I’m not much of a soundtrack guy. When I do pick one up it’s usually something consisting of actual pop/rock/metal songs, such as for Lost In Translation, Singles, or The Decline of Western Civilization. In many ways these are no different than compilations, and I do love a good comp. I only own a few that are more on the instrumental side, like Flash Gordon and The Terminator. So it was a bit unusual that I found myself flipping through the soundtrack section at Easy Street Records the other day, perhaps even more so that I came away with a couple of records – an original 1975 pressing of Rollerball and the new 2018 version of Blade Runner (the original film from 1982… not the soundtrack to the new movie).
I’m a huge fan of dystopian fiction, both in print and in film, and these are two of my absolute favorites. I feel pretty confident in saying I’ve watched each movie a dozen times or more, and I’ve read the stories on which they are based – William Neal Harrison’s short story “Roller Ball Murder” and Philip K. Dick’s book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I generally categorize this genre into two different buckets and these films are perfect representations of each. The first group takes place in a future that doesn’t look that wildly different than our current day other than being a bit more run down. Rollerball fits into this category (we mostly see the trappings of the rich and powerful, but it’s clear the common person isn’t living in anywhere near that level of luxury), as do works like A Clockwork Orange, Soylent Green, and more contemporarily Children of Men. The other is more technologically advanced and generally futuristic-feeling, including Blade Runner and others such as Total Recall and The Fifth Element. This is, of course, a gross over-simplification and there are things that don’t neatly fit into either category (I’m looking at you, Brazil….), but what can I say, I tend to categorize things.
When it comes to film, music is a key element in setting the mood. And that is fully on display when comparing these two soundtracks. So without further ado…
Sonically Rollerball is defined by classical music. In fact, the movie opens with the recognizable-to-almost-everyone “Toccata In D Minor” as we’re introduced to the track upon which the rollerballers will perform their dangerous and sometimes deadly sport. Quite a few dystopian stories use classical music, especially in the 1970s and 80s – Rollerball, A Clockwork Orange, and even 2001: A Space Odyssey, often to great effect by creating a jarring disconnect between the futuristic visual elements and the old classical music. Of course, it also gets a little 70s smooth-jazz-funky with “Symphony No. 8” because, well, 1970s, duh. But the classical music also has the effect of anchoring you to the scene in a more familiar way, one that almost dictates exactly how you should feel about what you’re seeing.
Driving home from Easy Street with this sitting in the bag next to me in the passenger seat I came up with about four paragraphs worth of Rollerball deconstruction in my mind, but now as I sit here listening to the record it all seems so far away. It’s certainly a brilliant film, one with an even deeper and biting social commentary than what appears as obvious on the surface. And I could probably write 5,000 words on it without even watching the damn thing again. But instead let me leave you with this. The movie stays fairly true to the original story… but do yourself a favor and read it anyway. It ends just before the start of the final game, the one with no rules, as Jonathan E tells us:
Before the game begins I stand with my team as the corporation hymns are played. I’m brute speed today, I tell myself, trying to rev myself up; yet, adream in my thoughts, I’m a bit unconvinced.
A chorus of voices joins the band now as the music swells.“The game, the game, all glory to it” the music rings, and I can feel my lips move with the words, singing.
This Jonathan is a bit rougher around the edges than the one in the movie, and the score has a role in softening him, humanizing him, to the viewer. So while the stories are the same on the surface, the music and film attempt to give more thoughtful purpose to his actions and to give us, the viewer, a sense of closure through the outcome of that final game as we see Jonathan, the sole survivor, racing around the track while the previously hostile New York fans chant his name.
The selections on the Rollerball soundtrack are beautiful, making it a record worth playing on it’s own merit. Because if you can listen to “Adagio” and not be carried away (♥), well, then you’re not alive. What’s particularly interesting to me upon reflection, however, is how much of my emotional response to these songs is driven by how they were used in the film – I can’t separate the music from the images and emotional tension to which they contributed. As strange as it seems, I’ll never be able to listen to something like “Adagio” without thinking about specific movies.
Blade Runner (1982 / 2018)
To be clear, I’m writing about the original Blade Runner movie (1982), but the most recently released version of the soundtrack (January 2018). I’ve been passively looking for a copy of this for a while, so I was happy when I came across an original 1982 pressing in the New Arrivals bin. I saw the recent re-releases as well but figured I’d go with the original. Fortunately for me, however, Easy Street’s Vinyl Czar Andy saw what I was carrying around and asked if I’d seen the new versions. I told him I had, and that’s when he hit me with a very important nugget, that the original soundtrack didn’t include the versions of the songs that appeared in the film but were instead recordings of those songs by The New American Orchestra. Apparently for a decade or so after Blade Runner first came out there was no way to get the actual Vangelis versions of the songs! In fact the Vangelis compositions didn’t appear on vinyl for the first time until 2003. Needless to say I put back the 1982 copy and picked up a copy of the just-released “Start Your Ear Off Right” 2018 180 gram gatefold edition. So Andy, if you’re reading this, you’re the man!
Thematically there are some basic similarities between Blade Runner and the book it’s based upon, but in many ways the film lacks the depth of the original story. But that’s OK, in large part because the movie is both intriguing and visually brilliant. This is the more technologically advanced dystopian future, one with flying cars and androids that can’t be easily distinguished from humans, but one that is still based in a gritty, post-war version of the future and broaches some deep questions about what it means to be human (♠). I likely first saw Blade Runner on VHS back in the mid-1980s and at the time the combination of the intense visuals with the electronic Vangelis score was unlike anything I’d experienced before.
Vangelis burst into the public consciousness the year before the release of Blade Runner with his work on the soundtrack to Chariots of Fire, which seemingly won about 8,000 awards in 1981 including the Oscar for Best Original Music Score (♣). In a year he pivoted from making music for a film about runners and the 1924 Olympics to one that took place in 2019 and featured a cop who was basically a hit man hunting androids. That’s not doing a musical 180; that’s breaking through the space-time continuum. A legal dispute prevented the original Vangelis compositions from appearing on the soundtrack back in 1982 and we’re fortunate that things eventually got worked out. What appears on the 2018 version is a combo of music that appeared in the film as well as some compositions that didn’t make the final cut.
My guess is that I’d never heard music like this prior to seeing Blade Runner. Within seconds of the opening track kicking in, I’m transported right back to the scene where Deckard is flying in his police car over the city and we’re treated to the lights and signs that make it look like some futuristic version of Tokyo. The soundtrack also includes a number dialog samples from the film, and these were well chosen to fit the mood of the music (or is it the other way around?). The whole thing has an almost future-classical feel to it. In fact I suspect it would still sound fantastic even if I’d never seen the movie before. This 2018 180 gram pressing is impressive.
There you have it. Two soundtracks for two dystopian future movies that were made only seven years apart but couldn’t be more different musically.
(♥) I believe this was used in the pivotal scene of the insanely brilliant Australian World War I film Gallipoli (1981) as well.
(♠) And inspired the White Zombie song “More Human Than Human”, which, depending on your feeling about Rob Zombie, is either a great thing or a terrible thing.
(♣) The official soundtrack reached #1 in the US and #5 in the UK, and the famous track simply called “Title” was a #1 single as well. You literally couldn’t escape that song in 1981/82.