As The Exorcist was to the US, an invasion of the American home by outside forces unknown, so was The Wicker Man to Britain. Suspicion, lack of faith and becoming lost in a world you thought you knew, struck a chord with audiences coming out of the hope of the sixties and into the grey reality of the seventies. The major difference between the two is the blockbuster, attention-grabbing headlines created by The Exorcist versus the tortoise cinematic crawl of The Wicker Man.
Robin Hardy’s unique film never strutted with the posture of a film destined to become a classic. Though immaculately sketched out by Anthony Shaffer, fresh from penning both Hitchcock’s Frenzy and the remarkable Sleuth, and starring both Edward Woodward, an established star in Britain and Christopher Lee (as Lord Summerisle) whose reputation went before him, the film is so resolutely British that finding an audience overseas seemed doomed. This is to the filmmakers great credit; without bowing down to foreign markets and distributors, the film still hits upon themes which are relevant around the world. The Wicker Man‘s unique mesmeric music plays no small part in this.
Shaffer’s original screenplay always stipulated that folk music should play a key part in the film, as much as anything to say what it would take several thousand words more to, particularly in terms of Lord Summerisle’s bizarre-sounding philosophies. Lyrics from Victorian-era folk songs were implanted into the text to give a feeling of tone and it was these that were initially felt would be fleshed out and used – director, Robin Hardy, had other ideas.
Having heard his slightly modern use of folk music in an American stage production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Hardy approached composer Paul Giovanni, a US citizen. Giovanni was a friend of Shaffer’s brother, Peter, which doubtless didn’t go against him. His method was to meld the lyrics Shaffer had suggested and weave them into something that was uniquely his own.
For example, the lyrics to one of the signature songs, “Gently, Johnny”, is an amalgam of three separate lines melded together to create something that though perhaps familiar to some, had never existed before. The performance of the songs were also key; there was no point depicting an isolated, bleak, insular Scottish island on the screen but getting the perfectly formed songs performed by a full-scale orchestra; the effect would be of Hollywood running riot in the Highlands.
As such, just six [though proficient in multiple instruments] players , rechristened as the group Magnet, were chosen from the Royal Academy and their weapons of war were duly Celtic harps, pipes and assorted percussive charges.
Giovanni continued to tinker with existing texts to embroider into his own work; the lyrics to “The Landlord’s Daughter” were ‘borrowed’ from an 18th Century poem, “The Public Harlot”, whilst perhaps the most famous piece, “Cornrigs and Barleyrigs” is a straight steal from the Robert Burns poem of the same name. Musically, all was not plain sailing. The film’s backers, British Lion, were somewhat nervous of such a leftfield score, especially with an American at the helm; funds were not lavished upon them.
This led to awkward studio incidents at Shepperton, the recordings of the brass for the Mayday parade were distinctly ropey and yet, ironically, this lent the sound an even more authentic feel. Giovanni was, though enthusiastic, unskilled at controlling so many instruments; given that the songs were often performed by characters in the film, the again gives an entirely believable quaintness and rustic naivety.
The film also makes use of the environment to great effect. The locals are often heard to sing and laugh in unison, at once reverting to one of the oldest of all effects, the Greek Chorus. The lilting Scottish accent balanced against Lee’s robust English laird’s tones are musical in themselves.
Beyond Britt Ekland’s dubbed accent we aren’t labored with cod-local language, there is no effort to Americanise, or even Anglicise the actors vocal offerings. Everything from the crashing of the waves against the rocks and the ‘clack’ of the hobby-horses mouth reminds you that you are rooted in the real world; there will not be a denouement of dragons coming to eat people, helicopters scrambled to Woodward’s rescue or, even worse, ‘it was all a dream’ – the film reaches its own conclusion on its own very peculiar path.
Though championed by a select few at the time, it was fully twenty years before most critics and audiences fully re-appraised the film and the music. Like so many innovators, Giovanni never truly dabbled again with music, preferring to chance his hand at directing on the stage, receiving a Tony nomination for The Crucifer of Blood in 1978. Never really able to experience the plaudits his work on The Wicker Man eventually received, he died from complications from the AIDS virus in 1990. It was inevitably back in Britain that work went on the rescue his lost masterpiece.
The eventual wielder of the musical Excalibur was Jonathan Benton-Hughes, renamed Jonny Trunk after the record label he continues to curate. The sourcing of the original tapes proved to be a nightmare, as did tracking down who owned the musical rights, so often the stumbling block as to why soundtracks aren’t released – it either simply isn’t possible to locate who owns them or is prohibitively expensive.
The twelve sacred reels were eventually sourced at Lumiere, who had previously owned the rights to the film. Three years of detective work and battles against bootleggers and nosey distributors, and the soundtrack finally saw the light of day commercially in 1997, initially in limited vinyl formats – first black, then red – with a map of the island included. You can now only purchase these on auction sites for the price of the computer you’re using to search for them!
Mysteries still remain – the identities of Magnet are unknown, as is the singer of ‘Willow’s Song’, as mimed to by a nude Britt Ekland. Except it wasn’t all Britt Ekland, it was her body double for the nude shots. Lyrics for the songs are cobbled together, no definitive text exists; other fleeting pieces of music have not been able to be located. It is likely they never will.
The soundtrack to The Wicker Man is a fine example of how, standing back from a film, the beauty and importance of the score and sound effects can really shine. What was once lost and unloved has become one of the most coveted soundtrack albums ever released.
Daz Lawrence, MOVIES and MANIA
Samples of character’s dialogue from the film also appears on ‘The Wickerman’, a dance track by DJ Little Mesters, released by Chip Butty.