Album Review: Escape to Witch Mountain (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) by Johnny Mandel

Last week, I was witness to some small magic. Or perhaps it was a minor kind of miracle. Let me explain…

Some of us at Murfie HQ were sitting around one afternoon, discussing the music of old movies we loved as kids. Films like Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang were brought up, of course. I immediately thought of Escape to Witch Mountain, and we started reminiscing about the utterly creepy theme by Johnny Mandel that opens the film, with protagonists Tia and Tony running in silhouette from viciously barking dogs.

Escape to Witch Mountain

That opening scene scared me when I was younger, so I’d hit fast forward on our VHS player. I always thought it was an odd contrast to the whimsical scenes of Tia communicating telepathically with cats, or Tony using his harmonica to telekinetically control marionettes. But that’s what Escape to Witch Mountain is; it’s what you get when you put Hammer horror director John Hough at the helm of a novel adaptation for Disney. Kid’s movies in the ’70s weren’t afraid of scaring you (e.g. How creepy was almost everything in Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory?).

While we chatted, I did what I always do in these situations—I looked for the soundtrack. Much to my dismay, I couldn’t find it. Nor could I find very many releases of Johnny Mandel’s work in general. Digging deeper, I was saddened to learn that the only released version of any music from Escape to Witch Mountain was on an obscure Disneyland Records illustrated storybook LP narrated by Eddie Albert (who plays Jason O’Day). This news was particularly shocking since Escape to Witch Mountain was—at the time—one of Disney’s most successful live action films.

Escape to Witch Mountain Disneyland
Not quite what I was looking for…

I was beginning to lose hope that I could show my colleagues this wonderful music from my childhood without lugging in my parents’ VCR. I loved Escape to Witch Mountain so much that I learned Tony’s melodic riffs by ear during my brief stint taking harmonica lessons. It is, to this day, some of my favorite movie music.

But then the magic happened. A bit further down the search results, I stumbled upon a recent post on the INTRADA forums. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because they’ve released literally hundreds of film and video game soundtracks, both new and old. Imagine my surprise when, upon reading the post, I learned that not only was INTRADA releasing the Escape to Witch Mountain soundtrack, but it was out that very day! That’s right—40 years after the film’s release, on a day that I just happened to be wishing for a soundtrack, INTRADA was delivering with their full, limited edition Special Collection Volume 309 release.

Johnny Mandel—who is perhaps best known for “Suicide Is Painless” from M*A*S*H—was absolutely ahead of his time with Escape to Witch Mountain. Mandel’s deceptively simple themes were performed with a massive 50-odd-member orchestra, but with the addition of harmonica and eerie drones from the Moog synthesizer. The outcome feels like an alien adaptation of 1970s Disney fanfares. Playful tunes like “The Flying Camper” would be equally at home in any Disney film from the era, but Mandel’s biggest successes come when he subverts those expectations. There are ideas continually introduced throughout the film’s score which are later echoed via synthesizers that sound equally otherworldly 40 years later.

Not only has INTRADA teamed up with Disney to make this soundtrack finally available, but they’ve done so with more detail than could have been anticipated. The main themes are here, but so are all of the film’s musical cues and then some. For their limited CD release of the soundtrack, INTRADA (with producer Douglass Fake) have put together just about everything they could salvage from Disney’s long-term storage tapes ca. 1975.

Escape to Witch Mountain (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
That’s more like it!

The main score itself clocks in at just over 36 minutes, cues included. INTRADA has done a nice job of weaving together the more traditional soundtrack-type pieces and cues in a way that makes narrative sense within the context of the movie. The CD starts with Mandel’s “Main Title”—creepy dogs and all—and continues from there. While it may sound like overkill on paper, the cues are unique enough that they make sense tagging along. As mentioned in the liner notes (which are extensive and appreciated), many of these cues introduce motifs that reappear in future scored pieces.

It is worth noting that the thoroughness of this CD means you will likely hear many repeated themes throughout its duration, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In many cases, a score is not put together with the intention that you listen to it apart from the film, but to Mandel’s credit, the included cues combine their own voices to tell the story. While Tony’s telekinesis may be signaled by a theme for harmonica (in reality, master Tommy Morgan), Tia’s telepathy is portrayed by an accompanying swell of Moog synthesizers (played by jazz musician Paul Beaver). Furthermore, the emotional state of the characters changes how the themes are executed.

The aforementioned soundtrack and cues would be enough to satisfy a fan of the film, right? Not for INTRADA. When I said they released every piece of material they could find, I wasn’t exaggerating. After the main score, they’ve included ten extra tracks. Thanks to the diligence of some forward-thinking folks at Disney, the recording sessions were stored in a way that allowed INTRADA to re-assemble orchestral pieces without harmonica or synthesizer cues. The result is seven previously unheard arrangements of more traditional orchestration.

Continue reading Album Review: Escape to Witch Mountain (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) by Johnny Mandel

What’s Your Most Beloved “Retro Media” Format?

Granted, I’m an overly nostalgic person, but I think for most people, old media formats hold a certain magic and retain a lot of their original charm. It’s the whole retro-cool thing: throwback media formats automatically give you distinctive taste and an air of authenticity in a mass consumer digital age.

I would be remiss if I counted my chickens before they hatched, though. I mean, I’ve been known to be wrong once or twice in my life, and I could very well have misconstrued this retro-media nostalgia. So, help me out! Do you still care about retro media? And if so, which one is your beloved? Take this here poll…

Physical Formats: They Will Stay With Us Forever

I heart you, PBS “Off Book.” You… you complete me.

Off Book, a web-original series from PBS Arts, recently produced an episode titled “We ❤ Retro Media: Vinyl, VHS, Tapes & Film” — and just between you and me, I’ve got a crush on it.

The short documentary explores the spectrum of physical formats — and why physical media is still attractive to so many people in a digital age. One of my favorite quotes from the video is

[Physical music] is an archival format… it will stay with us forever.

What do you guys think? Do you still care about so-called “retro media”? Let me know in the comment section below!