Monday, February 21, 2011

Slurpees and Murder Record Club: If This Be Madness, Then I Am Mad

Happy Louis Riel Day!

William McCauley - Riel: The Original Soundtrack (1979)
[composer bio | not easy to find this one when its record label is long defunct | there is one copy on eBay, though ]

It has very much been the theme of the Slurpees and Murder Record Club thus far that I've had to do some spade work to figure out just what in the god damn I am holding in my hands. This all predates me by a fair bit, but let me tell you what I've dug up.

"Riel" was a 1979 made-for-TV-movie put together by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the otherwise completely unknown Green River Pictures Inc., crafting a lavish Hollywood-style affair with a who's who cast of Canadians (Plummer, Shatner and Nielsen in the same movie... and it's this?) and an exorbitant budget alleged by IMDB to have been around $2,700,000. That's in 1979 dollars, mind.

This, then, is the accompanying soundtrack album for the film; William McCauley was frequently brought in to compose for CBC productions, which is likely why he got the call for this one. (Strangely, we get no information on who is actually playing all the instruments for him.)

The made-for-TV movie, itself, was apparently both inaccurate and not very good. ("Well, as a professor and historian, I was horrified.") So that's kind of too bad. And a clean-shaven Riel? C'mon, son. C'mon, son.

I'm sure the film would have been distributed on VHS, including to schools, but I can't seem to track it down anywhere; the Winnipeg Public Library has the novelization of said film, strange as that sounds, but that doesn't really help us any for getting a gander at the tone or production values of the thing. There is a bit of footage in the CBC archival video linked above, so take a peek at that and we'll move on to discussion of the music we have here.

Okay, look, I'll level with you: the first track kind of bites. That is a fair assessment. I am not too proud or set in my ways to admit that I paid money for this, and I somehow got that. Stick it out, though, the album gets a lot better.

The first track is the only one on the album to have been arranged by McCauley's son, Michael, but I ain't blaming him for it. This is where we veer off into an aside about Moe Koffman, who was -- this is not a combination of words you will see very often -- the premiere Canadian jazz flautist of his era.

No, seriously. Jazz flute. He was actually one of the pioneers of jazz flute, which is way funnier now if you've seen Anchorman but was -- I assure you -- deadly serious at the time. Koffman was one of this record label's main meal tickets, so it was likely their idea to stuff him into this project to boost sales a bit. (The label, GRT of Canada, is listed as having gone under within the year, so... this plan may or may not have worked.) The problem is that this was still a soundtrack for a CBC television movie, so in striking a middle ground between the famously eclectic Koffman and the television-friendly McCauleys we end up with... with, uh...

Okay. Here's the trick. If you're listening to this first track just by itself, it ain't very good. But if you open up some old weather channel footage on YouTube, mute that, then run this song in the background? Then it works. It takes a bit of hard work and a bit of magic, but there's use in this song after all.

Anyway, once that's out of the way, William McCauley takes over unfettered to compose some atmospheric symphony pieces and sprinkle some leitmotifs around. It ain't half bad, if I say so myself; side two is quite lopsidedly better than side one, in my humblest of opinions, but you can judge the matter for yourself. "Battle at Batoche" has a bit of Ennio Morricone to it, too, which I'm always down for.

The third track of side two, "Riel's Final Speech and Judges[sic] Verdict", turns out to be exactly what it sounds like; presumably excerpted from the movie, Riel (played by Raymond Cloutier) and the trial judge (played by Tony Van Bridge) read their speaking parts while McCauley's music gradually sneaks in for the delivery of the dénouement. It doesn't light my world on fire or anything -- and if everybody in the 150-minute movie pronounces "Métis" like "Matisse", as Cloutier does in this clip, that shit must get old real fast -- but it's a perfectly serviceable listen, in the absence of any jazz flute odysseys.

I'm also partial to the short piece "Dumont is wounded"[sic], although that may be attributable to my acknowledged soft spot for the guy. C'mon, Gabriel Dumont got the short end of the history stick on this one, didn't he? The most eponymy he got out of his contribution to history was a bridge and a grade school, maybe a building or two here and there, and that's pretty much it. No statutory holiday named in his honour, dude doesn't even get a lake like Jonathan Toews -- step up your game, Saskatchewan! You guys should get on this. The Métis' greatest military commander was also running buddies with Louis Riel and Buffalo Bill, it's not like he's a boring story to pitch to people.

Dumont is really the original hard-done-by middle management guy, all things considered. A man for our modern times! Imagine you've got a small but dedicated team working under you, you're tasked with the impossible job of getting your tiny company's message to go viral so you can compete with your much larger competitor in the field (who has the benefit of sucking up all the government funding, I might add), and on top of all that you're increasingly convinced that your direct supervisor is batshit bafflegab crazy. It ain't easy! Give the brother his due, here.

It's really sort of too bad that the movie is said to have kinda sucked, but reading back on it I can't say it's entirely unexpected. The historiography around Riel has been in a state of constant evolution for decades now, so there are an endless variety of pitfalls and missteps one can take in detailing a complicated story about a complicated man for the audiences of the day.

Y'all remember Heritage Minutes, right? Those iconically, cheesily charming sixty-second spots that ran on television throughout the 1990s to teach our woefully undereducated populace the many important stories of our nation? They remain beloved, or at least recalled fondly, to this day, and still occasionally pop up when channels decide they're cheaper than actually producting Canadian content.

It was noteworthy that the vast majority of them ended in upbeat notes, if not in outright happy endings. A dude's wife has a stroke, he pokes at her brain until she smells burnt toast, and then he's revolutionized medicine; a goalie is hit in the face with a puck, invents a helmet, and changes the sport of hockey forever; a hard-done-by peach basket man has his baskets cut apart, but the end result is a Canadian guy inventing a popular modern sport for tall people. That kind of thing, right? Even the country's darker stories are offset by bright spots:

They make a point of noting the sheer volume of dead involved, as well they should -- but our protagonist survives his explosion and lives to be eighty, a rich man telling the story to his grandchildren in his gigantic stately probably-Vancouver mansion.

Now! Now compare and contrast that to the rarely-seen, barely-known Heritage Minute for our hero and founder Louis Riel.




You can imagine what the public reaction to this bad boy was; if I recall my high school history teacher's explanation of the case correctly, this spot only aired on television a handful of times across the country before it was quickly and unceremoniously yanke... taken off the air.

Literally every other story in Canadian history -- the history of all the other peoples across this great land -- ends on an upbeat note, and the hero of the Métis people got a one-minute publicly-funded snuff film. So, yeah, I dare say there have been some difficulties presenting the story of Louis Riel in a modern media setting.

At any rate -- Happy Louis Riel Day to you and yours, from the Slurpees and Murder Record Club! I'll be on the radio this Wednesday, of course, and then with any luck the production around this fine blog will continue at a decently steady pace. Until then, gentle readers!

1 comment:

Keith Bailey said...

I recognized the actor playing Louis Riel from the 1995 horror movie Screamers.

His name is Roy Dupuis.

The scene I remembered him from was where he crushes a guy to death while ranting Shakespeare.

WARNING this may be offensive to some viewers: