Sunday, February 5, 2017

Review of Tangerine Dream's "Firestarter"

I posted this review earlier this morning on the Sputnik Music website.

Review Summary: This instrumental soundtrack album by Tangerine Dream does a much better job of telling the story of Stephen King's novel than the film for which it was created.

Firestarter began as a novel by the prolific horror and science fiction writer Stephen King. It tells the story of Andy McGee and his preadolescent daughter Charlene "Charlie" McGee, as they attempt to escape the clutches of both a sinister government agency known as The Shop and the deranged government hitman Rainbird who works for it. 

Years earlier, as a college student in need of money, Andy was part of a college experiment secretly run by The Shop. He and other students were given a drug called Lot 6. All of the other volunteers had horrible reactions to the chemical, except for Andy and an attractive young woman named Vicky Tomlinson. Somehow, Andy and Vicky connected telepathically, which seemed to protect them from the more toxic effects of Lot 6, but the result of the experiment was that each developed certain powers -- Vicky developed a slight telekinetic ability, while Andy gained a power he refers to as the "push", which allows him to force someone to do what he tells them, but causes him migraines and tiny brain hemhorrages every time he uses it. A decade later, Andy and Vicky have married and produced a daughter named Charlie who struggles to suppress a pyrokinetic ability that flares up when she becomes upset -- she is the "firestarter" of the book's title. At the beginning of the novel, Vicky has already been murdered by Shop agents who want to take Charlie into their lab for experimentation, and Andy and Charlie are on the run.

The book is a decent King novel; it's not one of his best, but it has its pleasures. Chief among them are the three strong characters at the center of the story -- Andy, who grieves for his wife, and struggles to keep his daughter safe; Rainbird, a Native American war veteran and killer-for-hire, who wants Charlie for his own demented purposes; and young Charlie herself, who evolves from a frightened child at the beginning of the book to a force to be reckoned with by its end. Unfortunately, the film is a mess, due mostly to a combination of shoddy writing and the poor casting of Drew Barrymore, fresh off of her role in the movie E.T., who was just too young to play Charlie effectively. The one bright spot in the film, however, is the hypnotic soundtrack written and performed by the German synthesizer band Tangerine Dream.

I don't remember anymore if this was my first exposure to Tangerine Dream. I suspect I might have already been familiar with them from the dark soundtrack album of the William Friedkin film Sorcerer. Regardless, after seeing Firestarter, I was blown away by the beauty and power of their music.

At the time of this album, Tangerine Dream had been in existence for 14 years, with 21 albums including four previous soundtracks, to their credit. The band's roster for Firestarter consisted of founding member Edgar Froese, Christopher Franke, who was a member of Tangerine Dream from 1971-1987, and Johannes Schmoelling, who was with the group from 1979-1985. So by the time of this album's release, this particular lineup had been in place for 5 years already, and their experience working together shows.

Emotionally, this album tells the story of Firestarter in a way that the film doesn't come close to. The music is all instrumental. The first track on the album, "Crystal Voice", is the movie's main theme. It starts simply, with the first synthesizer slowly playing 4 notes in 4/4 time, each of the notes held for a full measure. This is the spine of the song, around which the other keyboards and synthesizers gradually coil their own music. The track is mesmerizing -- sad and beautiful at the same time. This theme presents itself in different forms, fast and slow, throughout the rest of the album.

Different songs present different parts of the story of the film (although interestingly enough, having just watched the movie again before writing this review, the filmmaker doesn't seem to always use the various songs in the actual parts of the film for which they were intended). "Testlab" is a dreamy, somewhat psychedelic number that represents the connection that Andy and Vicky make with one another after they are injected with Lot 6. In the movie, we see a flashback of them as they clasp hands and begin to hear each other's thoughts. The music is full of wonder, helping you to feel what they feel as they make this mystical connection, understanding one another on a deeper level than most human beings are ever able to experience. Through their confusion, we can actually hear them fall in love.

Several of the tracks such as "The Run" and "Escaping Point" are tense numbers, as Rainbird and the Shop agents repeatedly chase down and corner Andy and Charlie, only to be foiled, first by Andy's pushes, and then by Charlie's increasingly powerful pyrotechnics, until they are captured at last at Chimney Rock Lake.

The highlight of the album is a song titled "Charly the Kid". It begins with a repeat of swirling synthesizer music taken from the movie's main theme, but the sound is a little faster here, and warmer. It is the song that most represents Charlie -- we feel her essential goodness, even as The Shop tries to weaponize her powers and turn her into a monster. We also feel her uniqueness -- Charlie is a very special little girl. The music has a sense of the fantastic about it. In the film, it's used for the parts of the story where Charlie is at her happiest, such as when she and her father manage to temporarily shake The Shop's agents for a brief respite at her grandfather's lakefront cabin.

There are various aural treats throughout the album, such as the hypnotic electronic percussive pattern that asserts itself during "Escaping Point", or some of the high-pitched twirling music laid over the under-theme of "Rainbird's Move". I don't pretend to be familiar with all of Tangerine Dream's work -- over the years, they have released over one hundred albums, and even after Edgar Froese's death in 2015, some version of the group continues to this day. However, of the work that I am familiar with, I can definitively say that Firestarter is my favorite Tangerine Dream album.

The Firestarter novel has a lot going for it, and one of these days someone is going to make a film version that does the book justice. (The 2002 two-part television sequel didn't come close to nailing it either). Luckily, this album is a great deal better than the movie it was created for.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars