I watched Mad Max for the first time last week. I liked it. A lot. It has that same callow honesty as many other Australian films made around the time of the great film-grant plunder of the mid-late seventies. Everything from the story telling to the setting, the sound, the dialogue and that inimitable Australian perspective give films of this era a particular quality that makes them feel somehow timeless and yet of the time. The unknowing straightforwardness of this genre gives films like Mad Max, Sunday Too Far Away and Picnic at Hanging Rock an edge that you can sink your teeth into. Our new world ignorance of convention and unwillingness to play by the rules defines many Australian films and Mad Max is no different. I can see now in retrospect just how significant this film was in shaping the dystopian genre. The cinematography, the costumes and indeed the music are big contributing factors to why Mad Max is so unusual and iconic. There’s a strong and surprising theatrical current running through the entire production that works in contrast to the gritty and unpolished character of the film. The bad guys are almost Shakespearian, twisting their thespian, almost pantomime turn into something darker and unsettling when set against the many acts of cruel violence. And the over-the-top drama doesn’t stop at the bad- guys. The score was composed by the Australian Brian May (not the Queen guitarist), who shot to fame with his chart-topping arrangement of the TV series Rush’s main theme, which was written by George Dreyfus. In 1984 May left the ABC and turned his talent to film score composition and ended up writing the music to some of the country’s most beloved films including Peter Weir’s Gallipoli and the first two Mad Max films. Hearing May’s score to Mad Max came as a surprise to me as I watched the story unfold for the first time. Intensely dramatic and orchestral, he draws heavily on the music of Bernard Herrmann. The phrases, arrangement and style of the score conjures up Hitchcock and contains more than a hint of the classic Cape Fear soundtrack. Breaking in and out of jabbing brassy phrases and dreamy string arrangements, pounding rhythms and cool jazz, the music of Mad Max seems out of place when you consider the ultra violence on screen and dusty, apocalyptic setting. Offering so much more drama than what’s occurring on screen – it is exactly this quality that makes May’s score so exciting. He borrows Herrmann’s signature winding string phrases reminiscent of North by Northwest and Psycho to build tension and create a sensation of spiralling out of control. He uses the timbre of big brass to add drama and shock the audience and then in contrast, allows the brass to bring a military serenity to other scenes conjuring the memory of order in a time of chaos.
The Mad Max soundtrack is an unusual piece of Aussie film history. It’s homage to Herrmann’s style reveals the influences and ambition of the film makers and the creative energies that were floating around at the time. How strange to reference the Hollywood-slick psychological thrill of Hitchcock in such an intentionally unsophisticated and gutsy film. The counterpoint of the outrageously flamboyant score against the savage and disturbing storytelling is what makes it such a master stroke of film making. The ostentatious soundtrack picks up on and carries home the quirky theatre of villainy that makes Mad Max so memorable. May’s score brings cinematic class to an otherwise rough and ready production – the two factors combining to make Mad Max worthy of its cult status.