Musings About Music In Film

What If Herrmann Scored The Exorcist?

By Charlie Brigden whatif

The year is 1973. William Friedkin's masterpiece of terror, The Exorcist, opens to huge critical acclaim and smashes box office records nationwide. Many of the reviews cite Bernard Herrmann's incredible musical score as a crucial reason for its success.

Yes, you read that right. No, you're not in a parallel universe. Originally, Herrmann was recruited by Friedkin to score the film. You can imagine what happened when the two Hollywood icons, both of them known for being immovable objects in the face of their art, locked horns. The composer had been used to having room to manuever with Alfred Hitchcock, which famously resulted in their most famous - and notorious - collaboration, Psycho. After being explicitly told by Hitchcock not to score the famous shower scene, Herrmann ignored the director and for a while, no one ever wanted to take a shower again. In the case of The Exorcist, Friedkin demanded to see Herrmann's progress at the end of every day. Herrmann told him to go screw himself and quit immediately, and funnily enough he wasn't the only composer to depart from the film. Lalo Schifrin, famous for his grooving scores to Bullitt and Dirty Harry, actually got around to recording some music* before he was told to take a hike.

The final film featured a combination of score by Jack Nietzsche and existing pieces by Krystof Penderecki and others. It works well, but can you imagine The Exorcist with music by Bernard Herrmann? Mouth-watering. Of course, Herrmann is far from the only person to have this happen to, although to be fair it happened more than once to him, with his relationship with Hitchcock ending via the director firing him from Torn Curtain, to be replaced by John Addison. Herrmann's score was eventually released via a recording by Varese Sarabande, with an otherwise unnotable film passing into Hollywood legend. Of course, rejection is not the only thing that can cause a composer's removal; Herrmann's sad passing shortly after completing the recording sessions for Taxi Driver meant he was unable to score Carrie for Brian De Palma (although to be honest Pino Donaggio's score is so note perfect I'm not sure the great composer could have improved on it).

Hollywood's history is full of rejections and replacements, although it's only fairly recently that we've seen many efforts released, usually on their own. 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the other high-profile cases that has recently come back into the spotlight. Stanley Kubrick famously replaced Alex North's score with classical pieces from Richard Strauss and Gyorgi Ligeti, with North only finding out about the replacement at the film's premiere (cold, Stanley, cold). North's original score was issued late last year by Mondo on limited vinyl, the third release of the original tracks as Jerry Goldsmith had conducted a recording of the score for Varese. Goldsmith himself had suffered the same ignominy a few times, with his scores for Gladiator and Two Days In The Valley being rejected, while his music for Ridley Scott's fantasy Legend was replaced for its North American distribution by a Tangerine Dream score. Goldsmith's music remained on the European and director's cut, and is far, far superior. Sadly, one of his last scores was also rejected - Richard Donner's Timeline ditched Goldsmith in favour of a Brian Tyler score, although the unused music was released shortly after by Varese.

Around the same time, Gabriel Yared also saw his score for Wolfgang Peterson's big-budget retelling of the story of Troy jettisoned in favour of James Horner. A questionable decision in musical terms, Peterson and Warner Bros. were vilified by enthusiasts, especially when they heard Yared's score via a leaked promotional release. Yared's music is beautiful, a far cry from the somewhat generic material Horner wrote, and while Peterson apparently put some of it back in for the inevitable director's cut, I can't say I wish to see it having sat through the turgid theatrical version. Horner had previous with this as well, having replaced Craig Safan on the 1981 urban horror Wolfen. Rather than quality, Safan's score was removed after a new director came on board. Atonal and experimental, it was replaced by a rather more traditional score by Horner, although an excellent one at that. Safan's score saw release recently from Intrada Records, coincidentally not long after the Horner score received its frst official issue.

Perhaps the most famous recent example comes from 2005 and a certain gigantic primate. After the success of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it was a dead cert that Howard Shore would be onboard for Peter Jackson's re-imagining of the legendary King Kong, itself a milestone in movie history for Max Steiner's towering music, considered to be the first real film score. Indeed Shore was announced as composer, and one of the film's online "production diaries" even focused on the music and teased Shore's score. Alas, when the film was released James Newton Howard's name was on the credits, with Shore's only contribution being his recording of Steiner's original music which he conducted on-screen in the theater sequence. Newton Howard's score is surprisingly good considering the short time he (and additional composers) were given to produce it, but Shore's score is now the ultimate film score holy grail. It has been mentioned previously that it may eventually be unleashed via Shore's own Howe Records, but for now we can only wonder. Or listen to the words of film music historian and author of The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films Doug Adams, who has heard it, and says "it's amazing".

One day we may find that out for ourselves.

*Schifrin's music was made available on the 25th Anniversary release of the soundtrack