Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema looked back at some of the film and television music Vangelis.
Born Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou in Greece in 1943, Vangelis reportedly started playing the piano at age four although he allegedly had no formal musical training and claimed he never learned to read music. Vangelis was part of the Greek rock band Forminx in the early 1960s and after they split he began composing music for filmmakers. Vangelis moved to France following a coup in his native country. While living in Paris, Vangelis was part of the progressive rock band Aphrodite’s Child which released several successful albums. They split in part because Vangelis was not so interested in making mainstream, commercial music. In the mid-1970s he moved to London and continued to score films and television shows while producing his own music. The success of several nature documentaries got the attention of Hollywood and Vangelis scored 1981’s Chariots of Fire for which he earned an Academy Award for best original score. He continued to create music for film and television projects including Blade Runner, The Bounty, 1492: Conquest of Paradise, and Alexander.
Vangelis also had an interest in science, in particular the physics of music and sound, and he wrote compositions for NASA and the European Space Agency. He composed a musical tribute for Stephen Hawking’s memorial that the European Space Agency broadcast into a black hole. Vangelis’ work so inspired astronomers that they gave a celestial object his name: micro planet 6354 which is spinning between Mars and Jupiter.
Vangelis died in May 2022 at age 79.
Collaborations with Frédéric Rossif
L’Apocalypse de animaux was a documentary miniseries first broadcast on French television in 1973. The music was recorded while Vangelis was still a member of the progressive rock band Aphrodite’s Child. This was the first of several collaborations between Vangelis and French director Frédéric Rossif. The title roughly translates to “Animal Apocalypse” and the documentary series was about the plight of wildlife around the world.
Vangelis and Frédéric Rossif collaborated again on several other nature documentaries, among them 1976’s L’Opera Sauvage. This documentary has mostly disappeared but Vangelis released the music in 1979 and it was his second most successful album in the United States. The track “L’Enfant” would later be used in the 1982 film The Year of Living Dangerously.
Chariots of Fire
The success of the music from the nature documentary L’opera sauvage got the attention of Hollywood and Vangelis was hired to compose music for the 1981 film Chariots of Fire. The movie was a drama about athletes training for the 1924 Olympics. Director Hugh Hudson had actually used some of Vangelis’ music from L’opera sauvage as a temp track and had intended to use it in Chariots of Fire but Hudson was convinced by Vangelis to use an original composition. The music from Chariots of Fire became Vangelis’ biggest hit. The title song was released as a single and went to number one on the Billboard chart, an astonishing accomplishment for an instrumental piece of music. The title song of Chariots of Fire continues to be played in subsequent movies and television shows especially when characters are shown running in slow motion.
After the success of Chariots of Fire, Vangelis had his choice of film scoring jobs. But Vangelis was picky about the projects he contributed to. He only selected films that he felt would be enhanced by his music. Vangelis scored the 1982 film Missing directed by Costa-Gavras. Based on true events, Missing was about the disappearance of American journalist Charles Horman during the 1973 Chilean coup that put Augusto Pinochet into power. The movie was quite controversial at the time, implying that the CIA had backed Pinochet and was responsible for Charles Horman’s death. There exists a version of the Missing theme with lyrics by Tim Rice that was recorded by Elaine Paige and Nana Mouskouri. The full soundtrack to Missing has never been released but the main theme was included on a Vangelis compilation album.
Collaborations with Ridley Scott
The same year as Missing, Vangelis also contributed the score for 1982’s Blade Runner. This film was adapted from Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and was set in a dystopian future in which artificially intelligent androids have become nearly indistinguishable from human beings. Blade Runner was an ambitious film and it is one of the most influential science fiction movies especially in its art design but production was beset by challenges and studio interference. The film underperformed in 1982 but was rediscovered in subsequent decades. No less than four versions of Blade Runner exist and in 2007 director Ridley Scott completed the “Final Cut” which is now the definitive version. Vangelis’ score was highly sought by soundtrack collectors and Blade Runner fans but it was not officially released until 1994. There have been other re-recordings of the score but they rarely equalled the unique sound of Vangelis’ version.
Vangelis reunited with Ridley Scott on 1492: Conquest of Paradise. The movie was a dramatization about Christopher Columbus’ journey to America. 1492 was somewhat controversial because of its historical inaccuracies and its heroic portrait of Columbus. The movie was a box office disappointment in the United States but did well in Europe and the music has had an interesting afterlife. The track “Conquest of Paradise” was used by former Portuguese Prime-Minister António Guterres during the 1995 election and for a time it was the anthem for the Portuguese Socialist Party. This piece is also frequently played at sporting events.
Vangelis provided music for the 1983 Japanese film Antarctica. The movie dramatized a 1958 expedition to the South Pole and the relationships between the explorers and their sled dogs. The movie was a huge hit Japan. Vangelis’ music to Antarctica was nominated for best music score by the Japanese Academy.
Alexander was a 2004 biopic of Alexander the Great directed by Oliver Stone. The film was not well reviewed in 2004 but Oliver Stone has recut Alexander multiple times and the subsequent versions were much better received. Vangelis provided the score for Alexander and the music was in keeping with the composer’s sound. Alexander was released at a time when many sword and shield movies were being released, including Troy, King Arthur, and Kingdom of Heaven and those movies usually featured loud and furious music. Vangelis’ score to Alexander is quite different from the music of those other films.
Vangelis had an interest in science and the ethereal quality of his music lent itself to topics like outer space. Music from the Vangelis album Heaven and Hell was used as the opening theme for the 1980 television series Cosmos which was hosted by Carl Sagan. The series was considered a landmark in science-themed television programming and when Cosmos was first broadcast by PBS it was the most widely watched series in the history of American public television at that time.
Released in 1992, The Plague was based on the novel by Albert Camus. The original novel was set in the 1940s but the film was updated to the 1990s. The Plague dramatizes a pandemic occurring in a South American city in which the government enforces severe quarantine policies. Vangelis composed the theme for The Plague but for whatever reason he was not credited.
1984’s The Bounty was based on the infamous mutiny that occurred aboard the HMS Bounty in 1789. These events had been dramatized in several previous films but the 1984 version was a bit more historically accurate with nuanced characterizations of the lead characters played by Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson. The only music from The Bounty to be officially released are the opening and closing titles which were featured on a Vangelis compilation album.
Here is a 2012 profile of Vangelis in which he discusses his work and his relationship to the music industry.