(Following up our recent post on Blade Runner and its mooted sequel, here are some thoughts about that soundtrack’s contemporaries, in particular Midnight Express.)
Giorgio Moroder’s Midnight Express won the Academy Award for best Original Score of 1978. An Oscar. It’s one of those things that seems vaguely absurd in retrospect, like O Superman getting to number 2, or The Jesus Lizard having a Top 40 hit. Not because it didn’t deserve to win (although it did well against Ennio Morricone’s Days of Heaven), but because we’re so used to the modern idea of ‘our guys’ – Moroder, Vangelis, Goblin – being considered by the mainstream as at best a kind of highly-skilled novelty, and something that therefore exists outside of the usual critical discourse.
Moroder’s 1982 score for Cat People is even better, but although the ferocious Bowie-and-Moroder title theme did get a Golden Globe nomination, the Oscar for best score of 1982 went more predictably to John Williams for ET. Midnight Express was made by a lionised director (Alan Parker) and Cat People was the kind of ‘so bad it’s good’ horror movie remake hokum that this kind of music is meant to contend with.
Which makes me wonder a little if, during the period from Midnight Express clinching the gold in 1978 to Cat People four years later, there had been some sort of a perception shift in the industry on the subject of all-electronic movie scores. What maybe seemed futuristic and majestic in the Moog orchestras of A Clockwork Orange in 1971 had become a tad faddish. Blade Runner was released in 1982, too. The incredible synaesthetic success of that film indelibly associated the synthesizer with the dystopia, and by extension, sci fi. Genre film-making.
Parker’s deicision to use Moroder – primarily, up to that point, a disco producer – for his adaptation of a drug mule’s bleak autobiography creates some cognitive dissonance. Especially because the opening track, Chase, stands alongside I Feel Love and From Here To Eternity as A-grade Seventies Moroder, and is one of the all-time great space disco tunes.
Based around a prowling, mid-paced arpeggio, Chase gestures initially towards some of the moody, minor key synth themes from John Carpenter. But where Carpenter’s themes are stark and minimal, Moroder seems unable to restrain himself. Chase builds and builds, bearing down in ever-tightening circles on an almighty disco groove, and erupting into a spacey, celestial fanfare when it reaches its prize. Its relationship to Midnight Express seems tangential now, but maybe it tinged Moroder’s garish pop art sensibilities with a hint of cosmic darkness.
On other album cuts, Moroder grapples more explicitly with the bleak and sinister – Cacophoney is the closest he dares come to musique concrete, all threatening, hallucinogenic burbles and scraping, slamming metal – although he sometimes sounds as though he’s trying to talk in a language he doesn’t quite understand.
This is made literal in the Istanbul Opening theme, where he seems to be trying to approximate some traditional Turkish makam mode, using the pitch bend on his synthesizer to claw at the unfamiliar intervals, but it sort of sounds a little cheesy rather than unheimlich. Was Parker interested in using electronics to provide a cultural counterpoint? The score is made out of the sounds a young, drug-using, gay American man in the late Seventies like the film’s central character would be familiar and instantly identify with, but which his Turkish jailors, the film perhaps presumes, would find alien-sounding. (The film was also heavily criticised for its regressive portrayal of Turkish people.)
“It would have been very easy to simply use Turkish music that was indigenous to the story, as we did at the film’s beginning,” Moroder told Feature Magazine in 1979. “But since drugs are the core of the story, and since drugs are somewhat related to the kind of space created with electronic music, I felt it was appropriate. It also added an immense contrast to the film to have the ancient setting of the story punctuated by electronics.”
Or maybe synthesizers were just too in vogue at that time to ignore, and the inclusion of Moroder was approved by the producers as a necessary gimmick. Certainly Midnight Express adheres to a popular template employed by late Seventies/Early Eighties electronic soundtracks. There’s the tense, throbbing opener, the schmaltzy love theme, the period piece genre diversion (a 12-bar blues on Midnight Express), and the vocal ballad – all appearing in more or less the same sequence as the components of the Blade Runner or Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence soundtracks.
But Moroder saw the pulsating discoscape he tapped with I Feel Love as offering something unique and honest to his first film score: a heartbeat, one that throbs continually throughout the emotional journey of the film.
“Unlike the emotional detachment usually associated with electronic music, we wanted a sound that would enhance the emotional impact of the situation,” explained Giorgio. “For Sorcerer, Tangerine Dream did not even see the film before they scored it and gave the director a spacey electronic canvas on which to impose his film. For Midnight Express our first concept was to give the film a recurring center – a natural heartbeat that could be subtle at times and then build up to an urgent pounding. This was the impulse behind using a synthesizer. The heartbeat concept worked very well – adding excitement to the chase sequence or even romantic undertones to the shower scene.”
It’s been said that Giorgio grew sections of the score out of the six notes in Cry Me A River that form the “Now you say you love me” lyric. Hans Zimmer would try a similar tactic in 2010 for Inception, using Edith Piaf’s Non Je Ne Regrette Rien as the source code.
Midnight Express wasn’t the last time Giorgio would dally with the Academy – both What A Feeling! from Flashdance and Take My Breath Away from Top Gun would clinch the Best Original Song gong for Moroder as writer-producer. But post-Cat People he moved away from synth-scores, sticking mostly to catchy end credits anthems (The Neverending Story, Electric Dreams…) – and even crafting an entire Greatest Hits-quality album of irrepressible hi-NRG pop for Scarface that felt more consistent with his history as the author of bouncy near-novelty hits such as Looky Looky and Son Of A Father.