Sorcerer. Aguirre, Wrath of God. The Keep. These are a few films made great by their music — in particular, a type of music that I think of as ‘epic journey’ music, soundtracks for stories set at the far edges of our planet.
During the seventies and early eighties, synthesizers had become a way of articulating unfamiliar experiences; their sound linked to space and ‘ancient astronaut’ type TV documentaries, like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and The Search for the Ancient Astronaut.
But around the same time, young film directors like Michael Mann, William Friedkin and Werner Herzog, were charting new territories here on earth, creating epic films, also with electronic music.
Sorcerer (1977) by American director William Friedkin was a remake of an older French film called Wages of Fear (1953). A Graham Green-type story, about misfits on the fringe hired to drive a truck loaded with gelignite through the South American jungle, Sorcerer was a visually stunning film, with a few breathtaking scenes like when their truck crosses a dangerous bridge during a torrential storm.
As I’ve written in a previous post, William Friedkin contacted Tangerine Dream to do the soundtrack — who then sent a tape of their music to him on location, without even having watched the film.
The soundtrack became a very important part of the film, with Tangerine Dream creating an atmosphere of foreboding doom and desperation through manic arpeggios and down-shifting drones.
But it was how the music connected with the imagery and the location, overhead shots of the jungle, oil derricks on fire, and the volatile weather conditions, that made it so significant.
An earlier film, Aguirre: The Wrath of God, by German director Werner Herzog, was set in the same part of the world, but back in the 1600s, the beginnings of Latin American colonialization, where Spanish conquistadors led by the fanatical Aguirre, make inroads into the ‘new world’ through misty Peruvian mountains, with a fierce and fateful river waiting for them down below.
The film’s stunning soundtrack was created by the Munich group Popol Vuh, who Herzog regularly worked with, and who had taken their name from a book of Mayan creation myth. With a more free-form approach than Tangerine Dream, they incorporated electronic elements, like the Mellotron synth to create the iconic sampled choir of the film, as well as weaving in guitars and percussion.
Another film set high in mountain ranges was The Keep (1983), an adaptation of a best-selling horror novel by F. Michael Wilson, about an ancient demon kept locked-up in a fortress in the Hungarian alps, awoken by Nazi soldiers during WW2.
This was one of Michael Mann’s earliest films, and despite pacing problems and at times, awkward dialogue, the film is completely dreamlike and worth watching, a big part thanks to the soundtrack.
The film has an amazing opening shot, just one long tracking down from the mountain peaks, to a convoy of German tanks, rolling up through the local village to take possession of ‘the Keep’. This is one of the many stunning scenes, enhanced by Tangerine Dream’s music.
Anyway, it’s worth trying to see one of these films, and you might understand what I am trying to get at . . . they have connected in my mind as being part of some epic journey, a time when people were interested in remote regions, vast deserts, ancient ruins and mysteries; when film makers were not so tied to the 90-minute format, and dominated by action, allowing their camera to linger much longer on powerful scenes of nature, drawing on the hidden forces all around us.
Header image: Nascer do Sol no Dedo de Deus by Carlos Perez Couto / CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikipedia.