The American President (Marc Shaiman, 1995): The main theme from Rob Reiner’s well-regarded romantic drama is one that many listeners are apt to recognize, even if they don’t know where it came from. Since the film’s release, it has been pretty frequently used in commercials for other movies and as accompaniment for various sporting events or patriotic presentations. It is a stirring melody that successfully manages to be simultaneously romantic and patriotic. The main theme is worked pretty regularly into the rest of the score, which has a romantically melodic quality throughout. The 7 1/2 minute finale cue, “President Shephard”, is particularly stirring and emotional.
An American Tail (James Horner, 1986): This Don Bluth directed hit was the first animated feature that Steven Spielberg produced. James Horner wrote the score as well as co-writing the film’s four songs with songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. The story is about Russian immigrant mice in New York in the late 1880s and Horner provides the score (and songs) with an appropriately ethnic sound. The music tends to be fast paced with lots of focus on violin. The cue “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” has an interesting gospel-style opening featuring a choir performing the famous words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.
The songs are fun, although not as memorable as what would become typical with animated features in the 1990s. The duet “Somewhere Out There” is the best known song from the film. In the movie it is performed by Fievel (the main character) and his sister, in rather charmingly off-key vocals. James Ingram and Linda Ronstadt performed a pop version of the song, which was actually a pretty big hit at the time, over the end credits. Familiar voices in the cast included Christopher Plumber and Dom DeLuise, each of whom had one featured number (“Never Say Never” for Plumber and “A Duo” for DeLuise), each of which is a very entertaining showcase for the performer.
An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (James Horner, 1991): Horner returned to score the sequel to An American Tail. The film was not very well received (it didn’t help that Universal released it the exact same day that Disney opened Beauty and the Beast), but I think that both film and score tend to be somewhat underrated.
As the title implies, the sequel is a western and Horner’s musical approach reflects that. While the main themes from the first film are reprised (particularly early on), much of the score is in a traditional western style, complete with the occasional harmonicas and fast paced string melodies. The opening overture emphasizes this shift by opening with a reprise of melodies from the first film before transitioning into some of western-style music written for the sequel. Horner seems a bit more comfortable in this musical style and I think the second film’s score is actually stronger than the first.
The sequel isn’t as much a musical as the first film, but it does include three new songs by Horner and Will Jennings. Two of the new songs, “Dreams to Dream” and “The Girl You Left Behind”, are performed in the film by Cathy Cavadini, who provides the voice for Fievel’s sister. Obviously hoping to repeat the big pop hit from the first film, Linda Ronstadt performed a version of “Dreams to Dream” over the end credits and her version opens the CD. The third new song, “Way Out West” is performed by the whole cast and also is a key new theme in the score. Early in the soundtrack (and film), Cavadini does sing a short reprise of “Somewhere Out There”, although it is played for laughs as it is quickly interrupted by items being thrown at the character.
Amistad (John Williams, 1997): The album of Williams’ score to this Spielberg drama about a 19th century slave revolt on-board the titular ship opens and closes with the choral song “Dry Your Tears, Afrika”, which is one of his most striking compositions. The song opens with rather haunting wordless female vocal humming and then transitions into full choral piece with African-style rhythms and vocals. The song also has a strong underlying orchestral melody.
The melody from the song remains a primary theme through the remainder of the score. African rhythm instruments, pipes, and both wordless and African language vocals are used regularly throughout the first half of the score, but with fully orchestral melodies regularly joining in. This mix of instrumentations is unusual for Williams, but the score is still very recognizably his work.
The lengthy cue “Middle Passage” scored the darkest sequence in the film, depicting the shipboard life of the slaves and then, finally, their revolt. This cue opens with some very haunting, mostly non-melodic music and then transitions impressively into a full vocal and orchestral re-statement of “Dry Your Tears, Afrika”, providing a hopeful ending.
The second half of the film is largely a courtroom drama and Williams switches to a more straightforward orchestral style for much of that portion of the film. This shift is first heard in the cue “Long Road to Justice”, which still uses the same themes from earlier in the film, but in principally a brass rendition, giving it a kind of regal, American-patriotic sound.
The 1990s were a particularly strong period of creativity for Williams and the Amistad score is one of his most impressive compositions of that era.
Anastasia (David Newman, Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty, 1997): Trying to compete with Disney’s animated musical hits in the 1990s, 20th Century Fox hired Don Bluth to head up their newly-created animation division. The first film they created was this highly entertaining musical which featured songs from Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the team responsible for the Broadway musicals “Ragtime”, “Once On This Island”, and (later) “Seussical”.
The songs are Broadway-style and work exceptionally well. The opening number “A Rumor In St. Petersburg” is an elaborate, full-company (led by Kelsey Grammer and Jonathan Dokuchitz) production number that does a good job of entertainingly establishing the storyline. Broadway star Liz Callaway was brought in to provide the singing voice for the title character and she is extremely well used in the two ballads “Journey to the Past” and, especially the haunting and stirring “Once Upon a December”. Jim Cummings does a great job with the fun villain song “In the Dark of the Night”. Grammer, Dokuchitz, and Callaway work together on the getting-it-done song “Learn to Do It” and, finally, Bernadette Peters leads the ensemble in the final production number, “Paris Holds the Key (To Your Heart)”.
The film’s voice cast included Angela Lansbury, but oddly she isn’t given a full song in the film. On the album (and in the film) she only briefly sings on a couple of reprises of “Once Upon a December”, both of which are actually incorporated into the score cues. I can’t help but wonder if she had a song that ended up on the cutting room floor as it seems strange that Lansbury would be hired for a musical but not given a song, particularly just a few years after Beauty and the Beast.
The album also includes the pop song (still written by Ahrens and Flaherty) “In the Beginning” performed by Donna Lewis and Richard Marx which plays over the end credits. There are also fairly bad pop versions of “Journey to the Past” performed by Aaliyah and “Once Upon a December” performed by Deana Carter. Both are extremely inferior to the Liz Callaway performances. Finally, perhaps in an attempt to be multicultural, the last track on the CD is a Spanish version of “Journey to the Past” performed by Thalía.
The orchestral score was composed by David Newman and receives a fairly generous (for an animated musical) 22 minutes on the soundtrack. Newman does incorporate Flaherty’s melodies into the score, but also provides a considerable amount of original music of his own. The score has an elegant style that is in-line with the Broadway origins of the song score. The score has lots of brass, percussion, and strings as well as occasional choral music. The most dramatic and impressive of the score cues is the 6 minute “Prologue”, which underscored the opening sequence of the film. The rest of the score builds off of the themes established there and continues to be very good, but that opening sequence gave Newman the meatiest sequence to score.
Angela’s Ashes (John Williams, 1999): Alan Parker’s film adaptation of Frank McCourt’s well-regarded memoirs of his childhood in Ireland in the 1930s was one of the most bleak films to receive a John Williams score. Williams’ score is melodic and not excessively downbeat and, in fact, played a major role in lightening the events in the film enough to make it a more watchable experience.
The score has a classical sound, with lots of strings and frequent piano and violin solos. The soundtrack opens with “Theme from Angela’s Ashes” which, as the title suggests, introduces the main theme from the film. The cue starts with a solo piano presentation of the theme which is later joined by full orchestra. During the rest of the score, the main theme is most frequently presented via solo piano.
Starting with “The Land of Limerick”, Williams introduces some very effective solo harp to the score. Considering the fairly strong ethnic and period elements to the film itself, it is surprising that this is really the closest thing to a ethnic color in the score. Williams certainly doesn’t even come close to trying to create an ethnic connection with the music like he did with Far and Away, the last time he had done a film centered around Irish culture.
The American release of the soundtrack to the film contains a considerable amount of narration from the film overlaying the music. There are very few score cues on the CD that do not contain at least some narration and it really can be pretty distracting. Fortunately, the UK release of the soundtrack does not contain any of the narration and is fairly easy to obtain. The Amazon.com link above is for this import version.
Angels & Demons (Hans Zimmer, 2009): The score for the sequel to The Da Vinci Code does re-visit some of the themes from the previous film, but is stylistically quite a bit different from the previous. While the first score was mostly fully orchestral, this one contains a lot more electronics probably to emphasize the more technology-based focus of the story (at the time I’m writing this, I haven’t had a chance to see the film although I have read the book it was based on).
Typically for Zimmer’s work on a thriller, the score emphasizes base and percussion quite a bit creating a fairly edgy sound. The score makes extensive use of choral music as well, sometimes to pretty impressive effect as in the opening cue “160 BPM”. In line with the religious themes of the story, the music sometimes has a classically spiritual style to it as well, such as in parts of the lengthy cue “Air”. Solo violin is used frequently in the score and Joshua Bell is featured as the soloist.