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Blade Runner, composed by Vangelis, 1994, 57:40

Blade Runner is an enormously influential science fiction movie, one of a handful of films that can truly claim to have changed the genre. The director, Ridley Scott, fills the screen with a future that had never been seen before: dark, constantly raining, decayed, supersaturated by media, and populated by the down and out, the ultra-rich, and the ambiguous. The plot concerns a bounty hunter named Deckard who is hired to kill a group of replicants, androids who are trying to pass as humans. Deckard begins to have doubts about his world, and even falls in love with a replicant named Rachel. All of this is underlined by an electronic soundtrack by Vangelis; strong, evocative, and no small part of the movie's enduring popularity.

In most cases, classical music is hard to beat in terms of effectiveness in a movie soundtrack. Classical is such an enduring form simply because of its strengths: flexibility, expressiveness, and reliance on effects other than a strong drumbeat (although that too can happen in a classical piece). My definition of classical music is quite elastic: I would include Philip Glass's soundtrack for A Brief History of Time or Michael Kamen's Brazil. Glass's cerebral music was the perfect accompaniment for the story of Stephen Hawking, and Kamen's jazz and dance influences illuminated the nostalgia/rottenness at the heart of Gilliam's vision. I don't usually make a big break between hardcore classical of centuries past and the "serious" composing of our century.

With the impressive array of strengths available to the movie soundtrack composer in the realm of classical music, why would any other choice be made? Granted, pop or heavy metal might fit the theme of a certain movie, but that inevitably means a narrowing of effect, a limiting of musical colour. And, as a general rule, you can't have it both ways -- just think of that hideous example of a pop/classical hybrid, the Ladyhawke soundtrack. Interestingly, it's easy for classical music to overpower the rest of the movie if the writing or directing or acting is simply not strong enough to support a vigorous or well-known piece of music (Beethoven's Seventh in Zardoz, for example). But in a movie bursting with talent and ideas, you can build something much bigger by putting the right classical piece to it. Think of 2001 -- not the use of Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra, which has become a cliché on its own, but rather Johann Strauss's Beautiful Blue Danube. The slow, precise dance of docking space vehicles, a mechanical process now granted feeling and beauty.

What might this argument mean for Blade Runner and Vangelis? After all I have said, it's probably still more important to fit the various parts of a movie together to create a synergistically greater whole. Usually it's easier to get that gestalt of vision in each aspect of a movie when you have the firm support of classical music in the soundtrack. But here Vangelis has done a feat of composition -- built unforgettable and integrated imagery into non-classical music. The feel of his music fits seamlessly with the visuals that Ridley Scott laboured so hard to give us, and I would venture to say that it would be an inferior movie if Scott had taken my nothing-but-classical advice. Vangelis does all the work here (as it says in the liner notes: "All music composed, arranged, produced, and performed by Vangelis"), except for vocals and a few samples from the movie scattered here and there. Interestingly, none of the compositions are fast-paced -- Vangelis gives each track lots of space of its own. This inherent balance, or confident focus, of each piece is probably what appeals to me so much. Vangelis somehow reassures us that he is building a vision, one that complements the visual components of the film. I admire Vangelis's poise as much as his other talents.

This particular CD rearranges the order of many of the tracks in relation to the order of scenes in the movie. For example, "Main Titles," track 1 on the CD, samples the section of the movie where Deckard is using the ESPER. "Blush Response," track 2, appropriately uses some dialogue from the first meeting between Deckard, Rachel, and Tyrell (the owner of the corporation that created the replicants), but the next track, "Wait for Me," excerpts some byplay between Deckard and Rachel from later in the movie. Track 11 is called "Blade Runner (End Titles)," but it is second last. This particular rearrangement doesn't bother me, though, because Vangelis had the good sense to put the most stunning bit last. "Tears in Rain." That is a dying speech by Batty, the last of the replicants, and it brings a tear to my eye, and it's a testament to the genius of everyone involved. Rutger Hauer wrote that bit of dialogue, speaking out of the character created for him. And Vangelis's music merges astonishingly well, bringing the film to a fitting close. The feeling is melancholy, the most complex emotion, a blend of intellectual, visceral, and emotional responses.

I also want to mention some excellent vocal work on this CD. Track 4, "Rachel's Song," is sung by Mary Hopkin, and without words, she proclaims a whole language of feeling, with nuance and with power. I don't picture the character Rachel as being able to sing, but somehow this track evokes her personality quite emphatically. It's in the wordlessness of the voice, yearning and unsure. Track 6, "One More Kiss, Dear," has its own internal consistency, and the vocals by Don Percival fits that mood, but it doesn't fit as well with the rest of the music, and only plays briefly in the background in one small scene in the movie. Vangelis redeems himself with track 9, "Tales of the Future." Demis Roussel sings in a non-English language, and once again, as with "Rachel's Song," there is power here, along with a kind of intellectualized nuance. Perhaps that could represent the film itself and the rest of the music on this CD -- visceral appeal balanced with material to ponder later. Vangelis balances these two things just as skilfully as the movie does, and this is likely the reason why the non-classical music works so effectively.

Just as there were different versions of the movie, there are apparently disparate versions of the soundtrack. The version that Vangelis mentions in the liner notes is the one most commonly available now. I quote: "Most of the music contained in this album originates from recordings I made in London in 1982, whilst working on the score for the film BLADE RUNNER. Finding myself unable to release these recordings at the time, it is with great pleasure that I am able to do so now. Some of the pieces contained will be known to you from the Original Soundtrack of the film, whilst others are appearing here for the first time." This CD is well worth a listen, and if you need a dose of the future, listen to this music, and you will see images of one specific vision of times to come.


See the review of the movie.


First posted: November 18, 1997; Last modified: January 30, 2004

Copyright © 1997-2004 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


Crystalline Sphere | Challenging Destiny | Reviews | Soundtrack Reviews | Blade Runner

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