The tenth iteration of the International Film Music Festival in Krakow had many highlights in store for its visitors, but the biggest one and only true standout for me certainly was the screening of Wolfgang Petersen’s fantasy adventure “The Neverending Story” with live orchestra.
The 1984 film is considered a childhood classic by many people and accompanied my little self as well. Unfortunately, though, I discovered the book in sixth grade. This small event changed me as a person. To this day, I consider Michael Ende’s “Die Unendliche Geschichte” (as it is called in its original German title) to be the greatest book ever written.
Of course, one will always have the people watching a novel adaptation telling them, “But the book was so much better!”. I arrogantly distance myself from such people. My problem is not that a certain character was described with a different hair-color, I also don’t plan to complain about how the filmmakers dared to cut content in order to fit 350 pages into a 100-minute film. Such changes are to be expected.
In fact, Ende himself was very involved in the writing process of the script, actively suggesting alterations or deletion of scenes. He even wrote a whole new scene for the film (which was not filmed in the end, due to technical limitations).
To cut things short, things went sideways when the team decided to change the ending in a way, that totally goes against the established rules of the world while also turning the whole message of the novel on its head. Ende left the project and demanded that his name would be removed from the opening credits (though it still appears in the end credits).
It should be clarified, that the movie only deals with the first half of the book. There is actually a whole new adventure waiting for the protagonist after the conclusion of the film. The full story would have blown the movie out of proportions so the decision to end the film right there without sequel-bait is understandable and even admirable.
Book vs. film: Another complicated story
The plot of the film follows young Bastian Balthasar Bux, who after the death of his mother, sees himself drifting away from his father. He gets bullied in school and fails every class imaginable. He’s neither athletic nor smart in an academic kind of way. The only thing he can do, is imagine stories. One day, he gets chased by his bullies and finds himself in an old bookstore where he has a more or less nice chat with the elderly, grumpy owner. In that bookstore is a particular interesting book labelled, you guessed it, “The Neverending Story”. Bastian is so intrigued, that he just steals it and runs to his school, hiding in the attic to read it.
The film and the novel now present its respective audiences with the story of the book, dealing with the mystical realm Phantasia (not to be confused with a certain Disney film) being consumed by a dark entity called The Nothing. The young warrior Atreyu rides off on the quest to find a solution and the further the story progresses, the more Bastian’s and Atreyu’s lives intertwine.
More shall not be revealed since I want you to live through this timeless tale by yourself. Just do yourself a favour and seek out the book as well, as its exploration of deep themes regarding the human imagination, the merits, and dangers of escapism, the importance of family, identity and the subconscious is unmatched in literary history, especially for a children’s book.
The film sadly ditches a lot of that depth, but this doesn’t mean it’s completely worthless. Despite the morally questionable ending, Petersen managed to craft a gleefully dark fantasy film with memorable character designs and a tremendous love for detail. I cannot deny that the film has an irresistible magic that pulls you right into its world. Most of the practical effects still hold up to this day as well.
By far the best aspect of the film, however, is the score by Klaus Doldinger for the original German version of the film. This trivia is important since the international version of the film cut out quite a bit of Doldinger’s music and replaced it with new music by Giorgio Moroder, who is also the mind behind the popular (yet terribly unfitting) Limahl song “The Neverending Story”.
At the time, Doldinger was pretty successful in Germany with his Jazz band “Passport” as well as multiple melodies for ads and TV-shows including the intro Theme for the still running crime-series “Tatort”. However, he chose to let his jazz roots take second place and wrote an almost fully orchestral, multi-thematic score for the film.
Klaus Doldinger’s score performed live for the first time
This is the score, the Krakow Film Music Festival chose to present to the audience. No Limahl, no Moroder. Naturally I was really excited for it. There was one curious little detail, though: The original soundtrack might have been mostly symphonic, but it did feature quite a few electronic elements as well. There were synth textures, some drum pads and a few otherworldly sound effects integrated. When we got the chance to interview Doldinger before the concert, he stated that he likes to combine organic instruments with artificial sounds and you can clearly here that MO in his Passport albums, most notably “Ataraxia”, so it only makes sense that he would also do so in his first big theatrical score.
Doldinger admits that he was very pleasantly surprised when he was approached to have his music performed live to picture. Of course, he knows of the cult status of the film, but he was also very aware of the American audience being exposed to the Limahl song and thus didn’t expect to find this demand for his music. Especially his full score to the film which he himself never even heard in its final form.
This was due to a very cold working atmosphere back in the early ‘80s. Late german producer Bernd Eichinger greenlit the film without having all of the necessary money ready which led to the production being stressful. As soon as everything was recorded, Doldinger left the project to avoid further drama.
Despite all that, the final product was magnificent and Doldinger happily got all of his original sheets and sketches from his attic to provide the Sinfonietta Cracovia with what they needed to perform. What they planned on doing with the synthetic elements, however, was something I was very curious about and even Doldinger didn’t have an idea, but more on that later.
Fantastic arrangements turn the evening into an otherworldly experience
The long awaited evening came and it was a full success in every possible category. The entire performance by every man and woman involved was simply excellent. The Orchestra of the Royal Capital City of Krakow blew its audience away and the choir, the Cracow Singers, elevated many cues to a whole new level. Especially the various performances of the Auryn Theme (a magical amulet in the film) during the end of the film, which are already goosebump inducing on the album, became an otherworldly experience in those arrangements.
Everyone responsible for the arrangements of the concert can’t be applauded enough. Most of the synthetic parts were adapted into orchestral works and while the original hybrid score is already one of the greats, hearing it in fully orchestral form showed, that Doldinger wrote a full fledged masterpiece. Many of the synths feel outdated today (very much so in the opening and a short action track near the finale, diminishing the effect a bit) so the people behind the FMF concert took it upon themselves to really turn it into something timeless.
The famous “Flug Auf Dem Glücksdrachen” (aka “Bastian’s Happy Flight”) still kept its pop vibe, though replacing ‘80s disco beats with a live drumkit, making the piece a joy to behold. Even the conductor, Christian Schumann (who did a marvelous job, especially on keeping the orchestra in sync with the film) couldn’t stop himself from dancing on his stand.
There were countless revelations like this: giving the keyboard hits from “Im Haulewald” to the brass sections or turning the dissonant synth textures from an infamous, traumatizing scene involving a horse into aleatoric string writing were genius moves that improved an already amazing soundtrack.
Credit also has to be given to the ICE Congress Hall. It really helped the whole experience. In contrast to the echo filled sound of the TAURON Arena, the ICE provided the perfect requirements for a great symphonic concert.
Watch the official video recap of The Neverending Story Live in Concert below:
Klaus Doldinger himself joins the stage at last
Another highlight was, obviously, hearing so much music that was missing from the album. The aggressive “Gmork” material, reminiscent of Rosenman’s “The Lord Of The Rings” or a few more statements of the best theme of the whole score were more than welcome.
In the fittingly named Swamps Of Sadness, after a traumatizing scene, we are introduced to a heartbreaking pan flute solo. It is one of the most beautiful and haunting pieces I have heard in my entire life (search for “Die Sümpfe Der Traurigkeit”). Albeit the live performance was more akin to Morricone’s style of writing for flutes, hearing it in the concert hall was emotionally overwhelming in a way that should be forbidden. I already can barely help myself from crying whenever I listen to this cue, but on that fateful evening, all hope was lost.
From the first note of the whole concert, I was enthralled and on the edge of weeping, because I just couldn’t believe the fact that I was experiencing the perfect musical representation of my favourite book of all time, live in concert, but somehow I managed to pull myself together.
Then we got to that one damned scene and as soon as the flutist started playing, I burst into tears and didn’t stop bawling my eyes out until the whole concert was over and I left the hall. Whenever I was calming down, there was a new statement of the sadness theme because Doldinger just wanted me to die of dehydration. It certainly didn’t help that I wasn’t even aware of how many times the theme appears in the film, since it’s included in only two tracks on the album.
Unfortunately, I have no idea who the amazing flutist is, but whoever you are, you owe me around 100 tissues.
At some point, the film did end and I was sad but relieved since now all the crying would stop.
During the last bars of the end credits, Klaus Doldinger himself got up and joined the stage. I was wondering what his role in all this would be, since his main instrument is the saxophone which is not to be found in the whole score. My scepticism was obviously not misplaced, since he really didn’t attend the film performance. He didn’t even play the piano or keyboard (which provided the only bit of synthetic backing, mostly for the performances of the dark, eerie yet excellent title theme), so what would he do? Just watch the whole thing with us and that’s it?
Well, during the film yes, but as soon as the last letter scrolled over the screen, Doldinger was standing there, holding his trusty saxophone for performances of the Auryn and Glücksdrachen themes on his sax with backing from the orchestra. There were the tears again. This time, just out of pure happiness. It was a magical moment I never ever dared to dream. And if that wasn’t enough, after those two pieces, the orchestra fell silent (allowing poor conductor Schumann to recover himself from all his crazy dancing) and Doldinger gave an elaborate saxophone solo to softly bring his audience back into the real world. Naturally he implemented the themes of the film into the solo and couldn’t resist to sneak his other classic theme for “Das Boot” in as well, gathering quite a handful of chuckles from the listeners.
That way, a truly unique evening came to an end. And unique really is the best way to describe it. There are live to film concerts all over the world nowadays for many different films, but how many of “The Neverending Story” are there? How many will feature those top notch arrangements for orchestra and choir? And how many will conclude with a saxophone solo by the man himself?
No matter what happens, I will always have the memory of this special evening.
(P.S.: I’m still waiting for a certain record label to give us a studio recording of those arrangements of the complete score performed by a symphonic orchestra. Yes, I am looking at you, Mr. Townson. You were there. You know damn well that the world needs this CD)