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UNDER THE VOLCANO – Alex North

December 4, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

underthevolcanoTHROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Under the Volcano is a critically-acclaimed drama based on the important novel by Malcolm Lowry. Set against the backdrop of imminent war in Europe, and taking place on the Mexican fiesta celebrating the Day of Dead, the film follows one day in the life of Geoffrey Firmin, a British consul living in alcoholic disrepair and obscurity in a small southern Mexican town in 1939. The film was one of the last directed by the legendary John Huston, and starred Albert Finney as Geoffrey, Anthony Andrews as his idealistic half-brother Hugh, and Jacqueline Bisset as his ex-wife, Yvonne, who has returned to Mexico with hopes of healing Geoffrey and their broken marriage. Lost amid the blockbusters of the period, the film is largely forgotten today, despite its stellar credentials, and despite its multiple Award nominations, which included Oscar recognition for Finney’s leading role, and for its score by the great Alex North.

North scored the last three films of Huston’s career – this one, Prizzi’s Honor in 1985, and The Dead in 1987 – and endowed each one with his inimitable, avant-garde brand of film scoring. North was a master of musical subtlety and understatement, capable of conveying complex emotional narratives and dramatic arcs via his unashamedly, sometimes defiantly modernistic music. Despite an occasional moment of sweeping sentimentality – the love theme from Spartacus, the Unchained melody, parts of The Agony and the Ecstasy – North never embraced the traditional Hollywood sound, choosing instead to explore an intensely personal, fiercely intellectual musical style that put him at odds with many of his contemporaries. More often than not he ignored the obvious and tried to delve into the hidden drama, bringing out emotions and ideas not shown on the surface of the film. So it is with Under the Volcano.

Both Alex North and John Huston had an affinity for Mexican culture and music, which North had explored previously through scores such as 1952’s Viva Zapata. Under the Volcano is similarly inspired by the rhythmic ideas and traditional instrumentation of the country, but it is not one of those pseudo-Mariachi scores that often turn off listeners not in tune with that type of music. Instead, North blends subtle allusions to the culture with a series of orchestral ideas intended to capture the bitter, hazy life Geoffrey endures on a day-to-day basis; it’s almost as though North’s Mexican music is being heard through Geoffrey’s alcohol-fogged filter – it’s there, hidden in the background, bleeding through into your consciousness, but it never truly emerges into the front and center because you’re too absorbed in your whiskey glass to pay attention.

The score opens with the unusually-metered and frantic “Dance of the Dead,” which pits all manner of unusual percussion items, rattled and shaken, against a flighty, expressive orchestral melody that flits around from strings to woodwinds to brass to piano and back. It sounds jumbled and chaotic, as some of North’s more elaborate pieces often do to untrained ears, but this is a musical depiction of traditional Mexican ideas blurred by an alcoholic stupor. The subsequent “Pastorale” is lovely, a warm and sunny waltz-like piece for the same orchestral complement, but with a much more coherent and traditional outlook. Again, the briefest hints of Mexican folk music emerge from time to time, adding a sense of life and culture to the breezy theme.

Much of the rest of the score is given to low-key orchestral scoring, with cues such as “Empty Bottles,” “Death of the Flute Player,” and the very dark “Journey to the Farolito” emphasizing lonely-sounding woodwind lines and brooding sequences for strings and brass which paint a vivid portrait of a lonely man, disillusioned with the world and his place within it, who can only cope with the difficulties in his life by drowning them in liquor. “Death of the Flute Player” is especially notable for the superb interplay between ragged brass notes and a more eloquent flute line, the pair competing for supremacy throughout the length of the cue.

There’s also a great deal of beauty to be found; most notably, the bittersweet woodwind and string lines of “The Bedroom,” and the sumptuous cello themes in “Off to the Fiesta,” are lovely, but are underpinned with the overwhelming sense of melancholy that permeates the entire score.

More vibrant Mexicana sounds emerge via the trumpet flourishes in “Shower,” and the subsequent “Yvonne Returns,” while “A Night of Death” underpins the heightened drama of the film’s tragic finale with searching, emotional string phrases, tension-filled clusters for contrapuntal low brasses and high woodwinds, and a starkly dissonant resolution. The conclusive “End Credits” revisits some of the material heard in the opening “Dance of the Dead,” but in a slightly less chaotic manner, and not before showcasing a gorgeous, sorrowful oboe solo that, when it eventually gives way to a more sweeping, truly beautiful string-and-piano variation, makes the listener feel for the fate of the man who lived and died under the volcano.

The only commercial soundtrack release of the score for Under the Volcano was in 1991, when it was released as part of the limited edition Varèse Sarabande Masters Film Music series. Sadly, the score went out of print almost immediately, and it is now one of the rarest and most expensive of all film music CDs; as I write this, and despite the entire score being just 20 minutes in length, there are copies of it listed on Amazon priced between $99 and $199. Nevertheless, should you get the opportunity, I highly recommend exploring this brief but eloquent score, one of the most obscure Academy Award nominees of the 1980s, but one which perfectly illustrates why so many experts hold Alex North in such high esteem.

Buy the Under the Volcano soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Dance of the Dead (3:10)
  • Pastorale (1:26)
  • Empty Bottles (2:59)
  • The Bedroom (1:17)
  • Shower (1:25)
  • Off to the Fiesta (1:25)
  • Yvonne Returns (0:45)
  • Death of the Flute Player (1:42)
  • Journey to the Farolito (1:00)
  • A Night of Death (2:05)
  • End Credits (2:43)

Running Time: 19 minutes 58 seconds

Varèse Sarabande – Masters Film Music SRS-2011 (1984/1991)

Music composed and conducted by Alex North. Orchestrations by Lennie Niehaus and Al Woodbury. Recorded and mixed by Dan Wallin. Edited by Elsa Blangsted. Score produced by Alex North. Album produced by Robert Townson.

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