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  the omega man - soundtrack review

The Omega Man
Film Score Monthly Silver Age Classics
review by Richard Bowden

In the 1970s, when Charlton Heston was briefly a science fiction star, his short run of such movies resulted in some memorable scores. His best film in this genre, The Planet Of The Apes also brought in a stunning avant-garde work by Jerry Goldsmith (recently reissued in an expanded version). Heston's weakest appearence, as Neville in The Omega Man was also granted memorable musical support, but by a lesser-known figure, the Englishman Ron Grainer (1922-1981). Grainer, a contemporary of John Barry, also came from a background of pop arrangement, but there any real similarity ends. His score for this film has been in demand for many years by fans but has only now just been made available. (Although a release of one of two cues was briefly planned at the time.)
   Just as it is not difficult to see the reason for the delay in releasing this score, it is also easy to see why it has been so passionately desired on disc by fans since the 1970s. Admirers of his work have been mainly familiar up until now with Grainer's highly characteristic scores for Doctor Who, Man In A Suitcase and The Prisoner, successful UK TV series of the time. (Echoes of The Prisoner's title music reoccur several times in in The Omega Man, particularly when the brass plays jauntily in unison). It is fair to say that The Omega Man was a relatively rare opportunity for Grainer to score action and drama on a more expansive scale, and this disc represents a good chance to sample his unique talent at full stretch. The result has been controversial.
   Grainer's ecletic work, combining elements of jazz, microtones, melodic orchestral cues, easy listening and light pop vibes is something that one either loves or hates, sounding like no other score. In fact much of the debate in soundtrack fan circles at the time of this album's release centered around whether it hangs together as a cohesive entity at all given the range of instrumentation and style. Although mostly tuneful (most noticeably in the case of the beautiful, elegiac main theme), he includes at least a couple of longish cues for bare percussion, noticably in the ghostly 'The Spirits Still Linger', played as Neville explores a deserted cityscape for bodies. Water chimes sound out here and there with eerie tones (a rare sound also favoured by science fiction films The Illustrated Man and The Forbin Project) adding an otherwordly feel to proceedings, entirely in tune with the social dislocation on view. One cue is simply a duet for organs. Even in some quieter passages, Grainer uses one of his favourite instruments, the trombone to give a mellow, masculine feeling. Ultimately, it is Grainer's creative use of these elements, and of a few unifying melodic cells, which knits the disparate aspects of the score together. Bizarre, surreal even, his work hangs together, defying and intriguing the ear. Even the three easy listening tracks (written by Max Steiner, Thelonious Monk and Cole Porter respectively) included here seem all of a piece with the musical context.
   Those who have seen the film will remember the lonely luxury in which the beseiged Neville entraps himself, playing chess, drinking and listening to his hi-fi, while the mutants swarm outside. His easy-listening tastes were ultimately intended as somewhat ironic and desperate, and have grown more so down the years. Max Steiner's 'A Summer Place' has a memorable play at the very top of the film, just before the credits, as Neville drives his car aimlessly through the streets, a man defiantly at leisure. In the film there is an audio jump from Steiner's muzak via a burst of automatic fire straight into the melancholic opening theme - for this listener one of the most memorable musical moments in action cinema. In fact the juxtaposition of music styles, of kitsch, melody and some avant garde work is what gives this score much of its strength, rather than weakening it, as would have happened in less talented hands. Grainer's skillful balancing act gives the project tension and interest, much more than just historical curiosity value to today’s listener.
   Over the years The Omega Man has gained a growing cult reputation as an exercise in science fiction camp. Neville/Heston's fight against the mutants seems less predicated these days in an earnest desire to save civilisation from itself than a yearning to prolong cheesy 1970s culture and dubious values. The mixed-race message in the film is dated and the religious imagery frankly risible. In its own way of course, Grainer's music has played a large part in that appraisal, but perfectly underscores the film's impact without sacrificing its own real value. Away from the film, it finally emerges as a vital and tuneful creation in its own right - of its time certainly, but a fine achievement by an underrated composer. The careful, close-miked sessions with which Grainer worked resulted in an excellent stereo recording, now emerging from the carefully preserved music masters to shine again. As a bonus, at the end of the disc is included a short recording of Grainer in rehearsal with children singing 'Old MacDonald Had A Farm' - part of the upbeat ending to the film insisted on by the distributor. Given the lack of recorded comment by the composer on his marvellous score it is a touching and apt conclusion.

review by Richard Bowden

DOWSE Guide to the Movies is compiled by Tony Lee editor of Pigasus Press
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