Of all the film scores Lalo Schifrin has composed -- good and bad, and yes, he's done some stinkers -- the score to Stuart Rosenberg's 1967 film Cool Hand Luke, a star vehicle for Paul Newman, is among his greatest achievements. First, there is the score itself, pure cinema in scope, breadth, and architecture. Next is its attempted marriage to bluegrass music -- not entirely successful, but pretty great anyway -- and finally there is Schifrin's attempt to offer an actual view of the character through the score, not just provide a series of incidentals to accompany the movement of a plot. The complexities of Newman's Luke are borne out in a score that works futuristic themes (like the CNN-meets-Star Trek music for the "Tar Sequence," the most problematic in the film), gorgeous jazz elements (just check out "Lucille," a seductive love theme if there ever was one), and bluegrass concepts into a framework where they were needed but would be obtrusive no matter where they were placed -- like Luke himself. This shows through loud and clear on "Egg-Eating Contest," even if Schifrin's sensibilities run closer to Jobim than Bill Monroe. There is also the delightful, Stephen Foster-ish theme called "Plastic Jesus," with Tommy Tedesco playing a sweet banjo and guitar over a lush, melancholy string arrangement. It's here that the drama in the film turns into the only fate a character like Luke can have befall him. Immediately after this beautiful interlude comes a heavily reverbed psychedelic banjo that threatens to rip the insides out of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," but instead becomes a suspenseful meditation on clarity called "I Got My Mind Back." The knowledge of all that transpired previously is clearly in every wash of the strings over the harp. "Ballad of Cool Hand Luke" is heard as the beginning of the last third of the film comes into play. A harmonica carries its melody against a backdrop of horns, electric guitars, and percussion. It's almost like Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'," as scored by Jobim during his Warner Bros. period. As "Dog Boy" begins to signal the beginning of the end, brass and a rumbling piano challenge one another momentarily as a wash of strings and a bongo find their place in the mix to carry its drama. The castanets spot-check the horns and winds, changing the dynamic from tense to unbearable, and escalating that sensation three times inside as many minutes. Here, though, the end title doesn't end the score: There are bonuses that weren't part of the original film. As the reverie of the end title played so simply by Tommy Tedesco becomes a poignant memory of the film's hero and his struggle -- as well as his laughter -- listeners will find themselves wanting more, as did viewers of the film. Here, after the soundtrack is over, Lalo and Donna Schifrin have provided listeners with two large bonuses: One is a gorgeous symphonic sketch -- almost seven minutes long -- of the various themes in Cool Hand Luke, and the other is a lost treasure, the original recording of "Down Here on the Ground," recorded by everybody from Wes Montgomery to Gerald Wilson to Oscar Peterson. It's a straight-up jazz melody, languid, wistful, and beautiful in its elegantly swinging whispers and sliding, dancing grace. What a bonus! This makes Cool Hand Luke, in stunning 24-bit remastered sound, an essential soundtrack in the library of any serious -- or casual for that matter -- film music collector.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek