Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Quincy Jones "The Split"

Here is one of those lost treasures that surfaced to prove – again – just how brilliant Quincy Jones has always been. The Split is a 1968 film directed by Gordon Flemyng (1934-95), who never rose to much prominence beyond his British TV credits on The Avengers and The Saint or his early Dr. Who movies.

The long-forgotten film is based on a Donald Westlake novel where Westlake was writing as Richard Stark and the novel was called “The Seventh” and it all features a terrific B-list cast including Jim Brown, Diahann Carroll, Jack Klugman, Warren Oates, James Whitmore and Ernest Borgnine. Even Gene Hackman, Donald Sutherland and the great stage actress Julie Harris were on board for something that probably promised a whole lot more.

The producers meant for the film to follow in the footsteps of John Boorman’s near-brilliant Point Blank (1967), which was also based on a Richard Stark novel called “The Hunter.” While it tries, though, it just never succeeds. Think of it. You’ve probably heard of the oft-revered Point Blank, with its cutting-edge direction, its white-hot cool acting, gripping action sequences, Johnny Mandel score and a great cast of character actors.

But what about The Split? About all that’s memorable about it is that it was the first film to earn the “R” rating under what was then the MPAA’s newly created rating system.

They tried to replicate all that was good about Point Blank with The Split - and all they got right was the music. In fact, Quincy Jones’ score here more than surpasses Mandel’s and ranks among some of the best film music Q has done. The great critic Pauline Kael even remarked in her dismissive review of the film that “(f)or long stretches during The Split, I mostly listened to the Quincy Jones music.” It was her way of disparaging the film. But there was much to listen to here.

Jones, who really had only been in Hollywood for a few years at this point, scoring only a handful of films, was developing what, in essence, was his own language for the cinema. Not only was it informed by the popular and jazz idioms he previously had much success with, his music was beginning to proudly exhibit much of his own African American heritage. This enveloped everything from rhythm and blues to doo wop, blues to gospel and funk to rock. The man put mojo into the music.

The first signs of Jones’ musical fusion became apparent on the Sidney Poitier starrer, In The Heat Of The Night (United Artists, 1967), and more explicitly on two later Poitier films scored by Quincy Jones, For The Love Of Ivy (ABC, 1968) and The Lost Man ( UNI, 1969), the latter of which is a sumptuously superb soundtrack album well deserving of rediscovery.

There never was a soundtrack album issued for The Split, despite MGM’s earlier intentions to release a record of it. The film must have seemed like a dog before it was even out of the gate and then its poor performance convinced MGM not to bother. But even Q thought there wasn’t enough music to make a commercially viable record out of it all. Only $ (Reprise, 1970) and They Call Me Mister Tibbs (United Artists, 1971) gave album buyers evidence of Jones’ unique and utterly hypnotic fusion of black music forms until this CD release.

Despite the fact that the film has long been forgotten, Film Score Monthly (FSM) has made a convincing case that Quincy Jones’ music did not deserve the same fate. This first-ever issue of the complete score includes some of Q’s best film music writing as well as fairly memorable themes sung by Billy Preston, Arthur Prysock and an odd country source cue by Sheb Wooley.

From the first strains of “Funny Money,” it is quite apparent that The Split is something different, something special. It is, quite simply, a brilliant film cue that can be repeatedly enjoyed on its own. With (undoubtedly Carol Kaye’s) electric bass grinding provocatively to an organ and electric piano countermelody, and a brilliant mélange of contrasting horns and sinewy percussion, it is a performance to be savored among some of the best of the jazzy action cues that are often credited solely to Jerry Goldsmith and Lalo Schifrin.

The funky jazz continues on “Kika Car Caper” (prefiguring some of the work Q would further explore in The Lost Man), “Hot Meter,” “Frantic Fans,” “Shook Up Fuzz/Mac Let’s Talk” and "End Title Card." In true jazz fashion, there is a fair bit of improvisation interspersed between the obviously written stuff that makes for engaging, even entrancing, listening, particularly for those who appreciate Q’s jazz work throughout the years.

Elsewhere, Q’s wondrous ways with an orchestra prevail. There is very little of the relentless repetition that drags so many soundtrack recordings down. Predictably, all the music that was laid down, was not used in the film but the good folks at FSM have included pretty much every note here that was recorded for the soundtrack – and much of it will surprise anybody who knows the film (that’s the joy of so many of FSM’s soundtracks).

The vocal pieces are negligible and often intrusive – especially Sheb Wooley’s “A Good Woman’s Love” – though the pop theme (“It’s Just A Game, Love”) and, most notably, the main theme have exceptionally good melodies. It’s clear no one knew what to do with these songs and they just seem to get in the way of Q’s otherwise marvelous score. But they are instructive as parts of the whole, so it’s hard to argue against cutting them for the sake of a more pleasant listen.

A word of praise for Scott Bettencourt and Alexander Kaplan’s fine, extensive and enlightening liner notes is due here too. In great and loving detail, the writers examine Westlake’s writing career, the translation of his books onto screen, the genesis of The Split itself, Quincy Jones’ involvement in the project and a detailed discussion of each and every one of the soundtrack’s songs. It’s as much an entertaining education to read the notes as to hear the music Quincy Jones created for it all.

Quincy Jones went on to score a few more action films, notably Peter Yates’ The Hot Rock (1972), coincidentally another Donald Westlake adaptation, and Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway (after replacing Jerry Fielding, Peckinpah’s regular man for the job) before getting out of the film music business pretty much altogether.

Sadly, very few of Quincy Jones’ very few action scores are in circulation, which is enough to make The Split a valuable chronicle. But the music presented here is enough to make it a worthy addition to any film music collection where jazz and funk have a place. It’s also a must for fans of Quincy Jones’ music.

Available for sale from the good folks at Screen Archives.

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