“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain… Time to die.”
Replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer)’s dying words long ago became the stuff of cinematic history, oft quoted by sci-fi geeks and high falutin’ critics alike as some of the best dialogue written for the screen. The film that these unlikely words inhabit also underwent a renaissance, or at least, a rediscovery of sorts. A big, fat turkey at the box-office when first released in 1982, Ridley’s Scott’s screen adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? has since achieved true cult status and finally been recognised and hailed by initially snippy critics for what it really is: a masterful and visually stunning work of filmic art that takes a look at the vagaries of an age of technology and capitalism run amok. Criticised initially for being clinically all style, no substance, even a first viewing today makes it plain how laughable that appraisal was. At once unflinchingly dark and devastatingly poignant, Blade Runner is what I, Robot should have been.
Set in Los Angeles circa 2019, Blade Runner employed some of the most remarkable and audacious art design ever devised for a feature film; who can forget those iconic pyramid structures, the gigantic chimneys belching fireballs into the night sky, and the neon advertisements of the geishas singing that eerie siren song? The film famously defied the conventional view of a sanitised, hyper-modern future world: the landscape of Blade Runner is nightmarishly bleak, a dystopia of perpetual night choked with sleaze and pollution and what seems to be a constant drizzle of acid rain. It also contains what is arguably Harrison Ford’s best, most complex performance, as the film’s ‘hero’ Rick Deckard, as well as a host of superb supporting performances from Hauer, Sean Young, the incredible Daryl Hannah as Pris, and cult fave James Hong as Hannibal Chew.
But what we are concerned with here is obviously the film’s music. And here is one soundtrack which has, like say that of Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, achieved a solid cult status quite independent of the film. Composed mainly by Greek synthesist Vangelis, it was a more than worthy follow-up to his Oscar-winning music for Chariots of Fire a year earlier.
For more than ten years after the film’s release, the soundtrack was unavailable commercially. An orchestral version of the score was released but was generally considered a poor cousin of the original. As a result, it became an elusive holy grail for serious film music collectors. It was also thus saved from the cheese factor which has plagued many a film score thanks to abundant use in numerous PTV soaps, among them the aforementioned Chariots of Fire, as well as Nino Rota’s otherwise glorious score for Franco Zefferelli’s Romeo & Juliet (1968).
Finally seeing the light of day in 1994, the Blade Runner soundtrack was more than worth the wait. Consisting of electrosymphonic scores that play with shadowy timbres and otherworldly percussive rhythms, threaded with dialogue from the film, it exemplifies the term ‘evocative’. You don’t GET more evocative than this.
Long viewed by purists as a blight on the landscape of ‘serious’ music, the poor synthesiser finally gets a break in Vangelis’s capable hands. The combination of sounds and effects and the tonal variations that he urges from it set a suitably cybernoir-ish mood that reflects the film’s own blend of sci-fi and 40s film noir. Chillingly tinny here, hauntingly full there, the music travels a roller coaster of moods and emotions, albeit in an admirably subtle fashion.
For this official soundtrack release, some of the tracks make use of the film’s dialogue and also some of its iconic sound effects. In the opening track ‘Main Title’ for instance, we hear a sample of the incessant clicking and beeping of the Voight-Kampff empathy testing machine that is such a significant element of the film, giving way to the almost santoor-like soaring flourishes on the synth that suggest a (deceptively) majestic urban horizon. Undercutting the melody is the incredible bass ‘rumble’ which on a good system sounds like a rocket preparing to lift off.
This sense of threatening tension carries over into ‘Blush Response’ but finds a fine counterpoint in the ethereal ‘Rachel’s Song’. Consisting of a haunting wordless female vocal over a water-drop synthesiser sequence, the piece was not featured in the film but was created especially for the soundtrack. In its place in the film is the equally wonderful and melancholy ‘Memories of Green’ which mixes in disembodied notes on an old upright piano with the synthesised strains. It, appropriately enough, marks a point in the film where the question of identity has become a heartbreakingly volatile one.
Two tracks which were used only sparingly in the film are also two of the most interesting ones. ‘Tales of the Future’ is a pseudo-Arabian piece that has a surreal vocal in a voice that sounds like a curious combination of Annie Lennox and Demis Roussos, except that it’s in Arabic. Or is it? Similarly, the ominous, Indian-inspired ‘Damask Rose’ is obviously a futuristic take on the likes of Ravi Shankar. Both pieces capture well the film’s vision of a melting-pot of cultures that is anything but idyllic.
Some people have a problem with the old-fashioned 50s-style ballad ‘One More Kiss Dear’, deeming it an out-of-place rip-off. It is true that it sounds suspiciously like the Ink Spots’ ‘If I Didn’t Care’, but what the hey. Stick a bonnet on my head and call me granny, but I have always liked this pseudo-slice of Old Americana. Firstly, I like the velvety and strangely androgynous vocal. Secondly, its very out-of-place-ness is what makes it a perfect fit, considering the characters’ quest for old world humanity in a world gone techno-mad. Appropriately enough, in the film the song is heard playing at an old-fashioned, grimy Chinese food thela.
Sticking out like a bit of a sore thumb is the somewhat hokey ‘Love Theme’. Cheesy saxophone riffs were the device du jour in the 80s to punctuate lust and romance so one can’t exactly pick on Vangelis for moving with the crowd in this one instance, but it is somewhat of a smirk-inducer. Still, it could’ve been worse: think Titanic and ‘My Heart Will Go On’, and this one doesn’t seem half bad.
All is forgiven with the absolute tour de force that is ‘Blade Runner Blues’. An electrifying mood piece comprising undulating string-like strains that flow unendingly into one another, punctuated by sensuous sax-like notes and heavy, bass bells, this alone should have won Blade Runner the Best Music Oscar that it was nominated for. Fittingly, in the film the piece accompanies a scene of unforgettable beauty and cinematic grace. Zhora, the beautiful replicant is pursued and gunned down by Deckard as she crashes through a store window. And then in astutely used slow-mo, her last throes are captured as the strains of ‘Blues’ come into play, her translucent raincoat indistinguishable from the glass that is cutting through her. It doesn’t get much better than this.
Scratch that. ‘Blues’ is equalled, if not bettered, by ‘Tears in Rain’. Using a sample from Batty’s legendary final speech, the piece is profoundly bittersweet. A natural conclusion to the notes and tones initiated in ‘Blues’, ‘Tears in Rain’ never ceases to surprise with its delicate poetry that is then underscored by a potent depth of bass notes.
A minor complaint I do have with the soundtrack is that it is still incomplete; there are still a number of pieces that are heard in the film but are either left out completely on the CD, or are featured in abbreviated versions. Maybe in another twenty years or so we will finally get a definitive version that will include the whole smorgasbord. Meanwhile, let’s be thankful for small mercies. Even incomplete, Blade Runner is one helluva ride.