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In 1971 Twentieth Century-Fox released a film that was a smash hit both commercially and critically. It remains a benchmark by which other police thrillers are judged and one of the triumphs of 1970s "New Hollywood": The French Connection. The true-life story of two New York City narcotics detectives who busted one of the largest drug rings in history, it made the careers of director William Friedkin as well as actors Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider.
One other name had a film career launched by the movie and that was composer Don Ellis. Although little-known to soundtrack aficionados, Ellis was a cutting-edge jazz artist who pioneered the use of unconventional time signatures, harmonies, and instrumentations in a big band setting. He toured with his big band in the 1960s and '70s (they formed the core of the French Connection orchestra) and was accepted as hip by popular audiences at a time when the genre was out of vogue. He died tragically young of heart problems in 1978—he was only 44—and might have otherwise gone on to greater success in film scoring.
As it stands, The French Connection is Ellis' greatest movie score, a dissonant, jazzy, experimental work that nonetheless fits snugly alongside cutting-edge '70s crime scores by Jerry Goldsmith, Lalo Schifrin, Quincy Jones, Jerry Fielding and others. In the film, Ellis' work was used in bits and pieces, rearranged by director Friedkin to be even more austere and strange. This first-ever release of the score presents it as conceived and composed by Ellis, supplementing the familiar segments from the movie with 20 minutes of deleted material never before heard. The cut passages add a much stronger narrative throughline and feature truly experimental techniques as well as more accessible themes for the French mobsters and the hardworking cops.
As a special bonus, the CD also showcases Ellis's complete underscore for the 1975 sequel directed by John Frankenheimer, French Connection II, in which "Popeye" Doyle journeys to Marseilles to take down the drug ring. The sequel score is in the style of the original but with all new themes and added colors. It was used in the film in a slightly more traditional and therefore accessible fashion than the original, and compares solidly with Jerry Goldsmith's "travelogue" crime scores of the era.
The French Connection/French Connection II is 75 minutes of prime '70s cop scoring—firmly of the period but enhanced with the signature of a fresh voice. The sequel score is entirely in stereo; the original is mostly stereo with some mono cues. Sound quality is clear throughout and the booklet notes explain exactly where the deleted cues were meant to go.