Film: Pagan bangs and twangs

`The Wicker Man' soundtrack is available after 25 years.
ITS STAR, Christopher Lee, described it as "the best-scripted film I ever took part in", and in his wonderfully titled autobiography, Tall, Dark and Gruesome, hinted darkly that its surplus footage had eventually ended up as roadfill near Shepperton. Rod Stewart allegedly tried to buy and destroy it to prevent the naked cavortings of his then girlfriend, Britt Ekland, receiving further exposure. More recently, those arch pastoralists, Scottish rock band Teenage Fanclub, have covered a tune from it, and their leader Norman Blake even named his daughter Rowan after the character whose supposed disappearance triggers events. But it is only now, 25 years after its original cinema outing (as second feature to Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now - an unsettling evening out) that the soundtrack to The Wicker Man has been released.

It is indisputably the strangest cinematic tribute to paganism ever produced in this country, with Edward Woodward's rigidly Presbyterian policeman, sacrificed to fire in a fertility rite. Written by Anthony Shaffer, better known for Sleuth and Frenzy, the film has long been clouded in mystery, hindered by distribution and ownership problems out of its creators control, and subject to dramatically differing cuts.

Jonathan Benton-Hughes of Trunk Records is responsible for bringing the soundtrack to the public's attention. Trunk have achieved recognition for their compilations from the Bosworth Music Archive, with tracks created as incidental music using the most advanced techniques the sixties could offer. Never before available, many of these snippets are already becoming familiar through the sample hungry world of dance music. Benton-Hughes, deeply into soundtracks and other memorabilia, found the challenge of The Wicker Man irresistible, and took over two years to untangle the legal minefields involved, just pipping some rather larger players. "So many people after it", he says, "Even private detectives were involved."

But mere business was hardly the motivation. "It's a little monster, mate. It's been under my skin for a few years now," he admits. "I saw a video of the Alex Cox cut for BBC2 a few years ago, and I thought it was great, the most peculiar thing I'd seen for ages. It had all these noises, twangs and boings. Then there's naked women in graveyards, and the music is fab." He shrugs, as if to say: "what more could you want?". Certainly, the soundtrack, produced by Paul Giovanni, an American devoted to the idea of representing the isolated island community of the film through accurate local music, is a true oddity. Alongside incidental noises, it includes lovingly crafted faux-traditional folk numbers like "Corn Rigs" (based on a Robert Burns poem), the gorgeous "Willow's Song" (mimed by Ekland in the film to a vocal by someone only remembered as a "young girl we found in London"), and the climactic version of the genuinely ancient "Sumer is ecumen in", complete with the sound of conflagration. Not really a collection of songs like modern soundtracks ("They date movies horribly"), but more an evocation of plot, the record works just as well as an ambient piece.

With events such as the annual lighting of a similar figure at Glastonbury and America's Burning Man event in the Nevada desert, such rites seem more contemporary than ever. Perhaps on its 25th anniversary we might even get to see The Wicker Man back on the big screen at last. And if you should find yourself in the Machars peninsula in Southwest Scotland, apparently part of one leg still stands, opposite a caravan site. Paganistically enough.

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