Review: Heavy Metal (1981)

Composer: Elmer Bernstein

Label: No Label (Bootleg)

Catalogue Nr.: Bootleg


The Ivan Reitman production Heavy Metal is a very unusual animated film from 1984 based on stories and characters from the comic book with the same name. The storyline follows seven different tales about the incarnation of evil, a green sphere called Loc-Nar and its evil doings. Each tale features individual artwork which is looking cheap in some scenes but rather convincing in others. All tales are spiced with violence, eroticism, humour and a great voice cast which already indicates that the film is not targeted at smaller children. It is a pretty controversial piece of art: some people immediately declared it as being a genre classic, resulting in a decent box office success of 20 million us-dollars while others are convinced that it must be the biggest crap they have ever seen. Best circumstances to make the film a cult phenomenon and a hit for late night screenings in TV.

The score:

Due to the expectations of the target audience, Ivan Reitman insisted on having various rock and metal bands providing original songs for the film which lead to a licensing nightmare and thus the film was removed from home video circulation for some time. This also lead to the removal of certain Elmer Bernstein score tracks from the film although his music is not as terribly butchered here as in Ghostbusters (1984). The amazing first half of the cue "Bomber and the Green Ball" was replaced by a song. The cues "Captain Stern and the Green Ball" and "Harry Canyon" were dropped entirely in favour of songs. Quite surprising that Elmer Bernstein still collaborated with Reitman on so many movies during the years to come, if you consider that his work was mostly butchered in the films and virtually non-existent on the soundtrack CD's. Only a promo LP of the Heavy Metal score was issued at the time with less than 40 minutes of music. The program of this LP was later reissued as a bootleg CD. However, this review will focus on the unofficial complete version of the score.

Elmer Bernstein's work for this film can be described as his most epic, varied and detailed work since his classic score for The Ten Commandments (1956). The main theme of the score is represented in the first track "Tarna's Theme" which is actually a concert arrangement (taken from a compilation) of the character theme for Tarna, a silent warrior protector and the last hope of mankind against the evil Loc-Nar. You can clearly notice that the composer put a lot of work into this theme: It starts with a solo for the Ondes Martendot, providing an innocent and vulnerable feeling with a touch of mystery and beauty, before the strings and later the rest of the orchestra join in and elevate the melody to epic proportions. After a short hint of his 'western music', the orchestra is becoming quiet and the ondes returns followed by a beautiful solo violin statement and a fanfare at the end. Needless to say that this theme stands as one of the composer's most clever and beautiful theme compositions along with the main title from To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Near the end of the score during the Tarna-story segment, the theme gets some great variations with the Ondes playing a major role in the composition. Elmer Bernstein used this electronic instrument for the first time on this score.

The first track of the actual original score, "Grimaldi", begins mysterious with a ghostly choir performing the theme for the evil Loc-Nar followed by a short statement of Tarna's theme. This statement has its reasons in the film but I will not spoil that here because it would ruin the experience. Let me just say that it hints to a revelation in the finale of the film. The next track "Harry Canyon" begins with percussive Bernstein action music during the first half and goes into a calm saxophone solo for the character, New York taxi driver Harry Canyon. The cue was meant to accompany a chase scene through a futuristic New York city but it was never used for it in the end. "Harry Canyon and the Girl" is a nice suspense cue but still has some playful melodic ideas that are typical for Elmer Bernstein's style. A woman's voice is performing the Loc-Nar theme in  the middle of the cue before it gets into a melodic string line accompanied by a bouncy rhythm which is somehow reminiscent of the composer's music for westerns. A saxophone solo is putting an end to this tale in the film.

The next tale is about a young boy who is finding the Loc-Nar. He is being sucked into another dimension where the tiny boy is becoming Den, a goliath with immense strength, getting into the rivalry between a queen and a (gay?) king. Elmer Bernstein composed his most exciting heroic theme ever for the character of Den. This thrilling adventurous piece gets some nice variations within several of the 'Den-tracks'. "Den Makes It" is a beautiful romantic love theme for lush strings and nice fanfares at the end. "Den and the Queen" starts with a broad and epic fanfare for the Queen and ends with a genius variation on the heroic theme. "Den's Heroics" is a great but elegant action piece with a nice finale for Den's theme at the end. I would say that action music is not really Elmer Bernstein's strength but he definitely did a great job on the action cues for Heavy Metal.

The following tale is about the treacherous Captain Stern who is in trial for several crimes. He thinks he is save because he paid a witness but the Loc-Nar is transforming the guy into a raging monster which is chasing Stern through the space station. Elmer's rejected "Captain Stern" cue for the sequence is short and features a rather simplistic melodic idea which is growing bigger and bigger as the witness is slowly turning into a monster.

The first half of "Bomber and the Green Ball" is another exciting action piece for the air combat scene. It is exciting how modern this composition sounds, it is almost a slight foreshadowing of some Hans Zimmer action music maybe due to slightly similar chords (I guess I will have many enemies now). This cue is among the most exciting action cues ever composed by Elmer Bernstein. Unfortunately, the great action part of the track never made it into the final cut of the film. The other half of the track offers scary music as well as a great variation of the Loc-Nar theme for full orchestra and choir.

"Space Love" features a classy and heartfelt love theme for lush strings. This short cue turned out to be another highlight of the score. The rest consists of the music for the Tarna-story featuring the excellent theme in "Tarna Prepares", "Flight" and the breathtaking orchestral outburst in "Tarna Forever" which is bringing a truly masterful score to the end.



Score as heard in the film: 82%

Score as heard on CD: 91%

TOTAL: 87%


The presentation:

Many Elmer Bernstein fans will be familiar with the 37 minute bootleg of Heavy Metal but this review is based on a 60 minute version with some extended and new cues presented in film order. The bootleg comes without cover art or track listing so all of these features are self-made. The sound quality is slightly more muffled here which is a real pity (as if the generally compressed recording would not be bad enough). Sadly, I have only little hope that the score will see the light of the day on an official CD release but, hey... maybe Columbia Pictures will surprise us again. The song album seems to be out of print anyways so there would not be any licensing conflict with a score release.

Presentation by the Label: Bootleg



You will have to give this score more than just one listen until you can fully appreciate the brilliance of this work. This score certainly is the root for several later ideas in Elmer's scores and can be considered as one of the composers best works.

Review by Andreas Creutzburg



01.  Tarna's Theme (concert arrangment) (04:55)
02.  Grimaldi (02:34)
03.  Harry Canyon (04:07)
04.  Harry and the Girl (04:34)
05.  Den and the Green Ball (03:14)
06.  Den Makes It (02:49)
07.  Fighting the Guards/To The Queens Palace (02:03)
08.  Den and the Queen (02:56)
09.  Den's Heroics (02:51)
10.  Captain Stern (01:27)
11.  Bomber and the Green Ball (05:23)
12.  Space Love (01:26)
13.  Tarna Summoned (02:51)
14.  Flight (02:20)
15.  Tarna Prepares (03:34)
16.  Barbarians/Final Fight (10:04)
17.  Tarna Forever (03:31)
18.  Tarna's Theme (concert arrangment; reprise) (04:46)