Brian May (28 July 1934 – 25 April 1997) was an Australian film composer. His best known scores are those for Mad Max and Mad Max 2, though he composed for many genres, including several horror films. No doubt his name led to many instances of mistaken identity; for the record, there is no connection between the Australian composer and the guitarist for rock band, Queen.
May was born in Adelaide on 28 July 1934. He trained at the Adelaide Elder Conservatorium as a pianist, violinist and conductor. He joined the ABC Adelaide in 1957 and was asked to form and conduct the ABC Adelaide Big Band, a full-blown ensemble that was rated as the best of the ABC state-based bands. He moved to Melbourne when he was 35 to arrange and conduct the ABC’s Melbourne Show band. The Show Band made its radio debut on the First Network on 13 March 1969. Background music for Australian television had previously been taken from records and music library collections, the lack of investment in the Australian film industry demanding cut-backs wherever possible… May changed this by writing and arranging the themes for television programmes, including Bellbird, Return to Eden, The Last Frontier, A Dangerous Life and Darling of the Gods.
A breakthrough came with the drama series Rush (1974 – 1976), set on the 19th-century Victorian goldfields. The theme was composed by Australian George Dreyfus, but May’s arrangement of the theme was recorded by the Show Band and quickly reached the top of the Aussie charts, selling more than 100,000 copies. This type of success was usually reserved for pop groups such as Sherbert and Skyhooks. May also composed the Countdown theme and the Melbourne Show Band launched the highly successful Countdown television series. He left the ABC in 1984 and turned his interests solely to film scores.
Without any heritage of film composition in Australia to speak of, to some extent, May’s work was influenced by the Australian landscape; broadly sweeping strings and tight orchestrations which he insisted on arranging himself; a slightly impolite comparison might be to suggest he was similar to Riz Ortolani but on a much tighter budget, though some, fancifully, declared him the Southern Hemisphere’s Bernard Herrmann. Like Herrmann, May could also use string sections in a more angular manner for scenes requiring an injection of tension. A meeting with the director Richard Franklin in 1975, with whom he worked with on the score to sex comedy, The True Story of Eskimo Nell, lead to May’s first notable work for film, the score to Franklin’s Patrick (1978).
The most arresting aspect of May’s score to Patrick is the lack of a brass section; instead, various shades of violin work are married with chiming harps, lending a feeling of fragility and sadness. Drums are avoided where possible with vibraphones preferred to add to the textures of the melodies. As Patrick becomes angrier and more frustrated in the film, the strings become discordant and more frenzied – hardly a new technique but it’s skilfully done.
May followed up with his most widely-recognised work, the score to Mad Max, heavy on kettle drums, brass and strings but avoiding the trappings of synths, often used in post-apocalyptic fare. This was followed-up with less box-office-troubling work on Snapshot (retitled Day After Halloween in the US) and Thirst, the latter score being more successful, some strangled, spidery strings, blaring brass and a spot of chanting – it still comes across as a bit TV movie-ish but it’s fun enough.
May scored two Robert Powell-starring films – 1980’s Harlequin and the following year’s The Survivor. Harlequin relies on a great many short cues but throws in some disconcerting, warping synth patterns and staccato strings which show some understanding for the creation of tension and mystery. The Survivor has more of May’s favoured slushy strings, with some intervention of an oboe and a flute, as well as synthesisers, both of which give the score a sympathetic slant on the characters’ situation whilst also lending an atonality that suggested much without resorting to too many clichés.
When Franklin was given the job of directing Psycho II, a thankless task for many but one relished by a former associate of Hitchcock, it seemed natural that May would be given his major Hollywood debut but the injection of cash into the project by Universal meant broader scope in all fields, not least the scoring of the film, which was instead given to Jerry Goldsmith. This was not the first rejection of May’s talents – Patrick’s Italian distributors deemed it necessary to give the film a completely different score, much as Dawn of the Dead did. In common with the latter film, rock band Goblin injected their tried and tested prog sensibilities into the film, effective but losing the softness of the original and giving the film a more galloping, exploitative edge to what is essentially a very human story. Ironically, the sound of the film suffered yet further in an American cut that re-dubbed the Australian accents with more familiar tones.
Some of the most enjoyable of May’s music can be heard on the soundtrack to 1982’s Turkey Shoot, a surprisingly synth-centric affair (only 1990’s Bloodmoon uses a similar amount), interspersed with slave ship-like drums, not unlike the scores of Italian exploitation films, from which this film borrowed heavily. Work on films such as Road Games, starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Stacey Keach kept May in with a chance of a Hollywood breakthrough but, though he scored the first two Mad Max films in the franchise, once again, when a major film seemed destined to land in his lap, it was snatched away; the score duties to Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome going to Maurice Jarre.
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Even when American opportunities eventually appeared they were for lesser works or for long-in-the-tooth franchises; Doctor Giggles and Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, both of which, as it turned out, displayed May’s skill but also the Hollywood system’s knack of sucking the vitality and uniqueness out of original ideas.
Mad Max won the Australian Film Institute Award for Best Original Score. May won many other awards, including the Golden Award from the Australian Performing Rights Association. He spent many years in America working on film scores and was regarded as the finest of Australia’s screen composers. He died in Melbourne on 25 April 1997 at the age of 62 as a result of a heart attack.
- Patrick (1978)
- Mad Max (1979) – Won Best Original Music Score award by AFI.
- Snapshot (1979)
- Thirst (1979)
- Twenty Good Years ABCTV (1979)
- Harlequin (1980)
- Nightmares (1980)
- Gallipoli (1981) (additional music)
- Mad Max 2 (1981) – Nominated for Best Original Music Score by AFI.
- Race for the Yankee Zephyr (1981)
- Road Games (1981) – Nominated for Best Original Music Score by AFI.
- The Survivor (1981)
- Breakfast in Paris (1982)
- Kitty and the Bagman (1982)
- Turkey Shoot (1982)
- A Slice of Life (1983)
- Cloak & Dagger (1984)
- Innocent Prey (1984)
- Missing in Action 2: The Beginning (1985)
- Frog Dreaming (1986) – Nominated for Best Original Music Score by AFI.
- Sky Pirates (1986)
- Death Before Dishonor (1987)
- Steel Dawn (1987)
- Bloodmoon (1990)
- Dead Sleep (1990)
- Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991)
- Doctor Giggles (1992)
- Hurricane Smith (1992)
- Blind Side (1993)
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