Released in 1974 to somewhat mixed acclaim, Mel Brooks’ riotous satire on race and mythmaking in the Western genre Blazing Saddles has gone on to be a much beloved film. Silva Screen Records is releasing a new version of John Morris’ score as part of the 40th Anniversary celebrations, incorporating musical numbers, interludes and dialogue to produce a wonderful companion to the comedy classic.
Taking on the Western genre and skewering it so successfully that it never quite recovered, Blazing Saddles follows the story of Bart (Cleavon Little), a slave who is raised to be the Sheriff of Rock Ridge, a town about to be demolished to allow a new railroad to pass through it. Despite facing extreme prejudice wherever he goes, Bart and his trusty sidekick, the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder), decide to take on the man behind the railroad plan, Hedy Lamarr. Sorry, that’s Hedley (Harvey Korman). The result is an affectionate parody of Western archetypes and whitewashing, mixing in vaudeville style stage shows, a big band classic and a Top Hat style dance sequence.
When listening to the score as a whole, particularly in the arrangement as it appears on this album, it becomes much clearer just how important the music and score is to Brooks’ particular brand of comedy. Whether it be smaller anachronistic interludes like 'Merrily We Roll Along' (“Mongo like candy!”) or the Marlene Dietrich-esque 'I’m Tired', the entire score is constructed as a comedic undercurrent, a foundation on which visual jokes and pratfalls are built.
This is particularly noticeable in the track 'Alky 1-2-3 Ballad of Rock Ridge-Desperado Registration-Night Time Tent' which takes in the parade of bandits recruited by Hedley. A sinister version of 'The Ballad of Rock Ridge' plays before breaking into various different instrumentals to reflect the nationality of the bandits in line, most obviously 'La Cucaracha' for the Mexicans. The different shifts in tone also reflect the nature of Brooks’ comedy stylings; it is unpredictable in an almost anarchic way, but operating strictly within the boundaries of his chosen genre.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the film’s main theme itself, a parody of the songs that characterised Western opening credits. Famously sung by Frankie Laine, a singer famous for his genre theme songs such as Rawhide and Gunfight at the OK Corral, the Blazing Saddles song earned the film one its three Academy Award nominations and is one of the album’s highlights. Brooks had wanted a Laine-style performance for his main theme in order to accurately reflect the Western genre only to have Laine himself reply. Laine, not realising that the film was to be a spoof, puts in a fabulously earnest performance of the musical tale of Bart, complete with added whip cracks and typical choral sections.
Instrumental versions of the main theme form the body of the score, performed with a variety of different instruments and tempos in order to reflect the various narrative beats. Soaring strings and rousing choral sections offer a more heroic march once Bart has succeeded in saving Rock Ridge, but his tribulations are marked by a more mournful harmonica version or a sinister brass section as he clashes with his enemies.
'The Ballad of Rock Ridge' is similarly used by the score as a secondary motif to the main theme, transforming throughout as required. The ballad proper is a hymn-like choral exposition piece that wittily fills you in on Rock Ridge’s troubled history as it builds up to that final punchline: “There’s no avoiding this conclusion / Our town is turning into shit.” Its inclusion also showcases the extraordinary musicality, moving from the initial hymn into a rollicking silent movie style score that replaces vocals with energetic piano interludes and ominous brass sections. Like much of Morris’ score, it’s a track that not only allows for the comedic moments to shine through, but also firmly places it within the Western canon, aligning Rock Ridge with the other beleaguered towns.
As well as these bigger tracks, the album intersperses smaller musical moments and dialogue throughout. For a listener who knows the film well, as I suspect most who purchase this score will, even the shortest tracks allow for a giggle. A particular highlight has to be the full five minute version of Madeline Kahn’s showstopping rendition of 'I’m Tired', packing in enough innuendo to fill a ten gallon hat and a perfect showcase for Kahn’s comedic vocal ability.
Additionally and rather joyfully, there is a longer version of 'The French Mistake' too. It doesn’t offer too much more than the brief glimpse of the beautiful song-and-dance number we see in the film, but for those of us who want to see whatever film it was part of, it’s a lovely addition. Also, stay listening to the end of the final track, another instrumental rendition of the Main Theme, for a short rousing chorus of “Randolph Scott!” It is little touches like that throughout this new edition that make it such a joy to listen to all the way through. If only Lyle’s stirring rendition of 'The Camptown Ladies' had made it in too...
Blazing Saddles is a film that uses music so effectively as both tribute and parody and this new edition of the score provides a brilliant companion piece. It is an album which understands the musical moments that the fans love and provides them accordingly with the kind of knowing wink Blazing Saddles adopted throughout.
-Becky Grace Lea
Blazing Saddles will be released on CD, digital, and vinyl on August 28th from Silva Screen