by Oscar Benjamin
Director and film composer John Carpenter burst on to the public consciousness with a science fiction film that had elements of comedy and horror in the year 1974. ‘Dark Star’ would literally foreshadow the rest of the legendary director’s career with films and television dramas that would celebrate nonconformists at odds against a world overrun by supernatural horror with science fiction elements thrown in a multi-genre stew. Film fans have celebrated his films for decades and many have become classics that have established genre templates such as ‘Halloween’ and ‘The Thing’. The majority of Carpenter’s films have had a music score written and composed by the director himself and John Carpenter has also written and composed two stand-alone albums entitled ‘Lost Themes’ and Lost Themes 2’. John Carpenter has been on an extended concert tour in support of those albums which also features themes from his fan favorite motion pictures that can be found on his latest release entitled ‘Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998.
John Carpenter’s approach to music continues the electronic music instrument revolution that was championed by mainstream pop and avant garde musicians that have dominated the charts since the 50’s. The advent of the 70’s brought this sensibility to film scores and was championed by many individuals and groups such as Tangerine Dream, Goblin and Phillip Glass. Mainstream orchestral composers would also begin to incorporate electronic music and those individuals have included the late Jerry Goldsmith, Hans Zimmer and Ennio Morricone.
I caught up with the director in concert during his visit to San Francisco, California at the Warfield Theater in the heart of city’s Tenderloin district which appropriately recalled elements of the director’s scintillating urban thriller entitled ‘Assault on Precinct 13’. The venue featured general and reserved seating as well as main floor where fans could stand to watch Carpenter and his band perform the night’s impressive selection of themes culled from his impressive oeuvre.
A deceptively simple stage set-up which featured John Carpenter on main electronic keyboards with his son, Cody who is also a musician and film composer (‘Cigarette Burns’) to his right on lead keyboards along with a bassist John Spiker, guitarist John Kamiski, lead guitarist Daniel Davies and drummer Scott Seaver were framed by a rectangular screen which featured projected key scenes from Carpenter’s filmography provided the visual eye candy to the live renditions of various themes. The night began as the band casually walked on stage and John Carpenter hit the first distinctive notes from ‘Escape from New York’. It was from this moment that those in attendance knew that this would be a celebration of not only the music of Carpenter but perhaps one of the sheer power of many of the images from the director’s film.
The night would feature the director and his band performing such favorites as ‘Assault on Precinct 13’, ‘Halloween’ and the ‘The Fog’. Fans screaming, ‘I love you, John’ brought a warm smile to the director’s face and also added an unusually humorous element to the evening as well despite the scenes of gore and trademark Carpenter horror that sometimes dominated the background screen. Playful and sparse conversation directed at the crowd highlighted by the director emphasizing how much gum he had chewed through the performances also added humor which was quite appreciated by fans. His most humorous observation was when he stated that he believes in love which was followed by the infamous and much loved main theme to ‘Halloween’.
There were many welcome surprises in the playlist that evening which included ‘Village of the Damned’, ‘Body Bags’ and ‘Vampires’. The most well received performance was that of ‘In the Mouth of Madness’ which featured a blistering guitar solo by Daniel Davies that marks this particular film score as one of the director’s most unusual. The inclusion of the classic rock and roll electric guitar created an auditory uncompromising dissonance that is felt by the main character, John Trent (Sam Neill) who in many ways can be seen as the closest representation of the Carpenter himself. It was that moment in the night where you could confidently acknowledge you were in the company of rare genius.
John Carpenter and his band also performed two themes that can be found in his films but were not composed by the director. Midway through the concert the director stated he had directed one love story in his career which was known as ‘Starman’. The movie’s moving score was composed and conducted by late Jack Nitzsche. That score was also synthesizer driven and was unabashedly emotionally driven which accompanied the director’s film quite well. The other theme in this midway set was that of noted composer Ennio Morricone’s title composition to Carpenter’s brilliant and unrelenting horror masterpiece known as ‘The Thing’. It is easy to assume that both scores had been written by Carpenter since the director’s musical influence can be clearly heard throughout both scores. It is especially evident in Morricone’s compositions which would also impact his later approach to future themes with the inclusion of electronic orchestration intermingled with the composer’s usual traditional orchestral approach to scoring.
John Carpenter’s concert touring is also to bring awareness to his original non cinema compositions that can be found in two album releases entitled ‘Lost Themes’ and ‘Lost Themes 2’. The director chose to feature four compositions from those albums entitled ‘Vortex’, ‘Mystery’, ‘Distant Dream’ and ‘Wraith’. These four selections fall well within what could be considered the Carpenter sound and were quite enthusiastically received by those in attendance. One can safely surmise that perhaps these compositions may one day highlight a future project if the director chooses to once again tackle cinema at a future date.
It has been announced that John Carpenter will act as Executive Producer for a new ‘Halloween’ film that will star original actress Jaime Lee Curtis reprising his role as Laurie Strode. It is after listening and viewing director and composer Carpenter in concert that one longs to hear and see more of what the director may still have lurking within his fertile imagination. At 69 years old, John Carpenter appears to be quite active, vital and enthusiastic enough to helm another motion picture. This fan will continue to hope that John Carpenter will give us another modern masterpiece that will once again feature his vibrantly minimalist themes that superbly accentuate what we are witnessing on whatever screen we view his work on. John Carpenter in concert is a must see experience that will continue to strengthen the love affair fans have with his work and create new swooning participants as well.
by Oscar Benjamin