9 Favorite Scores of Alex North

Originally, this month’s “9 on the 9th” post was going to be dedicated to romantic film scores as a precursor to that evil holiday–Valentine’s Day. Then I realized most of what I had on the list was film music that made me cry. Since I had already visited that topic recently, I didn’t want to do it again. Instead I chose to focus this month’s “9 on the 9th” post to a composer I love (see? still sticking somewhat with the Valentine’s Day theme)–ALEX NORTH.

North is an acquired taste for many film music fans and I can understand why. His modernistic harmonies and unique instrumental voicing transcended the sentimentality of the Golden Age and often struggled to find a footing in the Silver Age. No composer sounds like North, yet perhaps because of the complexity of his compositional style, his music sounds remarkably fresh today.

Nominated for the Academy Award 15 times, North never won a competitive Oscar for a single score. The Academy redressed that major oversight in 1986 when they awarded him a Lifetime Achievement Award, the first for a composer. (Ennio Morricone is the second composer to receive the honor.)

As with all of these “9 on the 9th” lists that focus on a single composer, the good scores don’t stop at #9 and some great music inevitably gets left out. Music from the revisionist westerns CHEYENNE AUTUMN and BITE THE BULLET, the cult fantasy film DRAGONSLAYER, his rejected score for Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, and the delicate Irish strains of John Huston’s final film, THE DEAD, to name a few. I honestly can’t think of a bad Alex North score. The intelligence and daring behind his music elevated even the slightest of films. North wrote music to which “attention must be paid.”

9. THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY (1965)

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Irving Stone’s historical novel of the battle between Michelangelo (Charlton Heston) and Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison) over the Sistine Chapel makes for far more interesting reading than a dramatic film. But it’s fun to watch Heston and Harrison lock horns all set to North’s religious tone poem. (The film’s prologue, which features numerous paintings and sculptures of Michelangelo, was scored by Jerry Goldsmith.) For an American Jew born of parents of Russian descent, North could tap into the  pomp and circumstance of the Roman Catholic Church with ease.

8. WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966)

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How do you underscore four people bickering at each other? Choose quiet, quasi-Baroque melodies, harmonies, and instrumentations. Mike Nichols’ film of Edward Albee’s acerbic Tony Award-winning play features a quartet of actors at the top of their game and some of the most blistering dialogue ever heard in film to that point. Scored for guitar, strings, harp, harpsichord, and few woodwinds, North’s score is a model of economy. As George and Martha (Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor) scream at each other and their house guests (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) for over two hours, North’s music brings a quiet human element that offsets the vocal fireworks.

7. DEATH OF A SALESMAN (1951)

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It was the 1949 Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning classic that set North on the road to Hollywood. The play’s director, Elia Kazan, demanded North for his film of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, and Miller made sure that when it came time to film SALESMAN that North came along and expanded the score he had written for the play. Anchored by the haunting bass flute theme for Willy, North’s music accentuates the human element of this most humanistic of plays. North received the first of two Oscar nominations that year, which also included one for STREETCAR. Last year Kritzerland released the actual cues that were used at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York during the run of the original Broadway production, while Film Score Monthly released Elmer Bernstein’s re-recording of the film score as part of the box set of Bernstein’s Filmmusic Collection from the mid-1970s. So far the original tracks have not been released. I keep hoping that Robert Townson over at Varese Sarabande has it hidden up his sleeve somewhere for eventual release.

6. CLEOPATRA (1963)

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This most modern of North’s scores best demonstrates the reason that so many film music fans have a problem with the composer’s music. The harmonies and orchestrations are particularly brittle and patrician for Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s costly epic of the Queen of the Nile, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Rex Harrison. Granted, portions of the score are tough for even us fans. But North manages, especially through the famous love theme, to find the human element in the bloated trappings of the film.

5. VIVA ZAPATA! (1952)

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North traveled to Mexico and studied the music of the country for Elia Kazan’s biopic of the Mexican rebel, played by Marlon Brando. Through the Mexican rhythms and harmonies, the score contains a wild energy. The “Gathering Forces” cue is justifiably famous. Jerry Goldsmith conducted an excellent recording with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra on Varese Sarabande, which is out of print but still available digitally through iTunes. But it was the 2008 Varese Soundtrack Club release of the original tracks (also out of print) that opened my eyes to the power of the score and just how much Goldsmith’s recording lacked.

4. UNDER THE VOLCANO (1984)

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Malcolm Lowry’s classic tragic novel concerns the final day in the life of the alcoholic British consul (Albert Finney) in the small Mexican town of Quauhnahuac on the Day of the Dead in 1938. Even at roughly 20 minutes, North’s brief score makes a powerful impact. From the percussive Mexican elements of the main title, which sound like the skeletal bones of the puppets that dance onscreen, to the beautiful English horn love theme, North’s score deservedly won an unexpected Oscar nomination. This would have been the perfect opportunity for the Academy to award this masterful composer over Maurice Jarre’s anachronistic score for David Lean’s boring and bloated A PASSAGE TO INDIA. The score was released on the now-defunct Masters of Music label from Varese. I paid an at-the-time exorbitant $70 for the CD on eBay (particularly high given the brief length of the score), but it was worth every penny.

3. THE SHOES OF THE FISHERMAN (1969)

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Anthony Quinn is a stretch as a Russian pope in this adaptation of Morris L. West’s popular novel, but the film allows North the chance to once again tackle religious themes, this time in a more contemporary setting. Grand and epic, with a touch of pop sensibility, North’s music has provided years of listening pleasure ever since I found a reissue on MCA of the old soundtrack album. But the album can’t compare to Film Score Monthly’s excellent presentation of the entire score, complete with source cues.

2. SPARTACUS (1960)

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Ever since I found the online community of other film score geeks years ago, there have been five “holy grails” that the fanboys and girls have argued, debated, and pleaded for. The first four–BACK TO THE FUTURE, ALIEN, a complete INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, and QUO VADIS have all been released. The last remaining holdout is SPARTACUS. Why SPARTACUS? Because Stanley Kubrik’s 3-hour epic film of Howard Fast’s novel contains an equally epic Alex North score, to which the old single LP and now-out-of-print MCA CD, though a satisfying listen in and of itself, could never do justice. This is one of the most accessible of North’s scores and is glorious from first note to last, containing one of the composer’s most beautiful love themes. Fans have been waiting for an expanded and complete release of the score for years. This year brings not only the 50th anniversary of the film, but also North’s 100th birthday. If this doesn’t happen this year, there are going to be some mighty pissed off film score fans.

1. A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951)

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Very few composers are given the opportunity to score a major film right out of the starting gate. But few have the talent and the connections that North had in Elia Kazan. Even fewer come along and reinvent film music. North’s use of jazz as a dramatic musical tool was revolutionary and opened the door for jazz to be taken seriously in film music. North brought his dramatic instincts and sensibilities from his background in the theater and documentary scoring and turned the Hollywood sound on its ear. Film music was never the same.

4 comments

  1. Great list you have here Jim although I’d find it hard to leave out CHEYENNE AUTUMN from the top nine. Disappointed there doesn’t seem to be more interest in North. I guess he’s out of fashion in a time when so much film music at least to my ears is glib and superficial.

    North’s work always seemed highly personal. Sometimes, beautiful, sometimes brooding even tortured as if it where ripped from his soul. His music dug deep and often expressed the true inner voice of the characters and story and as you said he brought a modernist edge to historical epics that had never been heard before.

    Thanks for remembering this great composer Jim.

    Cheers,
    Charlie

    1. CHEYENNE AUTUMN was just under the list. I seriously considered it. It’s a great score.

      It’s too bad more people don’t “get” North. Of course, art is highly subjective, and North’s music demands more of our faculties than some other composers. But it sure pays off for those who are willing to give it their time and attention.

  2. Still discovering North, but here’s my current top 9:

    1. Spartacus
    2. Desiree
    3. The King and Four Queens
    4. Les Miserables
    5. The Rose Tattoo
    6. The Racers
    7. A Streetcar Named Desire
    8. Viva Zapata!
    9. The Rainmaker

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