A long time ago, in a galaxy (seemingly) far, far away…the world of science fiction cinema was dominated by the Star Wars model. Following the incredible success of Star Wars: Episode IV-A New Hope in 1977, anyone and everyone was attempting to capitalize on this new galactic world of possibility. Because of this cosmic cash grab, it was only a matter of time before Frank Herbert’s epic 1965 novel Dune would be snatched up for cinematic adaptation. Again.
The time is A.D. 10191. The principal setting is the red planet Arrakis, an arid wasteland beneath whose sands lies a life-sustaining spice. Its extraction has forced the subjugation of the planet’s inhabitants, known as Fremen, into whose sanctuary comes Paul Atreides, the son of an outcast duke. Slowly, the young man begins to assume his long prophesied role as the Fremen’s messiah — a destiny that culminates in the overthrow of Arrakis’ evil rulers and the restoration of universal justice.
The notoriously rough road to fruition for Dune was one paved with so many complications it’s still surprising the world ever got a film at all, let alone one in 1984. After purchasing the rights in 1976, Dino De Laurentiis tapped Ridley Scott to do what Jodorowsky could not. (For more info on that, check out the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune) And yet, due to reasons both personal and professional, Scott bowed out of the project before it had really even begun. Never one to give up on a passion project, De Laurentiis predictably stayed the course and continued to pursue Dune. However, what was less predictable was hiring David Lynch to man the director’s chair and American rock band Toto to create the score.
At the core of these decisions were the De Laurentiis family. Following the release of Eraserhead (1977) and The Elephant Man (1980), Raffaella De Laurentiis convinced her father Dino that Lynch had the right amount of vision and creativity for the project. As far as the decision to utilize a popular rock band for the score, well…that decision was all Dino. For years, Dino had been convinced that integrating popular rock bands into films was going to be a surefire way to rake in the cash.
His first attempt at such a union came in 1980 with Queen creating the soundtrack for Flash Gordon. While the film underperformed at the time, Dino remained steadfast. In 1982, he pushed a rock soundtrack for Conan the Barbarian starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. And yet, Director John Milius smartly and firmly disagreed. The film ended up utilizing Basil Poledouris (Robocop) to score the fantastical adventure of Conan. The decision paid off and Poledouris’ beautiful, orchestral score elevated the film in all the right ways.
“Dune is a surreal waking dream […] It’s an ornate, complicated endeavor that not only needs a sonic support system but requires it.”
Never one to admit defeat, Dino proposed utilizing a rock band to score the exotic, fantastical world of Dune. But who proposed Toto? That suggestion came courtesy of David Lynch. While the decision seems truly bonkers on the surface, there’s a bit more beneath Toto’s surface than one might initially think. Formed properly in 1977, Toto originally consisted of keyboardists David Paich and Steve Porcaro, drummer Jeff Porcaro, bassist David Hungate, guitarist Steve Lukather and singer Bobby Kimball.
While their first album (appropriately titled Toto) came out in 1977, this group of musicians were already quite familiar within the music industry. Before, during and after Toto’s official band releases, all of Toto’s members were successful studio musicians.
Throughout the 70s and 80s, members worked with artists like Boz Scaggs, Sonny & Cher, Steely Dan, Alice Cooper and Miles Davis. Lukather and the Porcaro brothers also contributed to multiple Michael Jackson projects including ‘Beat It‘ and ‘Thriller.’ So while the outside world recognized Toto for songs such as ‘Africa,’ ‘Hold the Line‘ and ‘Rosanna,’ the men behind Toto were also known for a whole other world of creative contributions.
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Lynch has always been open about his love, appreciation and interest in the musical world. His film projects have firmly established him as a director who appreciates the power and potency of music. While these facts are crystal clear to us now in 2020, the choice to offer Toto such a huge opportunity now stands as an early example of this. (Also in the iconic casting of Sting as Feyd Rautha) Because of Lynch’s interest and widespread connections, it’s likely that he was aware of Toto’s potential and knack for studio work. De Laurentiis agreed to give Toto a chance, the offer was made, and work on Toto’s first (and only) film score commenced.
That was an interesting project, because it was a legitimate score. It wasn’t a rock-and-roll band going in to try and write a rock-and-roll album. It was a classical score with a little bit of rhythm section. It was funny, because we had just lost our singer when everything was going really well for us. We had retreated for a bit while we tried to figure out what we were going to do next. We had been fans of David Lynch’s early movies and remain fans of his films to this day. We got offered Footloose at the same time, and we probably would have made more money with that, but, hey, what can I say? When we got together, we all really got along and became friends. -Steve Lukather (2016)
The first real taste we get of Toto’s score comes in the ‘Main Title.’ Utilizing the talents of the Vienna Symphonic Orchestra and the Vienna Volksoper Choir, the immediate tone of Dune is dominated by epic, foreboding mystery. Traditional orchestral instrumentation fuses with electric guitars, synth and other electronic elements subtly and tactfully. Determined percussion resonates with remarkable effect, translating the sheer scope and size of Dune‘s world along with the production itself.
Most notably though, we hear the ‘Main Title’s‘ melody organized in four-note groupings. Despite the melody shifting, modulating and altering, the rhythmic grouping of chords drops early hints at Dune‘s over-arching theme of free will versus fate. Similar to the way young Paul (Kyle MacLachlan) struggles with his place within Dune‘s infamous prophecy, the ‘Main Title‘ roams melodically while never quite escaping the confines of it’s inherent structure.
Time and time again we will hear this idea reinterpreted and utilized in a variety of ways. As the Atreides family heads towards Arrakis (Dune), they require the assistance of a Guild Navigator to fold space and arrive at their destination. The process of folding space is a delicate, intimate and highly specialized operation that requires vast amounts of energy, skill and spice melange. As we the audience enter the folding sanctuary the song ‘Trip To Arrakis‘ accompanies the scene. Slow, sustained vocal notes soar above a layered unison of orchestral instruments.
Deliberately and systematically, the choir shifts pitch in concert with the accompanying instruments. The addition of these beautifully vague vocalizations adds a new feeling of reverence and otherworldliness to this sanctuary of space and time. Obvious associations with religion are clearly evident as this place retains a level of reverence that transcends intergalactic power struggles, family drama or planet politics. Even here, in this church of cosmic travel, we get the familiar four-note chord groupings. While melodic shifts and movements are slower, altered and reinterpreted, fate remains a veritable force that cannot be simply folded away.
“Every square centimeter of Lynch’s Dune inhabits extremely high levels of detail and Toto’s score is right there supporting it.”
One of the more divergent (and dated) songs in the score is titled ‘Dune (Desert Theme).’ Here we not only feel, but hear Toto’s pop sensibilities unleashed on the grandest of scales. Electric guitars, bass, full rock drum sets, synthesizers, and piano play alongside full string, horn and percussion sections. Toto’s pop influences fully reveal themselves as the track delicately balances on prog-rock territory. While the track retains a certain feel of excess, so does the film itself. Every square centimeter of Lynch’s Dune inhabits extremely high levels of detail and Toto’s score is right there supporting it.
We see music and sound not only playing a vital role practically in the film, but internally as well. Sound is used as a weapon. Thoughts and feelings are transmitted through the air. There’s an emotional undercurrent flowing through the world of Dune that can’t be grasped…but it can be felt. The world that Lynch creates in Dune is a surreal waking dream on both visual and narrative scales. It’s an ornate, complicated endeavor that not only needs a sonic support system but requires it.
I would be remiss to not also acknowledge the contributions of Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and Roger Eno. The trio composed a track titled ‘Prophecy Theme‘ that embraces the ambient, cosmic beauty that perfectly punctuates the vastness of space and the mystery of predetermination. Within the stunning synthetic sounds and subtle, ebbing tones the curious existence of the song sits at its very core. Neither Lynch nor Eno has ever revealed why the sole track exists, but theories often point towards Eno being originally chosen to score the film with ‘Prophecy‘ being the sole existing track to ever have been released. Rumors have also swirled of a full Eno Dune score, but so far those rumors have proved to be nothing but gossip.
Upon its initial release, Dune received rather tepid reviews. With it’s staggering $40 million budget, the worldwide gross ended up falling a bit short at $30,925,690. In its initial review, the NY Times called the film ‘awash in the kind of marble, mosaics, wood paneling, leather tufting and gilt trim more suitable to moguls’ offices than to far-flung planets in the year 10191.‘ Although 1984 was certainly less than kind to Dune, time has proven to cast a slightly different light on the epic sci-fi adventure. While there are certainly those that still find very valid flaws or issues with the film, Dune has proven to be an incredible swing at a massively expansive property. Over the years, Dune has received new appreciation for the incredible production design, creative vision, and the sheer attempt at trying to condense the staggering world of Dune into one feature film. Along with these much-deserved accolades stands Toto with their shockingly beautiful and effective score. It takes a special kind of talent to stand head-to-head with David Lynch, and who would have guessed that Toto would have what it takes.
“It takes a special kind of talent to stand head-to-head with David Lynch, and who would have guessed that Toto would have what it takes.”
Various releases of the score have been issued over the years in vinyl, CD and cassette form. The initial 1984 Polydor vinyl release still remains the go-to in terms of quality, accessibility and affordability. Copies are relatively easy to track down, prices are typically under $30 and odds are one is sitting in your local record shop right now. Just to make things even easier for Dune fans, Jackpot Records will be releasing a new ‘Spice’ colored LP for Record Store Day on June 20th, 2020.
What are your thoughts on Dune? Have another favorite David Lynch score? Excited about the upcoming remake of Dune? Let us know over on Twitter, our subreddit, or at The Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook! And if you’re looking for more of horror’s best scores, make sure and check out my other installments of Terror on the Turntable!