Peter Jackson’s famous films were not the first cinematic journeys into Middle Earth. American animator Ralph Bakshi visited back in 1978 with rather mixed results.
Clearly holding the J.R.R. Tolkien books in high esteem, Bakshi adopted such a respectful approach to the epic fantasy that the result is, despite the adventurous content, quite slow-moving and stilted.
I saw The Lord of the Rings in the Union Cinema at Melbourne University. Can’t remember when, but presumably sometime in 1979. I’m pretty sure my companion for this adventure would have been long-time fantasy buddy Andre (who, three years later, queued up for four hours to purchase the first ticket to the premiere Melbourne screening of Conan the Barbarian).
What I mostly remember of the Bakshi film is my disappointment. Although long (133 minutes), the telling was somehow stiff and forced. The colours were rich and earthy yet the character portrayals disappointing. Aragon was ugly and bad tempered, Sam squat and toad-like, many of the action sequences were stilted and repetitive, the orchestral soundtrack staid, and it all stopped half way through the damned book. There was no indication, you see, that this was part one. After seeing it we neither craved nor expected a concluding chapter. We were not alone. The second instalment never materialised and Bakshi’s film was consigned to the shelf in video libraries labelled “Cult”.
So naturally, when I came across a double picture disc album of Leonard Rosenman’s score a couple of weeks ago, I snapped it up immediately.
The cover was pretty battered—that can easily happen with die-cut album sleeves—and the records needed a bit of TLC, but after some restoration and purification, I sat down with low expectations to relive an underwhelming cinema experience from almost forty years ago.
The first thing to report is that my offhand dismissal of Mr Rosenman’s score was hasty. Although there are aspects of the music I still cannot rave about, there is an invention and dramatic texture throughout that is certainly much more enjoyable and interesting than remembered.
We won’t traverse the entire album in detail, but simply try to give a flavour of the work.
We are in the territory of traditional orchestral scores, as is made clear with the opening salvo. The “Theme from The Lord of the Rings” is a sprightly, martial piece. Imagine a fifties war movie where some cheerful POWs stick it to Jerry while never losing their British pluck. That’s the sound of this theme: purposeful, energetic, positive.
“The History of the Ring” is a longish piece comprising several episodes. Much though I dislike narration on records, presenting the necessary back story could have added some scene-setting to the record, just as it did in the film. Snatches of the opening theme pop up a couple of times during the 6 ½ minutes of this track.
The same jaunty theme crops up again in the third track, “The Journey Begins: Encounter with the Ringwraiths” and you realise that Rosenman is using his title theme as a motif for Frodo—or at least the Hobbits—an understanding that makes the repetition less aggravating. A bit.
But there is some pleasing darkness creeping into the music now (as it bloomin’ well should if there are Ringwraiths in the neighbourhood) and it’s no chore to fish out the second LP to spin side 2. (Yes, it’s one of those old auto-changer 1 & 4, 2 & 3 pressings).
The second side is more dramatic, which is to be expected since it covers the “Mines of Moria” and “The Balrog”. And even though I’d really like to hear the journey in the dark evoked by Richard Pinhas or Gandalf’s nemesis portrayed in sound by Black Sabbath, this treatment is quite engaging. Apparently the soundtrack does have its own cult following and I’ve begun to hear why.
If you think about it, perhaps there are enough sub-groups of record collectors to make Leonard Rosenman’s Lord of the Rings a desirable find. Collector’s of obscure soundtracks would love it, fans of picture discs would wet themselves over a four-sided acquisition, and when it comes to Tolkien aficionados, they’ll buy simply anything hobbit themed, won’t they?
As for me, I’m glad I found it. It may not be a magical treasure, but it’s a fascinating curio. I mean really, how many LPs do you have where horses with red demonic eyes are charging at you out of the grooves?
Dance in the dark of night
Sing to the morning light