Cutthroat Island (John Debney, 1995): Cutthroat Island is one of those movies that is best known as a legendary flop. In this case, it is particularly notable as the film that killed off Carolco (the previously successful production company behind films like Basic Instinct and Terminator 2: Judgment Day) and the one that led to a conventional wisdom that movies about pirates were box-office poison, at least until Disney, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Johnny Depp changed everyone’s mind a decade later. I actually think it is a film that is better than its reputation, but it still is pretty severely flawed and it isn’t too difficult to see why it didn’t succeed.
Had the film been a hit (or at least less of a bomb), I think there is a good chance it would have propelled composer John Debney solidly onto the film composer A-list years before his acclaimed score to The Passion of the Christ finally did. Debney provided an old-fashioned, fully orchestral swashbuckler score that was largely in the Korngold tradition. His score supported the film wonderfully, giving it a sense of adventure and fun that the screenplay and performances didn’t always live up to.
The score is very brass heavy, much of it built around an exciting main theme that served as a primary theme for Geena Davis’ lead character. The theme is quickly introduced in the opening cue “Main Title/Morgan’s Ride”, initially as a brassy, orchestral opening march. This version of the theme is so big and bold that it seemed unlikely that it could get any bigger right up until the point where Debney adds in the choir during the second part of the cue. The result is wildly over the top, but in a very good way.
This is not a score that is very into subtlety and the quieter moments are somewhat infrequent. When they do come, Debney pretty deftly changes the orchestration on the main themes, keeping a tonal consistency to the score. In particular, the primary romantic theme (first introduced in the second cue, “The Rescue/Morgan Saves Henry”) is really just the primary theme with its tempo slowed down and transitioned primarily to strings instead of brass. The score also includes some occasional, lower tone suspense music, such as what is heard during parts of the cue “Anclee Plots/To Spittlefield”. These are effective, but the brassy adventure music is never far behind during these segments.
The soundtrack CD released with the film contains a generous 1 hour and 10 minutes of music and covers the key parts of the score. The CD was released by Silva Screen Records in the UK and Nu.Millennium in the US. At least in the US, the film’s box-office failure resulted in the soundtrack not being very widely distributed to stores and I recall that this was one of the first CDs that I ended up purchasing online from a soundtrack specialty store. Despite this, the CD isn’t especially rare and can pretty easily be obtained at very reasonable prices even now. In fact, Silva Screen UK still lists it in their active catalog. The Amazon link at the top of this review is to that edition.
While the original soundtrack contains a good, generous representation of the music, the film was pretty much continuously scored, meaning that a lot of music was missing. In 2004, Prometheus Records released a 2-CD expanded edition of the soundtrack that runs an amazing nearly 2 1/2 hours in length and contains essentially all the music from the film as well as bonus tracks including a synth demo of the main title and a few tracks with the choral portion removed. This may be a bit much for casual listeners, but is definitely the best choice for major fans of the score. This release is still possible to obtain, but is rarer and typically quite a bit more expensive than the single disc version.
The Da Vinci Code (Hans Zimmer, 2006): For Ron Howard’s blockbuster adaptation of Dan Brown’s hugely popular novel, Hans Zimmer provided an intense score that provided an interesting mix of his own typical thriller scoring and some traditionally classical religious sounding themes. The result was one of Zimmer’s most effective and melodically diverse scores of recent years.
The film was pretty firmly steeped in classical traditions and, thus, the score is much more fully orchestral than most of Zimmer’s recent efforts. Electronics aren’t completely absent, but are used very infrequently, usually to unobtrusively add a bit to the tension. This gives the score a somewhat different and refreshing quality compared to the somewhat repetitive nature of some of Zimmer’s recent thriller scores.
The majority of the score is very string-focused with frequent choral elements, with male choir often underscoring the more intense moments while female choir is used for the more spiritual. Solo vocals also come into play occasionally, as with the haunting female vocal used in the cue “Rose of Arimathea”. Many of the cues have a definite resemblance to classical religious hymns, but with Zimmer occasionally strengthening the intensity of the strings or adding bits of brass to build tension. Particularly good examples of this include the final portions of the cue “The Paschal Spiral” and “Fructus Gravis”.
The most familiar theme in the score is also its most modern sounding, a propulsive, drivingly rhythmic theme that is first introduced during the opening cue, “Dies Mercurii I Martius” and closes the score as well. This theme serves as kind of a primary theme for the story’s puzzles and is used most often during the sequences with that focus, although it actually appears very infrequently on the soundtrack album. This is also the primary theme that survived in the somewhat more typically Zimmer-style score for the sequel, “Angels & Demons”.
The album ends with a choral hymn entitled “Kyrie for the Magdalene” by Richard Harvey. Although not written by Zimmer, it fits in fairly well stylistically with the rest of the music.
Damien: Omen II (Jerry Goldsmith, 1978): Jerry Goldsmith’s one and only Academy Award was for The Omen, a particularly impressive accomplishment when you consider the Academy’s usual lack of attention to horror movies. After that major creative success, it isn’t too surprising that Goldsmith returned to the material for the 1978 sequel (and later for the third film), providing a leaner and more action-packed score that is related to the original more in stylistic approach than in the specific musical content.
The score to the original Omen was particularly characterized by its choral pieces that brought to mind the dark, demonic flip side to a religious hymn. The sequel score extensively uses this same approach and, in fact, the dark choir is present almost continuously during the score, with only occasional brief respites. The orchestral accompaniment is dominated by strings, percussion, with occasional bursts of harsh brass. Organ and electronics are also used to effectively add to the unease on occasion. The famous “Ave Satani” from the first film is only occasionally re-visited, although much of the new music resembles it in style.
Goldsmith completely eliminated any use of the melodic “Piper’s Dream” love theme from the first film, which also removes the earlier score’s primary source of release from the dark tension. The score does have a few quieter moments, but Goldsmith manages to weave a certain underlying tension even to those pieces and typically they end with bursts of dark mayhem. In particular, the cue “Thoughtful Night” features some of the score’s most melodic and emotional music, but ends with an abrupt return of the demonic choral music.
The original soundtrack album released with the film actually contained a re-recording of the score instead of the actual film tracks. That album was released on LP at the time of the movie’s release and was later released on CD by Silva Screen Records. In 2001, Varese Sarabande released a deluxe edition that contains both the original album and the film tracks on a single CD.
The film apparently only contained a little over 35 minutes of original music and the original film tracks only run a couple minutes longer than the album presentation. The main differences in the two versions are in some of the orchestrations, the presentation order, and some performance details. In particular, the organ tends to be more intense and dominant in the film tracks than in the re-recording. The differences are mostly fairly subtle, but it is good that both sets of performances are now available. One major oddity on the film tracks is the cue “Snowmobiles”, which is a melodic, upbeat orchestral piece that seems totally disconnected from the rest of the score. It comes as a definite surprise on the album.