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Various Artists - Manhunter Original Motion Picture Music Album Reviews

Michael Mann’s 1986 film was a critical and commercial flop, but its soundtrack has proved a major inspiration for the music supervision on projects like Drive and “Stranger Things.”

By all traditional Hollywood metrics, Michael Mann’s Manhunter was deemed a disappointment upon its release in the summer of 1986, receiving a lukewarm reception both at the box office and from critics. You couldn’t really blame the typical action-flick junkie from walking out of the theater underwhelmed. The movie’s very title was a red herring. Based on Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon, the film received its more generic crime-movie handle to either—depending on which story you want to believe—mollify producer Dino De Laurentiis (who apparently wanted to steer clear of any serpent-themed titles after his 1985 epic, Year of the Dragon, flopped) or avoid people mistaking it for a martial-arts movie.

Audiences expected a movie called Manhunter to be a serial-killer thriller that conformed to the multiplex standards of the day—car chases, buckets of blood, and an unimpeachable protagonist who could take down flagrantly evil bad guys with a perfect shot and a cool catchphrase. Instead, they were greeted with a hyper-stylized, meditative film where the most horrific violence happens off-screen, much of the plot is given over to studious forensics analysis, the nominal hero (William Petersen’s FBI agent Will Graham) is a psychologically tormented shell of a human, and the villain (Tom Noonan’s fearsome Francis Dolarhyde) elicits our sympathy as much as our revulsion. Five years after its release, Manhunter’s ignoble fate was seemingly sealed forevermore when one of its tertiary characters—Hannibal Lecter—became the center of another, infinitely more popular film adaptation of a Thomas Harris novel, The Silence of the Lambs, with Anthony Hopkins’ scenery- (and face-)chewing, Oscar-winning performance all but erasing Brian Cox’s icier, more deadpan turn in Manhunter from collective memory.

But the blockbuster success of The Silence of the Lambs proved to be the catalyst that mobilized a cult of Manhunter fans who prefer Mann’s austere vision of Harris’ world to Jonathan Demme’s operatic grotesquerie (much like the sect of Pink Floyd fans who’ll take the Syd Barrett era over the more famous Waters/Gilmour iteration). Over the years, Manhunter has been salvaged from the 99-cent VHS bargain bin to become the sort of film that’s inspired deluxe DVD reissues, obsessive fan sites, and thinkpiece retrospectives. Yet even the movie’s most ardent boosters can agree with its critics on one thing: Manhunter is the 1980s-est movie of the 1980s, thanks in large part to a soundtrack that instantly carbon-dates the film to its era of origin.

When you go back and read the reviews that greeted Manhunter at the time of its time of release, even the positive write-ups can’t conceal their contempt for Mann’s use of music, which can be as overwhelming as his direction is painstakingly methodical. Not that anyone should’ve been surprised. Whether deploying Tangerine Dream’s electronic vistas for 1981’s Thief or Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” to heighten the nocturnal tension on “Miami Vice,” Mann viewed soundtracks as more than mere background dressing; the music in his work becomes a character unto itself, as integral to the mise en scene as lighting and set décor. Accordingly, with Manhunter, he doubled down on his dual loves of dramatic ambient synthphonies and blatantly expository pop songs, pumping them into each critical moment like a medic administering CPR.

But in contrast to the previous year’s star-studded “Miami Vice” soundtrack, Manhunter is loaded with artists who mostly had little name recognition at the time, and even less today. He tipped Philly new-wave duo the Reds to establish the film’s eerie atmosphere, and their ominous synth-smeared instrumentals make even the film’s most expansive shots—like Graham’s sprint through Lecter’s stadium-like detention center—feel suffocating. This expanded double-vinyl reissue adds a crucial piece of theirs that wasn’t featured on the original 1986 soundtrack release: “Joggers Stakeout,” a Floydian aftershock of distantly echoing guitars that suggests “Welcome to Machine” stripped of its mechanical parts. The other unearthed pieces of incidental music—Japanese new-age master Kitaro’s cosmic reverie “Seiun / Hikari No Sono” and Krautrock pioneer Klaus Schulze’s percolating space-age bachelor-pad doodle “Freeze”—serve to further counterbalance the bombast of the soundtrack’s pop songs, which telegraph the characters’ emotional states with all the subtlety of a Times Square neon sign.

But, separated from the film, Manhunter’s pop-song repertoire is a fascinating time capsule of post-punk’s dying days. By the mid-’80s, post-punk’s obsession with mainstream subversion had rendered the genre indistinguishable from the most craven chart-seeking pop, thanks to all the shiny synths, arena-sized grandeur, and nominal gestures toward worldly exotica. There are three selections from Shriekback, the new-wave supergroup featuring Gang of Four’s Dave Allen and XTC’s Barry Andrews that, before long, had drifted toward plush ballads like “This Big Hush,” whose uncanny mix of brooding romanticism and wind-chimed luster forged the heretofore unrealized subgenre of yuppie-goth. And then there are the Prime Movers, an L.A. band that boasted Paisley Underground roots before morphing into Dread Zeppelin (!). But on the journey between those poles, they delivered “Strong as I Am,” a towering bid for Big Music glory that, despite its promotion to this soundtrack’s lead song and its Mann-financed video, failed to make them the next U2.

In Manhunter, “Strong as I Am” frames a pivotal moment of reckoning for the Dolarhyde character, to the point where the song isn’t so much supporting the scene as choreographing it. But in the film’s white-knuckled climax, Mann pushes that concept to the hilt. The late-game appearance of Iron Butterfly’s 1968 acid-rock warhorse “Inna-Gadda-da-Vida” is both Manhunter’s definitive moment and its great anomaly, not just in style and era, but in its diegetic placement: It’s the song Dolarhyde flips on his eight-track as he torments his blind paramour-turned-prey. (Mann was reportedly inspired by his correspondence with a convicted killer in Texas named Dennis Wayne Wallace, who claimed “Inna-Gadda-da-Vida” was a love song that spiritually connected him to the woman he murdered.)

It’s a selection that belongs in the Music Supervision Hall of Fame—not just because the song infuses an already terrifying scene with even more sinister energy, and not just because its breakdown and build-up sync up perfectly with Graham’s window-smashing rescue, but because Iron Butterfly is precisely the sort of archaic psychedelic rock band that an aging, supremely creepy weirdo like Francis Dolarhyde would still be listening to on his eight-track nearly 20 years after their album came out. It’s a strange, sprawling song that ultimately amplifies the psychological distance between Dolarhyde and normal society (though this soundtrack pares down the original’s 17-minute girth to a tidier eight-minute edit).

As such, “Inna-Gadda-da-Vida” is also a song that sounded as dated and out of place in 1986 as the Manhunter soundtrack did throughout the 1990s and 2000s. But just as the film is now credited with spawning “CSI” and other meticulous police procedurals, the influence of its soundtrack has likewise seeped into contemporary pop-cultural phenomena. Sure, the passage of time remains unkind to Red 7’s “Heartbeat” (the slick, chest-pumping MOR rocker that summons the film’s closing credits with all the grace of a hairspray spritz to the face), but Manhunter’s chilling synthscapes have undeniably left a frosty residue on Cliff Martinez’s Drive score and the sinister pulse of “Stranger Things.” And really, this soundtrack has a lot more working in its favor than mere ’80s revivalism: In a world where vintage kosmische records go for hundreds of dollars on Discogs, new age has been embraced by hip reissue labels, and synth-glossed pop has become the lingua franca of post-chillwave indie rock, everything about this once-anachronistic artifact is now perfectly on trend.

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