Monday, December 13, 2010

Jazz at the Movies: The Big Boss

The Big Boss
Peter Thomas

Chris' Soundtrack Corner/All Score

After years of toiling in TV (The Green Hornet) and movies (Marlowe) as a kung fu novelty act, Bruce Lee starred in his first true chop-socky feature film, The Big Boss (aka Fists of Fury, '71; confusingly enough, Lee's next movie, made in 1972, also is known as "Fists of Fury").

Within a couple of years Lee catapulted to superstardom in Enter the Dragon ('73), featuring a classic jazz-funk score by Lalo Schifrin. After Lee's tragic death in '73, Game of Death was completed without him and released in '78, featuring a Bondian orchestral score by John Barry. Both of those movie soundtracks appeared on LP at the time of their theatrical releases and subsequently reissued on CD several times.

So, it comes as some surprise that it took so long for Peter Thomas' brassy, bustling soundtrack for The Big Boss to receive a CD release in the west (there was a limited edition Japanese CD release in 1991, and an exclusive iTunes download a few years ago). It's surprising, not just because of Bruce Lee's collectability, but also because of the resurgent interest in Thomas' cult soundtrack reissues during the past 15 years. In essence, The Big Boss has been something of a holy grail for collectors of the composer's quirky music.

The work Thomas was doing around the time of The Big Boss included his off-the-wall big band jazz scores for various Edgar Wallace thrillers, German sex-ed films and the paranormal documentary Chariots of the Gods — all of which have been available on CD in recent years.

So, what's the story? How did a German composer get to score a Hong Kong movie production? Basically, when a German film distributor bought the rights to release Tang Shan Da Xiong (the original title), they felt that it needed a soundtrack that would be easier on western ears than the one provided by the original composer, Fu-ling Wang, which was traditional Chinese music. Enter Peter Thomas, who — given a limited budget — crafted a score that was half new compositions and half back-catalogue library cues.

Stylistically, Thomas' jazz-rock score for The Big Boss is an off-kilter, psychedelic blend of vamping brass, trilling flutes, chiming "oriental" percussion, tinkling piano, blazing electric guitar, gurgling Moog synthesizers, rumbling rhythms and outlandish studio effects.

Naturally, anyone who knows Thomas' other work will want it, and anyone who wants to discover one of the most distinctive and eccentric jazz-based film composers in his prime should check it out. I should note that the sound quality of the CD is excellent, and that the clip below is obviously taken from an inferior sound source.

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