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F/X – Bill Conti


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

F/X is an action-thriller directed by Robert Mandel, starring Australian actor Bryan Brown as Rollie Tyler, a Hollywood movie special effects expert. Rollie is approached by the US Justice Department to fake the death of a Mafia informant (Jerry Orbach), so that he can enter the witness protection program and, later, testify against his former mob bosses. Of course, as generally tends to happen in films like this, Rollie gets double-crossed by the people who hired him, and he must exploit his unique talents to clear his name and unmask those behind the conspiracy. The film co-stars Brian Dennehy, Diane Venora, Cliff De Young, and Mason Adams, and was enough of a critical and commercial success to allow for a 1991 sequel, F/X2: The Deadly Art of Illusion, and a short lived 1990s TV spinoff.

The score for F/X is by Bill Conti, who at the time was still in the prime of his mainstream Hollywood career, having won an Oscar for The Right Stuff in 1983, and having scored hit films such as The Karate Kid and acclaimed TV shows such as North & South during the previous couple of years. Conti’s score is a well-conceived orchestral action thriller score, blending elements of mystery and suspense with some of the most interesting action music Conti wrote in his entire career. Unusually for a Conti work, it’s not a score which presents memorable thematic writing. There is one recurring thematic idea which appears in a couple of interesting variations, but it doesn’t linger in the memory the way others in his canon do, making the score slightly anonymous, despite its intelligent and creative use of the orchestra.

The theme first appears in the “Main Title,” which begins as a moody piano line underpinned by a bank of tiny tremolo strings, explodes into a large brass fanfare, and then settles down into the first performance of the theme, a seven-note motif which floats around between strings and piano above a repeated four-note ostinato. More romantic variations on this theme appear in “Rollie’s Diversion,” during the first half of “The Wrong Hit,” in “To the Boathouse,” and during the darkly romantic “All In One Night,” a series of pretty jazzy pieces for strings, piano, and acoustic guitar, that capture Rollie’s relationship with his sometime-girlfriend Ellen.

A lot of the score is given over to music that conveys tension, mystery and suspense. Cues such as “The Scam,” “Bust the Bust,” “Tap, Tap, You’re Dead,” “Rollie and Baldy,” and the conclusive “Hi Rollie, I’m Leo” juxtapose elegant string writing against intricate woodwind textures, tinkling metallic percussion, and occasional explosions of feverish Herrmannesque violins. Unexpectedly, some of this music reminds me greatly of the music Christopher Young would write for moody thrillers like Jennifer 8 and Copycat during the 1990s, leading me to wonder whether Young was inspired by Conti’s work in this vein.

Once in a while, Conti allows his orchestra to engage in some quite challenging action music. “DeFranco,” for example, is a showcase for stark, abstract piano clusters combined with strings and woodwinds, unusual unsettling chord progressions, and more urgent rhythmic ideas for rapid snare drum licks. Later, cues like “No Loose Ends,” “He’s In the Building,” “The Bombs,” and “He’s In the House” play around with cleverly layered orchestral ideas, rhythmic dissonances, and stabbing brass pulses, coming across as a combination of Stravinsky and Bernard Herrmann, while “Baldy Takes a Bath” takes the four note ostinato from the main title and re-uses it as an action motif.

“The Chase” is the culmination of the action ideas, a showstopper full of brass flourishes, rhythmic ideas which pass from horns to strings, and a relentless militaristic percussion undercurrent. The music is not *fast* but it is intricate, cleverly orchestrated, energetic, and builds to a sensational finale. These highly rhythmic action sequences are something you don’t hear much in film music these days – the intelligent interplay between different sections of the orchestra is usually sacrificed for speed and volume, which is a shame because Conti’s writing here shows how this more understated way of approaching action scenes can be just as effective.

Varese Sarabande released the score for F/X on vinyl LP in 1986, at the time the film came out, but it remained unreleased on CD until 2007, when Varese re-released it as part of their CD Club series, expanded with 20 minutes more music than was on the original LP, including a bonus alternate version of “Baldy Takes a Bath”. For fans of Conti’s work – of whom there are many – this will be an essential purchase, as it is generally regarded as being one of Conti’s standout works in the orchestral action-drama field. Personally, I enjoy it quite a bit, but others may find themselves slightly underwhelmed by its lack of a truly distinct personality, and it’s lack of really memorable thematic content, as well as its strict adherence to an older, less bombastic method of scoring action and suspense sequences.

Buy the F/X soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (3:06)
  • The Scam (1:13)
  • Rollie’s Diversion (2:51)
  • DeFranco (3:13)
  • Bust the Bust (2:41)
  • No Loose Ends (1:09)
  • My Van (0:47)
  • Tap, Tap, You’re Dead (1:40)
  • Rollie’s Scared (1:12)
  • The Wrong Hit (5:23)
  • Baldy Takes a Bath (3:34)
  • To the Boathouse (1:17)
  • All In One Night (2:08)
  • He’s in the Building (2:07)
  • Lipton’s Last Ride (2:29)
  • The Bombs (3:11)
  • The Chase (3:54)
  • Rollie’s F/X (3:25)
  • He’s in the House (0:57)
  • Rollie and Baldy (1:48)
  • Hi Rollie, I’m Leo (4:10)
  • Baldy Takes a Bath (Album Version) (1:05) – BONUS

Running Time: 53 minutes 20 seconds

Varese Sarabande CD Club VCL-0707-1064 (1986/2007)

Music composed by Bill Conti. Conducted by Harry Rabinowitz. Performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by Bill Conti. Recorded and mixed by Keith Grant. Edited by Stephen Hope. Album produced by Bill Conti and Robert Townson.

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