Lights! Synths! Dancing!

06.04.09

Nighthawks, a 1978 feature film about a gay man in London, is pretty remarkable on a number of counts. Its budget was miniscule, its cast of amateur actors and lesser-known pros is better than most Hollywood line-ups and its portrait of gay life in London seems — and I’m typing this as a life-long hetero who was two-years old when the film was released — pretty accurate. But it’s the synthy, disco soundtrack that Dummy loves. A remastered edition of the film is released this month and the BFI Soutbank are screening an extended run of the original. Here’s our look at early, pre-acid house mélange of movies and electronic beats in this by-no-means-exhaustive history of ’70s/’80s celluloid, synths and beats.

Nighthawks (1978)

A remarkably deadpan take on the monotony of casual hook-ups, Nighthawks shows clubs, gay or straight, as they often can be — tedious yet functional social spaces. The film follows Jim, a partially closeted geography teacher by day, and a randy, ageing homosexual by night. The score, by little-known composer David Graham Ellis, nails the period perfectly. Moody, BBC Radiophonic Workshop-style synth noodling accompanies the listless shots of London’s late night traffic flows, while a loopy, instrumental disco number recurs throughout the film’s dance scenes, both in the cruising joint modelled on Catacombs, then a popular gay club on the Old Brompton Road, and at Jim’s own school’s disco.

Assault On Precinct 13 (1976)

Though this low-budget B-movie, a gangland revenge shootout on the streets of Los Angeles, was relatively successful, the soundtrack by John Carpenter remained unreleased for years. Dutch label, Rams Horn put out remixes of the film’s stunning central theme tune during the ’80s, but it wasn’t until 2003 that the full soundtrack was made available by French imprint Record Makers. Carpenter is said to have based his booming main title theme on both Lalo Schifrin’s Dirty Harry score and Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song. Yet necessity may have been the mother of electro-disco invention in this case as the director/composer only had three days to complete a soundtrack that could be repeated throughout the movie. “The main title theme was relatively easy after we established the beat,” wrote Carpenter in the ’03 liner notes. “Ice Cube told me 25 years later that the beat always comes first.”

Midnight Express (1978)

Prisons, non-consensual sex and very nasty Turkish wardens are hardly the stuff of disco cinema, or so you would think. Yet Giorgio Moroder’s Oscar-winning soundtrack includes The Chase, an electro disco classic on the floors of both The Blitz club in London and Studio 54 in New York. Harold Faltermeyer assisted on the production of both this hit and much of soundtrack, making Midnight Express something of a cinematic disco super-collaboration. The rest of the OST is a little patchy. The electro chillaxative of (Theme From) Midnight Express is a worthy compilation CD addition, but Love’s Theme is the worst kind of musical wallpaper.

Cruising (1980)

William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, was never going to focus on the lighter side of gay life. This film, in which a New York cop Steve Burns ( played by Al Pacino) goes undercover on the city’s leather scene to track down a serial killer, met with stiff protest from the pink lobby, both during its filming and on release. Though club footage abounds, the soundtrack skips over the lighter side of disco, favouring dirty funk, such as Lump by Mutiny. Standard punk numbers by The Germs and Rough Trade, the Canadian band from which Geoff Travis took the name of his shop and label, also make an appearance. However, veteran soundtrack composer Jack Nitzsche provides the standout track with his lilting, eerie Cruising Suite.

Liquid Sky (1982)

Post-punk downtown New York disco cinema don’t get sillier than Liquid Sky. The plot, involving heroin-loving aliens who pitch up on the Lower East Side to prey on the local hipsters, is hardly Tom Stoppard. Yet the loopy fashion and the equally bizarre score elevate the film above mere dross. Produced by Brenda Hutchinson on a Fairlight CMI, the first polyphonic digital sampling synthesizer, and interpreting snatches of Baroque orchestral music, the tunes are as low-fi, garish and discombobulated as the wacky preening smackheads it features. Oh, and latter-day poseurs should note that Fischerspooner cite the film as an influence, while International Deejay Gigolos put out an updated version of a track from the score, (Me And My) Rhythm Box, on a 2003 compilation.

Scarface (1983)

Another Moroder soundtrack accompanying another Oliver Stone script. The Miami club scenes are accompanied by apposite snatches of disco, most of which don’t stand up well when you strip away the cocaine, fluorescent lighting and hilarious Cuban accents. However, Rush Rush by Debbie Harry, her first solo single after Blondie’s demise in ’82, is a winner. It’s as brash in the coke references as the film, yet a touch more arch, thanks to Debbie’s knowing, cooing vocals.

Fletch (1985)

OK, we could have picked the other Harold Faltermeyer-scored ’80s crime-com featuring a Saturday Night Live star in the lead, but everyone knows about Axel F, the electro breakout single from Beverly Hills Cop. Not only is Fletch, in Dummy’s opinion, the better film, the soundtrack is pretty hot too. Its lead theme has all the body-popping potential of Faltermeyer’s better-known compositions, while minor inclusions like Exotic Skates, have all the fecund synth bends of classic Rhythim Is Rhythim. Though be warned, it does get a bit frizzy in places; you can feel yourself sprouting shoulder pads during Stephanie Mills’ Bit By Bit, perhaps the only song about investigative journalism that could also be used in a hairspray advert.

Nighthawks runs at BFI Southank from 9-23 April.
www.bfi.org.uk