When the “Africa” guys meet America’s foremost surrealist
Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune is just five months away, and the hype machine is in full swing. A much-publicized, unfortunate fiasco involving HBO Max, merchandising deals and a star-studded ensemble cast are already making this one of the most talked-about films of the year—and, inevitably, it’s going to face nonstop comparisons with the original 1984 adaptation by David Lynch.
But this might work in the film’s favor. Despite its cult following, Lynch’s version will forever be remembered as a bizarre critical and commercial failure, an adaptation with lots of promise that was tragically bastardized by inept producers who heavily edited the film and denied final cut privilege to the director.
Whether or not Villeneuve’s adaptation will surpass Lynch’s is irrelevant to this review, so here’s the important thing: Hans Zimmer is set to compose the soundtrack for the 2021 version. And it probably won’t eclipse the delightful weirdness of the original, composed by Toto (with keyboardist David Paich serving as the biggest contributor) and performed by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.
The original Dune film was conceived as “Star Wars for grown-ups” (one might prefer “Star Wars for goths”), and the music shows for it. It channels all the epic, symphonic pomp of John Williams’ iconic score, only here, it’s much, much quirkier.
To simply call it “darker” would be an understatement. In addition to the expected sweeping strings and bellowing brass instruments, Paich and his buddies toss in every trick they can think of—gothic synth organs, tribal percussion, Middle Eastern melodies and, of course, the slick, grandiose progressive rock they’re known for, especially on “Dune (Desert Theme)” and “Take My Hand,” both oozing with guitar wizardry, saccharine piano lines and gated reverb. Lots and lots of gated reverb.
Is it dated? Yes. Is it corny? Yes. But the sheer fact that these slices of ‘80s garishness exist alongside tracks as offbeat as “Robot Fight,” with its jarring, inhuman stomp, and “Paul Takes the Water of Life,” which almost sounds like an industrial piece (check out the screeching feedback toward the end), gives the record some novelty appeal. This is what it sounds like when the “Africa” guys cross paths with David-freaking-Lynch. It’s a genuine oddity.
That’s not to say the album doesn’t have its more conventional tracks. Sometimes the Star Wars influence is worn right on its sleeve, as with the brooding “Leto’s Theme” and “Trip to Arrakis.” But it’s the weirder moments that people will remember most—the way the menacing, militaristic march of “First Attack” is briefly interrupted by an upbeat, funky bassline, the rumbling synth that kicks off “The Floating Fat Man (The Baron)” and that set this apart from other soundtracks made for big-budget, epic Hollywood films.
And, of course, no discussion of this soundtrack is complete without mention of Brian Eno’s sole contribution, “Prophecy Theme.” Many Brian Eno pieces have been compared to “floating through space” and call it lazy writing, but this one also fits the bill (this was only a year after Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, after all). It’s cold and desolate, with a haunting string melody and a synth line as delicate as stardust. One can’t help but feel like there were some missed opportunities since this is the only piece on the entire record composed by Eno and the only one to achieve a truly “spacey” effect. Toto’s score is plenty cool, but some extra input from Eno never hurt anybody.
Much like the film itself, the original Dune soundtrack is one of the strangest curios of the ‘80s, the product of an unlikely union between the artistic sensibilities of America’s first popular surrealist and the band Robert Christgau once dubbed, “Grammy-rock.” Perhaps it’d be jumping the gun to say Hans Zimmer can’t top this. He could easily surpass it on a technical level, but could he manage to create something this novel and singular? It’s doubtful.