Clicking and Streaming: Films scored by the late Edgar Froese and Tangerine Dream
By By Adam Katzman
Jan 30, 2015 | 6:29 PM
Edgar Froese, founder of Tangerine Dream, died last week, and part of his legacy was an impact on film scoring that has yet to be fully unpacked. Along with John Carpenter, Giorgio Moroder, Vangelis, and Claudio Simonetti, his work with Tangerine Dream presented an alternative to the top-down, full-orchestra bombast of old cinema. Tangerine Dream picked up where Pink Floyd left off in Michaelangelo Antonioni's "Zabriskie Point" (streaming on YouTube), balancing proggier freak-outs with ambiguous dread, creating an atmosphere of ambient dislocation that made reading a scene more cerebral by default. Tangerine Dream lent its quietly disruptive sounds primarily to genre flicks, elevating stories of thieves, spies, aliens, and psychics from B-movie tropes to philosophical art and amplifying each story's question of power structures.
Froese founded Tangerine Dream in 1967, but as the consciousness-expanding psychedelia of the '60s gave way to the acid-damaged, technologically averse paranoia of the '70s, so did its music shift from the William S. Burroughs-like cut-up collages of sound into an increasingly synthesized world of creeping electronics. Its base of operations was West Berlin, where you had the Red Army Faction setting off bombs to protest authoritarian measures emboldened by failed de-Nazification, while famed Nazi rocket scientist Werner Von Braun spent his final years in America, helping us win the space race and making educational videos for Disney. Froese and his Berlin School peers seemed to be staging an aural investigation into Germany, and the world's, uncertain futures with efforts. Oddly enough, it was Tangerine Dream's work scoring commercial films which gave these aural investigations their most expressive dimensions.
Tangerine Dream's first soundtrack was for William Friedkin's 1977 film "Sorcerer" (available on iTunes, Amazon), in which Roy Scheider leads an explosive trek through the jungle on behalf of a multinational oil company's dictatorial grip on a small Latin American country. That same year, John Williams bombarded audiences in "Star Wars," but here Froese's band used Moogs, mellotrons, and sequencers to create small-scale apprehension that exhibits both primal urgency and contemplative remove, adding another element to Friedkin's spare, minor-detail-oriented storytelling. For Michael Mann's 1981 film "Thief" (streaming on Netflix), about a safe-cracking ex-con named Frank (James Caan) who thinks he'll be able to retire after one last job for a mob boss, it reworked significant parts of its album "Force Majeure" into a propulsive score. "Force Majeure," which I'm sure Mann chose for its sometimes translation into "unforeseeable circumstances that prevent someone from fulfilling a contract," thus hangs over the proceedings in the same way Frank's post-prison PTSD does, creating a bubbling tension whose momentarily release (on the cathartic 'Beach Theme') is betrayed by the preceding, almost pre-determined road towards self-destruction.
Mann brought Tangerine Dream back for his folkloric WWII thriller from 1983, "The Keep" (available on Itunes and Amazon), in which a Nazi occupation in Romania awakens a vengeful golemlike figure named Molasar that only a Jewish scientist can communicate with, and its music glues the confusing film together with a transfixing coherence. In one scene, an old Christmas mass mixes uncomfortably with brooding arpeggios during a sequence where Molasar, in a floating cloud of smoke, rescues a woman from sexual assault by two Nazis; it plays with the power of Chagall's pogrom painting come to life. An eventual standoff between Molasar and a rival force named Glaeken is given a near-kabbalistic weight of the cosmos by Froese's reverberating synths, which also link the industrial ruination of the story's time period and the film's release date.
The 1984 film adaptation of Stephen King's "Firestarter" (available on iTunes, Amazon) and the now-forgotten "Wavelength" from 1983 (streaming on YouTube), both dealing with secret U.S. government experiments, were elevated by their uneasy mood music. "Firestarter's" fugitive chases, telekinetic standoffs, and flashbacks to disastrous operations are given the right amount of mental anguish and bubbling paranoia. The same goes for "Wavelength's" '70s "Doctor Who"-like budget, in particular a scene where Cherie Curie walks through a church with two child aliens while on the run from the army, playing like some lost gnostic Bible verse thanks to Froese's reverent organs.
Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum once half-dismissively called Tangerine Dream's score for 1983's "Risky Business" (available on iTunes, Amazon) "ambivalent" and "new-agey." The ambivalence here is a necessary, inquisitive counterpoint to the main character's near-celebratory ascension into '80s-era capitalistic excess, with the supposed new-agey-ness also giving the plot's sex work a redeeming sensitivity to what would otherwise have been a crudely exploitative sexual awakening—as evidenced by the blissful 'Love on a Real Train.' The song soundtracks an intimate sex scene on a public train between Tom Cruise's hapless suburban teen and the prostitute that sets his life into a tailspin, giving brief respite after a gaggle of prostitutes and their rueful pimp turn his life upside down. In his 2005 film "The Squid and the Whale" (available on iTunes, Amazon), Noah Baumbach resurrected 'Love on a Real Train' for the sexual awakening of a 12-year-old boy.
It's telling that Baumbach would look back to Tangerine Dream's work in the mid-2000s, in some ways predicting the resurrection of TD's sound and, in a sense, saving it from kitsch and camp. Tangerine Dream's sound can be heard all over the place, from musicians like locals Dan Deacon, Locrian, and Panda Bear to chill electronic hero Oneohtrix Point Never and space disco revivalist Lindstrom (whose 2008 album "Where You Go I Go Too" might as well be a lost TD album). And contemporary film scores to movies such as "Drive" (available for streaming on Netflix) and Tindersticks' work for Claire Denis' "Bastards" (currently streaming on Netflix) or Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' work for David Fincher's "The Social Network" (available on iTunes, Amazon) or "Gone Girl" (available on iTunes, Amazon) wouldn't be possible without TD's pioneering work. Reznor/Ross' ominous work on Laura Poitras' Edward Snowden documentary "Citizenfour" (available for pre-order on iTunes, release date TBD) is an even more appropriate continuation of Tangerine Dream's legacy, as our age of drones, unchecked surveillance, and local police forces dressed up as small armies call for the group's specific mode of electronic skepticism.