Straight from the Source: Ned Rorem’s Diary on The Panic in Needle Park

Straight from the Source: Ned Rorem’s Diary on The Panic in Needle Park

Posted by Gergely Hubai on Jul 6th 2016

Twilight Time’s new Blu-ray release of The Panic in Needle Park carries a distinctive Extra Feature: an Isolated Track of a score by one of the most celebrated composers of the past half-century – Ned Rorem – that was commissioned, recorded and then not used in the film by director Jerry Schatzberg, who decided that the film should be more verité and documentary-style in its released form. In this first of two installments, world-renowned film music historian Gergely Hubai, author of Torn Music: Rejected Film Scores – A History, (Silman James Press, available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other book retailers), writes about the intersection of composer and filmmakers:

Based on the novel by James Mills, itself inspired by the author’s pictorial essay published in two issues of Life, The Panic in Needle Park (1971) is one of the screen’s most shocking portrayals of the drug subculture. The rights to the book were initially purchased by Avco Embassy Pictures and later acquired by Dominick Dunne, whose journalistic writings usually dealt with the misdemeanors of high society – one of his most shocking writings covered the trial of his daughter’s murderer. Yet in his cinematic career, Dunne changed his focus and produced films dealing with underground subcultures, especially in the New York area. His first film, The Boys in the Band (1969), directed by William Friedkin, is a milestone in queer cinema. The Panic in Needle Park would achieve something similar for the drug subculture.

The film is notable for the starmaking turn of a young Al Pacino just a year prior to his great breakthrough in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Pacino plays Bobby, a small-time drug dealer whose illegal dealings are contrasted with his genuine humanity he exhibits early on; one simply cannot see the parallels with Pacino’s other similar character, Tony Montana from Scarface. Kitty Winn, later to appear in The Exorcist as Regan’s tutor Sharon, plays Helen, a young girl from Indiana who gets more involved in Bobby’s drug deals once she hooks up with him. Both start hanging around Sherman Square, which has been renamed Needle Park due to the high number of dealers and addicts hanging around the place. Throughout, we learn more and more about the drug subculture, their habits, their distribution methods and their lingo. Director Jerry Schatzberg uses the precision of a documentarist to turn this fictional tale into a gritty depiction of reality – and this idea indeed led to the film’s hidden secret: a musical score that was never used.

Although it plays entirely without music, The Panic in Needle Park used to have a score, provided by noted avant-garde composer Ned Rorem. He was brought onto the project by Dunne; the composer’s diary entry for March 3 says that he was being "felt out" with a screening of the film. This initial entry suggests Rorem wasn’t exactly stormed with musical ideas; “I’ve not one musical notion,” he wrote at one point about the film whose “viewpoint” he didn’t understand. “How music?” he summarized briefly at the end of that day’s entry. In fact, there are no other entries about the score for a month and when we do get more information, the reader is hit in the face with this entry: “Stravinsky died last night. Today is Shirley’s [long-time friend Shirley Gabis] birthday.” Those were the main points in the diary for April 7, 1971 – the day Ned got to record his eventually unused score for The Panic in Needle Park.

But within 10 days, the score was removed from the film. A succinct entry from April 16, 1971 states: “Special delivery from Dunne stating with distress that they have decided not to use a score, any score, in the film. Only sound effects, as in a documentary. Beyond shredding my ego, this news brings no compensation.” While Rorem also went on to write that the work consisted of too-short cues so it couldn’t be compiled into a suite either, one part of the score was repurposed later on. The “Sifting Powder” sequence was later reworked into the sixth section of Rorem’s Air Music (1974), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1976. This also shows that the music has a lot of merits – just not as the ideal match to the use for which it was originally composed. A month later, The Panic in Needle Park had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, where it garnered critical acclaim and Winn won the festival’s Best Actress Award. It opened in New York on July 13.

In tomorrow’s Part 2, Hubai’s detective work leads to an illuminating musical find.