I’m a self confessed lover of soundtrack music. The first vinyl I ever bought was the soundtrack from ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ and ‘For A Few Dollars More’ by Ennio Morricone. That led to ‘Great Western Film Themes Collection’, and ‘ The Good, The Bad & The Ugly’, and I was hooked. These days I have over 150 soundtracks on vinyl and a majority of these are Morricone. So, when I got the chance to chat with Sacha Puttnam: classical musician, soundtrack composer and rock keyboard playing son of legendary movie producer Lord David Puttnam, it’s hard to underestimate my excitement. Add to that the fact that he is just about to release a stunning collection of reimagined soundtrack music from some of his father’s greatest films, which unsurprisingly number among some of the greatest films ever, and you may still underestimate.
Sacha Puttnam is a rare combination. He has pedigree in so many genres of music that it is impossible to define him. Trained at the Moscow Conservatoire in conducting and composition and then at the world famous Berkeley College of Music. Having completed this classical and jazz training he confirmed his rock credentials by going on tour with Bush, playing alongside music heavyweights Muse and Moby. He has brought all this multi genre experience to bear in his music compositions bringing rock ’n’ roll sensibility’s to classical orchestral and piano music. His new release celebrates the music of the cinema but he does it with all of this musical background. The results are breath-taking.
If you are ever in doubt of the importance of music in films, watch your favourite films without music. Imagine ‘Jaws’ without that relentless pulse of terror provided by the music, imagine the beach run in ‘Chariots Of Fire’ without the keyboard refrain, imagine anything from director Sergio Leone without the music of Ennio Morricone. Lord Puttnam has never faltered in his belief that the music of a film was of vast importance and his son Sacha, who shares his passion, has produced a record full of incredible music, music so beautifully interpreted that it does something I thought impossible by recreating the excitement I felt when I first heard these pieces.
I recently had the chance to chat with Sacha about his release, ‘Spirit Of Cinema’, with his impeccable piano at the heart of The Classic Film Orchestra.
EP: Sacha, what a pleasure to get to chat with you. I’m a massive fan of soundtrack music, I love Ennio Morricone. He worked on one of your father’s films, The Mission, did you ever get to meet him?
SP: Let me tell you my Morricone story. My Dad is a producer, so it was his job, when he was making a movie, to keep the budget down. That was his thing. When they were doing ‘The Mission’ and they really wanted to get Morricone to do the score, they went to his agent and the guy said, “It’s a million dollars!”. My Dad said, “We’re not paying a million dollars”, and was trying to negotiate but getting nothing. So, long story short, they get Morricone for a million dollars. Morricone is writing the score, and he turns up at the house and sings the music so badly that my Dad was thinking “Oh my god! What an earth have I done. We’ve just spent a million dollars on this guy that’s scratching away at this terrible old theme. What are we going to do?” Anyway, the rest is history, the music completely made the movie and went on to sell bucket-loads. In fact, Dad was really smart. He didn’t pay the million dollars, he went over to his friends at Virgin, got them to buy the album which I don’t think they paid a million dollars for, I think they paid maybe half a million or something. Dad offset the cost like that and of course Virgin did really well out of it. It was funny because Morricone had the worst voice ever and he was just singing away at this theme that became the wedding anthem for everybody for the next 20 years. Funnily enough it didn’t win the Oscar, it won the BAFTA and the Golden Globe but not the Oscar. It was great, because Herbie Hancock, he’s a lovely man, won with his music for, I think, the film ‘Mr Magic’. It’s weird, awards are great, but in the end I bet Herbie would have loved ‘Mr Magic’s score to have done as well as ‘The Mission’. I remember writing to Ennio so many times asking “Can I come and work for you? I’ll do anything”, but no, he would always say, “I work alone”. The tragedy of my life will always be that I didn’t get to work with him.
EP: Your Dad really understood that music was super integral to the movie making process didn’t he?
SP: He realised, being an early rock ’n’ roller, that the stodgy old film business that used to be very North London didn’t really understand young people at all and also didn’t understand rock ’n’ roll, so he could go to Ronco and K-Tel records and play them off against each other. So by going to Ronco with the ‘That’ll Be The Day’ and ‘Stardust’ soundtracks, they could get an album out of it, and he could get a whole load of advertising for the movie which other people couldn’t get. So I think the figures he used to tell me, was that soundtrack used to be ten percent of the budget so for a film of the size he used to be doing that would be 11 grand, which is still a decent amount of money, especially back then, but the record company would come in with £35000 which was immense. And that’s why ‘That’ll Be The Day’ and ‘Stardust’ really hit. The sad truth is that advertising really does speak and I always wish that people were more able to discover and do things on their own but if it’s in front of you and you like it then you’ll get it.
EP: With ‘The Spirit Of Cinema’, how on earth did you choose which music to include given the catalogue of great film music open to you?
SP: I had real problems with things like the rock ’n’ roll numbers. They just didn’t translate quite so well onto the orchestra, so it was whatever had a really straightforward melody that could be harmonised in a way that would fit on the record. I think there’s only one or two kind of really big tracks on there. Things like ‘The Midnight Express’ theme have a very definite, what I’d call eighties, melody. Some of them, where the melody wasn’t quite there, like the lovely ‘The Chase’ (also from ME), I tended to leave alone as they sounded great on a Moog (a synthesiser) but not necessarily for an orchestra. I don’t know if you heard but Anne Dudley did a really nice ‘The Model’ for orchestra; there are some things the orchestra does really well, some things it doesn’t do that well. Really rhythmic stuff is never gonna beat a Moog and a drummer and a bass player. Just can’t…just absolutely can’t do it. The Bee Gees; all of the tracks of the Bee Gees would have worked but I didn’t want to do the whole album of Bee Gees stuff although I love ‘First of May’. I really wanted to do the Donovan one as he’s such a lovely guy, so great, and I’ve known him since I was 5 years old. We were all in the film as my Dad would stick us all in because we were cheap extras. The big one I guess was ‘Chariots of Fire’ because I adore Vangelis and he’s still lovely to me today. And Giorgio Moroder too. I still love him, he’s great.
EP: With ‘Midnight Express’, do you think the music is so stunning because against the backdrop of such a harrowing story, it is simply so beautiful?
SP: I’ve been looking at it a lot recently. It’s kind of weird with the tin drums and everything but somehow it works. I’ve got a podcast called ‘Spirit of Cinema’ which goes along with the release and Alan Parker is good on there because what he keeps saying is that the soundtrack is so much more than the composer; it is all of the people that are putting into the sound of the movie. The people in the background, what’s on the street, what someone’s shouting across the prison so on one level it shouldn’t work but amid all of the other stuff it does. Alan’s point is right, the soundtrack IS so much bigger than the composer…
EP: With ‘Istanbul’, you really bring something new, deeper to an already wonderful piece. Was there a conscious effort to give it the feel of a Bond theme?
SP: That’s lovely. There’s a little bit of a nod to James Bond . When you’re looking at getting the rhythms up, you need to look at everything, you need to look at the brass, you need to look at everything that can give you some rhythm. Yes, I wanted to give it some other level. There’s a piece of me that will always love John Barry so I can’t help it coming out. I loved ‘Out of Africa’, loved Bond, I loved everything that he did. He’s just so great a composer. For me he’s up there with Ennio. Ennio has his own special voice but I love Barry so yes I was channelling a bit of Bond.
EP: How do you approach an interpretation of such an iconic piece of music as Ennio Morricone’s ‘The Mission’?
SP: They tried to talk me out of it. They said it’s not going to work on piano. But, what I thought is if I put the piano in to begin with and then go to the oboe, then surely that will work. My favourite piece is ‘The Fall’, the one Ennio was singing to my Dad. It’s so simple a melody but it’s such an ear worm. I just wanted to put that on so I got this guy, Roy Carter, the original guy who played the oboe on the soundtrack which they recorded at CTS in Wembley. So, I knew I had a couple of aces up my sleeve, but you’re right a lot of people have recorded it, a lot of people have done it pretty well but I think this version stands up.
EP: it really does, it’s a fantastic version. I think Ennio would have approved. It’s beautiful!
SP: That’s really kind but people really did try to talk me out of it but I love it so much. I thought the album wouldn’t stand up if it wasn’t on there. The only thing I’m a bit sad about is I haven’t done anything from Bugsy Malone. I kept writing to Paul Williams who wrote it; he was the first person I saw jumping onto a piano and playing back in 1974 I think, but he was busy doing his bits and pieces so he didn’t really get back to me. The one I was going to do was ‘Only A Fool’. At some point I’ll do it.
The reason the albums taken so long is that I have to do a film score and then put a bit of money aside, and then go and record with all the pals, all the London session players. I wanted to do it in England, wanted to make it a project with all the people I know and all the great session players we’ve got here. I remember when I trained in Russia, the instruments are not as good…. they’ve got a feel here and I wanted to get that feel.
EP: ‘Sailing Homeward’ and Donovan’s involvement must have been a huge influence on you. Did that make the interpretation of this piece harder or easier?
SP: The only difficulty with that one is that when Donovan sings it live, he just goes straight into it. What I had to do was give it an intro. So we have an intro and then… jumping slightly, but the same was true with ‘First Of May’ in that it didn’t have an ending. So with ‘Sailing Homeward’ there’s kind of bookends, like ‘The Fall’ in the Morricone version which bookends ‘Gabriel’s Oboe’, and I think that works coming from somewhere and having a resting ending place. The only bit I had to watch out for was the middle eight and not go too big or too small there. Also it’s got no lyric and the lyric is brilliant. The only killer for me with instrumental music, and I used to find this when I studied in Russia, was that when we did our symphonies and stuff like that the audience would be at half full, which was great, but when singers did their showcase it was packed, literally people falling off the balcony. You get to see quite quickly the difference between lyrics and the song as opposed to instrumental but that’s where I hung my hat, I’m in the instrumental world. But it’s missing a dynamic which is a whole area which is that beautiful lyric. When I’m playing it I hear the lyric in my head because it’s so ingrained and when I’m phrasing a piece on the piano, of course I put the little nuance in that Donovan did because that for me makes it beautiful.
EP: ‘First Of May’ must be a hugely emotional piece of music to cover given the subject matter of the movie it comes from, ‘Melody’? The love story of your parents…
SP: My Mum and Dad, Mum was seventeen. The old shotgun wedding! That was the loveliest one to go and play them. My Mum burst into tears and my Dad was completely over the moon. It’s so lovely to see a couple like that still together after all this time. Had their ups and downs but to have made it…you know from 17 and my Mum’s just turning 75 in a couple of weeks. That’s fantastic. I try to get that emotion in there. There are some lovely other songs like, ‘Morning of my Life’ it was hard to pick which track from ‘Melody’. With this album I must have done ten versions of each record before I decided ‘that’s the one’.
EP: More than almost every piece of music you have included, ‘Chariots Of Fire’ must be known to everyone, even if they don’t realise it’s source. How do you approach this music without falling into the trap of impersonation?
SP: That was re-harmonised and when I went out to see Vangelis, I played it for him and he kind of looked at me in a “what have you done?” way…because the harmony is pretty straightforward, just 1-4-1-4-1-5 , Beethoven type harmony, and what I did was just re-harmonise the whole piece and plugged into that whole piano concerto thing, with an orchestra, where sometimes the piano just shuts up and let the orchestra play and then sometimes the piano takes the lead. I thought how would Chopin play this melody and I think we got there, fairly close. It’s a romping three minutes really. That’s the other thing; because I’ve got pop sensibility I’m done after three minutes. When you’re writing a cue, if your cue is more than a minute and a half you’re in trouble. Obviously there are exceptions to the rule but basically if you haven’t said what you wanted to say in that time…the only one that had to go longer than a pop song length, because it was just so big, was ‘Istanbul’. That one just needed landing space…Vangelis definitely gave me a funny look but he was ok with it; he doesn’t usually let many people do it so that was great.
EP: Do you think the orchestra enhancement is more noticeable on music like ‘Going Home’? I felt it brought so much more depth.
SP: I don’t know. I had a great violinist and if you bring in a great violinist they’re gonna do it for you. Even if they’re playing ‘three blind mice’…Magnus Johnson, when he came in and played the melody I could have not played anything and it would have been fine. There’s something about the way Knopfler plays, I love him, but you’re never going to capture that but, the way Magnus played, I really think it worked.
EP: it’s brilliant that you decided to include ‘Confessional’, a score you wrote yourself.
SP: This is the real issue, I have a really nice ‘Abraham Theme’ which was going to go on there but for all sorts of strange reasons it can’t go on until February so because there was a track missing…I thought I’d put in ‘Confessional’ but a really new version of it. ‘Confessional’ was tough because that was the first time I saw a score of mine on the big screen. That was the big kick in the arse, seeing my score on a big screen, made me think I’d better check next time I’m writing a score, and I’d say that to anyone doing that, check it before you print it because everything changes. This was a way for me to correct that really, I threw the kitchen sink into this version. The orchestra at Abbey Road were amazing!
EP: it’s really so much more than a track filler, I love it. So finally, and I appreciate this is a bit like asking you which is your favourite child, do you have a favourite on the album?
SP: When you’re making it, it changes all the time, but I guess, at the moment, my favourite is ‘Sailing Homeward’. it really came out of the blue. One of those wonderful moments with an orchestra that you put the sheets of paper in front of them and they start and something magic happens. I’m sure that will change though…
EP: Thank you so much and good luck with ‘ Spirit Of Cinema’.
Love’s Theme by Giorgio Moroder for his Oscar winning score for Midnight Express (1978)
Sailing Homeward by Donovan for the Pied Piper (1972)
Chariots of Fire from Vangelis’ Oscar winning score for Chariots of Fire (1981)
War of the Buttons Suite from Rachel Portman’s score for the film War of the Buttons (1994)
First of May by The Bee Gees for the film Melody (1971)
Gabriel’s Theme (The Falls and Gabriel’s Oboe) by Ennio Morricone for The Mission (1986)
Abraham’s Theme by Vangelis for Chariots of Fire (1981)
Londonderry Air, used by George Fenton for the film Memphis Belle (1990)
Eric’s Theme by Vangelis for Chariots of Fire (1981)
Theme from Midnight Express (Istanbul) by Giorgio Moroder for Midnight Express (1978)
The Confessional by Sacha Puttnam for Le Confessional (1995)
Going Home by Mark Knopfler for Local Hero (1983)
Boy’s Burial by Mike Oldfield for The Killing Fields (1984)