As I began to ponder which score to explore for Stephen King month here at NOFS, I struggled to make a selection Yes, there’s Pino Donaggio’s classic work for Carrie, Benjamin Wallfisch’s new interpretation for IT, and of course AC/DC’s hard rockin’ score for Maximum Overdrive. However, I really wanted to do the Master of Horror Fiction more justice than that. While these scores are all incredible, I wanted to talk about something a bit more personal to King.
And just like that, it struck me. Tangerine Dream’s score for Sorcerer. Back in 2017, the BFI (British Film Institue) asked Stephen King to compile a list of his favorite films. And while there are some you might expect such as The Changeling, The Hitcher and The Stepfather, it was King’s number one pick that seemed to shock people the most.
My favorite film of all time – this may surprise you—is Sorcerer, William Friedkin’s remake of the great Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear. Some may argue that the Clouzot film is better; I beg to disagree.
Although not exactly horror, Sorcerer is a terrifying, incredibly tense film that will certainly capture your attention and have you holding your breath. Nipping at the heels of The Exorcist (1973) and The French Connection (1971), Sorcerer came in 1977. At this time it seemed that William Friedkin could do no wrong. He had an Oscar in one hand and the other firmly planted on society’s fear center. His work had managed to captivate both critics and civilians alike and there was a palpable anticipation for what Friedkin would produce next.
And then, Friedkin released what would become his favorite work…and also the largest financial disaster of his career; Sorcerer. The film starring Roy Scheider (and a small role featuring Maniac‘s Joe Spinell), is a remake that tells the story of 4 criminals hiding in South America who all take a dangerous, high-paying job transporting nitroglycerin across 218 miles of highly questionable terrain. If you think this sounds like an elaborate spin-off episode of Ice Road Truckers, you wouldn’t really be wrong. The film is a visually stunning, suspenseful story that is well executed and impeccably directed.
So why did it fail so bad? Well, for one it lacked the surface level allure innate to The Exorcist and The French Connection‘s subject matter. Another, is that the name is misleading and does not really convey what the film is about. But really, truly what did the film in was another film released just a month earlier in the US, and the very same day in Canada; Star Wars: Episode IV-A New Hope. How could anything really compete? Yet, like so many films out there, time has been kind to Sorcerer. Given enough years and space, the film has become an inarguable classic as audiences have returned to the film and now appreciate its true merits.
Sorcerer was not an easy film to make. Everything from casting to set design, production, special effects, financing and it’s release was fraught with drama, ego and problems. Originally allotted a budget of $15 million, due to delays and various issues, the film ended up costing $21 million. However, there was one area where Friedkin straight up nailed it from the outset; the score. After attending a Tangerine Dream concert, Friedkin approached the band and quickly commissioned them to compose the music for his upcoming project. In fact, Friedkin has been quoted saying that had he found them sooner, he would have used Tangerine Dream for The Exorcist! (Now that is certainly a score to imagine.)
At the time, he had no footage to show the band, so they went to work off of nothing but a draft script. Luckily for Friedkin, these were no amateurs. The band supplied Friedkin with a substantial amount of material before the film was fully underway. This allowed Friedkin the luxury of filming, cutting and editing to the music. While he most certainly had his own distinct vision for Sorcerer, the score was undoubtedly in the back of his mind and effected the way certain shots were filmed and eventually edited.
Tangerine Dream has had a rotating cast of members over the years, but in 1977 the lineup included founding member Edgar Froese, Christopher Franke and Peter Baumann. Just to get a feel for the caliber of musicians involved with the band, other members have included Klaus Schulze, Conrad Schnitzler, Michael Hoenig and Ulrich Schnauss. Originally founded in 1967, Tangerine Dream had firmly established themselves as pioneers of prog rock and ambitious explorers of electronic music. Their experimentation and fearlessness to embrace the potential found within new and evolving electronic technology gave them a wide range of fans including Friedkin himself. While the appeal had always been there, the group had never really jumped into the film scoring game. However, when William freakin’ Friedkin showed up and offered them a gig, it seemed meant to be.
Early in the film the score in Sorcerer is sparse. And yet, it is due to the restrained utilization of Tangerine Dream’s sound that the score becomes a strategically placed emotional cue. We are first introduced to the score, naturally, through the ‘Main Title.’ Here we get an ambient, otherworldly swirling of synths and electronic vaguery. The overall vibe is mysterious, dark and brooding. Something is approaching, and while that something remains unknown, it’s certainly not good. This is a sound that Tangerine Dream fans would have been familiar with. The group by this time was well known for it’s long, exploratory journeys through analog and synthetic soundscapes. At this point they had released classic albums like Phaedra, Rubycon and Ricochet. True gear nerds, the group had amassed a considerable collection of equipment and was beginning to integrate older Mellotrons, Moogs, sequencers and keyboards with newer synths and custom made pieces like Baumann’s Projekt Elektronik modular synthesizer. This opening track seeps into the film with a subtle blend of spooky sounds both old and new. This combination of technologies creates an interesting dichotomy that gives the music an almost organic, acoustic element to it but in a strange and unfamiliar way. Without giving too much information away, this ‘Main Title‘ gently warns viewers that what they are about to embark on is a bleak and treacherous journey.
Throughout the first half of the movie, the film’s sound design puts diegetic sound front and center. We are allowed to feel the street sounds, crowds, weather and even explosions. Through this focus on naturally occurring and visual soundscapes, Friedkin manages to create a visceral visual experience that rivals even that of Tobe Hooper. We feel the heat, the mud, and the sweat. Friedkin’s ability to connect the audience with his character’s environment is no easy feat and yet he achieves it beautifully. Short snippets of score are dropped in quickly, but deliberately to convey a transition in story. Following along with our 4 separate main characters, the puzzle becomes complete when the men’s stories intersect and simultaneously become one. It is then that the score similarly becomes a fully integrated part of the puzzle and a fully realized component in the film.
For example, let’s talk about the track ‘Creation.’ When this track is used we seen the the men prepping their chosen trucks in an effective montage. The haunting atonal sounds slowly float around the men like a tense, foreboding fog. All these men are running from something and this is the first real hope they’ve had in a while. While their focus is on their work, they are always on guard and the music reflects this underlying tension. The repeating keyboard notes mirror the ever present danger while ethereal, effect driven guitar reflects the men’s inner thoughts and emotional states. Here, Tangerine Dream’s expertise in free form experimental sound truly becomes an asset to the film as the lack of traditional song structure creates tension and suspense in a beautifully atmospheric way. And while the score becomes a more prominent actor in the film from this point on, the sound design continues to play a critical and effective role. At times, the score and sound design become so intertwined it’s nearly impossible to decipher one from the other. This melding of the two provides a new level of dread and suspense that works as a subconscious support to the real, visceral fear that is flowing through the men’s veins.
While every track of this score is worthy of a listen, there’s one final segment I have to address; ‘Betrayal.’ While the song plays at the very end of the film over the end credits, the song is a hugely influential piece of music. Take a listen. I’ll wait. Did you immediately think Stranger Things? Now remember, this is 1977. This is a full year before John Carpenter would introduce the world to Michael Myers and his infamous Halloween theme. In this track we see Tangerine Dream’s genius come together in a way more digestible by mainstream audiences. There is a semblance of traditional song structure and melody. The dark, pulsing rhythmic notes encapsulate the stressful journey of our main characters in a relatable yet otherworldly way. As the notes swell and fade, a fantastical like effect is achieved that captivates the listener while addressing the absurdity and tragedy of the story. Here in this track, there is an emotional realism that manages to boil down the separate, yet similar journeys of the men. There is no happy ending to this story, and ‘Betrayal‘ solidifies that.
While Tangerine Dream were certainly not the only pioneers in this particular arena, I dare to say that ‘Betrayal‘ stands as a substantial mile marker into the synth-driven sonic landscape that would come to dominate, define and endear us to films of the 1980’s. Perhaps the best evidence to support this statement comes in the form of another cult classic film, Walter Hill’s 1979 classic, The Warriors. While the final touches were still being placed on the film, the first official trailer was released using ‘Betrayal‘ as background music. So here we have a completely separate film, utilizing another film’s score in a similar and equally successful way. Even though The Warriors would go on to have a slightly funkier, more rock-driven soundtrack, it’s easy to see the connection and lovely to imagine what the film would have been like with Tangerine Dream at the helm.
While Sorcerer was the first real score that Tangerine Dream ever created, it certainly wasn’t their last. Before long they would go on to create scores for films like Thief, Legend, Firestarter and Near Dark. And in great film score tradition, the music to Sorcerer manages to add an incredible layer of depth, emotion and momentum to the film that it’s in. The score also manages to stand alone as an incredible piece of pioneering electronic music from one of the most enduring and influential prog acts of all time. It’s a fascinating glimpse into an exciting time in electronic music and a must-have for soundtrack collectors. Not surprisingly, not all the music that Tangerine Dream created was used in the film and the only way you can really hear the pieces in their entirety is on the soundtrack release. Luckily, in this case they are not particularly hard to find. Prices for a good original pressing of the LP range anywhere from $10-$30 dollars and the CD’s even less. Strangely enough, it’s the cassette versions that are hardest to come by and sometimes even more expensive. It’s a score that’s begging for a nice vinyl reissue and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see one soon. However you have to go about it, Sorcerer is a worthy addition to any collection and an important work of progressive electronic music.
Do you have a favorite Tangerine Dream score? What do you think of Sorcerer? 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!