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Wednesday, January 20th, 2021
By Dave Campfield
Once in a while, you meet someone who opens your eyes to the breadth of true artistry. That person for me was composer Terry Plumeri.
Though he wasn’t a household name, Terry was a composer of several classical and jazz albums as well as over fifty motion picture scores. In his early days, he worked as a bassist with the likes of Roberta Flack, Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, and even Frank Sinatra. But how I got to know him is a story in and of itself.
It was the nineties. My friend Chris Bradley had starred in a straight-to-VHS mob thriller named Killer Instinct. I hunted for the title, searching every video store in a five-mile perimeter surrounding my alma mater, the College of Santa Fe. I leaped over creaks, evaded angry prairie dogs and hipsters galore before ultimately discovering the movie on a shelf at Blockbuster Video. Bradley (as Mad Dog Coll) stood proudly on the glossy cover, brandishing a Tommy gun and a debonair gaze. I rushed back to my dorm, popped the movie in a friend’s player, and set my eyes on the Menahem Golan B-movie masterwork.
An early effort from future Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, Killer Instinct showcased slick visuals, a heartfelt performance from Bradley, and a lush, majestic orchestral score. It was a score that impressed me so much I decided to look into its largely unknown composer.
Facebook had yet to become our favorite way to stalk people, so I simply looked up his phone number. I introduced myself as an aspiring filmmaker and told him how much I thought of his work. He didn’t hang up. He treated this stranger on other the line like a friend. We talked for quite some time that night and remained in touch in the years that followed.
Terry easily had the talent of an A-lister. Yet, as often is the case, talent’s only one part of the equation. Years earlier, he’d scored One False Move (Siskel & Ebert’s favorite film of 1991) for director Carl Franklin. Franklin was impressed and offered Terry a chance to compose his big budget follow up, Devil With a Blue Dress starring Denzel Washington. Armed with a clarinet and a synthesizer, Terry created a haunting demo piece. Unfortunately, the studio instead offered the job to industry veteran Elmer Bernstein. Listen to Terry’s demo [link no longer available] compared to Bernstein’s big budget incarnation. It simply lacks the haunting quality and impact of what Terry created without a dime. And Bernstein was one of the greats. To think of what this opportunity could’ve meant for Terry saddens me deeply.
Upon a visit to my home state of New York, Terry had invited me for a tour of his old stomping grounds. Walking through the corridors of Juilliard, we talked life and music. One of our stops was a library where columns of sheet music practically disappeared from view on the towering walls. I was able to peer into a world I was never purview to. Students of all races, united in a love of music, studying and working together. There was serenity to it all, as there was with Terry himself. He was a man with genuine warmth and kindness. A warmth that can be heard in so much of his work.
When I asked if he ever had interest in pop music, Terry had an unexpected response. He told me to imagine being a painter and only being allowed to use two colors. To him, that’s how he felt how writing pop songs was like. Classical allowed him use of a full spectrum of colors musically. He composed often with the Moscow Philharmonic, typically flying there himself with his pilot license.
He broadened my appreciation and understanding of music and its use in film. I had planned on assembling a collection of stock tracks to underscore my debut feature, Dark Chamber. It was Terry who convinced me otherwise. As he put it, a score benefits a movie the most when it fits like a glove, has a cohesive spine and theme. Otherwise, the scenes would likely feel disconnected. Taking his advice I assembled a small team of musicians who elevated the movie far beyond than otherwise would’ve played.
As of 2015, Terry had grown disillusioned with Hollywood and relocated to a rental home in a secluded area of southern Florida where he returned to teaching. We’d spoken just weeks ago, and were planning to do an episode of my upcoming podcast “Production Hell” together. He often told me how he loved spending time surrounded by nature and the open water. And it was amid this serene setting that his Florida home was broken into by burglars on the morning of March 31, 2016.
Terry was found murdered, the victim of severe upper body trauma. Having traveled the world many times over, Terry passed on not all that far from the town he was born in. I’m honored that I’d gotten to know him. It’s my hope that his remarkable body of work continues to live on far beyond the limitations of this mortal coil.