Billion Dollar Brain

Original Soundtrack

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Billion Dollar Brain Review

by Bruce Eder

Inventiveness in the field of soundtracks doesn't necessarily equate with success, and Richard Rodney Bennett's score for Ken Russell's movie Billion Dollar Brain is a case in point. It sold in only a fraction of the numbers that John Barry's James Bond soundtracks of the same era did, but it was more inventive than any of the Bond scores. The complex main theme, built on a beautifully complex piano part played on three keyboards at once (two of them by Bennett and noted English composer Thea Musgrave) and backed by an orchestra of brass and percussion, leads into a score built on the sounds of the Ondes Martenot, a theremin-like instrument, in a surprisingly lyrical and disquieting mode, juxtaposed with bold examples of faux-Russian romanticism and post-romanticism and very modern electric guitar, keyboard, and percussion pieces, each capturing a different slice of the mood of this somewhat loopy, partly satirical adventure thriller. The music was at times more coherent than the movie in relating to the audience, signaling far better in some instances than Russell did what sequences were intended as wryly humorous. The very fact that Bennett delivered a score that didn't have anything in it that could be adapted to a pop theme, à la "Somewhere My Love" from Doctor Zhivago, was a point in his favor. He also showed throughout that he understood the lesson of less sometimes being more, his most sparely scored sections, such as "Kaarna," with its mix of Ondes Martenot, electric harpsichord, percussion, and guitar, being far more intense listening experiences than some of the larger-scale tracks. The bizarre takes on folk material, such as "Hoe Down," which transposes a traditional American tune ("Camptown Races") into an atonal dance interlude complete with a Russian cast to the brass part, is a bonus for serial music buffs, and "Panic in the Brain" is perhaps one of the best pieces of atonal music ever written for a thriller. The album has been out of print since the end of the 1960s and is well worth tracking down, either in its original vinyl form (the British edition had better sound and superior jacket notes) or the 2002-issued CD (paired with The Ipcress File) from Movietrack.

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