While promoting The Exorcist in West Germany, director William Friedkin was introduced to Edgar Froese after being recommended to take in a Tangerine Dream show performed in an abandoned church in the Black Forest.

Despite the band having never scored a movie before, Friedkin asked them to have a go at doing so for his next film. Although at this point he had no specific idea on what his next film would be.

On the 40th anniversary bluray release of Sorcerer there’s a very informative and often highly amusing extra – Nicolas Winding Refn (yep, that man again) interviewing Friedkin. Here the American director speaks of being inspired by the music and how he first heard it while filming in the Dominican Republic. ‘It was mean and tough and rhythmic and powerful. What I had expected. No sentimentality.’

He cut the film to the music, and it proved absolutely integral to the project. Later, he wrote in his liner notes for the Sorcerer album that if he’d heard Tangerine Dream sooner he would have asked them to score The Exorcist. A tantalising thought.

Sorcerer quad poster

As sonic backdrops go, this is one of the best, an impeccably-crafted and mesmerizing accompaniment of chilly synths with that pulsing sound that Tangerine Dream perfected and which has remained influential to this day. It provides in some ways an unexpected heartbeat to the story – the music on its own suggests the autobahns of Germany or big city American streets late at night rather than the twisting, remote roads of the inhospitable jungle region where much of the movie is set.

It certainly ramps up the tension as the four lead characters undertake a high-risk journey, carrying a cargo of unstable dynamite – due to storage problems the nitroglycerin is prone to leakage, meaning any sharp movement could set it off. Not a comforting thought for anybody driving it through such a treacherous terrain.

While Sorcerer the film failed to win over too many admirers on its initial release, the soundtrack album went on to become one of Tangerine Dream’s biggest successes, spending seven weeks on the British album charts, where it peaked at #25.

It’s often been suggested that Sorcerer failed at the box office due to it being released at the same time as Star Wars but I doubt that tells the full story.

As I mentioned on here a few weeks ago, in the 1970s movies weren’t released the way they are today.

Annoyingly in Britain, American films would take maybe around six months to make their way across the Atlantic and when they did finally arrive here, even a potential blockbuster like Star Wars wouldn’t open and blitz cinema screens across the length and breadth of the country like today.

Instead, big releases would open in a select few London cinemas where they would play for a number of weeks before rolling out to other screens in London as well as other towns and cities, although even at this point, screenings would be initially limited to a single cinema chain.

Again using Star Wars as an example, when Lucas’ pop culture phenomenon eventually opened in Glasgow at the tail-end of January 1978, it was originally shown at only one cinema, the Odeon in Renfield Street.

So people like me with no interest in Star Wars had a big choice of alternatives on offer. And did filmgoers desperate to see the film somehow decide if it wasn’t playing locally that nothing else would do?

Other films like The Deep (which was the second highest grossing film in the States when released on these shores) seemed to perform well enough at the British box office.

At my local picture house incidentally, there was choice between Crime Busters and Mayday 40,000 ft. No I don’t remember any of these but they might well be better films than Star Wars.

Sorcerer certainly is. And I’ll also take some hypnotic and futuristic Tangerine Dream synth soundscapes over John William’s throwback score any time.

I reckon the main problem with Sorcerer was the lack of star names in the cast. Okay, still relatively fresh from the massive success of Jaws, Roy Scheider enjoyed a high reputation at the time but he didn’t open films. The other three main characters were unknowns by American (or British) standards.

Friedkin had originally offered the part of Jackie Scanlon to Steve McQueen, who loved the script but didn’t want to leave his new wife Ally McGraw for an extended period to shoot the film abroad. Having one of the world’s biggest stars in a lead role would have helped commercially although my guess would be that artistically, Roy Scheider was pretty much perfect for the part.

Another problem is that, even the standards of the 1970s, Sorcerer is bleak and the four main characters are deeply flawed to the extent that it’s difficult to imagine audiences strongly identifying with any of them.

Scanlon’s background is that of a New Jersey mobster; Nilo (Francisco Rabal) is a coldblooded Mexican hitman; Manzon (Bruno Cremer) is a crooked French stockbroker; while Kassem (Amidou) has just taken part in a bombing of innocent civilians in Jerusleum.

Another problem is the multi-language prologue of the film, where subtitles are used extensively. Not something that certain sections of the public ever seem happy about.

William Friedkin considers Sorcerer his finest work. If you’ve never seen it, I’d advise you to seek it out.

For more on Tangerine Dream: http://www.tangerinedream.org/

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