- It is a rule of cinema that any successful novel will eventually be made into a film, no matter how challenging the translation from page to screen might appear.
- It is a rule of the known universe that any film adaptation of a beloved book will disappoint bibliophiles.
- It is a rule of pop that rock musicians make mediocre actors.
- It is a rule of music soundtracks that Big Rock Names may not be equal to the task of scoring a film.
Now, what film will we choose to explore these posits?
- David Lynch’s Dune, published 1965, was released as a film in 1984.
- Lynch’s Dune is confusing to the point of incomprehensibility, even for those knowing the source material. The Director’s cut is even worse. (But it’s not all bad.)
- Dune has Sting in a supporting role. He has turned in some quite decent film performances, though whether this is one depends on your tastes.
- Toto’s “Africa” single reached #1 on the US Billboard Chart in February 1983. They were commissioned to write the Dune soundtrack.
There were previous attempts to turn Dune into a film. Alejandro Jodorowsky (see previous post) was not the only director to struggle. Ridley Scott (of Bladerunner fame) had an unsuccessful crack at it before producer Dino de Laurentiis (of Conan The Barbarian fame) brought David Lynch on board in 1981.
Did Lynch succeed with this complex sci-fi epic where others disappeared into the quicksand? Well, the film does have its fans, though most of those are not viewers who transitioned from the novel. Financially, it took 10 million dollars less at the box office than it cost to produce while the director distanced himself from the finished product, suggesting it was considerably less than a hit.
Viewing Dune again this week, although the effects are clunky and the plot hopelessly convoluted, there are things to enjoy. The cast—including Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides, José Ferrer as the Emperor and Patrick Stewart as Gurney Halleck—are committed, but remain limited by the stuttering nature of the story-telling (due mainly to the density of the plot). Some of the minor characters are very enjoyable, such as the diminutive Fremen housekeeper and Paul’s extraordinarily creepy little sister. Max von Sydow as Dr Keyns is also terrific, and the utterly histrionic performance by Kenneth McMillan as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is as hilarious as the Baron is repulsive.
The look of the film is patchy. Some sets work (the Emperor’s throne room and the navigator’s enormous casket, for example) while others seem two-dimensional (the main city on Arakkis is only a sketch). The worms themselves, however, are awe-inspiring. Details of technology and equipment are an interesting mixture of Terry Gillian steam-punk and Thunderbirds props. Costumes are apt and believable, except, perhaps, for Sting’s art deco jock strap.
But this is a music blog, not a film site, so let us try to find our way back towards the soundtrack via the afore-mentioned English rock star.
Sting is no stranger to film and has several perfectly competent performances to his credit (eg. Quadrophenia 1979, and Stormy Monday 1988). Dune was his sixth cinema role. He plays the sneering nephew of Baron Harkonnen and is perfectly dislikable. It is difficult to know whether Billy Idol copied Sting, or Sting modelled his character on Idol. The blonde punk hair, the rippling six-pack, the perpetual smirk… was he acting at all? Anyway, if you fancy Sting and want to see most of his thirty-three year old body (well-oiled and buffed; you can see the putrid Baron licking his lips) then the performance of Mr Don’t-stand-so-close-to-me is perhaps reason enough to seek out the film. Remember, though: the chap known to his mum as Gordon Sumner had nothing to do with the music.
Pop-rock band Toto formed in Los Angeles back in 1976, but went super-nova in 1982 with “Africa”, a hit across several galaxies. I wonder how well David Lynch knew the song? Certainly the key line “I bless the rains down in Africa” offers no direct connection to a planet where it has never rained. But here’s the thing. This OST not a pop-rock album at all. It is a genuine film-score with thoughtful cues, worthwhile melodies and deft orchestration (from the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, thank you very much).
Opening with a narrated “Prologue” (which aims to provide essential context), the “Main title” is a suitably majestic theme for a film combining inter-galactic politics with metaphysics. When this segues into the edgy percussive electronica of “Robot fight”, spirits lift at the prospect of a soundtrack that surpasses the film itself.
After that, things settle down into Orchestral Film Soundtracks 101, but there are highlights worthy of mention.
“Trip to Arakkis” has a vast spacey feel and a subtle use of choir; there is also a chilliness and sense of foreboding that make it one of my favourite “journey through space” pieces. Arakkis, by the way, is the proper name of the planet known as Dune.
“Dune (Desert Theme)” is a rock instrumental that could easily have been called “Africa goes to Arrakis” while “Paul meets Chani” is a love theme that avoids cliche by carrying a certain wistfulness. Perhaps because the warrior lass realises her bloke is about to become a demi-god warlord. The expansive “Paul takes the water of life” is another quiet highlight.
Special mention must be made of a key track at the musical centre of this soundtrack. The piece “Prophecy theme” was written and performed by Brian Eno (with Daniel Lanois and Roger Eno). There are rumours that Mr E did a whole soundtrack, but it has never surfaced under the Dune brand name. That’s a pity, because a whole album of this exquisite ambient music would be a delight. It a classic bit of Eno synth magic and provides a perfect breathing space within the filmic style of the album as a whole.
The music over the final credits is a slow rock instrumental with understated orchestration, closing the album nicely. This final piece is like an instrumental B-side and would doubtless please Toto fans.
In sum, the OST for David Lynch’s Dune is a solid, enjoyable album from a radio-friendly pop-rock band giving film work their first (and only) shot. Definitely worth considering if you happen across it*. Or you could watch the film, if you dare. Though you might want to take some Class A spice first.
* Original LP/CD on Polydor, 1984. Re-issued by Music on Vinyl in 2014.