The Basil Poledouris Concert
There are some things that you imagine would be cool to do—but you never think you’ll do them. Fly a fighter jet or win an Oscar, things like that.
So you don’t really think about them. But they’re concrete.
There are some things you always want to do—and you do get to do them.
And having had many of those experiences, they’re wonderful, but they’re so loaded with anticipation that you have to sort through complicated emotions when they actually happen.
And then there are some things that just sneak on you. Things that turn out to be so thrilling and magical yet unexpected that you’re just transported to another dimension—like, wow.
Listening to “Rock Shop” from RoboCop as an encore at Disney Hall last night (7/22/22), played by a world-class orchestra—surrounded by fans, colleagues and family of our beloved friend and composer, Basil Poledouris—was that kind of experience for me.
RoboCop is one of my all-time favorite films and scores—so loaded with ideas, action, tension, imagination, satire, but, above all, humanity. And told with such clarity.
It’s a pop masterpiece—and to hear the score at Disney Hall, a Capitol of High Culture, was some kind of cosmic acknowledgment that all this stuff I’ve loved my whole life...well, it wasn’t a waste of time.
Sitting there, with a smile underneath my N95 mask, it reminded me of why I fell in love with film music: because of the way it reminded me, in an abstract, emotional way, of the feelings I had watching the movies—of having my mind opened and heart touched by great storytelling.
Is there a better ending than this: A cyborg reclaiming his humanity—through honor and duty. And WHAM, cut to “ROBOCOP”—and the triumphant music.
When you’re a kid, you have those transformative moments of discovery all the time—which is why so many of us (especially artists) spend our lives chasing the culture and memories of our childhood.
And that was exactly the moment I was having last night, listening to RoboCop live.
And to think I was so jaded, I figured I’d never have such a moment again!
I knew this concert would be good, because I had faith in the orchestra and producers, but it exceeded my expectations. The L.A. Film Orchestra and SoCAL Chorale sounded wonderful, the guest conductors and hosts were full of heart and charm—and there were surprises (like video messages from Francis Ford Coppola, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Peter Weller) that made you feel truly entertained, and part of something special.
That band sounded great: it was a reminder of what you get from an expert composer and orchestrator. Basil worked almost exclusively with the masterful Greig McRitchie, and when you have a team of that caliber, the orchestrations just balance, perfectly and naturally.
I’m not sure how big the group was, but counting six French horns was a good sign.
My thanks to Steven Allen Fox, Robert Townson, and all the guest conductors, hosts, producers and attendees for a magical evening.
I won’t give a blow-by-blow account—which I’m sure you can find elsewhere—but I’ll try to conjure my feelings and reflections of a great artist and friend, Basil Poledouris.
I spent some time with Basil, although not nearly as much (or as deeply) as many others. And the relationship was limited by my youth and naivété.
I was, of course, a huge fan of his since the 1980s, when I noticed that so many movies with music I loved had the same enigmatic name on them: “Basil Poledouris.”
He was one of the first composers I met when I was publishing Film Score Monthly, and was always approachable and welcoming for interviews.
In 1997, my friend Nick Redman and I wanted to create a series of composer documentaries. We needed a “pilot,” both to figure out how to do it, and to show other potential subjects an example of our work.
We chose Basil because he was the perfect “casting”: popular to the fans, easygoing and accessible—but also colorful and interesting.
We were proud of the documentary we made—but because of 1997 technology, it was only released on VHS, though Nick later included it on a Twilight Time (his label) Blu-ray of Summer Lovers. You can watch a bootleg rip in all its grainy glory:
The video didn’t sell well enough for us to do any others—but Basil and his wife Bobbie were so gracious and accommodating, I got to know them a bit.
Because of the young age at which Basil and Bobbie married, and the time period (late 1960s), they reminded me of my parents, and a lot of the family photos they shared for the documentary with their daughters Zoë and Alexis seemed to track the fashions and activities of my childhood.
This was not long after I had moved to L.A. (in October 1996) and while I knew lots of people, very few were my age—so I spent most of the time alone in my teeny tiny studio apartment, working on Film Score Monthly.
Zoë was performing in local clubs as a singer-songwriter, so I went to a bunch of her shows, where I knew I’d see familiar faces.
And during these outings, I got comfortable with the idea that Basil was not just this famous name from movies who wrote music that touched my heart, but a super nice guy with a down-to-earth (yet glamorous) family.
This was also around the time of Starship Troopers. We celebrated Basil’s reunion with Paul Verhoeven (even though we also loved Jerry Goldsmith’s scores for Paul’s films) and covered the project closely.
I attended several recording sessions at Sony—far more than any other film—and I was convinced it would be a massive hit. The subversive humor left me in stitches, but went over the head of middle America, who took the deadpan 90210-style love triangle at face value.
After this—and just as I was getting to know him—Basil found it increasingly difficult to get high-profile assignments. Breakdown had been a huge hit, but the director was so meddling and intrusive that it was like a months-long visit to the proctologist.
Basil was fighting a rearguard action against changing aesthetics and practices. His heart and working style (composing by himself, on a piano) came from an older, bygone era—one which was being obliterated by temp tracks, technology and corporate oversight.
And there was nothing I, or anyone, could do to help. His plight seemed to encapsulate everything that I found depressing in covering film music. It was like tracking the last buffalo on the frontier: “Did they get him yet?”
So I turned my attention to the FSM CD label—and, in 2003, I was able to license Big Wednesday from Warner Bros. I was so excited to release that score, not only because I knew the fans would love it—as did I—but because it would mean something to him, as his first big studio project. (I don’t think he even had a decent tape of it.)
I had heard he had left L.A., but I got in touch with him, and he was indeed enthusiastic about Big Wednesday.
I have some emails from him from this time that are meaningful to me, and while I don’t want to share them all, I think a few excerpts are okay—because I want to show you the man as I experienced him, and how honest and endearing he was.
This is how he started an email to me in May 2003:
As you may have noticed, I sort of disappeared from Hollywood last October. Driven by a desire to remove myself from the bullshit and seeming meaningless stupidity of scoring films and to rest up after thirty-six years of sleep deprivation and stress, I put together a completely, portable sequencing, recording, and 5.1 mixing studio in 4 travel cases and am living, alone, on an island in Puget Sound. I have a small cottage with a wood burning stove, a couple of chairs and more books and music than I could desire. I set an all time Island record for burning more than two and a half cords of wood. Being from Southern California, cold was the last thing I would endure.
I guess hibernation comes to mind and bears were here last year, after swimming a few miles from another island. Frogs have been born and I thought they were just really loud crickets. Until I ran over one. Glad it wasn’t a bear, though.
We spent a week in January 2004 (I think) working on Big Wednesday…and it’s one of my most cherished memories. I was almost 30, he was almost 60, and we were able to connect on more of an adult level.
He had already had one operation for lung cancer—and as anybody who knows anything knows, that story never has a happy ending—so that hung over us.
We used his protégé Eric Colvin’s studio on Ventura Blvd. and I remember Basil stepping to the piano to see if he remembered how Big Wednesday’s main theme went. It was sort of awe-inspiring to watch him play a bit of it.
Basil was so friendly that you could easily overlook what a world-class musician he was. His ear for detail, and knowledge of recording, orchestration and performance, was deep and profound. He would occasionally point something out in the Big Wednesday recording with such subtlety and precision, it shocked me to remember how gifted he was.
Just writing this gives me flashes of memory of sitting with him—going out for meals with our engineer, André Knecht, hearing Basil’s voice and laughter.
I remember Basil telling a story of an early-1970s meeting with Morton Stevens, the head of music at CBS, to try to get work. Stevens was dismissive of Basil’s music and instead played something that he, Stevens, had recently composed, as an example of “how to do it.” I asked what it was, and Basil ruefully grinned, “Some jazz shit.”
There was always a twinkle in his eye. At another point we were talking orchestration and he said he had once had a piece orchestrated by the great Jack Hayes. I asked how it sounded. He said, “Fucking great!”
I don’t know if I can quite convey what Basil was like in person. He certainly wasn’t doing magic tricks or jumping on tables to entertain. I think of him as mostly soft-spoken. He just was utterly lovable.
Here is some video from near the end of his life, when he was seriously ill (more on that below).
Basil could tell stories with pride, sensitivity, disappointment, frustration, confidence—all unspooling in a narrative that was entertaining and heartfelt.
And I guess that’s a good segue to what we adored in his music.
As his longtime agent Richard Kraft pointed out last night, in a pre-show talk, Basil was a master at music for masculinity—but executed with unparalleled sensitivity.
How he got those two things to exist simultaneously—the yearning heart within the mighty beast—is a magic act worth celebrating.
He gave us the soul of Conan and RoboCop—all of those cowboys, knights, warriors, soldiers, men of honor from bygone times—and his melodies are just so, so good.
Because he was truly one of those men: out of time, espousing old-fashioned values of honor and loyalty and virtue, without irony. He conjured the world as it used to be understood: one of myth and magic, to be confronted by men of honor and duty.
He was a sailor, a surfer, a pirate, a warrior—if not always literally, then certainly in spirit.
But he was so sensitive—a poet and romantic. “Theology and Civilization,” indeed.
Basil was one other thing…which sometimes I struggle to articulate. But it’s so simple.
I got to see his daughters briefly after the concert—and I hadn’t seen them in many years, if not decades—and here we are all wearing masks, so it’s like, “So great to see the top half of so many familiar faces.”
I just was at a loss for words, after such a wonderful concert—and I blurted out to Zoë:
“Your dad was the nicest guy.”
And he truly was.
The concert last night was the first, for me, in which I felt like a participant in the community that surrounded the subject. I mean, I had been there—a part of the times.
When the orchestra played Starship Troopers, I remembered that the last time I heard it performed live was at the scoring session, under Basil’s baton.
It was so lovely to see so many fellow fans, and I wish we had more time (and a more safe environment) to hang out. As it is, I am quite sure I contacted all five strains of Omicron.
But I truly loved seeing so many fans, friends and colleagues—and I do miss you.
When I was young and seeing you often, I had a community—but I didn’t have a family. I was, in truth, quite lonely. And that’s the biggest reason why I might have often come off a bit distant or aloof.
Now, I am overjoyed to have a family—but because of our work (my wife is a therapist, while I am trying to become a filmmaker), not to mention the pandemic, we don’t really have a community.
But I can honestly say that, thanks to my family, I have never been happier.
One of the things I always admired and loved the most about Basil was his family, and the love they shared and projected onto the world.
It was heartwarming seeing Zoë and Alexis speak near the end of last night’s concert, while family photographs were shown overhead.
My kids asked last evening why I had to go out (I almost never do that) and I said because this was a friend of mine, and all of us are coming together to honor and remember him and enjoy his art. So I have to go, and I want to.
I’m proud to say how touched I was when I got home, around midnight...and found these waiting for me on the bathroom sink:
For me, this was the capstone of a wonderful night, and what Basil was all about. I know it would make Basil smile.
I’ll leave you all with one of the last emails Basil sent me. There were a few others after this chronologically, but this is the one I always remember. (You know, “Print the legend.”)
This is from July 15, 2006, as he was about to rise from his hospital bed, grievously ill with cancer—a phoenix from the ashes—to conduct Conan in Ubeda, Spain, dressed like a ninja to hide the surgical scars on his body:
I hope you are well and happy. I’m off to Spain for the Conan Concert, et al. I don't think anyone who comes to see the guy who wrote Conan is going to expect a somewhat and mostly shaking, brain surgery scarred, hairless individual who won't even be able to conduct his own music. Illness is a trip but a very demanding [one]. Tell me to break a leg, Basil. Be back on the 25th of July.
“Illness is a trip but a very demanding one.” I have never forgotten that. So emotional, moving and thoughtful—and true.
Basil, I wish I could tell you how much we all love you and miss you. And to say thank you for all that you gave us.
Farewell to the King, indeed.