Mr. Cellophane

In a location adjacent to a place in a city of some significance, what comes out of my head is plastered on the walls of this blog.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"What are you up to now?"

One night, suburbanite Earl Keese (John Belushi) finds his bland life upended by his new neighbors: fast-talking Vic (Dan Aykroyd) and sultry Ramona (Cathy Moriarty). His wife Enid (Kathryn Walker) and daughter Elaine (Lauren-Marie Taylor) don't seem to have much problems with them, but Earl is convinced that these interlopers are dangerous people. So goes the 1981 comedy Neighbors. Directed by John G. Avildsen (quite different from the likes of Rocky and The Karate Kid) the film is sort of a proto-comedy of embarassment, as Earl finds himself the target of much misery, whether in calling out Vic and Ramona's odd sensibilities or trying to expose them as indecent, only to have it backfire. However, there's an undercurrent of absurdist humor that separates the film from the likes of Meet the Fockers, making it a definite acquired taste for those who get into it.

Nowadays, the film is notable for two aspects: a) it being Belushi's final film and b) possessing a cartoony Bill Conti score that drives people up the wall. It's interesting to note that Conti's score (which I have kind of a fondness for; sort of 'Carl Stalling on crack') was a last-minute replacement for a score from composer Tom Scott (Stir Crazy, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes). In 2007, the Varese Sarabande CD Club released a soundtrack containing both scores. I have to say that I fell right in love with Scott's music. The dramatic writing of Scott's score makes for a fine juxtaposition to the absurd goings-on of the film, instead of trying to top them, as Conti did with his music.

Based on my trying to place the score back in the film (YouTube 'Neighbors rejected score'), these are liner notes to describe the music:

Over the film's seemingly Woody Allen-inspired, white-type-on-a-black-screen Main Title (track #31; reel 1, scene - or 'm' - 1) sequence, the cue opens with a circular ostinato on strings with oboe accents that continues throughout the cue. At 0:16, Scott introduces the main theme, blared on French Horn. A solo trumpet picks up the melody at 0:31. At 0:47, strings (backed by a repeating piano figure) take up the main theme, leading to a downbeat crescendo as the film fades in.

Though ready to settle in for a night of television, Earl spots a moving van outside the house next door. The next cue begins with a descending three-note motif on piano that will come to be associated with Earl's misfortune at the hands of his New Neighbors (32; 1m2). Woodwind figures augmented by strings play under Earl spying on the rather late moving session. The sound of a rattling garbage can sends Earl outside to investigate. In one of the rare musical moments of the film where Scott's score comes off as cartoonier than Conti's, Earl sees the dog, Uggbaby, rush by. Whereas Conti played through the scene with mock-horror textures, Scott treats the dog's jaunt with a galloping woodwind figure (at 1:36). As Earl notes to Enid that "they have a dog", she waxes poetic on the dog spirit, a Native American-sounding melody of tambourine, drums and groaning winds underlining her words. Earl retreats to the living room, the worry motif poking at him. He turns the porch light on. A figure shrouded in shadow but for her eyes greets him at the front door. This is Ramona. As opposed to the saxophone melody that Conti bestowed upon her, Scott provided her with a fluttering flute theme, its genuine romanticism making for a nice contrast to Moriarty's vamping. As she invites herself in, her theme flows along with halting strings underneath before building to a string sustain.

Chattering horns and chopping strings over piano highlight this brief cue (33; 2m1), establishing a palpable sense of unease. (Near as I could tell, this cue fit over the scene where Earl goes into his living room and finds Vic enjoying an old horror movie on television. Unless I can get some kind of confirmation from the composer himself - like that would ever happen - that's my uneducated guess.)

Vic offers to pick up some dinner, but in need a ride (his brakes are shot), Earl heads upstairs to his room to fetch the keys to his car, only to find Ramona in Bed (34; 2m3). Scott brings us her theme on Gypsy violin with light string accents as she tries to seduce Earl into adultery. The cue ends with a tag on woodwinds as Earl bolts out of the room following her suggestive come-on.

Earl sees his neighbor parking the car at his new home. Earl takes a stroll over and fumes at Vic making spaghetti dinner and (apparently) pocketing the $32 Earl gave him for the food. As revenge, Earl decides to run Vic's car into the swamp; who knows what else he was fibbing about? Earl tries to apply the brakes, Mickey-Mousing oboes accompanying every no avail. The worry motif recurs as he leaps out and watches as Vic's Wheels (35; 2m5) sink into the swamp. Winds sound as the car disappears and, in an odd touch, tall stalks of grass rise. A lighter take on the worry motif appears as Ramona shows up at the front door of his house as Enid invites her in; did she see what Earl just did? Earl scurries to his house, a slow-paced galloping melody of strings and winds underneath. The chattering piano and winds combo from two tracks ago underscores Ramona mentioning a baby left in the car. Earl, frantic at the unintentional infanticide, rushes for the car, only to run into Vic. Worried winds finish out the cue. (BTW, the 'baby' was their dog, Uggbaby, who was just digging up Earl's flowers.)

While getting some air, Earl runs into Ramona, who - having seen Earl's dirty deed - attempts to extort him. During dinner, Enid gets on with the neighbors fabulously, but Earl, still upset, tries to manipulate Vic into confessing his subterfuge. Vic does so, in a manner that makes him the wounded party. Ramona soon drops the accusation that Earl came on to her, leading to discord amongst Earl and Enid. Vic and Ramona confess that it was all just a practical joke. On that note, Earl tells Vic about the whereabouts of his vehicle. With a hand on Earl's shoulder, Vic tells him, "We'll get your jacket, later. You just take me to...the swamp." (36; 3m1) A harp figure sounds as Earl reacts. Low flute and string sustain follow the men into the bog. Horror movie-derived electronics and horn keep up the creepy atmosphere when Earl disappears. The cue ends with the main theme on strings as it's revealed that Earl is sinking into the muck. Vic is content to leave him in there for his less-than-neighborly behavior. Ultimately, he extracts a phony confession from Earl about willing Ramona's towel to fall while she was upstairs.

Vic extends his hand and pulls Earl out, only to find himself flipped into the muck. Earl calls out for Vic, hoping that his sinking is just another gag. Langorous horns, accented by chopping strings and electronics, play the main theme as Earl stumbles toward his house, looking for all the world like Swamp Thing (37; 3m3). Through the window, he sees Enid and Ramona laughing it up, strings and clarinet underneath. Enid thinks she sees something, causing Earl to retreat, electronics following his skulk. He trudges for his basement, harsh piano figures and the main theme on winds winding up as he approaches his shower. Upon drawing back the curtain, he finds an equally muck-encrusted Vic, who engages him in a mock fight to playfully seesawing horns and woodwinds.

Earl emerges from his shower only to find Ramona lounging about. After Vic joins the gathering, Earl shuts the lights off and locks them in. Screaming emerges, but Earl isn't falling for it again. The worry motif appears under Enid's suggestion that Vic might be a vivisectionist. Worried, Earl goes Into the Basement (38; 6m1). Creepy aleatoric strings follow Earl's descent as he hopes that the screaming was part of another gag...and Ramona and Vic sneaking up the stairs behind him would certainly bear that out. Vic's mockingly goofy noises to get Earl's attention are treated to a woodwind-led parody of Psycho's stabbing strings over the worry motif. The loud, angry horn version of the main theme that closes the cue out makes for a good match to Earl's disposition at being had.

Earl calls Pa Greavy's Towing Service, only to find that Vic already contacted him. His son, Perry, hitches up Earl's car, seeing no other vehicles. Earl rushes out to stop him, only to find his wife and neighbors greeting his daughter "the outlaw hitchhiker" Elaine (Lauren-Marie Taylor, also one of the victims in that year's Friday the 13th Part II), who's been kicked out of college. In Goodnight, Earl (39; 7m1), a mournful cello plays the main theme (with acoustic guitar backing) as Earl glances at a family portrait, seemingly lamenting the loss of family innocence. He's not even up the stairs when he hears kissing noises from outside.

Ramona's Slot/Quiet Ablutions (40; 7m2) begins as Earl flips open the mail slot and finds Ramona. Clarinet plays the main theme as she entices Earl, believing that he needs some fun in his life. Strings pick up the melody as Enid calls for Earl. Earl agrees to see Ramona, the main theme continuing on woodwinds as Earl cleans himself up without Enid knowing (a little hard, since he tries to shave not long after telling his wife that he'd be in the shower). Earl opens the front door and, to taunting electronics and pitter-pattering strings, finds the much less attractive Pa Greavy (then-"Saturday Night Live" regular Tim Kazurinsky).

He's returned Earl's car, finding nothing wrong with it. Earl tries to explain that it was a joke perpetrated by Vic. Upset at having his time wasted with pranks, Pa punches Earl in the stomach, a slow-paced militaristic melody sounding as Pa stomps off and, for good measure, backs into Earl's car. Pa Greavy/Sureshot Vic (41; 7m3) continues as Earl sneaks across the lawn, flute accompanying his cries for Ramona. He trips over a lawn chair, which flies toward the magnetic electrical tower. This garners Vic's attention and despite Earl's friendly greeting, Vic opens fire on him with a shotgun. Grim snare drums and abbreviated horn hits underscore Vic's target practice with the main theme as a tag when Vic sees if Earl is unharmed. (BTW, the post title comes from Vic's surprise at seeing Earl outside and Aykroyd's amusing delivery of the line.)

Piano and staccato horns play a galloping figure leading to the main theme on strings as Pa Greavy returns the next morning, his son Perry driving The Greavy Train (42; 9m1...I know it's a truck. Work with me, here!)...and not too well, from the sounds of Pa's grousing. Pa's theme returns as he chats up Earl ("So you got a whore in there." "Who told you that?" "That's what I heard." "Well, you heard wrong." "You ain't got a whore in there?" "No." "Know where I could find one?" "Of course not!" "One shows up, you let me know?"). Vic's car rescued from the swamp, he retrieves his remote control airplane.

Vic decides to strike out on his own...leaving Ramona behind. A quick wind reading of the worry motif accompanies his door slam, followed by Earl pounding on the door of his own bedroom to a brief taste of Ramona's theme; she's in his bed, again. A soap operaesque rendition of the main theme (one of the strongest pieces of evidence that Scott had a different movie in his head when he scored this) plays as Earl wonders what happened to Enid ("She's your wife." - 43; 9m2) and he relays to her Vic's travel plans ("Sounds exciting."). Ramona does her best to cajole Earl into having some fun, but he's worried about Vic, who at the moment is testing out his plane (as heard by the soaring French horn fanfare at 1:03). The main theme returns on electric piano as a shot at Earl's manhood (via Vic) encourages him into Ramona's clutches. However, Earl is distracted by Vic's faux-airshow commentary outside. Oboe plays the main theme as Ramona goes to work.

Ramona's ministrations on Earl are treated to a rising romantic melody on strings. As Earl experiences pleasure that he likely hasn't felt in years, Ramona's theme flutters majestically (a marked contrast to Conti's rather puerile treatment of the scene), but Enid's voice, and nervous strings, bring Earl back to reality. The worry motif slams us to the next scene with the women fawning over a coughing Vic; the house has gone Up In Smoke (44; 10m1), or so Vic says. Quivering strings and a lighter return of the fanfare underscore Vic explaining how the plane gained impressive altitude, only to crash when it lost connection with the remote control. Despite being chastised by his wife and daughter, Earl remains unimpressed by Vic's story. The music builds to a melodramatic climax of high strings as Vic refuses the phone to call the fire department; Earl believes that he's outed his neighbor as "a fake, a phony and a fraud!". There's a break in the music for the shot of Vic's house on fire. The worry motif closes out the cue as some of the townspeople arrive as a sort of volunteer fire brigade. They can't really save the house, though; "No (water) pressure. Can't you see?"

Despite the clip at YouTube, I haven't the bloody foggiest where the exact placement of track 45 (10m2) goes, but logically, it was somewhere over the scene of Earl offering to take Ramona to the city. Oboe plays the last section of the main theme at the beginning of the cue...but then, the music goes in a direction almost completely away from the rest of the score. Oh, the main theme is still here, but in woodwind fragments.

Earl's romantic plans are thwarted by the return of Vic, Enid and Elaine, bearing food from Mr. Fong's Fast Chow. During the meal, Earl posits that Vic burned the house down for the insurance money. However, the regretful look on Vic's face (and the sustained horn that begins No Insurance? - 46; 11m1) would argue differently. Over her theme, Ramona explains that the house was left to them by an elderly woman at the nursing home where Vic used to work; he was her favorite orderly.

Believing that suburban life isn't for "Captain Vic and Empress Ramona", the couple decide to Hit the Road (47; 11m2). A sad piano plays the main theme as the Keeses lament the departure of their new friends. Enid asks to borrow some money from Earl, but nervous strings play as something dawns on him. The main theme becomes an angry march as Earl confronts Vic about the discrepancy in his bank account. The music pauses as Enid finds Earl's checkbook and the debts (including a receipt from Mr. Fong's Fast Chow) have been settled, humbling him once again. The sad piano returns as Earl, hoping to make amends, gives Vic his car. At 2:25, winds backed by strings pick up the melody before the piano returns and Vic and Ramona depart for good.

Goodbye, Earl (48; 12m1) begins as Earl settles in for some television, a clarinet solo hinting at the misery yet to come. Elaine, sporting a punk look, appears with luggage in tow. A (mock-?)mournful violin solo plays as she explains how she's being let back into college. Earl's protests of her hitching a ride with Perry Greavy fall on deaf ears as she departs. The solo continues as Enid readies to leave, clad in Native American gear. The orchestra delivers a somewhat faster take on the Native American-sounding 'dog spirit' music from "New Neighbors" as Enid leaves with her friend (with possible benefits), Mr. Thundersky. The violin plays out as Earl finds himself alone.

Earl answers the door. It's Ramona. As she explains that her and Vic's escapades wouldn't be the same without him, Scott supplies a warm flute reading of the main theme. With One Last Look (49; 12m2) at the buzzing electrical tower - and shimmering strings underlining his decision - Earl decides to go for it; "It's crazy, but there's something so right about it." One final appearance of the worry motif sounds as Vic impedes Earl; he should leave a note for Enid. Earl acquiesces; "In fact, I'm gonna leave a little more than just a note." A peppy, determined march version of the main theme follows Earl back into his house as he decides to make a mess of the living room (the length of the cue on the Varese CD suggests that either Earl's destruction went unscored or that scenes were added for the final cut). The main theme plays on French horns as Earl emerges from his house. The music swells as Vic and Ramona notice that the house is ablaze. According to Earl, "Enid never did like coming home to a dark house." The three friends share a laugh as they drive off, piano, strings and chimes building to a crescendo.

Any feedback (comments, corrections) are greatly appreciated. Hopefully, I'm not the only fan of this terrific score.

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