Tag Archives: American Graffiti

Rocks In The Attic #509: Don Davis – ‘The Matrix (O.S.T.)’ (1999)

RITA#509I love The Matrix. It’s one of my favourite films of the ‘90s; probably my favourite science-fiction film of that decade. It’s an awesome movie, but I think I like it more for what it represents than for what it actually is. For me, the Matrix represents a truly wonderful thing – the end of George Lucas’ reign over special-effects movies in Hollywood.

Yes, Lucas was responsible for a great deal of my childhood cinema: the three original Star Wars films, and the three original Indiana Jones films. A round of applause, please. But that’s it. Nothing else. His 1973 breakout hit American Graffiti might be an enjoyable slice of 1950s nostalgia, but Back To The Future did it much better in 1985. And let’s not get started on the Star Wars prequels or the fourth Indiana Jones film.

His legacy is one of the things that ultimately curses him: Industrial Light & Magic. The special effects house set up to handle the myriad of effects shots in the first Star Wars film ultimately came to monopolise Hollywood in the decades that followed. The company may have been trendsetters in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and they hit a peak with the groundbreaking effects in 1992’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day, but by the late 1990s they had lost their edge. Nothing was special anymore; they had become complacent. The company that had once blown everybody away were now resting on their laurels.

Then a film was released in 1999 out of nowhere. Titled The Matrix, it was written and directed by brothers Larry and Andy (now Lana and Lilly) Wachowski, responsible at that point for only directing one film, Bound (1996), a crime thriller starring Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon.

The Matrix came along with no hype. From the outside it looked like just another science-fiction film out of Hollywood, with a steam-punk aesthetic that we had seen before in dull gothic flicks like The Crow (1994) and Dark City (1998). The lack of advance word even led to UK film magazine Empire relegating the film to its ‘Also released this month” section.

I saw the film at the cinema with my good buddy Stotty. Talk about being blown away. I was so engrossed that a Coca-Cola-induced urge to go to the toilet mid-way through had to be repressed. I wasn’t going to miss a second of this, particularly after being sideswiped by the film’s major left turn around twenty minutes in.

The idea, in retrospect, is simple: introduce the audience to the main character, then towards the end of the first act, suggest that the narrative you’re following is a fallacy, and that the film’s protagonist is being similarly hoodwinked. Hollywood had recently provided a film with a similar narrative hook, in Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998). Truman Burbank figures it out for himself when he overhears some radio chatter, almost gets pulverised by a studio light falling out of the sky, and notices the regularity of people bicycling down his street, but in The Matrix, our protagonist relies on others to wake him from his dream. Films ever since have played with the elastic nature of narrative. It seems like they’re ten a penny these days, but back in the late ‘90s it felt refreshing and new.

Everything about The Matrix seemed well thought-out. The design, the cast, the music, the sound, the editing, everything; but what grabbed people most of all were the special effects. The Wachowskis rewrote the book, taking their lead from the infinite possibilities of Japanese Anime rather than traditional Hollywood special effects. Finally, seven years following Terminator 2: Judgement Day, here was something that we hadn’t seen before: Bullet Time.

John Gaeta from Manex Visual Effects, working out of Alameda, California, developed a prototype of the effect prior to the film, and the Wachowskis jumped on it. Gaeta’s concept was based on an old idea – that a moving image is simply a sequence of still images played at high speed – but Gaeta’s application of the method to film action sequences was ingenious.

A simple stunt, for example one character jumping up to kick another character, could be transformed from something very simple to something extraordinary. A rig featuring dozens of still cameras would bet set up around the actors, and the cameras would shoot the movement in the scene, before being compiled together to form a moving image. By employing a fairly simple idea, the filmmakers created the illusion of movement around the action, capturing the shot at super-slow motion, but still travelling at high-speed, hence ‘bullet’ time.

There’s an element of The Matrix borne out of a clichéd Hollywood trope – that of the white male protagonist being the saviour of the universe, or the ‘one’ as Neo’s anagrammatical name would suggest – but despite this, the films manages to still feel fresh. The main protagonist is derivative to a degree, taking the base elements of George Lucas’ original Star Wars conceit – that our hero is possessed with a magical ability to transcend all evil forces – but there’s so much innovation in the film, it’s easy to overlook this. It’s like receiving a pair of socks on Christmas Day, but finding that they turn you invisible when you put them on. Erm, thanks Aunty Flo.

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about The Matrix without mentioning the sequels. At the time, they were exciting but just like the Star Wars prequels from George Lucas (him again), they suffered from a preponderance of weightless digital effects and little in the way of practical effects. Most Hollywood sequels are lazy rehashes of the same ideas that made the first film so interesting. The Wachowskis couldn’t be accused of this though; if anything, they overthought their sequels, giving them a highbrow slant that hasn’t been see in a sequel since The Godfather Part II.

It’s great to have Don Davis’ score to the film on this lovely slab of green wax. I probably enjoy the score as much as I love the pop soundtrack, which despite a few timeless classics is starting to feel very much of its time. I’m not familiar with Don Davis’ other work, but this is a great score – and its refreshing for a big action film to be scored by somebody other than John Williams, James Horner, Danny Elfman or Hans Zimmer.

Hit: Main Title

Hidden Gem: Welcome To The Real World

Rocks In The Attic #300: Various Artists – ‘Dazed And Confused (O.S.T.)’ (1993)

RITA#300Rocks In The Attic turns 300!

Not only a great film, Richard Linklater’s Dazed And Confused also has a killer soundtrack – probably the one soundtrack that has had the greatest influence on the rest of my record collection. I’ve waited a long to get this on vinyl, and finally on Record Store Day this year it was released to celebrate the film’s 20th anniversary. I had to get it shipped over from the USA by my local record store, but it was worth the wait. It’s a double vinyl, and – to borrow a line from the film, “…it’s green too!”

I first heard about Dazed And Confused on my daily walk to school when I was 15. My good friend Ant used to do the same walk – through the fields behind my parents’ house that are no longer fields (they’re a housing estate), past the Elk mill that’s no longer a mill (it was demolished to make way for a retail centre) – and onto Clayton playing fields towards North Chadderton school.

On these walks, Ant would tell me about stuff he’d picked up from his brother. I owe my love of Bill Hicks to Ant and his brother – and I also owe my love of Dazed And Confused to them. Ant probably lent me their VHS copy of the film, but it wouldn’t be long until I acquired my own copy, and played it many, many time over the next few years into my late teens. I’d take this film to University with me, and turn lots of my friends onto it over the years.

On paper, Dazed And Confused doesn’t sound very interesting. It’s the story of high-school kids in Texas on their last day of school, but nothing really happens. There’s very little plot – just a lot of good music and more of a feeling about the time and place rather than any tangible storyline. But that’s probably true of a lot of youth films – Quadrophenia, The Breakfast Club, American Graffiti, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, etc.

Other than the killer soundtrack, the film also boasts an impressive cast of actors before they hit the big time – Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey, Milla Jovovich, Renée Zellweger, Parker Posey and Adam Goldberg all pop up in small but memorable roles.

But let’s talk about the music. I must have bought the soundtrack on CD as soon as I saw it, and it became the soundtrack to my summer of 1995. It’s fourteen tracks of rock music – some of which was already familiar to me – Sabbath’s Paranoid, ZZ Top’s Tush, Alice Cooper’s School’s Out – but it introduced me to a whole lot more.

For me, the soundtrack acted as a sampler – it turned me onto Ted Nugent’s first solo album, Skynyrd’s debut album and deepened my love of early ZZ Top. The second iteration of the soundtrack – Even More Dazed And Confused – even showed me that it’s okay to like Frampton Comes Alive!.

In fact, I love that second CD as much as the first. I remember being at a party at Palatine Road in Manchester and using Moo’s knowledge of Bob Dylan to collectively figure out why two of the film’s songs wasn’t included on either CD – Aerosmith’s Sweet Emotion and Dylan’s Hurricane are both on the Columbia record label, so there must have been some conflict of interest with The Medicine Label who brought out the soundtrack albums.

It’s almost criminal that the Aerosmith track isn’t included on the soundtrack – it’s the song that opens the film! I hear this was a last minute substitution though, after Robert Plant wouldn’t allow Linklater to use the Zeppelin song of the film’s name over those opening credits. Perhaps they just didn’t have time to think about whether they’d be able to clear Sweet Emotion for the soundtrack album.

There are a lot of hidden gems on this album. For one, the slow-burn of Ted Nugent’s Stranglehold reminds me of cruising around in a pale yellow Nissan Stanza with Stotty and Bez on Friday and Saturday nights. Good times!

Hit: Slow Ride – Foghat

Hidden Gem: Low Rider – War

Rocks In The Attic #48: Clint Mansell – ‘Moon (O.S.T.)’ (2009)

Rocks In The Attic #48: Clint Mansell - ‘Moon (O.S.T.)’ (2009)Soundtracks are a minefield. You can have the great themes by composers like Bernard Hermann and John Williams, but those soundtracks can also be marred by short, unmelodic bursts of score that only serve the purpose of matching cues in the accompanying film. Then there are the soundtracks that just have popular songs on them, starting with American Graffiti and continuing through the John Hughes films of the 1980s. These types of soundtracks are all the rage these days (especially since Tarantino lent an air of cool to the process in the 1990s) as they’re easy to cobble together. Then there are composers who simply try to put across a mood or a feeling in their soundtracks. Clint Mansell is one of those composers.

Looking at the subject matter of this film, and the identity of the film’s director Duncan Jones (also known as Zowie Bowie), it would have been all too easy to plonk Space Oddity on the film’s soundtrack. Thankfully, this fantastic film was made in the UK, away from the clichés of Hollywood.

Hit: Welcome To Lunar Industries

Hidden Gem: Memories (Someone We’ll Never Know)