Dances with Werewolves is this new horror film about a young woman who leaves an abusive relationship only to get all tangled up with an ancient Romanian countess and, wouldn't you know it, werewolves! It's a tale as old as time, and a potentially killer example of the kitsch-horror niche that includes but is hardly limited to such celebrated cinematic highlights as Creepshow, Jack Frost or the Jan-Michael Vincent/Clint Howard-led masterpiece, Ice Cream Man.
And while I'm sure the movie is cool and all and totally perfect for a fun late night-ish screening at the Jean Cocteau Cinema, for a dude like me who grew up in a house where Frank Zappa's We're Only In It For the Money or Cruising With Ruben and the Jets were basically always played by my maniac of a father (you know I'm all about "Deseri"), I'm actually more enamored with the composer of the film's soundtrack, Don Preston, a longtime member of Zappa's Mothers of Invention.
"I wrote what you might call classical pieces because I just thought the music for the film should be classical in nature," says Preston, now 84. "I've been writing classical music for quite some time, and I thought it would suit the characters and what was going on in the film."
For Preston to say "quite some time" kind of sells his experience and background short. This is a man who's toured the world rocking out—hell, he's played the pipe organ at the Albert Hall. The son of a resident composer for the Detroit Philharmonic, Preston began as a pianist at the age of 5. "I'd play around on the piano when my father wasn't using it, but I also took lessons for, oh, I think about 12 years," he says. He'd go on to join the Army, during which time he played in a jazz band with none other than Herbie Mann. "I gravitated toward jazz," says Preston, "but of course, when I first started playing music, there was no such thing as rock … so I played jazz, and I learned a lot."
After his stint with the Army, Preston applied to the music program at the University of Michigan. "They told me because of my experience I could start as a senior," he adds. But he never enrolled. Family circumstances forced him west to Los Angeles. "Even though I never formally went to school, I studied all the same great books on orchestration, so you could say I'm self-taught, I suppose," Preston says with a chuckle. "Although, some people have said I made the right choice doing it that way."
Preston would audition for Zappa by the mid-1960s, though he didn't get the job at first. "He said, 'Well gee, Don, I don't think I can let you in the band because you don't know anything about rock 'n' roll,'" Preston recalls. "After that failed audition, I started getting jobs in other rock bands and touring, and I learned a lot; I also knew Zappa's manager back then, so I eventually told him they ought to audition me again because by then I knew about rock. So I did and Frank said, 'Great, Don, you're in the band.'"
Preston would appear on Zappa's studio debut, 1966's Freak Out!, and subsequently on countless studio, live and compilation albums with the band. "Zappa wrote the songs, but even with the compositions, there were spaces in there for solos, and that was always very gratifying," Preston says. "Of course, when you compose something larger for an orchestra and hear that played back, that's also very gratifying."
His start in movies came with the 1982 cult classic Android, starring Klaus Kinski. Since then, Preston estimates he's composed for 23 films including 1984's Night Patrol with Linda Blair and 1986's Eye of the Tiger with Gary freaking Busey. Additionally, he's continued the Zappa legacy with his band, The Grandmothers of Invention, with whom he's toured the world, and is currently composing original pieces that he says sound like old Weather Report songs—atmospheric, layered and, if we're lucky, kind of complicated.
Preston appears at this Friday's screening of Dances With Werewolves along with director Dan Golden and cast member Omar Paz Trujillo (who hails from Chimayó, y'all). It should be a hell of a good time, especially since it's composed of rock royalty.
Dances With Werewolves Screening
9 pm Friday Jan. 27. $6-$13.
Jean Cocteau Cinema,
418 Montezuma Ave.,