THE SOUNDTRACKS of summer '83 are an odd bunch with an unsettling common echo: They suggest, more than anything else, past successes.
Let's start with the glory year, 1978, and the soundtrack to "Saturday Night Fever." Stocked with a string of dance hits by the Bee Gees and others, it inexorably became the No. 1-selling album of all time, selling about 25 million copies (a double record set at that) and promptly outgrossing the film.
Now another soundtrack, with more dance-oriented hits, has come out. In less than two months, it's sold more than 2 1/2 million copies, becoming the most successful soundtrack since "Grease". No, it's not "Staying Alive," the much-ballyhooed sequel to "Saturday Night Fever," but "Flashdance," the perky summer sleeper, Rocky in tights, where dancing replaces boxing.
"Flashdance" has proved to have strong legs, its staying power established both on the screen and on the charts. It's pace has been helped by MTV and the other video venues (all "Fever" had was radio) because "Flashdance" is close to being a succession of video clips connected by traditional film.
In reality, "Flashdance" (Casablanca 811492-M-1) is as slight on vinyl as it is on nitrate, the exceptions being Irene Cara's "Flashdance . . . What a Feeling," which manages to be both anthemic and autobiographical, and Michael Sembello's "Maniac," a catchy celebration of blue-collar idealism as seen through the eyes of Yves St. Laurent.
Those songs open and close the album. In between are eight eminently forgettable songs (the worst being "Love Theme From Flashdance" by Helen St. John, a one-woman Ferrante and Teicher). There are several good name-bad song combinations involving Kim Carnes, Laura Branigan and Donna Summer (hard to recognize in a pulsating "Romeo" where Europop meets the New Wave), and more no-name bad song efforts by Shandi, Karen Kamen and Cycle V.
If the songs are empty-headed (and they are), the arrangements by Giorgio Moroder (five songs) and Phil Ramone (three) create sterling edges that are just right, if not for dancing, certainly for exercising (Carol Hensel could do a voice-over on the entire record).
"Staying Alive" (RSO 813-269 1-Y-1) is going to have a hard time living up to its title. There's simply nothing on it approaching the hit material from its predecessor (ironically, the best cut is a severely edited version of the original song that gives the film its title, but obviously not its inspiration). For one thing, it's barely a dance album, just as the film is barely a dance film. The closest one gets is the Bee Gees' "The Woman in You," pulled off their side of the album, but the arrangements are dull, the sterling falsettos dulled with familiarity.
What's worse is the second side, with director Sylvester Stallone's brother Frank penning four of six songs, ruining three of them by insisting on singing them himself. "Far From Over" sounds like Stallone was tied all last summer to a radio that only played "Eye of the Tiger," but the song is barely saved by overproduction, a fate that obviously escaped the film and the rest of its soundtrack.
If "Flashdance" has stolen "Staying Alive's" thunder, several other recent soundtracks suffer from comparisons to pasts they cannot really escape.
Take John Barry's soundtrack for "Octopussy" (A&M SP-4967). Barry's no novice to Bond music, having scored eight previous adventures, but he's shackled by producer Cubby Broccoli's fondness for the original "Dr. No" theme, written not by Barry but by the immortal Monty Norman. That jangly theme pops up no less than three times in "Octopussy," the same amount of times that "All Time High" appears. The inane vocal version, its silly Tim Rice lyrics sung with deadly lethargy by Rita Coolidge, opens and closes the album, though the best version is wordless, horribly retitled "That's My Little Octopussy." It's lush and romantic in the "Born Free" vein and confirms Barry's penchant for inspiring melodic themes.
However, and as might be expected, most of the score is high-tech and brassy, a collection of swirling themes, staccato binges and dramatic swells. Some sections are quite lovely (as in sinewy, exotic "Arrival at the Island of Octopussy") but the rest resembles Roger Moore's thespian skills.
Old themes also crop up in "Superman III," "Jaws 3-D," "Twilight Zone: The Movie," "Psycho II" and "Return of the Jedi." Call it the consequence of sequelitis, but the most memorable moments of these soundtracks belong to the past.
Even John Williams' immensely whistle-able score for "Return of the Jedi" (RSO 811 767-1 Y-1) is beginning to show the wear: it is appropriately bombastic, heroic and tender, but it's also familiar enough to warrant inattention. The exceptions this time around are "Lapti Nek," Sy Snootle's intergalactic disco hit--sung in Huttese-and backed by Jabba the Hut's palace band--Blondie in outer space! The elastic groove suggests that at some point, this band played the disco circuit (it's certainly catchier than anything on "Staying Alive").
The other cute cut is the "Ewok Celebration," which proves that highly marketable furry toys can form an endearing chorale: another ethno-musical hodgepodge, it's rhythmically compelling, particularly for children, who seem to grasp its innocent spirit quite easily. In the passages featuring the overworked London Symphony Orchestra, Williams continues to explore inner and outer space, the latter more successfully. Still, one gets the feeling the "Star Wars" cycle is ending just in time for George Lucas and John Williams.
Williams' classic two-note theme for "Jaws"--it has since become a cliche and an immediate aural joke--appears briefly in "Jaws 3-D" (MCA 6124). All too briefly, considering the dreary score provided by Alan Parker. Parker has worked mostly in television and there's a flatness to his score that makes it less than revealing. If you don't want to see the movie or buy the soundtrack, here's an instant synopsis based on title cuts:
"Jaws 3-D Main Title/Kay and Mike's Love Theme/Panic at Seaworld/Underwater Kingdom and Shark Chase/Shark Chase and Dolphin Rescue/Saved by the Dolphins/"The Shark's Gonna Hit Us!"/It's Alive/Seaworld Opening Day/Silver Bullet/Overman's Last Dive/Philip's Demise/Night Capture/Jaws 3-D End Titles)." You've just saved more than $10.
Another John Williams theme, this one for the original "Superman," also crops up in "Superman III" (Warner Bros. 9 23879-1), a soundtrack worthless except for the Williams' snippet. This is the worst combination of the summer, a side of thin, undistinguished Ken Thorne orchestral filler and a side of irrelevant pop, including second-rate songs by Marshall Crenshaw, Chaka Khan and Roger Miller (badly produced by Giorgio Moroder, for thematic unity) and the threatening-to-be-ubiquitous Helen St. John playing, you guessed it, "Love Theme from Superman III."
No soundtrack roundup would be complete without an offering or two from Jerry Goldsmith, a truly talented composer haunted by two classic film themes. On "Psycho II" (MCA 6119) he survives Bernard Herrmann's skrieking (some say stabbing) violin-violence effect (a curtain-raiser, that one) and comes up with a typically unsettling score that suggests the battle between innocence and evil that consumes Norman Bates. The malevolence unfurls quietly, the mood romantic yet underscored with emotional stress. Unlike the movie, the violence is more implied than spotlighted. The rub here: only 30 minutes of music.
On "Twilight Zone," Goldsmith must get past Marius Constant's classic television series introduction and Jennifer Warnes' vapid "theme song," "Nights Are Forever." The song has nothing to do with "Twilight Zone" (you don't even hear it there) and everything to do with the fact that last year's "Officer and a Gentleman" benefited mightily from the Warnes-Joe Cocker "Up Where We Belong" (itself a barely-heard-in-the-film theme song).
The centerpiece of "Twilight Zone" is the warmly evocative "Kick the Can," which augments Steven Spielberg's richly detailed rhapsody about eternal youth and the wonder of imagination: Goldsmith has come up with a mini-concerto that's as enthralling as anything he's ever done (though it gets a little saccharine at times). More interesting is "It's a Good Life:" like the segment it illustrates, it straddles the edge of discomfort, tipping over more than once into fear and insanity. The sudden juxtapositions of sweet and sour are effective. Goldsmith, Williams and Barry assert themselves as gifted composers, while newcomers Thorne and Parker prove they have a long way to go to catch up.
There have been other good soundtracks this year, notably Mark Knoepler's atmospheric work in "Local Hero," Arthur Rubinstein's symphonic/synthesizer showdowns in "Blue Thunder" (or as some called it, "Fly Noon") and Bruce Rowland's beautifully textured score for "The Man From Snowy River." Before the summer's over, expect a whole lot more, and pray for some semblance of quality.