MIDNIGHT EXPRESS – Giorgio Moroder
Original Review by Craig Lysy
In 1976 director Alan Parker was visiting New York on a business trip. He by chance ran into his old friend, producer Peter Guber, who asked him to review a manuscript, which was based on a true story. On his plane fight back to London he read it and became convinced that this was a story which needed to be told on film. He joined Guber and his new production company, Casablanca Filmworks, and hired Oliver Stone for what would be his first commercial screenplay. Stone delivered the goods, penning a hard-hitting, raw, uncompromising narrative full of rage, and abounding in cinematic energy. For his cast, Parker brought in Brad Davis to play Billy Hayes after negotiations with Richard Gere broke down. Joining him would be John Hurt as Max, Paolo Bonacelli as Rifki, Irene Miracle as Susan, Randy Quaid as Jimmy Booth, and Paul L. Smith as Hamidou. They would shoot the film in Malta, as the Turkish government was decidedly hostile to the project. The true-life story reveals American college student Billy Hays on holiday in Istanbul with girlfriend Susan. Quite stupidly, he straps 2 kg of hashish to his torso, which he intends to smuggle back to the United States. However, Turkey is on a terrorist alert after a recent hijacking, and he is caught when they frisk him as he prepares to board the plane. He is arrested and humiliated with a strip search. A mysterious American named Tex enters the scene and encourages Billy to cooperate with the investigation for a lesser sentence. Billy agrees and fingers the man who sold him the hashish, only to be betrayed by Tex and the Turkish police. His futile attempt to escape earns him a three-year sentence for drug possession. Later, after the prosecutor appeals the verdict, he is re-sentenced to a more severe life sentence for smuggling.
The oppressive and harsh tale unfolds from Billy’s perspective, and we bear witness to hell on earth, and his very graphic, brutal, and sadistic torture, both physically and psychologically. We see him slowly, over time, deteriorate through depression, alienation and ultimately madness, which lands him in the sanitarium with other insane inmates. Yet fortune intervenes and, after murdering sadist guard Hamidou, he dons his uniform and simple walks out of the prison, eventually reaching the Greek border. The film was both a huge commercial and critical success, earning six Academy Award Nominations including Best Screenplay, Best Score, Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing, and Best Director, winning two – Best Screenplay and Best Score.
Parker had originally planned to recruit Vangelis to score the film as he had successfully collaborated with him before in a number of commercials. However, there were budgetary constraints, and Neil Bogart, the studio executive at Casablanca Filmworks, asked him to instead utilize Giorgio Moroder. Moroder had gained significant public acclaim writing and producing Donna Summer hits, and though Moroder had never before scored a film, Parker went with the flow and traveled to his studio in Munich. To his surprise the two men clicked the moment they met. They spotted the music as they jointly reviewed the final cut footage of the film. Worth noting is that Midnight Express was the first movie to win an Oscar for Best Original Score featuring a totally synthesized music score.
“Istanbul Opening” opens the film as the main title credits roll and establishes the film’s synthetic soundscape as we view Istanbul at dusk from the Bosphorus. Moroder provides a formless synth milieu adorned with exotic auras and sparkling electronica, which slowly coalesces into a mesmerizing melodic line carried by electronic piano. Slowly the camera takes us to Billy’s hotel room where we see him wrapping blocks of hashish, which he then straps to his torso. The melody slowly dissolves, once more becoming formless, darkening with discordant accents, which are portentous. “Chase” offers a musical highlight with a classic syncopated synth line that emotes with Moroder’s trademark disco sensibility. Billy fingers the seller to the police and then foolishly runs away, hoping to escape. After a lengthy build, the A Phrase of the melody at last joins at 1:09. It is clear that this piece would fit right in, in any dance club. At 3:40 its refulgent B Phrase burst forth for its turn in the light. For the rest of the cue the phrases shift to and fro for a pleasant if not mesmerizing listen. From my perspective the employment of disco dance music to propel the chase through the ancient streets of Istanbul seems completely incongruous, and frankly, odd. I do not see how the music supports the narrative or Billy’s desperation. After viewing the scene I am left incredulous.
“Love’s Theme” offers a tender synth piano line, which plays atop a flowing stream of shifting chords. The transfer of the melodic line to synthetic harpsichord offers a pleasant experience. The theme offers a flickering light of hope in a sea of darkness and despair, which slowly crushes Billy’s humanity. The theme is underutilized in the film, which is a shame. “Theme from Midnight Express” offers the score’s main theme, a sad and mournful plight of Billy Hayes. There is beauty to be found in the minor modal melody, which emotes with the sensibility of a wordless song. Moroder weaves ethnic colors into the piece, which offer a nice contrast and speak to the story’s east vs west tensions. The theme underpins the film’s narrative makes its first appearance as Billy is sentenced to prison for four years. It reprises when Billy’s tearful father bids him farewell. But it finds its full expression in the film’s finale when it supports Billy’s escape and liberation. An actual song version was written and sung by Chris Bennett, and is offered on the album’s final track. I must say I find the melody has greater emotive power when provided vocals, and I found the lyrics poetic and very moving.
In “Istanbul Blues” Billy’s original sentence for possession has been overturned, and he has been resentenced to life imprisonment for smuggling. He despairs and Parker captures his feeling with this source song written by David Castle with input from Billy Hayes. Most interesting is the fact that they never met personally during the song’s creation. But they finally did meet on the evening of the Grammys where they happened to be seated next to one another for the taping of the actual awards show. Randy Quaid and John Hurt sang the song in the film, but on this album David Castle handles the vocals. The lyrics offer great pathos, a sad and depressing commentary on the men’s plight in this god-forsaken Hellhole. The song emotes with a classic southern blues vibe.
In “Cacaphoney” Rifki has again ratted out one of them and Billy snaps and goes mad. In a horrific rage he destroys their communal cell, and brutalizes Rifki, ultimately biting out is tongue. Moroder supports Billy’s descent into madness and the very graphic brutal violence with a powerful discordant cacophonous synthesizer torrent. The cue is aptly titled and the musical chaos perfectly captures Billy’s snap with reality, his rage, and the violence. In “The Wheel” Billy has been committed to the Sanatorium wing where the mentally ill are housed. For hours at a time we see Billy walking with the other mumbling prisoners in a never-ending, ever rotating circle of despair. He has lost his humanity, his spirit has been crushed and his world reduced to the everlasting circle of hopelessness. Moroder captures Billy’s circumstances with a formless synth line, which flows with mumbling voices, wailing, and weird synth effects, like an unending, mind-numbing river of dissolution.
This film is of historical importance in that it was the first electronica score to win the Academy Award. But it was not without controversy as many critics, including your author believes that John Williams’s iconic score for Superman rightfully deserved the win. Moving on, I believe Moroder’s effort was a seminal event in film score history, one that created new possibilities and opened the door for alternative methods of scoring a film. As such I view him as a transformative agent, and attribute Vangelis’s win three years later in 1981 for Chariots of Fire as a natural consequence. It suffices to say that electronica has evolved and become a reliable and frequently used tool for modern composition. In regards to my judgment of the score, I must say that this is a score of extremes – it either worked very well in the film, or very badly – there was no middle ground. In scenes like “Chase”, the disco dance music was completely incongruous to the film as well as Billy’s desperation, while “Cacaphony” was brilliant in capturing Billy’s snap from reality, his madness and his violence. It fit the film like a glove. The source songs gave the film its needed contemporaneous feel and actually worked well for me in the film. My judgment is that this is a seminal score in the history of film score art. I conditionally recommend it for Academy Award completists, and lovers of electronica.
I have embedded a YouTube link for the delightful “The Chase,” the score’s signature cue: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_YBcHa5cNY4
Buy the Midnight Express soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Chase (8:26)
- Love’s Theme (5:34)
- Theme from Midnight Express (4:41)
- Istanbul Blues (performed by David Castle) (3:20)
- The Wheel (2:25)
- Istanbul Opening (4:44)
- Cacophoney (2:57)
- Theme from Midnight Express (performed by Chris Bennett) (4:47)
Running Time: 36 minutes 54 seconds
Polygram 824-266-2 (1978)
Music composed and performed by Giorgio Moroder. Additional synthesizer programming by Harold Faltermeyer and Dan Wyman. Recorded and mixed by Giorgio Moroder. Album produced by Giorgio Moroder