Starring Richard Chamberlain (King Solomon’s Mines) and David Gulpilil (Walkabout), Peter Weir’s (The Truman Show) little known and criminally under-appreciated 1977 existential horror, The Last Wave film focuses on Aboriginal culture and dreamtime in an urban setting. It’s a remarkable feature that plays upon issues of race, folklore and the supernatural in an increasingly surreal and hallucinogenic manner, all the while masquerading as a dramatic thriller with a distinctively Aussie slant. It’s a heady mix yet it really manages to pull it off.
This is in no small part due to the score. Composed by Charles Wain, it’s a remarkable mix of synthetic cues and experimental electronics. Wain uses the Arp Odyssey, the Arp Solina String Ensemble, and guitar as well as manipulated didgeridoo, creating these near Theremin wails, bubbling electrics and restrained pitches of sound. It effortlessly manages to conjure both a deep existential dread, and a profound intelligence, albeit with a vague hint of some of the sounds we would come to associate with synthetic score in the 80’s – a little like a harder edged Tangerine Dream. Wain’s spirit of experimentation here is strong, with these atmospheric forays into synthetic sound design. It’s both musical and musique concrete, and in this post Stranger Things, post Mr Robot world it could’ve been made yesterday.
The weird thing for such a groundbreaking self assured score is that this is Wain’s only credit. And in fact ‘Charles Wain’ is actually an astronomy term – another name for the ‘Big Dipper.’ All of which is highly suspicious.
Luckily Melbourne label The Roundtable answer these questions in the liner notes to this first ever release of the soundtrack. And this is where it gets weird. Who would want to create such a compelling and idiosyncratic score and then hide their identity? And who in the late 70’s in Australia would have access to such incredible electronic instrumentation? It turns out the answer lies in advertising, and the creator of such iconic jingles as CC Corn chips “You can’t say no,” advertisement.
It’s incredible, often composers feel constrained by the pedestrian expectations of directors, yet it’s clear that the composer here is enjoying the creation of moments of discomfort, of strange synthetic experiments and longer form pieces. For him this score represents freedom.
Whilst it’s undeniably effective in the film, the music here really stands on its own, as Wain’s ability to laden atmosphere and emotion in his synthetic cues is endlessly compelling.
Though perhaps what’s most remarkable is this classic artifact of Australian cinema is finally securing a release some 39 years later.