yes, but it has some charm and Horner’s score is a dazzlingly chaotic blend of orchestra, crazy percussion and effects… ‘The Heist’ is a favourite cue on the album, while the finale moments are hugely uplifting. The original soundtrack album from Interscope Records combines a selection from the score – annoyingly mixed with occasional dialogue soundbytes – and an eclectic song set. The CD and score have grown on me hugely over the years and the majority of the songs offer an enjoyable alternative to the usual fare, with ‘Green Christmas’ by The Barenaked Ladies being a particular favourite. Horner’s own lyrical contribution, ‘Where Are You Christmas?’ performed by Faith Hill, isn’t the most festive creation in the world, and the film version (performed by Taylor Momsen) is thoroughly irritating (definitely one to leave from the playlist).

Now The Muppets may not be your cup of tea, but their Christmas Carol is a staple of my seasonal viewing. Walt Disney Records re-released the film’s soundtrack three years ago as part of Kermit’s 50th Anniversary. Paul Williams’ songs are as bright and jolly as they come, while the late Miles Goodman’s score is a fine accompaniment. The songs overshadow of course, being a musical, and it’s no worse off for it.

The truth is I could go on and on and this blog entry is already dangerously long I think. You will each have favourite festive film music moments and they might include: Elf by John Debney, Jingle All The Way by David Newman (released by Intrada last year), A Christmas Carol: The Movie by Julian Nott – featuring a song performed by Kate Winslet no less – Dimitri Tiomkin’s It’s A Wonderful Life, The Snowman, by Howard Blake, All I Want For Christmas by Bruce Broughton, Silver Bells by Mark McKenzie, all three of George S. Clinton’s The Santa Clause outings, not to mention Alan Silvestri’s duo of The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol. Perhaps The Nightmare Before Christmas by Danny Elfman is pushing it, but if you begin to feel Christmassy earlier in the year than most, then perfect.

Of course the majority of Christmas films spawn largely song-led albums (Four Christmases, Christmas With The Kranks, The Family Man…) with their scores left unreleased or barely registered. The classics remain though and steadily they’re becoming available on CD – all we need is that little bit of Mancini magic from 1985 and the Christmas film music wish list is complete.

Merry Christmas!