CD Review: Dragonslayer

A dragon of a very different color is on display in Alex North‘s 1981 score for DRAGONSLAYER. Peter MacNicol stars as young sorcerer’s apprentice Galen, who must slay the dragon Vermithrax in order to save Valerian (Caitlin Clarke) and her village from extinction.

This Paramount-Disney co-production didn’t exactly set the box office on fire (pardon the pun). With a PG rating and discussions of virginity, parents of the tykes who might have fallen for a fantasy film about a fire-breathing dragon were put off by the film’s dark medieval setting. DRAGONSLAYER is a film like no other fantasy film I’ve seen and North’s score is unlike any fantasy score I’ve heard–dark and dissonant, yet haunting and beautiful in its own right.

According to North, “Except for the relationship between Galen and Valerian everything was impersonal. This allowed me complete freedom to compose set pieces (i.e., scherzo, rondo, et al.), such as I might do when composing for the concert hall.”  North uses Gregorian chant-like harmonies based on fourths and fifths to suggest the medieval setting of the tale. He also was able to rework certain cues from his rejected score for 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, most noticeably at the end of the film.

The orchestrations by Henry Brant (North’s orchestrator on CLEOPATRA and himself an avant garde, Pulitzer Prize-winning concert composer) feature unusual instrumentation, including log drums, harpsichord, contrabass clarinets, baritone and bass oboe, six piccolos, and a contrabass trombone, euphonium, and Wagner tuba to convey the menacing low brass four-note theme for the dragon.

North has always been known for his contrapuntal writing and DRAGONSLAYER contains some of his best. Melodic fragments are foreshadowed and weave in and out of the contrapuntal lines. But the dissonance is the star of the score.

Dragonslayer soundtrack
“Ulrich’s Death and Mourning/The Amulet”
“Still a Virgin”

By the time we get to the love theme for Galen and Valerian, it’s like a breath of fresh, albeit brief, tonal air. The theme, which starts in the clarinet before moving to the oboe and the strings, is beautiful without being sentimental, subtle without being schmaltzy.

But DRAGONSLAYER is not all doom and gloom. The jaunty humor of the “Forest Romp” has a tonal center that never stays in one place for very long, but the rhythms stay within more traditionally recognizable meters than most of the rest of the music. The score also features brave musical choices like the anachronistic waltz of the “Burning Village” and “Dragon Sore-ing.” I can’t imagine a producer or director today who would let a composer, not even one of North’s legendary stature, get away with something like this.

I’ve admired this score ever since I bought the box set LP in the early 1980s. I probably never would have seen the film or purchased the soundtrack had North not received a surprising, yet well deserved, Oscar nomination for the score. But I never knew until I got this superb La-La Land release that my old CD (that I paid a small fortune for back in the day) was a bootleg all along. No matter.

If you’re familiar with the old LP or CD versions, this release is a revelation. Producer Dan Goldwasser has done a superb job in realizing the score. It feels and sounds just as fresh as it did nearly 30 years ago, which no doubt has helped the film to stay fresh as well. Jeff Bond’s liner notes provide great insight into the film and the score. Visit the La-La Land site to hear more sound clips and to order.

As with most Alex North scores, DRAGONSLAYER can be a tough listen for those who prefer their scores more tonally based. However, it provides riches for those who are willing to give it the chance. North’s atonal approach to the score was the perfect complement to the stark visuals onscreen and another masterpiece from this legendary composer.

  1. Listened to my SCSE copy a handful of times back in the day before packing it away with a shrug. Still not a favorite, but North has always been one of my gods, I’m much more appreciative of his dissonance these days, and the La La release is a real treat.

  2. I traded my SCESE copy a long time ago for…can’t remember what. Didn’t like the score very much, found it too atonal and, well, just too weird. I really was into Horner at that time (Willow, Krull etc.) But after reading your review and listening to some samples I think it’s time to give this score a second chance.

    1. Hi Erik. Yes, it’s still atonal and some “weird” (for lack of a better word) moments. And yet it’s that atonality and “weirdness” that gives the score its own kind of beauty. I’m happy to see you willing to give it a second chance. North writes complex music that is not always easily attainable on a first, or even second, listen. Rent the film too. The score definitely makes an impact.

      1. Thanks for the tip, maybe I will even buy the dvd. I did see see the movie a very long time ago (a few years before I bought the SCSE release) but only remember the (awesome) dragon. I also think my taste has changed somewhat over the years and I have learned to appreciate more complex music. For instance, I also didn’t really like Planet of the Apes, but now think it’s a great score.

        1. If you can appreciate the greatness of PLANET OF THE APES, then I think your ears will appreciate DRAGONSLAYER more readily now.

        2. I did it, and I don’t regret it! Bought the dvd (4 euro on play.com) and ordered the cd. Watched movie and loved it. Then listened to the soundtrack, a couple of times now and it’s great!

  3. DRAGONSLAYER… That is a journey back… I was still in High School, but already deep into film music. Mr. North’s score is nothing less than brilliant. One thing I always remember about the first viewing and hearing the score was… so complex. A thought-provoking score. But, let’s face facts, a lot of his scores were that way. For trivia purposes, I still own the original LP (extended play 45’s) on the Southern Cross label. And, snatched up the original CD when released. The way Mr. North took on the project once again reminds me of how a handful of other composers would have tackled the same project… Bernard Herrmann, Christopher Young, Leonard Rosenman, and, of course, Jerry Goldsmith. My own opinion is they would have all taken on the project with the same “feeling”.

    DRAGONSLAYER… still a brilliant score. One of the best of the 80’s.

    1. I’d forgotten those original LP’s were 45 rpm’s. Wow, that takes me back. Mine is long gone but it was the only soundtrack I ever bought with that unique combination of box set and rpm.

  4. I saw “Dragonslayer” when it premiered at theaters in 1981. I was twenty-five years old at the time and gradually developing a deeper appreciation of film music. While I certainly enjoyed the film’s “realistic” narrative treatment, and, of course, its advanced (for 1981) visual refinements, when I came out of that darkened theater it was Mr. North’s intoxicatingly exuberant musical score that possessed me. It was so energetic, so sublimely mysterious and commanding of attention that I could describe it as my first “occult” musical experience, an induction into a higher, more sacred plane of musical appreciation.

    It was what sorcery and fantastical creatures should sound like in orchestral language. I think I could say that it changed me in some way. It opened up my ears and my mind. It made me love an artist’s artistry. It made me wish I were related to Alex North, just so I could brag about it.

    I’ll stop before I make a fool of myself with words, but you get the idea, I’m sure. I cannot wait to receive my copy of LaLa Land’s new release of the score.


    1. Thanks for commenting, Loren. :) I like what you said about it being an “occult” musical experience, and I’m especially glad it happened with North. I think that because of the complexity of his writing, once you come to the altar of North, you’ve definitely had your ears and mind opened. I keep hoping that more film score fans will discover his music. Until then, we converts will enjoy each other’s company.

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