Remembering Phillip Lambro
Yesterday I took potshots at the late Michael Wayne, who I thought deserved it. It made me think of some of the other folks who have passed, who for one reason or another crossed paths with us at Film Score Monthly.
For some reason I thought of Phillip Lambro (1935–2015). He reached out to us in 2004 looking for...I’m not exactly sure. He had a handful of film credits from the 1970s, the most famous being one that didn’t work out: he wrote the score to Chinatown (1974) that was rejected and hastily replaced with the classic one by Jerry Goldsmith.
I think he was looking to publicize himself, his music recordings and memoirs, and maybe even get back in the game as a composer.
This happened to us from time to time at Film Score Monthly, and still does: composers looking for publicity to help their careers, usually young ones trying to break in, but sometimes older ones trying to remake themselves.
Incidentally, two of the “young composers” who reached out to me (separately) after their first couple of film projects in the 1990s were...John Ottman and Brian Tyler. They certainly went on to bigger and better things, having nothing to do with us!
Whenever this happens, I always try to explain that there isn’t really anything we can do to help somebody get film work. If they had a score to a new movie coming out, or a new album that collectors would want, of course we could review it and maybe do an interview.
By 2004, I was totally removed from editorial in the FSM magazine, so I passed on Phillip’s info to “the guys”—Tim Curran and Jonathan Kaplan in editorial—and forgot about it.
As far as CDs—because I was actively running the FSM label at that time, and always looking for cool vintage stuff to release—Phillip’s most interesting work, the rejected Chinatown score, was unfortunately impossible to license (or so I thought).
At the time, Paramount was closed to all the film score labels, and boy, had we tried. They had a long-time music clearance executive, Ridge Walker, who would drolly say on the phone, “Sorry, we’re just not set up to license our catalog.” I remember one time calling bullshit: “Come on, Ridge, if we ask the executives, they just send us to you. But you tell us the executives have told you not do anything.” And he sort of laughed AT me (not with me) and said, “Nice, isn’t it?” Well no, Ridge, not really. But anyway—in a few years, that all changed with a new administration. In 2004, it was still a non-starter.
Phillip had done a few other film projects in the 1960s and ’70s, which looked like low-budget exploitation pictures (maybe they’re not, I dunno). He wrote a cool jazzy–suspense score to the obscure A.I.P jewel-heist movie Murph the Surf, which had an LP released on Motown Records. But there was nothing that seemed easy to license that would make sense for the FSM label.
Phillip had one thing going for him: he was a really good composer! He came from the concert hall and had real credentials and ability. A little bit like Leonard Rosenman, he wrote scores with a lot of musical integrity—but they could be a little bit cold and abstract.
Also like Rosenman, he also had a lot of strong opinions. And this is, alas, quite an understatement.
I found this email Phillip sent to us in 2008, after apparently reading something on our message board that annoyed him. It seems like a letter-to-the-editor so I feel okay making it public:
I have never seen such inaccurate comments about the film Chinatown by people who were not there. To begin with Roman Polanski told me on many occasions that he thought the Chinatown script "was the biggest pile of crap I ever saw." According to Thelma, his secretary, she told me that Polanski fought with Evans and wanted to keep my score to the very last minute. Wake up; Chinatown lost a lot of money and Robert Evans lost a job he never should have had in the first place. My book is published and available CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE WORST KIND; read the chapter The Chinatown Syndrome if you want to know what actually took place. Polanski offered me his next film, but I refused as I did initially with Chinatown when I found out that Evans was the producer; but Polanski convinced me that he was in complete control. I never worked with Robert Evaans at all; I worked with Polanski; and at the end when I found out that Polanski wasn't in control, I never forgave him for lying to me; and to those Chinatown freaks who think it's the greatest film of all time, have you freaks ever seen the films of Akira Kurosawa, and Orson Welles? What the F is your frame of reference; if you have ever had one? Fortunately, I don't have to do film scores anymore; I've refused over a dozen times after Chinatown, in favor of my concert hall compositions which are heard from The Kennedy Center to last week in Algiers. A great film score is Leonard Bernstein's music to ON THE WATERFRONT and Alfred Newman's score to THE ROBE; those are celebrated scores.
In person, Phillip wasn’t running around screaming and slashing people’s tires. He seemed soft-spoken and cordial, a little bit Zen. So this is the kind of thing where I always just assume that people send angry emails when they’re blowing off steam—and who cares?
I have always had a soft spot for colorful eccentrics with old souls. I mean, I am one myself! So the last thing I want is for one of Phillip’s family members or friends to Google him and find this column and think, “Who’s this random guy crapping on Phil?” Because I’m really not.
I understood where Phillip was coming from and felt sorry that there wasn’t anything concrete I could do to help him. And I do think his music is good.
At one point, he took me out to lunch—we went to Bamboo in Culver City, one of our favorite restaurants when we had an office down there. He had a lot of interesting stories that seemed to have some revisionism to them (like his email above), but I didn’t begrudge him.
I do remember that he seemed really 1970s in that his shirt was not buttoned up, and he had these charms on a necklace. Being obnoxious, as is my wont, I made a joke about his “moon rocks.” And, uh...well, they actually were moonstones, or something religious like that. He gave me a long, very seriously explanation about chakras and spirituality and what the necklace represented and why he wore it.
Let’s just say I’m not a fan of this stuff, so I thought to myself, “Okay, let’s just get through the lunch and not make any sudden movements.”
A little while after that, one day near the end of work, I got a call: “Hi, uh, Lukas? This is Phillip Lambro.” He was cleaning out a storage unit in West L.A. and discovered his original manuscripts to Chinatown. He said he didn’t want them anymore and was about to throw them in the dumpster—but by chance thought of me, and maybe I would want them?
Did I?!?! Holy crap, this was film history. “Yes!!!”
I met him in a parking lot that night off of Santa Monica Blvd., just east of the 405, and he gave me a stack of his Chinatown scores along with a 1/4'' monaural tape of the recordings (all he had).
He seemed totally cool with everything—it was just something from his life that didn’t work out and didn’t interest him anymore, and he was happy to pass it on to somebody who could find some meaning in it.
I had the 1/4'' tape transferred by our pal, Johnny Dee Davis, and we at Film Score Monthly proceeded to discover the unused score to Chinatown—which had always fascinated us.
Surprisingly...it was pretty good! In many ways it was a lot like Goldsmith’s score, with a tuneful, noir/romantic main theme. I’d almost say it was the same ideas, but with a different voice. But that voice is a big difference: whereas Goldsmith’s score is warm and nostalgic, Phillip’s struck me as being cold and austere. (Phillip’s score was, in fact, used in the Chinatown trailer, which . So we could have heard it all along, from those excerpts.)
For years one of the raps on the rejected Chinatown score—and this came from Jerry himself, in an interview—was that Lambro had written “Chinese music.” Jerry thought it was so stupid, he couldn’t believe it. “Chinatown” was just a metaphor, so it would be laughable if, in fact, the whole score was written in a Chinese idiom. But it turns out Phillip had only referenced Chinese-sounding music for the climactic drive into Chinatown itself—which is not how Goldsmith handled those cues, but doesn’t seem unreasonable.
If you have any interest in Chinatown, you have to get the ultimate making-of book: The Big Goodbye by Sam Wasson.
Maybe a year or two after this, Robin Esterhammer at Perseverance Records called me saying he was doing some CD projects with Phillip, and they hoped to re-record his Chinatown score—and could he please get the manuscripts from me?
I was delighted—I never felt comfortable having this stuff—and I remember Robin drove over to my apartment building and picked up the scores. In the end, Robin released a 2008 compilation album, The Film Music of Phillip Lambro, and then the original master to Chinatown—the rights to which had reverted to Phillip, it turns out, when the score was rejected (except for the use in the trailer)—as a 2012 album entitled “Los Angeles, 1937.”
Phillip had also, back in 2004, given me a print-out of his memoirs, Close Encounters of the Wrong Kind, which is still available on Amazon. I eagerly devoured the chapters not only on Chinatown, but the one preceding that about his encounter with a young Steven Spielberg on the Universal lot.
And...it’s fascinating stuff. And like his email above, I remember it being pretty detailed...and he used the opportunity to settle a lot of scores, to the point where certain things seemed implausible.
But fine—it’s his book, and it was his life.
I think I’ll run the manuscript through the scanner—which is going to take a while—so I have it on hand to re-read. (I’m tired of physical media!)
UPDATE: I scanned the book and re-read the section on Spielberg. Yikes! Talk about axes to grind!
R.I.P. Phillip Lambro: a good composer, and here’s something that is absolutely true—he was his own man.