Ah, 1986’s The Fly. A tale as old as time. Girl falls in love with boy, boy falls in love with girl, boy accidentally splices his DNA with a common housefly and becomes the victim of his own scientific discovery. A love story fantastically retold from the mind of ‘body horror’ extraordinaire, David Cronenberg. While it is a remake of 1958’s The Fly starring the illustrious Vincent Price, it is a reinvention that few films can hold a candle to. The strength of Cronenberg’s version is the way in which the film succeeds on multiple levels. One is Jeff Goldblum’s performance as Seth Brundle; one of the best of his career. Another, the eye-popping effects and makeup that earned Chris Walas and Stephan Dupuis an Oscar. The dialogue, the pacing and of course, Howard Shore’s incredible score.
While it’s easy to recognize that the score to The Fly is beautiful, the significance, elegance and intrigue of it goes much deeper than that. The stories behind The Fly score and the paths that it helped forge are just as incredible as the score itself. Let’s take a look at a few of these stories and the ways in which Howard Shore created an iconic piece of film music.
1. The Relationship Between David Cronenberg and Howard Shore
We’ve all heard the phrase, ‘It’s all who you know.’ Well, in Howard Shore’s case that person that he happened to know is David Cronenberg. The two grew up together in the same area of Toronto, shared some mutual friends and therefore followed each other’s careers. Shore started his career working in television and was the music director of Saturday Night Live in the late 1970s. During that same time, Cronenberg was creating a series of indie films such as Shivers and Rabid. Cronenberg quickly captivated an audience with his unique aesthetic and style and pretty soon was able to get some real funding for a film.
With this resource now available to him, Cronenberg was afforded the luxury of hiring a composer to create an original score for his next film. So, in 1978, Cronenberg approached his friend Howard about composing the score for his upcoming film, The Brood. The proposition worked out great for Howard as a by-product of working in the world of television was that he had summers off. This allowed him to keep his job in television while simultaneously working on film scores.
The two found that they worked together quite well, and Shore quickly became Cronenberg’s composer of choice. Since that initial film, Howard Shore has composed scores for every single Cronenberg feature film except for The Dead Zone. While they both garnered a fair amount of attention due to Scanners and Videodrome, it was with The Fly that both rose to prominence in their respected fields. It was due to The Fly‘s mainstream success that the general public became aware of what a Cronenberg film was all about, and the incredible talent that Howard Shore has to create beauty out of some of the most visually intense scenes ever committed to film. Last October, the two were interviewed by Mick Garris at Beyond Fest and Cronenberg had this to say in regards to working with Shore:
You can only go so far verbally talking about music because it’s so visceral and emotional. When it works, and it has with us, it’s a fantastic, amazing, quite magical kind of thing.
2. The London Philharmonic Orchestra
One of the most pivotal and interesting things to come out of the score for The Fly is Howard Shore’s relationship with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. While Shore’s previous works were able to be completed with a smaller setup, The Fly required something much different. Something bigger.
To understand this more fully, all you have to do is listen to the ”Main Title.’ Reminiscent of 1960’s era sci-fi films, the entire orchestra is on display here. Giant fanfares are followed by delicate strings and percussion. A low, brooding undertone resides patiently waiting underneath the gentle woodwinds, only to be followed by deliberate swelling brass. Finally, they all join forces to create an extremely emotional and complex opening that sets the stage perfectly for what’s to come. Every instrument, every section is utilized to perfection in the film and is crucial to the overall delivery and impact of the score. The wide breadth and range of instrumentation that is present in The Fly score can only be found in an orchestra and there are few more renowned than the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
While The Fly represents the first collaboration between Howard Shore and the Orchestra (any orchestra in fact), it was certainly not their last. Most famously the two would go on together to work on one of the most important franchises in film history, the Lord Of The Rings movies. With The Fly, Shore showed that he could create complex emotional music on a large scale. This also no doubt helped him land the job of scoring 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs. While speculation is all guesswork, it’s quite possible that without The Fly, Shore may have never been offered the Lord of the Rings or The Silence of the Lambs scores. Without him, it’s not a stretch to say that those films may have turned out quite differently.
3. A Body Horror Opera
The film music for The Fly could have taken a variety of paths. In 1986, minimal Carpenter style electronic scores were quite prominent, as well as current pop-laden insert song soundtracks. While Cronenberg and Shore could have gone any number of directions, they very deliberately chose to pursue a very dramatic orchestrated score. Now, why is this? And how does it affect the movie we as viewers experience? Well, those questions are actually easier to answer than one might think.
See, the thing about The Fly is that it’s been done before. Cronenberg’s version is not a new story, it’s not even a new film, but it’s miles away from the 1958 version. Taking the Cronenberg style visuals out of the equation, the music alone helps tell a much different tale. Suddenly we don’t simply have a sci-fi tale of experimentation gone awry, we have an epic in the very literal sense of the word. The tragic tale of a brilliant scientist with an Icarus like trajectory that becomes a victim of his own ego and creation. A tale of a man who hurts not only himself but the loved ones that surround him. An act of jealousy and haste that leads to devastating results. In short, you could say (and I’m going to) that The Fly is a horror opera. So, it only makes sense to score it as such. Cronenberg said in the same Beyond Fest interview in regards to the score,
“It’s not a man walking down the street, it’s a man walking towards his destiny.”
Take the track ‘Baboon Teleportation’ for instance. Here is the moment when Seth tries out his pod on a living creature. He’s successfully transported a baboon from one pod to the next, and yet the result is not quite as he intended. The music in the scene is relatively simple. Restrained, quiet strings play elongated drawn out notes while harp and winds provide a lightness. Then, a solo violin plays an upward run of notes emphasizing the hopefulness, the optimism and beauty of the moment that Seth is experiencing. Everything he’s worked for, everything he’s been striving for is hanging in the balance. As viewers we feel for him, we feel his excitement and the power of the moment, as well as the heartbreak when it doesn’t turn out as planned.
In contrast to this moment, we have the track ‘Fly Graphic.’ Here is when Seth finally begins to come to the conclusion that something is indeed wrong with him. As he begins to dig through the computer’s records of his teleportation, layers upon layers of strings begin to overlap with deliberate dissonant tones. An echo effect is achieved as the reality of the situation begins to set in and thoughts swirl around Seth‘s head. As the image of the fly appears in front of him the tension builds with swelling percussion and strings. Through the instrumentation and arrangement of the music, a level of horror is reached on a very emotional and personal level. A moment that could have easily played out as cheesy becomes a pivotal shift for the character of Seth. At this moment the foundation is laid for a monster that evokes an incredible amount of empathy from the audience. From this point on, as Brundlefly evolves and darkens, so does the tone of the score.
It all comes to a head in ‘The Creature.’ Brundlefly is fully exposed and his logic is not only rash but dangerous. Dark, foreboding percussion sets the baseline while a swirl of instruments and sounds begin to play off each other, punching and bursting through at seemingly random intervals. Whereas various themes and note progressions were previously recognizable, much like Brundlefly himself, what we once could recognize is now lost. The downfall and horror of the final transformation is mirrored in the score with incredible care and skill.
Oh yeah, and then there was the actual opera based on the movie The Fly. In 2008, Howard Shore, David Cronenberg and Librettist David Henry Hwang created a live opera version based on the 1986 film. With the pieces all laid out in the film itself, adapting the film version to the stage is actually a rather logical step.
4. Music As A Character
The final characteristic of note in regards to the score is the way in which it’s used. Cronenberg once referred to the score of The Fly as another character in the film. Where it is used is just as important as where it is not used. Have you ever noticed how few characters there are in the film? The ones that are there are there for a reason and no extra fluff is required. While some films are wall to wall music with every scene accompanied by some sort of background music, Cronenberg and Shore worked together to create a highly curated score. By doing this, it not only imbues a symbolic weight of importance on the score, but on the dialogue as well. The relationship between music and dialogue is a symbiotic one that supports and emphasizes the power of each. Howard Shore is known to start the composing process for Cronenberg’s films based on the script and the words of a film rather than the visuals. His high level of attention to the verbal direction a film takes is on full display in The Fly and a unique process for a composer to undertake.
It’s a truly beautiful thing when a composer and a film director can come together and foster a relationship that is not only productive and efficient, but one that uplifts and highlights the talents of both. David Cronenberg and Howard Shore are one of those rare instances where two creatives combine and create pure magic. While their list of achievements is long and prestigious, it is my opinion that The Fly is the pinnacle of their collaborative efforts.
Luckily for fans of film music, The Fly is a score that is not currently hard to obtain. While original copies of both the Varese Sarabande CD and LP are certainly floating around out there, there are also reissues as well. In 2017, Varese Sarabande released a beautiful LP for fans. Limited to 2000 copies and pressed on a fog green wax with a lenticular cover, this is a fantastic version for those who prefer the vinyl medium. Even better, prices range from a mere $15 to a reasonable $40. Certainly a wise investment and one that will provide hours of listening pleasure.
What do you think? What are some of your favorite Howard Shore and David Cronenberg collaborations? Let us know over on Twitter, in the official NOFS Subreddit, or in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook! And, while you’re here – check out previous installments of Terror on the Turntable, where we explore horror’s greatest and most terrifying scores!