Legacy Recordings, the catalog division of Sony Music Entertainment, has released a nine-CD collection containing eighteen of Henry Mancini’s film scores from the RCA, Columbia, and Epic labels. The Classic Soundtrack Collection effectively covers the surprisingly wide range of Mancini’s output, from his biggest hits to some relatively obscure scores for virtually unknown movies. Such a collection is welcome, as Mancini is undoubtedly one of the most popular and influential of all film music composers. His series of hit RCA “soundtrack” recordings is perhaps unprecedented. Mancini’s influence is just as important, but not necessarily in a positive sense, at least for the many fans of symphonic film music from the Golden Age. Mancini was such a good melodist and songwriter that he perfected the art of the song score, as opposed to the more traditional orchestral scores of the time. Largely because of Mancini, every film had to have a popular song as part of its marketing strategy. Not everyone could compose melodies and songs effectively, however. Mancini actually wanted to be a dramatic film music composer, but his songs and themes became so popular that RCA demanded that he repeatedly produce formulaic rerecorded “soundtrack” albums, primarily featuring a popular song (like “Moon River”) or instrumental (like The Pink Panther theme) plus a series of easy listening or dance tracks with little or no dramatic music from the film. Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Pink Panther are classic examples of this winning formula. To the extent that Mancini was able to veer at least slightly from the formula, his albums had more musical interest (Hatari, Experiment in Terror).
Mancini’s “soundtracks” can be conveniently divided into the mega hits (Breakfast at Tiffany’s; The Pink Panther; Charade; Hatari), a second group that ranked just below them in popularity but were in some cases better musically (Experiment in Terror; High Time; The Great Race; Two for the Road; Arabesque), and the rest that are included in this collection (What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?; Gunn; The Party; Me, Natalie; Visions of Eight; Oklahoma Crude; The Return of the Pink Panther; and Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?). Darling Lili is a special case—a seriously underrated musical starring Julie Andrews singing some incredibly catchy songs.
A few comments on some of these scores are appropriate. “Moon River” is generally considered to be Mancini’s most famous and best song, but the case can be made that “Charade” is in the same class. Mancini’s favorite melody was “Two for the Road,” but I prefer “Moon River,” “Charade,” and (from The Great Race) “The Sweetheart Tree.”
His most famous instrumental theme is “The Pink Panther,” but the haunting and eerie theme from Experiment in Terror featuring two autoharps isn’t far behind, and the sound is sensational. Mancini’s popularity was also derived from such funky instrumental cues as the “Baby Elephant Walk” (described by Mancini as boogie-woogie) and “Your Father’s Feathers” from Hatari, and the sonically amazing title track from High Time. The Great Race was a blockbuster film that was a vehicle for a wide-ranging score containing “The Sweetheart Tree” and numerous funky pop tracks. Arabesque is a darker score that demonstrates Mancini’s ability to intertwine popular and dramatic music. Oklahoma Crude is Mancini’s exercise in country-style music. The Party, Visions of Eight, Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?, and Me, Natalie are comparatively minor efforts, but What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? will be a welcome surprise for many listeners. In Gunn Mancini re-addresses the music of Peter Gunn, but has nothing new to add. Two for the Road is highlighted and dominated by one of the composer’s best melodies.
RCA’s Mancini recordings were justly famous for their spectacular but extremely musical sound. The instrumental texture in the closely miked instrumental themes from The Pink Panther, Hatari, High Time, and Experiment in Terror is almost unbelievable. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Hatari, Experiment in Terror, High Time, and The Great Race are Living Stereos, and The Pink Panther and Charade are Dynagrooves that maintained that high-quality sound. Unfortunately, The Classic Soundtrack Collection uniformly fails to reproduce the demonstration-level sonics of the original RCA vinyl pressings. There is less airiness, and the instrumental images plastered against the front of the sound field are more harsh and abrasive. Charade sounds shockingly dull when compared to the electrifying JVC XRCD. Still, many of the CDs maintain at least some semblance of the original sound.
Sadly, Mancini’s scores have been shockingly underrepresented on CD. Most of the big hits were briefly available on excellent sounding Spanish RCA CDs. Charade and Breakfast at Tiffany’s were released on JVC XRCDs. The Pink Panther and Breakfast at Tiffany’s are available on Speakers Corner LPs that must be heard to be believed. The Pink Panther is also still available on an RCA (Buddha) CD. The complete dramatic soundtrack for Breakfast at Tiffany’s, including Audrey Hepburn singing “Moon River” in mono, has been released by Intrada. This recording presents a completely different perspective of the music as it demonstrates Mancini’s ability to write dramatic underscore. All of those CDs and LPs, if you can find them, are sonically preferable to The Classic Soundtrack Collection by a considerable margin. However, this collection is valuable because it is the only available collection of the majority of Mancini’s important scores, most of which are difficult or impossible to find on CD now, so it will be desirable for Mancini’s many fans despite the disappointing sound.