I had an odd relationship with this film when I was a young boy. My first exposure to it was in 1980, the year of its initial release in theaters, when the full-blown hype machine of Columbia Pictures was crowing like hell. This was a strange time for a flick like HEAVY METAL. It was one of the most unique science fiction/fantasy films ever made, and a class act on a lot of artistic levels. It was also the first animated feature film released by a major studio in which the word “fuck” was uttered as often as possible on camera. And there was sex, too. And naked people. And lots of blood. And more naked people. (If that ain’t a class act, I dunno what the fuck is.) There was a soundtrack album with hit songs all over the radio, TV commercials in prime time. Everyone was talking about it. My best friend Ace Ritcher actually drew up his own homemade “comic book adaptation” of the film with a ball point pen and presented it to me as a gift before I’d had a chance to see for myself what all the buzz what about. He’d transcribed the whole movie in the crude art scrawlings of a ten year old child, but it was a shorthand I knew well, being ten years old myself at the time—and it only made me more hungry for the real thing.
Which blew my mind when I finally saw it, of course.
HEAVY METAL, for those who don’t know, is a sort of serial comic book translated to film, based on art and stories from the popular adult fantasy mag. (Please don’t confuse this film with its bastard “sequel” HEAVY METAL 2000, which really isn’t a sequel at all and . . . well, not nearly as cool, okay?) It has no less than seven separate story arcs, each done in a powerful and unique animation style—some just a few minutes long, others taking up anywhere from fifteen to twenty—and are bridged by a linking segment which ties things together in a ballyhooing melodramatic finale, after setting things up with a great deal of humor throughout the first half. In today’s jaded age of anime and sophisticated “Adult Swim” style programming which brims with all manner of low-blowing politically incorrect satire and innuendo and even straight up porn, HEAVY METAL might be a little less effective in terms of irony for some audiences, but when one considers that this was released in theaters by Columbia in 1980—and that nothing like it had ever been attempted outside of the whacky Ralph Bakshi factory in New York—it becomes an almost staggering accomplishment. It is a clever, well–crafted and even hilarious movie that delights (wallows, even) in its own juvenile sensibilities so far into the deep end that even the silliest damn things become deliriously entertaining and oddly surrealistic. What other movie can you think of where a 1957 Corvette convertible drops from a space shuttle under the main credits, plunges through the Earth’s atmosphere, then hits a corn field at full speed with the radio blasting some head-bashing rock and roll? And, yes, that’s the voice of John Candy in there as the Conan-style muscle-bound sword-slinging badass, Den Of Neverwhere. I always get a warm chuckle or two when I picture the late old Uncle Buck hamming it up in the dubbing booth, doing his Den.
The recently late Harold Ramis shows up in this, too.
He plays one of the stoner aliens (the green one the left) who tries to land a spaceship that looks like a happy face and pretty much fails in epic style. “Hey, you know your perspective’s fucked, you just gotta let your hands work the controls, as if you’re straight . . .”
For a 10 year old boy just fresh out of the 1970s, this was nirvana.
You see, irony in sci-fi pop culture had not yet been invented, apparently.
This film, basically, pioneered all that . . . and yet we were still many years away from SPACE GHOST: COAST TO COAST.
As an adult, I think the most amazing thing about HEAVY METAL is its ability to rachet higher with a new groove and rhythm each time it shifts its narrative focus. It skip-jumps from dead serious, to patently ridiculous, then back to dead serious on the dime, and it never really stops for breath. Ever. There is a focused intent in the overall screenplay, which allows the various styles of hand-crafted animation on display to dictate the pace—something rarely done right in any film featuring multiple-story arcs. (CREEPSHOW is the only other genre offering from the 1980s that springs to mind.) It’s funky and weird and somehow familiar. It teases us in all the right ways. It sobers up at just the right moments. Oh yeah, and there’s also that cool bit at the end where Tarrnna puts her fist right through the face of the bad guy. With one punch. Green blood everywhere. Super cool.
For anyone who’s interested, I was served by a twentysomething rocker chick in a sushi bar three years ago, and she had Tarnna’s tattoo on her neck, signifying her as a Terrakian Warrior just like in the film. When I remarked on it, her eyes lit up like some great secret had been shared. Later in the evening, she breezed by and left a paper crane on my table without a word. (See, Tarnna never speaks and flies around on a big bird in the film.) She was a really pretty girl, too, and I always regret not getting her phone number. But it’s also a pretty swell indicator that “these kids today” probably DO have some inkling of where we all came from, so there’s that.
But anyway . . .
Something that’s always just amused me to death about a film called HEAVY METAL, is that in addition to a pop soundtrack featuring bands like Cheap Trick, Black Sabbath and Journey . . . it also features an orchestral score that is among the richest, most inventive and passionate works of an age long gone, and a high water mark at a time when emotion and personal commitment extended beyond creating simply a mood, which seems to be the case with most any large-scale symphonic endeavor in a major film these days. The HEAVY METAL score was composed and conducted by the late and quite legendary Elmer Bernstein, who is probably still most famous for his work on THE GREAT ESCAPE and later comedies such as ANIMAL HOUSE, GHOSTBUSTERS and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON.
Bernstien’s work here runs through a battery of individual themes and musical characterizations which are fully-realized from segment to segment, bringing a real big-movie sense of grandeur to emotional landscapes that might have otherwise left us less connected or concerned. The whole thing could easily collapse at any moment under its own weight; this is, after all, mostly pretty silly stuff you’re seeing here. But within the context of the golly-gee-whiz humor of the film— particularly in the segment featuring John Candy as Den—the sincerity and accomplishment of Bernstein’s score is never in doubt for one second. It’s a damn-near perfect cinematic moment when Den leaps off the balcony of the Red Queen’s bedchamber and rides off, literally, into the sunset, with a thundering symphony orchestra going great guns behind him. Those themes and refrains stayed with me as a child and have been constant friends and reminders for most of my life. It’s part of what makes HEAVY METAL such a lasting and even important work of art.
All of which prompts me to ask the following, deceptively simple question:
When was the last time you walked out of a theatre humming the music?
Really think about that. When was the last time? It wasn’t WORLD WAR Z and it damn well wasn’t GRAVITY. Hum me the theme from Sami Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN while you’re at it. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
On the other hand . . . what James Horner did with the reboot was admirable, if somewhat simplistic. It has a theme you can hum at least.
When I think of something like DARK KNIGHT, a film which I consider truthful and lasting and important, I shiver a little when I consider that the “score” is not really a score at all, at least not by classic standards. It was created using soundscapes and computer cut-and-paste techniques. (When the Academy Awards found out, the entire soundtrack was nearly disqualified from the Oscar race in 2008.) They’re using textures and samples. Tonalities that create an emotional or terror response. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing . . . when its done well. It’s a sort of play-it-to-the-TV rock and roll approach. A similar moody technique was used in Christopher Nolan’s previous film THE PRESTIGE with interesting results. Even at its best, however, I tend to think this approach is efficient and even experimental, but not exactly progressive in a truly musical way. It’s easy to get lazy and not do enough real work. Maybe it’s just a little too rock and roll. And not HEAVY METAL enough.
You can sort of trace the “texture and mood” school of film scoring back to the early 1990s, when Danny Elfman—a rock and roll guy who didn’t even know how to read or write orchestral music—became very famous overnight for his now-classic BATMAN soundtrack. His scores reflected the raw style of rock music, often similar in cadence and melodic structure. He actually composed these soundtracks by “finding notes” on a keyboard while watching the films on a monitor, and it was left to more experienced pros to transcribe these rough sketches into fully orchestrated sheet music. Not that this is a bad or lazy approach (other composers who write things down work in similar fashion), or that it means Elfman is not an accomplished musician in his own right. I actually have a lot of respect for the fella, and I like his band, too. But if you really listen to what the BATMAN soundtrack is (click the image below), if feels bizarrely empty, as if it’s coasting almost entirely on essence and attitude. There’s a few musical ideas there, sure, but it’s all spread pretty thin and wildly overcompensated for. This is probably just fine if you happen to be Motley Crue.
But, well . . .
. . . it wasn’t long after BATMAN that a “next generation” of composers were set upon to completely re-invent the medium, taking directors very literally at the face of their suggestions for “mood and feel” and investing less and less in the creation of theme and character identification in their scores. Guys like Hans Zimmer stepped in with stuff like CRIMSON TIDE, bringing a ham-fisted literalism to the fore, while a number of other “rock and roll” types from the old school contributed their own fair share to this weird new re-mix of post-modern film music. (It’s not an irony at all that Elfman eventually scored Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN, folks—but, rather, an object lesson.) Howard Shore is another good example. He came from a background of rock and jazz, and was the very first musical director of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. His scores have always reflected a simpler ‘Elfman-esque’ approach. Sometimes, as in his legendary work for David Cronenberg, it is eerily appropriate. You could hear Shore trying hard to bring his own mark to things like THE FLY and even NAKED LUNCH. But he may have been the wrong man for the job on THE LORD OF THE RINGS. There’s a theme or two in those scores, yes, and some emotion, but it’s all so terribly un-inventive beyond that. The new HOBBIT films are even worse offenders. I can’t pick out a tune in really any of that and the movies leave me very cold.
One could worry that the days of rich imagination and symphonic wonder in scores such as Elmer Bernstein’s for HEAVY METAL are pretty much gone forever. But every now and then, one of these guys really surprises the hell out of me. I thought Zimmer’s score for MAN OF STEEL had some nice heroics in it, and his INCEPTION was wonderfully evocative of the late John Barry, deeply emotional in places and a staggering technical achievement. Going further back, almost ten years, Dario Marianelli’s V FOR VENDETTA score had a simple, yet genuinely stirring refrain that held together a mostly unremarkable series of action-score beats. It’s evidence that somebody, somewhere is keeping the flame, even as we venture forth into a scary new future. Whenever I hear something like this, I’m reminded of that pretty young girl in the sushi place, who dropped a beautiful paper crane on my table, without saying a word. Because we all—no matter what generation we belong to—know certain truths, don’t we?
So check out HEAVY METAL if you’ve never seen it . . . or stick it on the player again and really listen this time. That’s the Very Secret Thing. That great music you’re hearing. I promise “Tarrna’s Theme” will stay with you for a very long time, as will the memory of that Terrakian Warrior who appeared to me out of the mists.
And the Journey songs are cool, too.
Yep, I still have that damn thing. Call me a romantic.