The American moviegoing public has been “treated” to an array of remakes over the last ten years or so. Some probably come with the best of intentions, like taking Clash of the Titans from effects that can gently be described as “kids educational programming about dinosaurs” to action-packed if still awful CGI bonanza. Some are intended to be vehicles for contemporary actors, like Steve Martin in The Pink Panther, even though we’ll find ten Michael Jordans before we ever find another Peter Sellers. Many of them have been updated accounts of classic horror movies, like the one where the Green Lantern guy was in The Amityville Horror. Occasionally the remake is an unquestioned improvement on the original: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Ocean’s 11, Scarface for instance. Sometimes a debate rages as to which version is superior: The Seven Samurai vs. The Magnificent Seven is the one I will fight a man over (hint – one of them has Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn and Horst Buchholz in it…end of debate). Most of the time, though, the remake is not an improvement, and in fact is a cataclysmic waste of time and resources, with Tim Burton’s miserable Planet of the Apes being the worst of the bunch in spite of Marky Mark’s presence in the film. Music has its share of remakes too, from the good (“All Along the Watchtower” for example) to the dreadful (Limp Bizkit’s cover of “Behind Blue Eyes” for that shitty Halle Berry movie).
In classical music, it’s a little murkier. The remake most often appears in the guise of a transcription, especially the keyboard-to-orchestra variety, with Bach serving as the inspiration for many of the most popular (the LA Phil and Salonen released an entire disc of Bach transcriptions that is really spectacular). Going the opposite way, Liszt transcribed several well-known orchestral works for piano, presumably to remind you that he was better than you and that he knew it. The neo-classical works of the 20th century are in essence remakes of a stylistic approach if not direct remakes of previous material like Pulcinella or La boutique fantastique. Generally speaking, there aren’t many “bad covers” in classical music, with the occasional exception of band transcriptions, some of which are pretty terrible. Composers are a tight-knit unit, bound together through the centuries in a craft that not everyone can understand, so there’s a pretty significant degree of caution before embarking on a remake of someone’s music.
No composer benefits more from the remake than Modest Mussorgsky. His most famous composition, Pictures at an Exhibition, is immensely more popular thanks to Maurice Ravel’s obscenely brilliant orchestration of the piano original. His magnum opus, Boris Godunov, passed through the hands of Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich, and Ippolitov-Ivanov at various stages. Mussorgsky as musician was, in the words of musicologist Gerald Abraham, “hopelessly limited, with remarkably little ability to construct pure music or even a purely musical texture.” But Mussorgsky was not without gifts. Abraham also remarks “As a musical translator of words and all that can be expressed in words, of psychological states, and even physical movement, he is unsurpassed.” In sports terms, Mussorgsky was a project who needed a lot of coaching. What he got were his colleagues in “The Mighty Handful” (coincidentally my pet name for…never mind) and composers of successive generations who “corrected” his mistakes after he died.
This relationship is perhaps best illustrated by Night on Bald Mountain. Mussorgsky initially projected an opera based on the Gogol story “St. John’s Eve,” then adapted the material to another project called “The Witch;” by 1867, Mussorgsky had completed a tone poem, St. John’s Night on the Bare Mountain. Of course, Balakirev thought it was garbage, so it disappeared until 1968 (cut to shot of Balakirev screaming how he “runs shit ’round here” and that anybody who brings “ghetto ass music” like that will get “knocked the fuck out”). Mussorgsky recast the music into a choral setting for his contribution to the ill-fated Mlada under the title “Glorification of Chornobog”, and then recast it again in Sorochintsy Fair under the title “Dream Vision of the Peasant Lad.” Momma always said when you have a good idea, try and use it over and over again even though it has literally never worked out once.
Enter Rimsky-Korsakov and his pretentious beard. Rimsky “cleaned up” a lot of Mussorgsky’s scores, including Boris Godunov and Khovanschina, For Night on Bald Mountain, Rimsky apparently did not know, or at the very least have access to, Mussorgsky’s 1867 orchestral score, so he used the “Dream Vision of the Peasant Lad” score and omitted the vocal parts. Of course, he also altered the structure, harmonies, and dropped out and added material as he saw fit.
So which version is better? It depends.
There are a thousand different elements that contribute to the impact and enjoyment of a movie. Take, for example, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I’m not about to contend that it is any kind of “great” film in either of its iterations, but they exhibit the classic characteristics of original and remake. What’s the appeal of the original? In part, pure nostalgia. But there’s something really grisly about just how shitty it is; you get the impression that in 1974, in a movie with a small budget………….anything goes. Leatherface, in the original, is terrifying, because he plays it with so much creepy zest. In the remake, which was produced by the greatest filmmaker in American history, Michael Bay, the plot is tightened up a bit and the acting, while certainly not remotely acceptable in the grand scheme, is infinitely better than the original. And it doesn’t hurt that Jessica Biel walks around in a wifebeater and jeans the whole time. The 2003 version is a much better movie, period. But the 1974 version is the better watch, because it achieves its goal with much more visceral impact, and we’re not really looking for Kramer vs. Kramer here.
The larger problem with remakes is when the message is diluted in the updated version. This happens for a number of reasons. The cultural significance of a key element in the plot could be completely different, which is how The Day the Earth Stood Still goes from thrilling critique of an escalating nuclear arms race to a schlocky movie about global warming. The audience might be dumber and incapable of grasping the most powerful message the film has to offer, which is how the riveting Swedish vampire movie Let the Right One In becomes the significantly-less-riveting American vampire movie Let Me In, in which literally the entire point of the original is ignored. The producers of the film may be looking to cash in on a trend and pluck a decent plot to do so, which is how House on Haunted Hill goes from a movie with no ghosts whatsoever but is actually an elaborate setup by a rich guy to catch his wife cheating on him with a test pilot so he can dump her in a pool of acid to a movie with a rich guy who has a house with ghosts in it (in fairness, only Vincent Price is capable of pulling the setup off). There are so many ways to screw up a remake, and they tend to do so pretty easily in Hollywood.
Where does that leave Night on Bald Mountain? The short story by Gogol on which it is based is an evocative tale of witches, devils, gold, Cossacks, child beheadings, blood, pottery, and roasted lamb. It is a wild and passionate story, filled with Gogol’s vivid imagery and gift for narrative and conversation. Both Mussorgsky’s original and Rimsky-Korsakov’s updated versions are communicative of the frenzied spirit of the tale.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s version is a better piece of music, period. It’s much more cohesive, it’s orchestrated better, and it has this awesome 4-bar manic dancing passage that the original doesn’t have:
But I’ve really come around on Mussorgsky’s version in the last year or so. It’s still a very raw, unpolished work, but that’s part of what it makes it effective (come to think of it, Mussorgsky himself would have made a good Leatherface, wouldn’t he?). And even though Rimsky’s orchestration is better, there is something massively appealing about the open and transparent textures in much of Mussorgsky’s original. And Mussorgsky’s use of the timpani is more satisfying, which is no small thing in this piece.
Ultimately, it’s no secret why the remake is the more popular work. Rimsky-Korsakov was a better composer than Mussorgsky. His version has the Hollywood ending where we find Jesus (figuratively speaking…maybe). And it has the refinement that a smooth gentleman such as himself brought to his music. But hopefully with the progression of time we open ourselves up to the untamed aggression of the original. We may ultimately prefer the remake, but at least we’ll have an understanding of why it was remade in the first place.
Judge for yourself: