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THE FLY – Howard Shore

theflyTHROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Fly is one of the greatest horror films ever made, a masterpiece of so-called ‘body horror’ and a cautionary tale about science gone wrong. Based on a short story by George Langelaan and directed by David Cronenberg, the film stars Jeff Goldblum as Seth Brundle, a brilliant but desperately eccentric scientist working on a teleportation device in an attempt to solve the world’s transportation problems. Brundle meets reporter Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) when she comes to his laboratory to interview him, and the two develop a mutual attraction which blossoms into a romantic relationship. However, Brundle is frustrated with his lack of progress with the device, and rushes into trying new and increasingly dangerous experiments in order to speed up the process. One day, despite Veronica’s protestations, he tests the device on himself; after successfully jumping from one teleportation pod to another, he declares his machine a triumph – but, unknown to Brundle, a common house fly found its way into the machine with him. Now, having had his human DNA merged with that of the fly at a cellular level, Brundle begins to slowly, grotesquely, mutate, with terrible consequences for all.

The Fly remains the most commercially successful film of David Cronenberg’s career, outstripping other popular and acclaimed films such as Existenz, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and A Dangerous Mind. In film music terms The Fly also represents the first time Howard Shore’s music had been heard in a major film, and as such could be seen as his ‘breakout’ mainstream score. Howard Shore and David Cronenberg had known each other as children, having grown up in the same Toronto neighborhood; after spending several years as the music director of Saturday Night Live in the late 1970s at the behest of another childhood friend, comedy writer and producer Lorne Michaels, Shore began writing music for Cronenberg’s first feature films, beginning with The Brood in 1979 and continuing on through Scanners in 1981 and Videodrome in 1983. The Fly was Shore’s eighth full length feature score, and it’s mightily impressive, showing a mastery of the orchestra, and impeccable dramatic insight, as well as revealing the first appearances of many of the well-loved mannerisms he would later use in his masterpiece Lord of the Rings scores 15 years later.

Throughout much of the early part of his career Howard Shore was pigeonholed as a horror composer, but despite this he very rarely ever wrote traditionally ‘horrific’ music. Such is the case with The Fly; although the film contains some of the most monstrous and disturbing imagery ever committed to celluloid, Shore scores the film with sensitivity, approaching it more like a tragedy. The music is dark, certainly, but the orchestral textures are open and thematic, and are often quite elegant, allowing the audience to see Seth Brundle not as a character to be feared, but to be pitied and mourned. Similarly, his musical depiction of the relationship between Brundle and Veronica has its roots in swooning symphonic jazz, and again allows the audience to empathize with and lament the terrible fate of the lovers. To capture the epic drama of the tale Shore was able to secure the services of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, who gave the music a rich and poignant sound befitting the story.

Much of the score is based around variations on two main motifs: one a dark three note brass fanfare, the other a more moody, sinister, more elusive four-note motif which tends to be heard mainly on strings. It’s never been entirely clear to me what these two motifs represent, explicitly, because they both play at various times throughout the movie, and never seem to have any specificity to a character, location, or concept, so I’m just going to assume that Shore decided not to write leitmotivically, and is using them purely as a pair of interesting musical ideas which recur whenever they are required.

The most prominent performances of both themes appear in the first and last cues, “Main Title” and “The Finale,” wherein Shore presents them in their most dramatic and operatic forms: darkly powerful fanfares, surging strings, brutal brass whole notes, slightly tortured sounding woodwinds; light metallic percussion. It’s all quite deliciously oppressive and powerful, a perfect accompaniment for a parable about man’s inevitable subjugation by nature. Thereafter, in the body of the score itself, the two motifs tend to be more hidden, and often deconstructed, whereby Shore will remove one or more of the notes, or elongate them, but will retain the chord progressions and overall tone of the piece. It’s quite clever, the way the statements in cues like “Plasma Pool,” “The Phone Call,” “The Stairs,” and “The Creature” allow the themes to remain the cornerstones of the score without them ever really being prominently performed. In “The Phone Call,” for example, the deconstruction of the motifs is offset by harps, making them mysterious and inquisitive, whereas in “The Creature” the motifs seem to be literally collapsing under of wall a sound, buried by terrible outbursts of noise, apocalyptic orchestral crescendos, and pulsating timpani.

There are two other thematic ideas which crop up in other cues. One is a relationship theme for Brundle and Veronica which first appears as a surprising piece of smooth jazz in “Particle Magazine,” anchored by saxophone, piano, and harp, and which is still slightly ominous but is much more pleasant and romantic than anything else in the score. This point is proven by its subsequent statement in “Ronnie’s Visit,” where the theme is transposed from warm saxophones to icy strings, cold and standoffish, mirroring the change in their relationship as Brundle’s mutation takes hold.

The other theme appears to relate to Brundle’s relationship with his pet baboon, a test subject that Brundle attempts to teleport before testing the machine on himself. Both “Baboon Teleportation” and “Success With Baboon” have an optimistic, sparkling sound in the string writing, conveying the boundless possibility of scientific discovery, and mark one of the few times the score seems to embrace elegant, classical lightness rather than the oppressive darkness that permeates the majority of the rest.

The rest of the score tends to fall within the same overall sound and tone – that of brooding darkness punctuated by hints of romanticism and moments of sheer horror. Shore’s orchestrations make wonderful use of the entire complement of performers, and often highlight a particular texture or instrument. “Stathis Enters,” for example, showcases the entire woodwind section, with intricately layered interplay between the oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, set against an off-kilter collision of strings playing chaotic chords. Later, “Seth Goes Through” uses staggered, staccato string pulses offset by light, almost curious undulating flutes that builds up to a dramatic finale; “The Fingernails,” meanwhile, is deeply unsettling, a distressing progression of initially tonal string and woodwind writing that gradually becomes more fractured and tortured, a perfect aural accompaniment set against the increasingly disgusting imagery of Goldblum peeling off his rotting fingernails.

Some of the techniques Shore uses are quite avant-garde, embracing healthy dissonance to convey the horror. “The Jump” uses stark, aggressive string stingers offset with atonal brass clusters and cymbal clashes, while both “The Armwrestle” and “The Maggot/Fly Graphic” feature an unusual echoing effect that elongates the dissonant string figures, before the latter cue segues into some appropriately insect-like violin textures, crawling, snaky, slithery. The score reaches its zenith in “The Ultimate Family” as the true horror of Brundle’s transformation is revealed in all its slimy, oozing, revolting glory; Shore captures the unspeakable horror of the scientist’s inexorable fate with threatening layers of brass writing, trumpets contra horns, and apocalyptic, screaming strings.

Compositionally, The Fly is very much a Howard Shore score, and it is littered with dozens of his hallmarks. The references are not overt in any way, but throughout the entire length of the score I hear fleeting references to other scores, tics and ways of phrasing certain instruments that carry throughout his career, ranging from The Silence of the Lambs and The Lord of the Rings, to slightly more obscure things like Eastern Promises, The Client, and Before and After, and even some of his lighter writing for films like Mrs. Doubtfire and Prelude to a Kiss. It’s so interesting to now look back, with the benefit of hindsight, at the outcry that followed his initial announcement that he was going to score The Lord of the Rings, and compare that with the now clearly obvious fact that so many of the things we love about those scores were present in everything he wrote in the 1980s and 90s.

The Fly was one of the first compact discs ever released by Varese Sarabande under the auspices of producer Richard Kraft, hitting the shelves just weeks after the film’s premiere, with simultaneous vinyl LP and cassette versions. Since then the score has become something of a rare collectible as a solo release, although the 2005 compilation album that pairs it with Christopher Young’s score for The Fly II is still in print. If your entire experience of Howard Shore’s music is “everything post-Lord of the Rings,” do yourself a favor and seek out a copy of The Fly. Its grand guignol fully-orchestral dark romanticism, and it’s no-holds barred avant-garde horror scoring, is a wonder to behold, and contains the genesis of many of the things that made those trips to Middle Earth so wonderful in the first place.

Buy the Fly soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (1:55)
  • Plasma Pool (1:54)
  • The Last Visit (2:25)
  • Stathis Enters (2:20)
  • The Phone Call (2:07)
  • Seth Goes Through (2:03)
  • Ronnie Comes Back (0:55)
  • The Jump (1:21)
  • Seth and the Fly (2:21)
  • Particle Magazine (1:02)
  • The Armwrestle (0:51)
  • Brundlefly (1:43)
  • Ronnie’s Visit (0:35)
  • The Street (0:43)
  • The Stairs (1:25)
  • The Fingernails (2:35)
  • Baboon Teleportation (0:58)
  • The Creature (2:08)
  • Steak Montage (0:59)
  • The Maggot/Fly Graphic (1:37)
  • Success With Baboon (0:58)
  • The Ultimate Family (1:59)
  • The Finale (2:51)

Running Time: 37 minutes 45 seconds

Varese Sarabande VCD-47272 (1986)

Music composed and conducted by Howard Shore. Performed by The London Philharmonic Orchestra. Orchestrations by Homer Denison. Recorded and mixed by Keith Grant. Edited by Jim Weidman. Album produced by Howard Shore and Richard Kraft.

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