4 / 5 Stars
For fans of Fontiere's Branigan, Schifrin's Enter The Dragon, Hayes's Shaft and Budd's Fear is the Key, this is an excellent slice of 70's funk scoring style, from the somewhat unlikely source of composer Elmer Bernstein. However, when one considers his ground-breaking work in incorporating jazz into film music (The Man With The Golden Arm, Summer & Smoke), then it does suddenly seem feasible how Bernstein can take those slick grooves and adapt them for the bass-heavy R&B idiom utilized in the era of Shaft and Superfly. The music is still imbued with his signature approach in big melodies and rhythms, but augmented with saxophones, drum set, wah-wah guitar, electronic keyboards and even an echoplex. It is a style not visited often by Bernstein so this gritty, percussive action score is quite a treat for fans.
It shares another link with Dominic Frontiere's music for Branigan in that both films star the iconic actor John Wayne, trading in the Western plains for the urban streets. Bernstein had almost become Wayne's constant musical companion in films, penning scores for many of his most famous Westerns and bringing the good-natured swagger and non-nonsense action to his character, which remained pretty much the same throughout his legendary career. No subtle, sensitive themes will do for John Wayne. For this 1974 crime drama, the brash and brassy thematic material is again present, but Bernstein gives it a more dangerous edge, where the tone is still no-nonsense yet seems it could lash out in any direction at any time. The main McQ theme is run through different permutations but really shines when given the full spotlight and stage on which to play, such as in the bristling chase tracks, "Narco/Funny Laundry" and "Dirty Laundry/Fooled". It alternates with a menacing villain theme and a punchy counterpoint rhythm which often backs the brass-led McQ melody. There is a huge amount of verve and electricity in these action cues, reminding me of the mammoth "Car Chase" sequence from Roy Budd's Fear is the Key. The orchestra itself seems to groove all as one unit, the sax is slick yet wild, the guitars burn away its licks, the drums are furious and the brass sound as if they will kick down your front door and sneer at you just for fun. I found this more of this insistent energy and variety in McQ than I did in Branigan, an arguable companion score.
There are other aspects to the compositions, however. There is moody, low-range suspense music, with odd electronic effects, as McQ searches Seattle docks and tracks down drug kingpins ("Plots", "Lies", "Santiago"), plus some fab, funky source cues with deep bass grooves, often based on the villain's primary theme, and definitely cool ("Rosey"). There are broader orchestral sections, such as the start of "Anger/Olive and 23rd/Break Out", which itself has some seemingly improvised parts played on the E5 organ, and in "To The Docks". Silky, seductive strings and woodwinds highlight "Rites/Lois Plans/Sign Up" while a cool sax brings in the love in "Sal/Myra". Finally, pulse-pounding action drives the party to its rollicking conclusion in "Toms/Sea Chase", which begins with striking, menacing chords, has a brief interlude for the E5 organ and sax solo of the McQ theme, then picks up the beat with the chase rhythm heard earlier and the pace and swagger carries us forth to the end.
Bring in da Bernstein funk!
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