Words by Rafe Arnott. Film still above courtesy Warner Brothers.
Soundtrack is a column that examines the music of influential films in cinematic history. This instalment looks at Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
Certain scenes in film history stand as cultural sentinels heralding a moment where the collective consciousness recognize a shared cinematic experience. These sequences can telegraph love, hope, humour, sadness… or unbridled horror as they did in Stanley Kubrick’s film, The Shining, upon its release in the spring of 1980.
Blood. Bursting like a swollen river though slowly-opening elevator doors, enough of it to overwhelm a hotel lobby. A child using their index finger to vocalize a multiple personality disorder for dealing with psychic trauma. An axe hacking through a door as a preamble to murder. Tableaus of grisly paranormal death wrought in chic ‘70s colour swatches. All of them cinematic markers crafted by Kubrick and his team of producers, cinematographers, set and sound designers. A dance macabre orchestrated to one of the creepiest and haunting – yet temporally ambiguous – soundtracks in modern film history.
Kubrick’s violent visual and auditory interpretation is based on the Stephen King novel of the same name. The torn fabric of reality both stories portray (Kubrick’s telling deviates from King’s) has left critics and fans alike feeling disconsolate for years – their efforts to loosen the Gordian knot tied around the film's meaning remain rebuffed. In many ways it was purposely tangled by Kubrick, who, before his death in 1999 said of The Shining, “A story of the supernatural cannot be taken apart and analysed too closely. The ultimate test of its rationale is whether it is good enough to raise the hairs on the back of your neck.”
Photo above: The Torrance family en route to The Overlook Hotel. Film still courtesy Warner Brothers.
The film’s arc traverses several months in the fateful life of the Torrance family. It starts with father Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson), who, hoping to cure his writer's block, takes a job as winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel, located in a spectacularly remote corner of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Along with his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and his son, Danny (Danny Lloyd) who is tormented with a disturbing psychic intuition or Shining, the family relocates from Boulder to fulfill Jack's contract. Tension mounts as Jack's writing continues to stall, and Danny's intuition flashes ever more brightly to reveal grisly murders in the hotel's dark past. Jack’s grip on reality breaks as the hotel’s supernatural influence – its Shining – twists his mind in an effort to make him brutally murder Wendy and Danny the same way it manipulated an Overlook caretaker to kill his family and himself a decade previously.
Author King famously shunned Kubrick’s retool of his novel, describing it as “a maddening, perverse, and disappointing film,” while Kubrick described how much King’s work resonated with him. “I thought it was one of the most ingenious and exciting stories of the genre I had read," said Kubrick. "It seemed to strike an extraordinary balance between the psychological and the supernatural…” Regardless of their differences in approach, King’s book never had to worry about creating a sonic environment to envelop the reader in. Not only had Kubrick toiled to manufacturer a stunning visual aesthetic, spending several months with art designers researching locations across the United States for the hotel’s interior look, but his drive for perfecting every nuance of the film saw him instruct production staff to organize interviews with more than 5,000 boys in Chicago, Cincinnati and Denver to fill the role of Danny. A number demonstrative of Kubrick’s obsession with detail, as the director noted, “I chose those three cities because I wanted the child to have an accent which would fall somewhere between the way Jack and Shelley speak.” Bringing this level of accuracy to speech patterns and intonation, it becomes easier to understand Kubrick's preoccupation with constructing a soundtrack that to this day defies convention by not submitting to temporal identity. It is as cutting edge now, as it was 40 years ago.
Photo above: Kubrick, centre, overseeing a Gold Ballroom scene with Joe Turkel, left, and Jack Nicholson, right. Image courtesy IMDB.
Working once again with Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind, whose writing, arranging, Moog and synth talents he’d utilized to great effect on A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick nonetheless proceeded in building much of the film’s sonic structure, and its multiple levels of resonant interaction, around pre-existing music. This was a controversial technique he’d first instituted on 2001: A Space Oddity, continued on Clockwork Orange, and applied again to Barry Lyndon. Never one to to follow convention – and convention at the time dictated that a unique score be written for a film by a film composer – Kubrick grunted in an interview with Michael Ciment that “Unless you want a pop score, I don’t see any reason not to avail yourself of the great orchestral music of the past and present.”
Moody, slow-creep, frenetically textured Arco and pizzicato-styled string arrangements chosen by Kubrick include pieces by Béla Bartók, György Ligeti and of particular note those of Krzysztof Penderecki. These disconcerting classical tracks seamlessly co-exist with Carlos and Elkind’s original scoring and 1930s-period pieces chosen for the Gold Ballroom party scenes where Jack mingles with long-dead Overlook Hotel guests, Lloyd the barman, and former homicidal caretaker Delbert Grady, who appears as a waiter. The hotel’s Shining continues to exert homicidal influences through Lloyd and Grady on Jack, whose increasingly psychotic breaks with reality make him more and more susceptible to their violence-themed inferences. By this point, the last third of the film, the Penderecki movements perfectly captures each character’s free-fall into terror and madness.
“Unless you want a pop score, I don’t see any reason not to avail yourself of the great orchestral music of the past and present.”
In aligning the numerous music pieces with the cadence of shot lists, Kubrick leaned on the technical knowledge of music editor Gordon Stainforth. Kubrick would relate where he wanted the pre-arranged music to go in each sub-edit, Stainforth would then stage multiple options of music on various cue points by ‘layering’ different tracks in the mix for Kubrick to choose from. This engineering methodology/cooperation between the sound editor and director is also reflected in how the Carlos/Elkind score, the classical arrangements and the ‘30s period numbers work together as a whole. Each of these ‘layers’ of music is tasked with a distinct job, partly to define areas of action, partly to create and engage the audience in unique ways within those specific zones. The Carlos/Elkind pieces and classical work are sprinkled throughout the film, stringing various scenes together, assisting the audience via audible cues when to segue.
For example, in the scenes where Danny is riding around the endless, empty hallways and great rooms of the hotel on his trike, there is an unnerving combination of ambient sound and music. This was achieved by close mic’ing Danny’s tricycle wheels as the camera tracks him from behind and he alternately pedals loudly and silently across bare hardwood floor and then area rugs. The subtle transition from this ambient soundscape to an arranged one as plot-specific action is about to occur happens imperceptibly. It is effective because it increases unease and plants a subconscious expectation of violence. Because it arose organically out of Kubrick’s loathing of jarring audio edits, it creates a natural and unforced feel to combining the recorded space on the set and the music. This preoccupation with maintaining fidelity to the flow of sound often saw film editor Ray Lovejoy tasked with jockeying already-edited footage to fit changes in audio choices.
Photo below: Danny Llyod (as Danny Torrance) senses something bad is happening at the Overlook Hotel. Film still courtesy Warner Brothers.
From the breathtaking, autumnal-coloured aerial shots tracking Jack’s yellow Volkswagen Beetle as it wends its way through high mountain passes en route to the Overlook, to the steadicam sequences in the sanatorium-green bathroom revealing the mystery of room 237 – and many key scenes in-between – electronically created and synth-driven rises in the accompanying music created by Carlos and Elkind helped establish The Shining as a horror film of impeccable musical credentials. Kubrick’s tireless research and careful insertion of deeply unsettling classical pieces and period-evoking ‘30s big band numbers cook up a potent mix, that when listened to all the way through – with or without the film – invoke both a physical and mental sensation of deep unease and paranoia. Avant-garde, genre-bending, spectral in its execution, The Shining soundtrack helped spawn countless imitators and influenced sound, and music choices in horror films for decades. No CD or digital version of the soundtrack was ever officially ever released (hence the Spotify playlist linked to in this article is one put together by a third party). Despite the nature of its availability in only LP or cassette form, it has nonetheless maintained a loyal following of fans with first pressings of the 1980 US release currently fetching more than $400 online.
Tracklist (What made it on to the album, not every song in film)