There will be a great number of people in the world who think Brian May, the guitarist from Queen, wrote the music for the film ‘Mad Max’. This is perfectly understandable to a point – the dates work out and he has a history of working on films (‘Flash Gordon’ and ‘Highlander’ most obviously, but also a couple of others). Beyond that, the similarities pretty much stop. The confusion has led to the composer being regularly overlooked, certainly by casual music fans but even by those who enjoy film music, despite his significant output and skill.
The composer and conductor Brian May was born on 28th July 1934 in Adelaide, South Australia. His best-known scores are those for Mad Max and ‘Mad Max 2′, though he composed for many genres, including several horror films and what have now become known as Ozploitation films.
May trained at the Adelaide Elder Conservatorium as a pianist, though also studied the violin as a second instrument, as well as conducting and orchestration, with the ultimate aim of becoming a concert pianist. During National Service, he arranged music for his division’s small brass band and found he had both an aptitude and a talent for it. Upon leaving the army, his experience saw him join the ABC Adelaide in 1957 and was asked to form and conduct the ABC Adelaide Big Band, a full-blown ensemble that was rated as the best of the ABC state-based bands. He moved to Melbourne when he was 35 to arrange and conduct the ABC’s Melbourne Show band, continuing to develop his skills in orchestration and composition for both instruments and choral work.
Few before May had taken their classical training into the entertainment world – fewer still in their home country. External investment in Australian film was all but non-existent and ABC, though acting as the country’s equivalent of Britain’s BBC, was in nowhere near the same league. As such, background music for Australian television had previously been taken from records and music library collections, not unusual in any country but a necessity somewhere that lacked both the money and the artists to develop their own in-house creations. May was quickly earmarked as the go-to man for both his own Brian May Show Band and skills in arranging, giving the programmes he worked on an immediate boost. May wrote and arranged the themes for several television programmes, including ‘Bellbird’, ‘Return to Eden’, ‘The Last Frontier’, ‘A Dangerous Life’ and ‘Darling of the Gods’. A breakthrough came with the drama series ‘Rush’ (1974 – 1976), set on the 19th-century Victorian goldfields. The theme was composed by Australian George Dreyfus, but May’s arrangement of the theme was recorded by the Show Band and quickly reached the top of the Aussie charts, selling more than 100,000 copies.
It was fellow Australian, Richard Franklin, who suggested that May might consider composing for films after hearing his arrangement of ‘Hair’ for the Melbourne Show Band. Franklin too had found himself frustrated at the lack of opportunities in the arts in his home country and had spent the late 60s in America, studying film at UCLA, the same university John Carpenter and George Lucas attended. Unusually, once qualified, Franklin returned to Australia in the 1970s and when he started to embark on directing his first feature film, May was installed as its music composer. It was no doubt to the relief of both that ‘The True Story of Eskimo Nell‘ was not the film most readily associated with either. That said, there’s nothing shoddy about the score, with lush strings, delicate flutes and intricate rhythm sections.
Without any heritage of film composition in Australia to speak of, to some extent, May’s work was influenced by the Australian landscape; broadly sweeping strings and tight orchestrations which he insisted on arranging himself; a slightly impolite comparison might be to suggest he was similar to Riz Ortolani but on a much tighter budget, though some, fancifully, declared him the Southern Hemisphere’s Bernard Herrmann. Like Herrmann, May could also use string sections in a more angular manner for scenes requiring an injection of tension. May’s first truly stand-out work for film was released three years later, the score to Franklin’s ‘Patrick‘.The most arresting aspect of May’s score to ‘Patrick’ is the lack of a brass section; instead, various shades of violin work are married with chiming harps, lending a feeling of fragility and sadness. Drums are avoided where possible with vibraphones preferred to add to the textures of the melodies. As Patrick becomes angrier and more frustrated in the film, the strings become discordant and more frenzied – hardly a new technique but it’s skilfully done. There is no attempt to make a John Williams-type theme which exists in its own universe – May’s work is entirely embedded in the film, reflecting the story but remaining unobtrusive.
May followed up with his most widely-recognised work, the score to ‘Mad Max’. The film’s director, George Miller, had been looking for a Herrman-esque composer but had been stifled by his miniature budget when Franklin had played him the score to ‘Patrick’. Seeing May as an ideal stand-in, the union was formed. Heavy on kettle drums, brass and strings but avoiding the trappings of synths, often used in post-apocalyptic fare, it’s something the many clones of the films fell foul of, giving the action a fantasy feel, whilst Max lives in a very real world with no safety net. The environment in ‘Mad Max’ is a character itself, the scorched earth and blazing sun reflected by the starkness and space with May’s score. It’s an angry, unsettled score, elbowing in on dialogue and creating tension with its unpredictability. Occasionally instruments reflect the sounds of the cars in the film, in other moments it allows the machines to do the talking and act as the human element of the events.
May followed up with two less box-office-troubling scores, also released in 1979 – ‘Snapshot‘ (retitled ‘Day After Halloween‘ in the US) and ‘Thirst‘. ‘Snapshot’ has a main theme featuring a simple piano refrain which is indeed slightly similar to Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’, though adds a portentous brass intervention. May injects what was fast becoming trademark florid string parts into the rest of the score, almost veering towards Blaxploitation rhythms on occasion, not least on the amusingly-titled cue ‘Gay Disco’, very much a piece written by a man who was guessing wildly as to what a disco might be like. The ‘Thirst’ score is more successful, or at least more inventive, with some strangled, spidery strings, blaring brass and a spot of chanting – it still comes across as a bit TV movie-ish but it’s fun enough. The cue ‘Vampire Ceremony’ features some excellent choral work, something it would have been nice to hear more regularly in his film work.
May scored two Robert Powell-starring films – 1980’s ‘Harlequin‘ and the following year’s ‘The Survivor‘ (directed by David Hemmings). ‘Harlequin’ relies on a great many short cues but throws in some disconcerting, warping synth patterns and staccato strings which show some understanding of the creation of tension and mystery. ‘The Survivor’ has more of May’s favoured slushy strings, with some intervention of an oboe and a flute, as well as synthesisers, both of which give the score a sympathetic slant on the characters’ situation whilst also lending an atonality that suggests much without resorting to too many clichés. May was recalled by Miller to score ‘Mad Max II: The Road Warrior‘ in 1982, and delivered a score completely different to the previous film, opting to ignore the usual cries for “the same but more”. May’s score to the sequel is in all senses, a lot deeper, with rumbling cellos, booming brass and echoing strings. It still has very primal elements but reflects Max’s status as a hero for a new world.
When Franklin was given the job of directing ‘Psycho II‘, a thankless task for many but one relished by a former associate of Hitchcock, it seemed natural that May would be given his major Hollywood debut but the injection of cash into the project by Universal meant broader scope in all fields, not least the scoring of the film, which was instead given to Jerry Goldsmith, ironically one of the composers May greatly admired. This was not the first rejection of May’s talents – ‘Patrick’’s Italian distributors deemed it necessary to give the film a completely different score, much as ‘Dawn of the Dead‘ did. In common with the latter film, rock band Goblin injected their tried and tested prog sensibilities into the film, effectively but losing the softness of the original and giving the film a more galloping, exploitative edge to what is essentially a very human story. Ironically, the sound of the film suffered yet further in an American cut that re-dubbed the Australian accents with more familiar tones.
Some of the most enjoyable of May’s music can be heard on the soundtrack to 1982’s ‘Turkey Shoot‘, a surprisingly synth-centric affair (only 1990’s ‘Bloodmoon‘ uses a similar amount), interspersed with slave ship-like drums, not unlike the scores of Italian exploitation films, from which this film borrowed heavily. Work on films such as ‘Road Games’, starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Stacey Keach kept May in with a chance of a Hollywood breakthrough but, though he scored the first two ‘Mad Max’ films in the franchise, once again, when a major film seemed destined to land in his lap, it was snatched away; the score duties to ‘Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome‘ going to Maurice Jarre.
Even when American opportunities eventually appeared they were for lesser works or for long-in-the-tooth franchises; ‘Dr. Giggles‘ and ‘Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare‘, both of which, as it turned out, displayed May’s skill but also the Hollywood system’s knack of sucking the vitality and uniqueness out of original ideas.
‘Mad Max’ won the Australian Film Institute Award for Best Original Score. May won many other awards, including the Golden Award from the Australian Performing Rights Association. He had begun to pass on his experience as a composer to the next generation, teaching at the Queensland University of Technology. He died in Melbourne on 25 April 1997 at the age of only 62 as the result of a heart attack.
- Patrick (1978)
- Mad Max (1979) – Won Best Original Music Score award by AFI.
- Snapshot (1979)
- Thirst (1979)
- Twenty Good Years ABCTV (1979)
- Harlequin (1980)
- Nightmares (1980)
- Gallipoli (1981) (additional music)
- Mad Max 2 (1981) – Nominated for Best Original Music Score by AFI.
- Race for the Yankee Zephyr (1981)
- Road Games (1981) – Nominated for Best Original Music Score by AFI.
- The Survivor (1981)
- Breakfast in Paris (1982)
- Kitty and the Bagman (1982)
- Turkey Shoot (1982)
- A Slice of Life (1983)
- Cloak & Dagger (1984)
- Innocent Prey (1984)
- Missing in Action 2: The Beginning (1985)
- Frog Dreaming (1986) – Nominated for Best Original Music Score by AFI.
- Sky Pirates (1986)
- Death Before Dishonor (1987)
- Steel Dawn (1987)
- Bloodmoon (1990)
- Dead Sleep (1990)
- Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991)
- Dr. Giggles (1992)
- Hurricane Smith (1992)
- Blind Side (1993)