The Magical Movie Music of Paul Hertzog
I know I’ve told you at least once already that I’m a huge fan of listening to soundtracks and in the last couple of years I’ve really decided to embrace that. In fact part of the decision to downscale my record collection is around the focus on film scores – I’m teaching myself to be an expert in this area. I’m hanging on to a lot of records by the way, it’s not a complete fire sale (I’m retaining all my jazz, plenty of classical and a lot of the pop and rock and other things I grew up with) but the real feature of my record collection is going to be movie soundtracks.
And I just bought a new CD player (well, a second hand one but new to me) so I might be adding a few new (well, second hand but new to me) CDs into the mix – so many movie scores never quite make it to vinyl; or they had their initial run and that is that.
Anyway, that’s all by way of intro to the fact that today I wanted to tell you about one of the lesser known film composers that’s been on my mind a lot of late.
Paul Hertzog only scored a small handful of films – and maybe only two that you’ve heard of. He’s still alive. Still working – though he moved to teaching some 30 years ago and has only released a couple of albums since then. But he’s been a huge presence in my listening. Especially over the last year or so…
You see, back in the late 1980s Hertzog was called on to score two of the most influential movies in my life, the two films that really put Jean-Claude Van Damme on the map.
Wait! Come back!
The one-two punch of 1988’s Bloodsport and 1989’s Kickboxer made Van Damme a near household name. The same is not true for Paul Hertzog. But the albums he made are his shining moments in soundtrack composition. Either side of those films he worked on a who-cares comedy bungle called My Chauffeur (1986) and another American attempt at tapping into martial arts movies with 1991’s insignificant Breathing Fire. You can find some tracks from the synth-driven scores and they’re fine also. But the music to Kickboxer and Bloodsport is my focus here. And this is the music Hertzog is most proud of; the music he’s known for – if he’s known at all…
The brilliant Waxwork Records (home to vinyl reissues of a great many cult and classic scores) has announced a brand new edition of the Bloodsport soundtrack. It doesn’t ship out until early January, but I’ve pre-ordered this as my Christmas present to myself. And while the wait continues I am listening to it non-stop via my YouTube account (I’ve had a version of the soundtrack album saved and on repeat across the last year or so) and the new version is available via Spotify too – for anyone intrigued but not interested in buying the LP.
Hertzog, just a hobbyist, a journeyman musician, had played in bands and was interested in film composition – he helped out on a children’s music video for producer Mark DiSalle. And that was his intro…
In 1987, one full film score under his belt, he is commissioned to make the music for Bloodsport. (The producer knows him, doesn’t even need to audition him). It is a film allegedly based on a true story – that’s been debunked since – of American CIA operative Frank Dux being the first westerner to win a full-contact martial arts tournament in Hong Kong – the barbaric Kumite. The film was in the can and was close to being buried. It wasn’t on anyone’s release schedule. And Hertzog was given a month or so to make the music for it. Just a job. A gig. See how it goes, see if the movie makes it…
He sits down in a rented guesthouse in San Fernando with a Roland MC-500 sequencer, a Yamaha DX-7 and TX-7, Oberheim DMX drum machine, an Ensoniq Mirage sampler and a bit of other gear. Keyboards and drum machines – basically. He enters the studio a month later with about an hour of musical cues recorded and loaded up into his sequencer – he has two session legends to assist with drums and percussion (the great Danny Fongheiser who you’ve heard on hit albums by the likes of Tracy Chapman, Seal, Stevie Nicks and Roger Waters among many others) and M B Gordy (who continues to work on big movie soundtracks, so even if you don’t know it you’ve heard his work: Transformers, Spiderman, X-Men, etc…)
Apart from the drummers in tow, Hertzog one-man-bands it. Oh, he has some assistance from journeyman singer/songwriter Stan Bush because there’s a single, a theme-tune with lyrics. A classic of workout playlists and montage-moments: Fight To Survive.
Anyway, the film’s score is a hypnotic weave of synth textures – it moves with a lithe spirit, feels intoxicating to me, the percussion driving it but never ever in the way.
I love it. Cannot stop listening to it.
It helped tell the emotional weight of the film at the time. And it lives out on its own now.
The movie made a huge impact on me when I was just a teenager – seeing it for the first time a year or so after its release. And I watched it dozens of times almost immediately after, a gateway to martial arts movies (along with The Karate Kid, just before it) and when I watched the movie again very recently, having spent so much time with its soundtrack, I was for the most part watching it so I could hear the score in its original context. But the film still worked. (Apparently it is the highest grossing movie in the Philippines, or at least held that record for some time).
I’ve yet to rewatch Kickboxer – but I will. It didn’t make quite the impact of Bloodsport for me but it was crucial in making JCVD the giant star he became. And it was, in a way, a spiritual sequel to Bloodsport, certainly far better and more coherent than the actual sequels (Bloodsport II and III) which followed in the mid-late 90s, sans JCVD, and without making very much sense at all. Also, who can forget Kickboxer for its, erm, epic dance scene…
The Kickboxer score has been on my mind and in my ears also. A lot. Though not quite as much as the Bloodsport soundtrack. It’s cut from a similar cloth, though arguably a refinement.
I’d certainly buy a reissue of this for my vinyl soundtrack collection too. And I’m looking forward to spending even more time with it.
There’s also two other albums out there for you if you’re thinking of becoming a Paul Hertzog completist. And, hey, why not, right?
In 2009 he released Freeing The Waters, leftover and unused film cues and ideas from around the time of his big late-80s breakthrough. It’s not without its charms, though doesn’t have the, erm, kick of his official scores. And it’s harder to come by, though as always YouTube can be your friend…
And in 2015 he went back to the well again to make some music in the same vein – Waking The Dragon is a conscious attempt to return to the sound and feel. And again, it’s not without its charms. But it’s a thin trace-around of the real stuff. The real magic.
So what happened?
No big drug blowout, no scandal, no cancellation for inappropriate behaviour. No rock-star glory for the jobbing film composer either. Hertzog attended some classes, upskilled himself in theory around film composition, did his big assignments – and then…the phone just stopped ringing.
In the early 1990s he did the responsible thing a person with a family and a mortgage must do. He found steady paying, rewarding work. In teaching. And he kept his keyboards on the side for hobbyist albums that eventually turned up.
And as far as I know he’s still there. Ready to score a film.
Just as Tangerine Dream was ripped off/paid tribute to by the composers of Stranger Things and so many things in and of that ilk, Hertzog’s scores for Bloodsport and Kickboxer continue to sound fresh and to feel like the blueprints for so many martial arts and action scores; particularly now with the retro/nostalgia movement.
This is no plea for him to be considered a star again. Though, imagine it. (I sometimes do).
This is just a fan wanting to tell you the work is out there and you should give it a listen.
But hey, it’s Friday, and I’ve just babbled martial arts soundtrack nonsense at you for a thousand words or so and if you’ve hung in there due to your own version of Stockholm Syndrome you can rest up with this week’s A Little Something For The Weekend playlist which does start with a track from a famous martial arts film. But just the one…
Happy Nearly Holidays to You and Yours…
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