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THE RAZOR’S EDGE – Jack Nitzsche

October 23, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Razor’s Edge is an epic poetic drama film, written and directed by John Byrum, adapted from the acclaimed 1944 novel by W. Somerset Maugham. It tells the story of Larry Darrell, played by Bill Murray, an American pilot traumatized by his experiences in World War I, who journeys through Asia in search of some transcendent meaning in his life after the war has ended. The film was the first dramatic leading role of Murray’s career, who prior to this was known almost exclusively as a comedic actor, through his work on Saturday Night Live, and films such as Caddyshack and Stripes. Murray and director Byrum had trouble finding a studio to finance it, such was the incredulity that Murray could pull off such a demanding dramatic leading role, and the film was only put into production when Dan Aykroyd suggested a deal to Columbia Pictures whereby Murray would appear in Ghostbusters if the studio subsequently greenlit The Razor’s Edge. However, despite the presence of such luminaries as Theresa Russell, Denholm Elliott and Peter Vaughan in the supporting cast, and unlike Ghostbusters, The Razor’s Edge was a critical and commercial flop, taking just $6.5 million at the US box office in 1984. Apparently, Columbia was right, and audiences didn’t buy Murray as a tortured, sensitive man undergoing an existential crisis.

The score for The Razor’s Edge was by American composer Jack Nitzsche, whose work in cinema had included such popular films as One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and An Officer and a Gentleman, and who had scored director Byrum’s film Heart Beat in 1980, but who was still best known for his work as an orchestral arranger and conductor for producer Phil Spector, and on records for artists such as The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Ike and Tina Turner, The Beach Boys and The Monkees. Nitzsche was respected, certainly, and was an Oscar nominee for his Cuckoos Nest score, but little in his prior filmography suggested he was capable of writing music as gorgeous as that which he wrote for The Razor’s Edge – in my opinion, the best score of his career.

To match the epic, sprawling nature of the film, Nitzsche wrote an equally epic, sprawling orchestral score, filled with emotional themes that seek to depict both Darrell’s search for enlightenment, and the grand scope of the journey he takes to find it. The main theme, introduced in the “Main Title,” is simply stunning, a bittersweet, sweeping piece for strings that captures both the nostalgia of the setting, and the optimism of Larry’s character – a hopeful dreamer who needs meaning in his life. Its subsequent performances, in the second half of “Trenches,” the downbeat “Maturin’s Funeral,” and the woodwind-accented “Opium Den,” keep the score rooted in a familiar thematic identity

Darker material, with increased brass content, appears in cues such as “Trenches,” and the Last Post-like “Fireworks/World War I,” to hint at the horrific wartime experiences Larry suffers, although even in these times of anguish Nitzsche’s music remains elegant and thematically resonant. The bold, three-note fanfare heard half way through the opening cue is often used as a marker for an especially significant event in Larry’s life, and is heard in again in later cues such as the aforementioned pair “World War I” and “Maturin’s Funeral,” as well as the heraldic “Larry Leaves the Monastery.”

“Motorcycle” is sunny and upbeat, capturing the essence of young love, while the explosive and dangerous-sounding “Piedmont Hit,” which combines the main theme with the darker material, has some allusions to both the French national anthem La Marseillaise, and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, amongst others. “Piedmont’s Death” features the subtle, dreamy, evocative tones of a glass harmonica, performed by harmonica virtuoso Bruno Hoffmann, before the “End Title & End Credits” revisits the main theme with a satisfyingly grandiose performance to bring the main section of the score to a close.

The final six cues on the album comprise several tracks of source material, including a big-band swing piece, “Can’t Stop Dancing,” written by Nitzsche’s orchestrator Peter Murray, and a tango piece, “A Todo Vela,” by Fernand Frank and Alain Ladriere. Of more interest are two Indian ragas, “Arrival in India” and “Larry’s Journey,” which make extensive use of traditional sub-continental instruments, and may prove a little unpalatable to listeners with little experience of authentic world music sounds. “The Monastery” is an interesting curiosity, this time featuring a solo, unaccompanied performance of Nitzsche’s main theme on the glass harmonica, again by Bruno Hoffmann.

The score for The Razor’s Edge is fairly difficult to come by these days, it’s most recent release being this 1992 CD on Australian producer John Lasher’s Preamble label, and those copies which do appear on the secondary market tend to be a little on the expensive side. However, despite the obscurity of the film, as well as the obscurity of composer Jack Nitzsche to contemporary audiences, I nevertheless recommend this score to anyone who enjoys sentimental, unabashedly emotional orchestral scores, especially those with wondrous main themes. As the film’s tag line states; “a thin line separates love from hate, success from failure, life from death, a line as difficult to walk as a razor’s edge”. Nitzsche’s score is one of those successes, and is well worth exploring, if you can find a copy.

Buy the Razor’s Edge soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (2:25)
  • Night Picnic (1:04)
  • Trenches (2:02)
  • Fireworks/World War I (1:35)
  • Motorcycle/Climbing the Stairs (1:54)
  • Maturin’s Funeral (1:57)
  • Larry Leaves the Monastery (0:46)
  • Opium Den (3:18)
  • Piedmont Hit (1:21)
  • Piedmont’s Death (1:00)
  • End Title & End Credits (2:02)
  • Arrival in India (2:26)
  • The Monastery (1:20)
  • Larry’s Journey (3:25)
  • Can’t Stop Dancing (written by Peter Murray) (3:46)
  • A Toda Vela (written by Fernand Frank and Alain Ladriere) (3:21)
  • Organ Grinder (1:36)

Running Time: 36 minutes 10 seconds

Preamble PRCD-1794 (1984/1992)

Music composed Jack Nitzsche. Conducted by Stanley Black. Orchestrations by Jack Nitzsche and Peter Murray. Featured musical soloist Bruno Hoffman. Recorded and mixed by Eric Tomlinson. Edited by Curt Sobel. Album produced by Jack Nitzsche and John Lasher.

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