Synthesizing Cinema: Tangerine Dream at BAMcinématek
With the heat of summer fast approaching, BAMcinématek’s series dedicated to German synth masters Tangerine Dream is a choice pick for air-conditioned entertainment this June. The selection features a sampling of films scored by the group plus a few tangential additions: Philippe Garrel’s incredibly rare Le Berceau de cristal and Douglas Trumbull’s debut feature Silent Running.
Tangerine Dream formed in West Berlin in 1967 as one of the premier bands of the unfortunately monikered “krautrock” movement that revolutionized underground music and proved a lasting influence on mainstream songwriters like David Bowie. Their first album, Electronic Meditation (1970) was an innovative experiment in tape collage, boasting the legendary lineup of permanent band member Edgar Froese, percussionist and composer Klaus Schulze, and Conrad Schnitzler, the Zelig of krautrock. Perhaps as a result of the band’s later success, or maybe the historical importance of Electronic Meditation, Schulze is continually referred to as a former member of Tangerine Dream, even though he only played with the band on their first album. His own career as a solo musician, composer, and occasional collaborator has been significant, to say the least, and it would have been nice to see a few of the films featuring his soundtracks included in this series.
There is, however, Silent Running, included here because it was much admired by Schulze, who named one of his songs on Trancefer (1981) after the film. A visually impressive, sentimental portrait of a man’s relationship with nature—in outer space—the movie is deserving of a higher ranking in the annals of 1970s science fiction. In spite of its fair share of unintended laughs, Bruce Dern’s solo performance is the picture of flawed idealism and despair, and Trumbull’s ambitious design picks up where he left off on Kubrick’s 2001. As an added bonus, Joseph Byrd (the talent behind the groundbreaking bands United States of America and Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies) provided the film with electronic sound effects and anthropomorphic robot voices.
Le Berceau de cristal
Philippe Garrel’s Le Berceau de cristal is also a few degrees removed from Tangerine Dream, but nonetheless a welcome addition to the series. The content and staging of the film are minimal yet perfectly composed, a joy to view on the big screen. Extended scenes of complete silence alternate with Ash Ra Tempel’s hypnotic, contemplative score, representing a subgenre of krautrock dubbed kosmische musik by Tangerine Dream’s Edgar Froese. Kosmische musik is dark, spacey, and meditative, with conceptual leanings toward the philosophy of the sublime. In Le Berceau Garrel eschews the kosmische fixation on the cosmos for the sublime pleasure of observing the minutiae of beautiful women, with Nico’s face in closeup standing in for one of Kant’s mountains.
Tangerine Dream’s most successful lineup consisted of Froese, Johannes Schmoelling, and Christopher Franke, a former member of the group Agitation Free who replaced Schulze and led the band’s productive foray into electronic sequencing. Their 1974 album Phaedra became the first hit for Virgin Records, and evidently the first commercial album to feature sequencers in addition to the moog synthesizer, mellotron, plus flute and bass guitar. The sequencer would help define the band’s unique sound, which was beginning to shift into what we now call “new age” music—ambient, ethereal soundscapes with an electronic pulse. In the wake of ’s success Tangerine Dream would score over 20 films in the 1980s alone. Their first soundtrack was for William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977), unfortunately unavailable for exhibition due to a conflict over rights, but BAM is able to screen a print of Michael Mann’s first theatrical feature, Thief, from 1980, a watershed year for the band.
The Thief soundtrack presents an effective balance of the band’s signature talents (synthesizers and electronic sounds) with composer Craig Safan’s use of traditional rock instrumentation when necessary. Both Mann and Safan pull out all of the stops for the film’s climactic ending, in which James Caan single-handedly takes down a bevy of thugs while the soundtrack boldly incorporates acoustic piano with searing guitar riffs over a heavy backbeat in standard 4/4 time. The result is as sublime as the most kosmische kraut jam session topped off with a requisite serving of blockbuster popcorn cheese. Safan’s closing track is a powerhouse rock closer resting on the shoulders of Tangerine Dream’s calculated electronic buildup. The band holds its own alongside the Mann who would become our greatest popular American filmmaker.
Craig Safan's “Confrontation”:
As with all mainstream cinema during the Reagan era, even the artistic successes are suffused with a timely, often materialistic corniness. Flashy cars, shiny doodads, and slick dialogue tap into contemporary desires while a true stylist like Michael Mann cuts into the simple act of identification. The clear showcase of his craft seals off his films from the outside world, reminding us of our own impulses to escape everyday life. Tangerine Dream was adept at playing along with these impulses, at times building and swelling their scores into a thick emotional sap. This musical tugging of heartstrings ran rampant throughout ’80s Hollywood cinema, although Tangerine Dream was one of the few bands capable of showing some restraint. They had their “Final Countdown” moments for sure, but they would also creep quietly in the background of films with bubbly sequencing and ambient, sustained synthesizer chords.
The soundtrack for Andrei Konchalovsky’s gorgeously photographed Shy People (1987) is one such example—by turns quietly foreboding and brash—a perfect match for the film’s own awkward dynamic. In fact, most of the films in this series can be hard to watch. They are cringe-inducing (or crowd-pleasing, depending on your taste) in their adherence to 1980s cinematic conventions, be it the mawkish romance of Miracle Mile (1988), the glittery fairies and demons of Legend (1985) and The Keep (1983), the obnoxious bad-boy posturing in Near Dark (1987), or the shameful caricatures of uppity New Yorkers vs. Louisiana hicks in Shy People. Thankfully all of these films have moments of major redemption that make you glad you watched them, and several yield the rewarding feeling of discovery, of having witnessed something that may have been overlooked at first glance. That's the point of repertory cinema, isn’t it?
As for Tangerine Dream, their music played an important role in each of these films, not only by establishing a mood, but by enhancing the critical sense of escapism and fantasy inherent in 1980s popular culture. These are films in which disbelief is not suspended as hung out to dry during the opening credits, at the first ringing note of a moog synthesizer. That's why the producers of Legend called in Tangerine Dream to re-score the film after Jerry Goldsmith’s orchestral soundtrack brought on the giggles at a test screening for its earnest seriousness.
Tangerine Dream's opening theme for Legend:
The best example of Tangerine Dream’s sonic alchemy is probably “Love on a Real Train” from Risky Business—not included in the BAM series, but in no way a vital entrey since one Tom Cruise vehicle (Legend) is more than enough. The success of the sex scene with Cruise and Rebecca De Mornay in an empty subway car rides on the Tangerine Dream score, and particularly Johannes Schmoelling’s sample-based sound collage. That misty impression of sexual magic (disgusting as it may seem to some adult audiences) is the total creation of the band. Juxtaposed with the Phil Collins’s mega-hit “In the Air Tonight” immediately preceding it, “Love on a Real Train” suddenly pitches this 80s sex comedy into a moment of delicate teenage bliss as Cruise “makes love” to De Mornay while the subway train shoots into a tunnel.
It’s a scene that’s both idealistic and aware of its youthful limitations, as well as its place within glossy popcorn movies. Tangerine Dream epitomizes this superficial shininess, in the grand tradition of other electronic soundtrack composers such as Giorgio Moroder, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Vangelis, Jan Hammer, John Carpenter, and Alan Howarth. Let us praise them for their craft.
The Tangerine Dreams series runs June 1 – 7 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn.