Category Archives: Music

Epic Films for Holiday Weekend!

For the first time in memory, television networks are showing two epic Biblical films in prime time, on consecutive nights. First up, tonight, is TCM’s 8 PM (ET) showing of “Ben-Hur” (as part of their A to Z tribute to “31 Days of Oscar“). Second up is tomorrow night’s annual ABC showing of “The Ten Commandments” at 7 PM (ET).

Charlton Heston has the distinction of having starred in what many consider to be the last great “costume” epic of its time (“The Ten Commandments“) and in the first great “intimate” epic of its time (“Ben-Hur“). The former film remains a stunning Cecil B. DeMille achievement that has forever given new meaning to the phrase “A Red Sea Moment” to describe any remarkably monumental special effects sequence on the big screen. The latter film remains the all-time Oscar champ (11 Oscars, tied with “Titanic” and “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King“), directed by William Wyler, which ushered in a new kind of epic for a new era, one heavy on intimate characterization that is never eclipsed by its action sequences, including an unforgettable real chariot race, that makes CGI look fake by comparison.

Of course, what would a post like this be without at least one Sciabarra footnote. Aside from Heston, one of the key things that connects these two films is that Martha Scott plays Heston’s mother in both of them!

I could just as easily throw on the Blu-Ray of either film, but there’s still something charming about the fact that they’ll be on this weekend back-to-back. They remain truly notable achievements in the history of the cinema, however you might view them, critically, symbolically, or from a religious standpoint. Of course, nothing beats seeing these films on the Big Screen; I was lucky enough to see “Ben-Hur” for the first time, in 1969, on its tenth anniversary re-release in glorious 70mm at New York’s great Palace Theatre and “The Ten Commandments” a couple of years later at the wonderful Ziegfeld Theatre. Lacking that, find yourself the biggest TV screen to appreciate their artistry.

Epic-scale films with epic-scale scores—Elmer Bernstein’s great soundtrack for the DeMille classic and Miklos Rozsa’s spectacular Oscar-winning soundtrack [YouTube links to their “Soundtrack Suites”]—still worthy of your attention after all these years.

The Poetry of Rap

As a mobile DJ back in my college days, I learned early on just how to keep the crowd moving by spinning (yes, vinyl records back then!) hip hop and rap hits. Whether it was a party anthem, like the “Good Times“-fueled “Rapper’s Delight” [YouTube links] by The Sugarhill Gang and the Old School street sounds of Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel, Kurtis Blow, and Afrika Bambaata (whose cousin was one of my best friends: RIP, dear Ronnie) or, later, Run D-MC and the Beastie Boys, it never failed to pack the floors at a school dance or a senior prom. Over the years, I wrote a few essays about rap (especially its relationship to improvisational art forms like jazz), including one on the controversial Eminem.

So I was very impressed by an article published in the March 7, 2021 issue of The New York Times Style Magazine, “Free Flow” by Adam Bradley, which focused attention on the ways in which rap artists were dismantling the barriers between rap and poetry, especially during “a renewed era of American racial reckoning.” Discussing everything from the nature of sampling, the role of improvisation and the use of literary allusions (going as far back to Homer and Shakespeare), Bradley writes:

[A] line of demarcation persists between rap and poetry, born of outmoded assumptions about both forms: that poetry only exists on the page and rap only lives in the music, that poetry is refined and rap is raw, that poetry is art and rap is entertainment. These opinions are rife with bias — against the young, the poor, the Black and brown, the self-educated, the outspoken and sometimes impolite voices that, across five decades, have carried a local tradition from the South Bronx to nearly every part of the world.


Yet today, a new generation of artists, both rappers and poets, are consciously forging closer kinship between the genres. They draw from a common toolbox of language, use the same social media platforms to reach their audiences and respond to the same economic and political provocations to create public art. In doing so, rappers and the poets who claim affinity with them are resuscitating a body of literary practices mostly neglected in poetry during the 20th century. These ghost appendages of form — repetition, patterned rhythm and, above all, rhyme — thrive in song, especially in rap.

The article is well worth your attention.

Song of the Day #1859

Song of the Day: The Wizard of Oz (“Ding Dong the Witch is Dead”), music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by E. Y. Harburg, is one of the highlights of this 1939 film classic. Check out the original film version [YouTube link], along with many other renditions: Ella Fitzgerald (and here too), Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney (with solos by Scott Hamilton on tenor sax, Ed Bickert on guitar, Dave McKenna on piano, Warren Vache, Jr. on trumpet), a swingin’ Sammy Davis, Jr. with the Buddy Rich Band, Barbra Streisand with Harold Arlen himself and alternative versions by The Fifth Estate and Klaus Nomi. And with that, our Seventeenth Annual Film Music February comes to an end! Tonight is the airing of the 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards, where some of the composers we’ve featured in this year’s series are nominated. But we’ll have to wait till Oscar weekend (24-25 April 2021)—at which time I’ll feature a couple of additional Film Music tributes—to find out who takes home the prizes for the cinema music categories. Stay tuned!

Song of the Day #1858

Song of the Day: The Karate Kid (I-II-III-IV) (“Soundtrack Suite”) [YouTube link], composed by Bill Conti (well known for his soundtracks to the “Rocky” franchise), brings a perfect combination of energy, contemplation, and triumph to the whole film series (1984-1994). I recently re-watched the original films in their entirety—the first three with Ralph Macchio—as a prelude to the fun Netflix “Cobra Kai” series (see Xolo “Miguel Diaz” Mariduena’s FB page), in which Macchio reprises his role as Daniel LaRusso [YouTube link to the hilarious “Sweep the Leg” video by No More Kings]. I enjoyed the films on a whole other level than I did when I first saw them. Maybe it was a wider appreciation for all the wisdom coming out of the mouth of Mr. Miyagi! It’s not Bruce Lee, but it’s got a special poignancy for me.

Song of the Day #1856

Song of the Day: Motherless Brooklyn (“Main Theme”) [YouTube link] was composed by Daniel Pemberton, who brings a Miles Davis-influenced sound to this 2019 film. The score also includes some classic jazz recordings along with other original songs, performed by such artists as trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

Song of the Day #1855

Song of the Day: Ice Station Zebra (“Soundtrack Suite”) [YouTube link] was composed by the late, great Michel Legrand, who was born on this date in 1932. The score to this 1968 espionage film was orchestrated and conducted by Legrand himself with a 75-piece orchestra. It has been described as a brilliant “Cold War ballet.”

Song of the Day #1854

Song of the Day: Black Panther (“A New Day”) [YouTube link], was composed by Ludwig Goransson, for this 2019 superhero film, based on the Marvel-ous collaboration of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, starring the late Chadwick Boseman. With its predominantly black cast and black director, this trailblazing, absorbing film broke many box office records. The orchestral score embraces a global sound, while also incorporating original songs by Kendrick Lamar.

Song of the Day #1853

Song of the Day: Lady Usher (“A Few Kind Words”) [site link], composed by my friend, Michael Gordon Shapiro, is from a 2020 adaptation [YouTube link] of the Edgar Allan Poe short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The soundtrack to this film won Best Original Score from the New York Cinematography Awards (congratulations, Mike!). As described by the composer, this tender cue offers “a moment of respite before the film’s macabre mood arrives in full force.”

Song of the Day #1852

Song of the Day: Never Let Me Go (“The Pier”) [YouTube link], composed by Rachel Portman, echoes the tragic tones of this 2010 film based on the dystopian novel of the same name by Kazuo Ishiguro. The San Diego Film Critics Society awarded the soundtrack with best score honors that year.