Director: Norman Jewison Starring: James Caan, John Houseman, Maud Adams, John Beck, Moses Gunn, Pamela Hensley and Barbara Trentham.
It was 1970: My grandmother gives me a ‘Music for Pleasure’ album— Carl Weinrich playing Bach on the pipe organ—saying it was ‘too heavy’ for her. It’s titled ‘Toccata & Fugue in D minor’. Of course. Over the years I end up buying half a dozen different pipe organ recordings in the process of seeking a truly satisfying version of ‘Passacaglia & Fugue in C minor.’ Most of them also have the Toccata. Of course.
Even before 1975, the Toccata & Fugue in D minor was Bach’s most well-known organ work. That’s what being in ‘Fantasia’ can do. But that didn’t diminish the thrill when I sat myself in the cinema in 1975 or 1976 and ‘Rollerball’ commenced, unexpectedly, with the familiar flourish over a black screen. And it wasn’t just a taste. The whole Toccata section is completed, taking nearly three minutes, with only a little background audio from the events on screen bleeding in towards the end.
Fully aware of my bias on matters Bach, I thought I should revisit this movie once I became aware that it was out on Blu-ray. The audio is presented in 24-bit, 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio (i.e. losslessly compressed) as well as 24-bit stereo LPCM. Is there any surround? Even though the movie was released in four-channel sound, and six channels on 70mm print, in those pre-‘Star Wars’ days the channels were all at the front to allow for sound steering. The movie 5.1 just gets a little bleed into the rear channels, but at times it does get some surprising dialogue steering across the front sound stage, something that has largely gone out of fashion in recent decades.
The composer for the movie was André Previn. He also managed to sneak in a little Shostakovich and a touch of Tchaikovsky, while using the Albinoni Adagio as a theme for lost love.
The movie? Ah, yes, one of the better examples of that mid-1970s fascination with dystopian futures. In this case the nation state has withered and been replaced by corporations, complete with territorial domination and corporate anthems. A brutal roller-skates and motorbike game acts as a Roman circus to keep the population amused and placid. But James Caan has been a star for too long. One man can’t be more important than the game but he refuses to retire. So the rules must be changed. There are interesting themes and a European influence to the look. Of course the future envisaged in 1975 is terribly anachronistic. A card at the end of the movie says: ‘Our thanks to . . . SPERRY UNIVAC for computer equipment.’ Caan, seeking answers at one point, travels to Geneva so he can ask ‘the’ computer.
But for me, even if the movie were terrible, it’d all be worth it for those opening minutes.