by Jon Broxton
On July 22nd 2022 IFMCA members Jon Broxton, Craig Lysy, and Daniel Schweiger were among the thousands of concert-goers at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles for a special tribute to the life and music of composer Basil Poledouris.
The beginnings of this concert were originally conceived almost sixteen years ago. Poledouris died of cancer in November 2006, but just a few months previously he had summoned the strength and willed himself to travel to Úbeda in Spain to conduct a concert of his music in front of thousands of adoring fans at that year’s International Film Music Festival. The legacy of that concert, combined with Poledouris’s sad death shortly afterwards, initiated a desire to host a similar celebration in his home country, and this concert is the culmination of those efforts. The main quartet who eventually brought this dream to life comprise Robert Townson, Christopher Lennertz, Julia Michels, and Steven Allen Fox.
Townson is, of course, the legendary film music producer who spearheaded Varese Sarabande Records for so many years, and now produces film music concerts and events all over the world. Lennertz is the composer and conductor of superb film and TV scores ranging from Horrible Bosses and Sausage Party to Supernatural, Lost in Space, and The Boys, but who began his career as Poledouris’s assistant. Michels similarly began working with Poledouris at his Blowtorch Flats studio in the late 1990s, eventually became Director of Soundtracks for Capitol Records and VP of Music for Twentieth Century Fox, and is now a Grammy-winning music supervisor for films such as A Star is Born. Fox is an acclaimed conductor who for many years conducted the Golden State Pops Orchestra in Los Angeles, and is now the principal conductor for the Los Angeles Film Orchestra, whose inaugural concert this was.
The concert was staged at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, performed by the Los Angeles Film Orchestra and the SoCal Chorale, and conducted by Fox, alongside several guest conductors and featured soloists. The programme was an eclectic and varied mix of titles from Poledouris’s entire career, and highlighted the tonal versatility, thematic beauty, and compositional depth of this great musician. Townson introduced each segment with interesting pieces of trivia about the films, peppered with anecdotes and memories, which gave the whole evening a personal, intimate feeling. There were also special guest introductions before several segments from Randal Kleiser (the director of The Blue Lagoon), Don Mischer (the producer of numerous Olympic opening ceremonies and Superbowl halftime shows), Oscar-winning composer and editor John Ottman, and John Milius and Sandahl Bergman (the director and co-star of Conan the Barbarian), as well as pre-taped video messages by director Francis Ford Coppola, star of Conan the Barbarian Arnold Schwarzenegger, director Paul Verhoeven, star of Robocop Peter Weller, and director Simon Wincer.
The concert opened with a suite from Poledouris’s breakthrough score, the 1978 surfing drama Big Wednesday, comprising the cues “The South Swell/Main Title,” “Kaliponi Slack Key,” and “The Challenge.” The music rolled and churned like the Malibu surf he and director Milius loved so much, expressive and majestic, anchored by that tremendous main theme, while the Kaliponi Slack Key segment was performed superbly by virtuoso guitarist George Doering, a warm flavor of Hawaii. Next was a suite from the 1980 film The Blue Lagoon conducted by John Debney, comprising the “Love Theme,” the “Main Title,” and the cues “The Island” and “Three Points to Port/End Title”. This music continued the nautical theme and acknowledged Poledouris’s well-known personal love of sailing, boats, and the ocean; Debney conducted the heartfelt music with romantic tenderness, giving voice to the film’s idyllic island paradise.
The third piece was a special arranged performance of the main title from the 1993 film Free Willy, conducted by John Frizzell, with its gorgeous lyrical main theme and sparkling choral accents. Then came a performance of the huge, masculine Russian choral hymn from the 1990 film The Hunt for Red October, which saw the SoCal Chorale belting out Poledouris’s imposing Slavic lyrics, alternating from darkly heroic to amusingly playful. This was followed by the world premier performance of the Basil Poledouris Action Movie Overture, arranged by Leigh Phillips, and conducted by Christopher Lennertz, comprising selections from Under Siege 2, Amerika, Red Dawn, Iron Eagle, Quigley Down Under, and Farewell to the King. The personal highlights for me were the scintillating performance of “The Attack” from Quigley Down Under featuring George Doering on ‘action banjo,’ as well as the majestic final sweep of the theme from Farewell to the King.
The finale of the first half was very special – a performance of “The Tradition of the Games,” conducted by Mark Watters. Poledouris wrote this piece on commission for the opening ceremony of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, and for it he dug back into his own Greek heritage and emerged with a spectacular musical celebration of art and sporting triumph. The piece evokes the great Hollywood biblical epics of composers like Miklós Rózsa – haunting vocals, evocative nativist percussion, lilting and serpentine strings – and featured an absolutely spectacular bass flute solo performance by Sara Andon, before climaxing with a massive outburst of orchestral and choral glory. Faster, higher, stronger.
The second half of the concert began with three of Poledouris’s most popular works. First, a suite from his Emmy-winning score for the 1989 western mini-series Lonesome Dove, redolent of the grand open spaces and broad vistas of the American west. This was followed by the immense “Klendathu Drop” action sequence from the 1997 sci-fi film Starship Troopers, a masterpiece of complicated percussion writing, and then the triumphant “Last Pitch” scene from the 1999 baseball drama For Love of the Game.
Then came the pièce de resistance, a 20-minute suite of music from Poledouris’s masterpiece, and one of the greatest scores in the history of cinema, the 1982 sword-and-sorcery classic Conan the Barbarian, conducted by the Spanish maestro Diego Navarro. The suite comprised the opening “Anvil of Crom,” the enormous “Riddle of Steel/Riders of Doom” sequence, and the more intimate and dance-like “Theology/Civilization,” before concluding with the colossal “Battle of the Mounds”. The sound generated by the ensemble during this performance was staggering, but the combination of the arrangement, Navarro’s conducting, and the acoustics of the hall, meant that every detail was enunciated perfectly. The choral part of “Riders of Doom” was indistinguishable from the original recording – absolutely flawless – and the massively complicated brass trills and flourishes were executed impeccably; the trombones, performed by Alex Iles, Steve Suminski, Steve Trapani, and Noah Gladstone, were especially notable for their brilliant tone. The bank of drums, led principal percussionist MB Gordy, also ensured that the intensity and passion never diminished throughout the entire performance.
After an extended standing ovation Steven Allen Fox conducted the first encore, the masculine main title march from the 1987 sci-fi classic Robocop. This was then followed by perhaps the most emotional moment of the night; Townson brought Poledouris’s two daughters, Zoe and Alexis, onto the stage, who shared some personal memories of their father, and were then joined by all the conductors and special guests. A grand piano was wheeled onto center stage and pianist Robert Thies performed the gorgeous main title theme from the 1996 film It’s My Party, which Randal Kleiser directed, and which Poledouris scored for solo piano. While this music played a montage of Poledouris family photos was shown on the big screen – Basil on his boat, Basil with his daughters as children, various scoring sessions, snaps from that last concert in Úbeda – and everyone on stage just gathered around the piano and listened, almost as if they were at a gathering in the Poledouris family home. This moment of incredibly intimacy really drove home the fact that Basil Poledouris was not just a name on a screen or on a soundtrack album cover – he was a husband, a father, a mentor, a friend, and the people that loved him have had to live without him for sixteen years. Almost everyone on stage, and half the audience, was in tears by the end.
During his lifetime Basil Poledouris never received the level or respect or acclaim I, and many others, believe he should have attained. Although he wrote music for many commercial successes – not only those performed at the concert, but also titles such as Hot Shots Part Deux, the 1998 Les Misérables, Breakdown, and Mickey Blue Eyes – he also had the misfortune of writing some his best music for films that were either critical failures or box office flops – I’m especially thinking of things like Cherry 2000, Flesh + Blood, and Wind, among others. The end result of this is that the only major award nomination he ever received was the Emmy for Lonesome Dove in 1989 – no Oscars, no Golden Globes, no BAFTAs. This is especially a travesty when it comes to Conan the Barbarian.
All this is to say that this is perhaps the most satisfying thing about the concert; that finally, after all this time, Basil Poledouris has ‘gotten his due’ in the town where he lived and worked for the majority of his life, in a room filled with people who love the music he wrote for the movies and, for a select few of the attendees, loved the man himself. Everyone involved in this, but especially Robert Townson, Christopher Lennertz, Julia Michels, and Steven Allen Fox, should be congratulated for staging this magnificent tribute to one of the greatest composers ever to write music for film.