Monday, February 23, 2009

Damnation Alley, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cockroaches

(another one for Film Score Monthly)

Early in eighth grade, still living off the high of Star Wars and the appearance of The Man From Atlantis as a weekly series, I began to really look forward to seeing Damnation Alley. I’d read about it in Starlog and become totally enamored with the Landmaster. It promised to be the coolest vehicle since Ark II.

After seeing the film, I still loved the Landmaster, but the only other thing that made any sort of lasting impression was the scene featuring the giant cockroaches. I’d already begun to appreciate film music, playing my Star Wars album almost continually and recording the Man From Atlantis theme from the television, but I noticed nothing about Damnation Alley’s score. I might not have even known the name Jerry Goldsmith at that time. Life went on.

When I lived in LA in the late eighties, I always got a secret thrill when I’d come around that corner on the 101 toward Hollywood and see the Landmaster and a couple of hovercrafts from the Logan’s Run series rotting behind a fence.

It never occurred to me to think about the scores that accompanied any of those vehicles on screen.

Years go by. I do not think about Damnation Alley.

Then, a couple of years back, I noticed that the movie was showing up pretty frequently on Fox Movie Classics, so I figured I’d watch it. By then I’d seen message board threads praising the score and lamenting its “lost” status. I watched the movie. I sort of noticed the score this time but mostly noticed how dumb the whole thing was. I still loved the Landmaster, though.

Then Varese released the Goldsmith at Fox box and I bit. And now I truly got exposed to the score. And I loved it. It’s a great example of the kind of thing Jerry did so well – creating a soundscape that always complements, often enhances and sometimes transcends the material on screen.

After the typically wonderful main title sequence built on brass fanfares, the score moves to an ingenious cue that sonically creates a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Here you can detect hints of some of the effects that would be employed even more devastatingly in Alien just two years later. Next comes some Goldsmithian bombast as the brass motif gets a real workout. Then the Landmaster is introduced in a suitably heroic fashion with more reference to the main brass motif, ending with some discord that perhaps hints at the troubled journey the travelers will face. Then we get the cockroach attack, one of the film’s most embarrassing sections that nevertheless gets a vicious underscore from Jerry that truly creates a feeling of simultaneous action and terror. It’s been said many times that Goldsmith seemed to be able to score some idealized version of a film in his head rather than what he actually saw on screen, and this entire score is a great example of that. Even the closing cue, with a trumpet-led melody evoking blue skies and a new beginning for the human race, captures the mood and tone of the film better than the actual scene as filmed. The entire nine track score as represented on the disc plays out as a satisfying musical journey on its own, as so many of Goldsmith’s scores do.

Now I can’t speak to any missing tracks, the missing electronic overlays and all that. I haven’t seen the film again since getting the Varese disc so I haven’t been able to compare what’s there with what we got on disc. But I’m more than satisfied. Now when I see a reference to Damnation Alley, instead of just recalling a cheesy film about giant cockroaches and an RV on steroids, I think of another Goldsmith score I absolutely love.

But I still kinda want my own Landmaster.

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