When I was growing up, most of my dad’s record collection consisted of soundtracks. Many were themes to Broadway musicals, which I’ve still not managed to be able to sit through without groaning. A good handful, though, were film-related, and over the years I have warmed to many of these considerably. At my recent DJ gigs I’ve turned to Elvis’s Fun in Acapulco or To Sir, With Love to find choice pop nuggets that have remained hidden over the years to listeners scared off by the promise of a lame, soporific film score.
One soundtrack that did win me over instantly was Francis Lai’s classic, A Man and a Woman. One of the most popular soundtracks of all time, it was probably my dad’s favorite record. For years before I actually saw Claude Lelouch’s 1966, Cannes Palme D’Or winner, I knew every beat of the story. Dad would relate the sequence of events with great drama as each of the Brazilian-laced or electrifyingly moody French sounds would shuttle us from chapter to chapter. I have great love for the movie itself, but I have to say it was almost a disappointment finally seeing it. Dad’s synopsis and the images I made in my head to Lai’s music were far more appealing, mysterious and romantic.
Growing up it seemed there were always certain soundtracks that everybody had, particularly in the Eighties. Sometimes these songs, beloved though they were by many of us, never existed beyond the context of the films they were in: Streets of Fire, The Goonies, Weird Science, Beverly Hills Cop, Some Kind of Wonderful, etc… to name just a few examples. Other times, the songs were a definitive collection of the best music of the day, and buying the soundtrack was in essence buying an awesome mix tape—Footloose, Pretty in Pink, Singles, Pump Up the Volume, Reality Bites…
I don’t think kids buy soundtracks these days like we used to. With the synergy so clean between the film and music divisions of major entertainment companies, soundtracks are now primarily a way of breaking new music to an audience that hasn’t any stake in the bands, more than a compilation of great songs we already love (or new songs by well-loved artists.) I remember getting tapes for my birthdays as a kid and frequently every one would be a soundtrack. I still have the cassettes somewhere. Too bad.
Over the years I have developed a deep appreciation for soundtrack artists who ride the line between creating effective scores for film action and making highly listenable artistic records that stand alone. Most of these soundtracks hail from the Sixties, Seventies and early Eighties. Mostly by European (or otherwise international) composers such as Morricone, Lalo Schifrin, Piero Piccioni, Patrick Juvet, Nino Fidenco, and of course, Francis Lai.
Bilitis is an interesting anomaly. As a film, it belongs to a genre of tame softcore porn that uses cinematic, gauzy lighting, erotic storylines, beautiful natural settings and soft, lovely music to showcase, essentially, beautiful young girls getting naked. Laura is another example, along with Dedicated to the Aegaean Sea, and some of the early films of Radley Metzger like Therese and Isabelle. Technically, they lie in the genre of sexploitation, or Eurotica, but they are a long way away from Sylvia Kristel’s Emmanuelle or The Story of O.
Musically, Lai’s soundtrack is very intriguing. It contains the wash of breathy female vocals essential to this type of movie that comes up again and again in the varying refrains of the surprisingly spooky and melancholy main theme. But Lai augments this theme in a musical environment that employs synthesizer with rich, delicate string sections and a lot of acoustic guitar. The guitar evokes the naturalness of the sylvan setting where the faun-like lesbian first-timers conduct their rituals. The string section evokes the sweeping emotions of provocative first love. But that synthesizer strobes and sparkles like electric stars shooting down and throws the whole album into a compelling textural disarray.
Elsewhere, on rocking, disco-like tracks such as the wonderfully titled, “I Need a Man” he uses a grinding, sexual organ riff and pounding basslines. “Rainbow” is a 70s-era lite jazz number festooned with a delicious percussion that hammers away like a party deep in the jungle stretching out until daylight hours.
But the greatest track is the first cut on Side B, simply titled after one of the heroines, “Melissa.” It is both slinky, sludgy, narcotic reworking of the main theme, and also a full on prog rocker, droning away with synth and a deep, fat bassline on top of a syrupy guitar riff that drones on majestically louder and denser as the song develops. I have never heard a lesbian orgasm up close and personal, have never been fortunate enough to watch two beautiful naked girls awaken their passions in the dark night of the forest, but I’d bet it sounds something like this track.
Recorded in 1977, Lai was ahead of the curve with his use of synth. Later soundtracks like Patrick Juvet’s Laura and Pierre Bachelet’s Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik-Yak would take it to more elaborate extremes, along with the era's rising disco fever. You sense here Lai’s Sixties orchestral pop roots colliding with the guitar-strumming soft rock riffs of the 70s and the electronic synthesizers of then-cutting edge progressive music into a rich, heady, deliciously erotic evocation of finely pleasured doom.
Air’s The Virgin Suicides, itself a great soundtrack, owes everything to Francis Lai’s Bilitis. And Sofia Coppola probably cribbed more than a few notes from the film itself. A surprisingly perfect, unpredictable soundtrack to your late summer evening, preferably when gazing with a glass of a velvety white on a sun-dappled sylvan forest.
Diaphanous clothing optional, but not necessarily recommended.
FRANCIS LAI BILITIS (ORIGINAL SOUND-TRACK), 1977, Deram/London (Canada)