AOM Logo April 1999

Alex North: Viva Zapata

Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Jerry Goldsmith, cond.

Varese Sarabande VSD 5900

David Aspinall

Cover Image

When Elia Kazan brought Alex North to Hollywood in 1951, neither could have foreseen the long range impact the composer would have on the art of motion picture composition. North's score for his first Hollywood assignment, Kazan's version of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, hit movie audiences, critics, and the music industry, straight between the eyes! Jazz, for the first time, was the essential component of a film's dramatic score, albeit jazz integrated with symphonic textures. That audacious amalgam was more revolutionary than a straight jazz score could have been. And the face of film music changed forever. During the '50s and early '60s, the traditional romantic-symphonic score receded more and more, while North's pioneering influence was heard in the work of a new generation of composers such as Leonard Rosenman, Kenyon Hopkins, Laurence Rosenthal and Jerry Goldsmith.

North followed up his sensational debut with another acclaimed score, Death of a Salesman, which he had also done on Broadway (for Kazan). Salesman, developed and enlarged from its stage ancestor, was a departure from the style of Streetcar, decidedly less urban, simple and even childlike in its use of flute and small ensemble, yet like the earlier film in its relentlessly modern milieu and feel. North managed the unprecedented coup of having two scores nominated for the Oscar in his first year in Hollywood! Ironically, their musical radicalism/eclecticism, perhaps the major component in North's explosive impact on film music, was to work against his popular success1. Alex North was never to win an Academy Award - though near the end of his life (1986) he was finally awarded an honorary Oscar for the brilliant artistry of his career achievement.

In 1952 Kazan called on him again for Viva Zapata. John Steinbeck wrote the script, which said something about the prestige of this picture, and Hollywood's hottest new star, Marlon Brando, was to play the Mexican revolutionary. The choice of North was not simply reflex or sentiment on Kazan's part. North had spent two years in Mexico, studied with Silvestre Revueltas and had the rhythms and instrumentation of modern Mexican music down pat. In addition to the technical know-how, North brought to Zapata the same complex psychological sensibility with which he approached every assignment, whether epic or intimate.

The score brought North yet another Academy nomination. Yet, unlike Streetcar, it had no commercial release. Very few film scores did until the popular acceptance of the LP in the late '50s. Not until Elmer Bernstein's recording a quarter century later did the Zapata score become available to collectors (coupled, ironically, with the first recording of Salesman). Until then, the North devotee had to settle for a single excerpt, the gentle Josefa theme, on a late '50s compilation album conducted by the composer and later released by Citadel.

When Varese Sarabande producer Robert Townson and Jerry Goldsmith began their North retrospective a few years ago, the score Goldsmith had to do was Viva Zapata. Well, after getting in the can North's unused score to 2001: A Space Odyssey, then Streetcar, then Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Varese finally got to Zapata last year.

It was worth the wait. Goldsmith evidently loves this music. He's thrown all his forty years of composing/conducting savvy into the faithful reproduction of his mentor's masterpiece. Here, in all its complex polyphony, in all its epic simplicity, is one of the greatest scores ever to grace an American film. Such is its sophistication that it will satisfy the most erudite student. Yet Zapata's complexity, even its polytonality and frequent dissonance, are not alienating to the less demanding listener (my wife fell in love with it on first hearing). The folk-like themes, the mariachi instrumentation - above all, the memorability of the main themes - guarantee even the musical neophyte will want to hear Zapata again.The film's best-remembered sequence, Gathering Forces, is a good point of entry, should you wish merely to sample Zapata. Building from the (on screen) clacking of rocks, signaling the hero's arrest, North starts this dialogue-less sequence with only percussion - snare, timbales and bongos - and as Zapata's peasant army assembles, North gradually introduces the rest of his orchestra, the majestic swell of the strings finally signaling Zapata's emergence into legend. Truly one of the most telling examples of what image and music can accomplish without the spoken word. Later, as Emiliano's legend tarnishes and his fate is sealed, North's score descends from this height of epic grandeur to increasing discord, even Josefa's tender theme wearing unsettling harmonic clothing. After the climactic clash of instrumental forces - Zapata's death - North concludes his paean to the peons with the traditional tune Adelita, signaling Zapata's transfiguration into myth.

My single reservation regarding this CD is its decisively digital glare. In this music, alive with brass and percussion extrusions, digital is definitely a disadvantage. Despite the brevity of this release, Viva Zapata is one of the film music events of the decade.

1 North's only flirtation with "pop" success was the now-perennial melody from an obscurity called Unchained (1955), but reprised for mammoth box office at the beginning of this decade in Ghost.

Copyright © 1999 Audiophilia Online Magazine Home