ALEX NORTH: THE SHOES OF THE FISHERMAN (1968)
MGM Studio Orchestra conducted by Alex North. Disc 1: 77'.09". Disc 2: 74'.50". Silver Age Classics. FSM Vol. 7, # 6. Film Score Monthly. www.filmscoremonthy.com
Although Alex North had a famous aversion to writing music for epics - he preferred intimate dramas which connected him to his first love, the stage - some of his most powerful and certainly most ambitious scores were for epics. Several are justly celebrated, even revered - SPARTACUS (1960), CLEOPATRA (1963), and more lately THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY (1965), by virtue of its re-recording under North's dear friend, Jerry Goldsmith, and a complete edition of its original sessions, both on Varese Sarabande. North's music for Michael Anderson's film of Morris L. West's 1963 novel THE SHOES OF THE FISHERMAN, will surely come into its own on the strength of this spectacular sounding new CD, which augments the 8 cuts on the original MGM LP with many other cues. North's score was nominated for an Oscar, and won a Golden Globe from that discerning body, which is often light years ahead of the Academy in terms of taste.
North was an enormously sophisticated musician who approached his projects with seriousness and intensity. His unused score for Kubrick's 2001 would surely have humanized its vast spaces, and his for SHOES gets far beneath the pomp and circumstance of the Roman Church. The world is in crisis - isn't it always? - and the first ever Russian pontiff, Kiril Lakota (Anthony Quinn), must jump in and solve it.
Actor Tony Franciosa and director Larry Buchanan told me that North was a bit of a loner, which is why he empathized with the outsider status of many of the characters he wrote some of his best music for, from the volatile, trusting Serafina (Anna Magnani) in THE ROSE TATTOO (1955), to Kiril, who's released from a Soviet gulag and thrust upon the world stage. (PAR) North's score is appropriately theatrical, and with an orchestra of 103 at his disposal, including 24 brass, about 20 winds, 44 strings, and over a dozen percussion, he gets a big, loud epic sound. But he's just as interested in writing softer music for smaller configurations which go straight to the heart of the story, even though the Russian theme, which producer George Englund had him write for Kiril, is the first one heard in the overture, where it's big and loud. This theme, which is based on a Ukrainian folk song, also appears in the second half of the Main Title - there are 2 here - the one used in the final cut, and North's far more effective and way more moving alternate which is played by a handful of instruments after the entire 103 piece band has sounded the opening theme with its massive, sharply accented chords. North's dramatic instincts were often deeper and certainly more telling than the directors he worked for, and he's right on the money here. His alternate version of "Kiril's Loneliness,", for example, is a lot better than the one used in the film. Why? Because that one, with its balalaika has a local, Russian character, while his original conception, with its interweaving string lines colored by harpsichord and winds, has a universal character. It also suggests music history - Renaissance polyphony - as well as Kiril's isolation - it's truly lonely at the top - within the liturgical traditions these represent. He has, after all, been thrown into this world against his will, and North identifies with that.
And then of course there's the church music that plays such a central part in the story, which North approaches like the musical scholar he was. He'd transformed Renaissance sources like Gabrielli into his own modernist style in AGONY, and he does much the same thing here by writing a lot of his church music around and about the Latin chant, "Tu Es Petrus ", which is always sung at the coronation of a new pope. An added bonus here is a North-conducted polyphonic setting of it sung by the the Singers of The Roman Basilicas. The tune, with its text from Mathew 16: 18-19, which has Jesus saying - " You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, "becomes the foundation upon which North builds his own edifice. He orchestrates it variously, changes its rhythms, and adds the thrilling discords he was famous for, and like all good music, it sounds both old and thoroughly up to date.
North writes some of his freshest music for a subplot about the marital difficulties between reporter George Faber (David Janssen) and Dr. Ruth Faber (Barbara Jefford), and his waltz for them, "Reconcilation," is one of his best. He varies its many appearances with great imagination and skill, especially in "Rome" where it goes with Kiril's drive through the Eternal City, with intricate cross-rhythms in percussion -especially piano, gamelan (the mallet instruments) - and brilliant writing for brass and winds. North has often been seen as a composer who identified with the personal hells the characters he wrote for went through, but "Rome" is pure heaven.
SHOES is the last installment in the composer's Rome-set pictures, the others of course being SPARTACUS, CLEOPATRA, THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY, though we could extend that list to include his 2 Jesus pics - THE PASSOVER PLOT (1976), and Larry Buchanan's forthcomng THE COPPER SCROLL OF MARY MAGDALENE (aka REBEL JESUS), which show the heavy hand of Rome in first century CE Palestine. Each of these scores is distinctive and utterly unique, and the release of this one seems especially timely, given the election and inauguration of a fictional pontiff which seems to parallel that of our recent real one, German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Benedict XVI 24 April 2005.
SHOES' booklet is lavishly illustrated, with thoroughly researched - vide Warren Sherk at the Academy's library - and very comprehensive notes by Film Score Monthly's Lukas Kendall and Jeff Bond, though I should point out that THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY was a Michelangelo and not a DaVinci biopic, and that in all probability North's 5 orchestrators in SHOES, including David Tamkin, who was at Universal and worked with him on THE MISFITS (1961) - North only had 3 months on this huge project - followed the specifications in his sketches to a tee.
It's nice to have Michel Legrand's demo tracks for John Sturges' ICE STATION ZEBRA (1968), and Ron Goodwin's remastered and apparently very popular score for Brian C. Hutton's WHERE EAGLES DARE (1969), but Legrand's cuts are pretty pallid efforts from a composer who's worked so well with directors Jacques Demy and Jean-Luc Godard - his Faure Requiem is tops - while Goodwin's score, though pretty restricted in thematic material, packs a powerful punch.But next to North, it's close but no cigar.