Category Archives: John Williams

Soundtrack Collection: Con Air to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Con Air

Con Air (Mark Mancina & Trevor Rabin, 1997): Teaming up Mark Mancina and Trevor Rabin, two of the major composers to come out of Hans Zimmer’s Media Ventures film score company during the late 1990s, Con Air features a pretty hard-driving, largely electronic score that echoes the film’s intense, adrenaline-fueled action.

At the very beginning of the soundtrack, the score’s intensity is established with the opening “Con Air Theme”.  The cue starts with some very rough, metallic sounding sounds that are closer to sound effects than to music.  This transitions into the score’s primary theme, which is melodic but very much in a rhythmic, rock-instrumental mold.  The main theme somewhat resembles Mancina’s well-known Speed theme, which suggests that he probably was the primary driver on it.  Most of the rest of the cues continue in this rock-based style and the Hans Zimmer influence is pretty evident in this score as well.

The second cue, entitled “Trisha”, introduces a softer, very melodic theme for Nicolas Cage’s character’s wife, the only really significant female character in the film.  This theme is the primary deviation away from the hard driving nature of the rest of the score.  At least on the soundtrack album, the theme only appears very rarely after this initial presentation of it.

Oddly, the final cue on the soundtrack album is entitled “Overture”, suggesting that the album producer doesn’t know the meaning of that word.

Conan the Barbarian

Conan the Barbarian (Basil Poledouris, 1982): Although he had been around for quite a while, and even scored some high profile projects, this extremely popular score did quite a bit to elevate Basil Poledouris into the upper tier of composers and established him as a solid choice for scoring high energy action films.

The best known theme from the score is the highly percussive “Anvil of Crom”, which is the opening cue of the soundtrack album (preceded by a brief spoken prologue).  It features a very rhythmic drumbeat which is overlaid with a brassy march-type melody.  It is a recognizable theme that had a pretty obvious influence on a number of future action score themes, particularly Brad Fiedel’s The Terminator and Jerry Goldsmith’s Total Recall.

The whole score is mix of some very active and dynamic action music, dominated by brass and percussion as well as some pretty impressive choral elements.  The entire score maintains a very strong melodic quality, with strings generally brought in to enhance the more emotional portions of the score.  Poledouris establishes some pretty strong thematic material here with some very distinctive melodies.

The original LP release of the soundtrack from the time of the movie’s release ran around 49 minutes and was later re-issued on CD by Milan Records.  That CD edition is still pretty easy to come by and is also available as a download or as an in-demand CD-R release from Amazon.  Varese Sarabande also released an expanded CD edition back in 1992 that ran over an hour in length.  That edition is out of print and relatively difficult to find at reasonable prices.  I only have the shorter Milan release.

Congo

Congo (Jerry Goldsmith, 1995): This adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel was seriously panned by critics (although it did reasonably well at the box-office), although I think it actually is a film that is a lot better than its reputation.  Possibly its strongest component was the exciting, ethnically-appropriate score by Jerry Goldsmith.

The score closely reflects the setting of the film, with the use of a lot of African-style percussion and rhythms.  These are integrated carefully with Goldsmith’s typical style of fast paced and melodic action music.  The primary theme is based around the song “Spirit of Africa”.  Popular African vocalist Lebo M, best known for his arrangements and performances for The Lion King, provided mixed African and English-language lyrics and performed vocal versions of the song that open and close the album.  It is a very cool song, particularly if you  and the melody is used frequently throughout the score.

The soundtrack CD contains only a little over 33 minutes of the score and, thus, an expanded release would be very welcome.  Now that Paramount has recently started working with specialty soundtrack labels, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if an expansion of this score shows up at some point in the future.

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Soundtrack Collection: The Clearing to Cocoon

The Clearing

The Clearing (Craig Armstrong, 2004): As I know little about the film, it is fairly unlikely that I would have bought this soundtrack myself. It is one of several that I was given by a friend who works at the movie studio and it is a pretty good score.  My only previous familiarity with Craig Armstrong was mainly through his projects with Baz Luhrmann, which tended to be pretty song-oriented.  It is interesting hearing a more full score.

Much of the score has a very dark and moody quality.  The opening cue is a solo violin presentation of the score’s main theme.  This kind of low-key presentation of the theme establishes a pretty distinctive mood right at the start.  The theme is a fairly simple motif, built around a fairly simple 8 note melody with the first 3 notes repeated.  This motif is woven throughout the score, often either via the solo violin or via piano (including a stand-alone solo piano cue of the theme). The soundtrack ends with a full orchestral arrangement.

Armstrong includes some electronic elements as well, introducing a bit of a modern style to some parts of the score.  The early cue “Arnold On His Way” especially showcases this aspect of the music and comes as a somewhat interesting shift in tone after the moody, more classical instrumentals of the first couple cues.

Cliffhanger

Cliffhanger (Trevor Jones, 1993): Trever Jones’ Cliffhanger is one of my favorite action scores of the early 1990s and it comes from what I think was probably the most purely entertaining action film of Sylvester Stallone’s career.  I’ve always found it a bit puzzling that Jones didn’t make a bigger name for himself as an action composer.

The score is built around an absolutely thrilling main theme.  The theme is built around a series of very brassy fanfares backed by some absolutely soaring strings.  This is one of those themes that really sticks in your mind after listening to the album or seeing the film.  The opening cue of the album is a terrific concert arrangement of the theme.  It may have played over the main title, although I don’t recall for sure.  Either way, it gets the album off to a rousing start while firmly establishing the score’s primary musical voice right from the beginning.

Stallone’s action movies often tended to have something of a brooding quality to them and Jones’ score does reflect this with some cues that are fairly moody.  This is pretty effective scoring, with Jones retaining a melodic quality that never strays excessively far from the style of the main theme.  This helps to keep the darker side of the score from becoming oppressive and also retains a cohesive sound to it.

One thing that might be a tad surprising about the score is that it doesn’t have a lot of extremely high-adrenaline action music.  It isn’t completely absent, of course, but even some of the core action cues like “Bats” or “Helicopter Fight” still stay very anchored in melody and are a bit heavier on tension and mood than on what you might usually expect for a big-budget action movie.  When more actively percussive music comes into play, it tends to be particularly effective due to its fairly sparing use.

Cloak & Dagger

Cloak & Dagger (Brian May, 1984): I haven’t seen it for years, but this was a movie that I especially enjoyed when it first came out.  I was 15 years old and already a definite computer/video game nerd by then, so the film connected with me pretty well.  What I don’t remember was ever really thinking too much about the music in the movie, particularly since there was no soundtrack released.   Intrada released Brian May’s score for the first time earlier this year and I found the music to have a certain familiarity, although not as much as I might have expected from a film that I saw a number of times back when it was reasonably new.

May provided a pretty charming adventure score for the film.  It is a fully orchestral score with a somewhat old-fashioned sound.  Considering the computer and video game theme to the film, it is actually a bit surprising that the score is so traditional and lacking in electronic elements.  The score is dominated by some very active string and piano melodies, with occasional militaristic brass and percussion brought into some of the action sequences, including a pretty great march that appears occasionally during the score and then gets a full performance in the end credits cue.  Gentle woodwinds often accompany piano during the more quiet parts of the score.

The score is very energetic and fast paced, although it is somewhat limited in thematic elements.  May does introduce a very short primary motif that serves as something of a main theme for the score, but it isn’t one that is especially distinctive and, thus, probably not one that will stick in your mind too much after seeing the film or hearing the album.  In fact, this fairly minimalist main theme is probably the reason that I didn’t find the music exceptionally memorable based on multiple viewings of the film.  This isn’t necessarily a negative, though, as the music is pleasant to listen to and likely served the film well.

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Soundtrack Collection: Chronicles of Narnia to A Civil Action

 The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (Special Edition Soundtrack)

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Harry Gregson-Williams, 2005): Obviously inspired by the enormous success of the Lord of the Rings films, Walden Media and Disney saw adapting C.S. Lewis’ classic Chronicle of Narnia book series as an obvious opportunity to create a similar, but more family-friendly, franchise.  Shrek co-director Andrew Adamson was a somewhat surprising choice to helm the first film in the series.  Adamson brought along Shrek composer Harry Gregson-Williams, giving him a welcome opportunity to stretch his talents quite a bit beyond the animation and contemporary action scores for which he was mainly known.

The film cranked up the intensity and scope of the action and battle sequences quite a bit compared to the books, which gave Gregson-Williams the opportunity to create some fairly intense action music.  The soundtrack gets off to a very fast-paced start with the opening cue, “The Blitz, 1940”, a percussion and brass driven action cue that accompanies the film’s surprisingly intense opening sequence.  This type of action music again will later dominate the final portions of the score, particularly the lengthy finale cue simply entitled “The Battle”.

The majority of the score has a more melancholy and moody quality, which is introduced in the second cue, entitled “Evacuating London”.  The first half of the cue introduces some simple piano-driven melodies before transitioning to an otherworldly, largely electronic theme accompanied by vocals by Lisbeth Scott.   A more gentle, traditionally orchestral version of the same basic theme is central to the next cue, “The Wardrobe”. Later, Gregson-Williams provides an appropriately regal main theme for Aslan the lion, heard particularly prominently in the opening to the cue “To Aslan’s Camp”.  That is the theme that eventually serves as essentially the primary theme for the film, with some fairly frequent statements during the battle music late in the score.

The entire score has a somewhat surprisingly modernistic sound to it, generally forgoing the more traditional British classical scoring approach to this kind of fantasy that Howard Shore had used for The Lord of the Rings.  Gregson-Williams introduces a number of ethnic elements and also uses a fair amount of electronic instruments as well as frequent choral and solo vocal elements.  I find it to be an effective score, although probably not what a lot of people expected for this material and, thus, it has tended to be a somewhat controversial one.

The album ends with four songs, all of which are very atmospheric and moody in style, with a somewhat modern electronica-ballad style.  “Can’t Take It In”, performed by Imogen Heap, and “Where” by Lisbeth Scott were both co-written by Gregson-Williams and are based on themes used in the film.  “Wunderkind” by Alanis Morrisette and “Winter Light” by Tim Finn are not connected with the rest of the film’s music.  With the exception of “Where”, the songs are each pretty long (4-5 minutes+) and they kind of wear out their welcome.

Note that there were quite a few different soundtrack albums for the film.  Two score albums were released, a standard and a special edition.The musical content is identical on both releases, with the special edition simply offering fancier packaging.  I have the special edition because I was able to get it at a decent price, but there is little reason to spend much extra for it.  There also were at least two song compilation albums released which were really just “inspired by” the movie.

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (Harry Gregson-Williams, 2008): Composer Harry Gregson-Williams returned to the world of Narnia for Prince Caspian, the second entry in the series.  The score maintains stylistic continuity with the first one, including reprising a couple main themes, but it does also take a more action-oriented approach while downplaying some of the more otherworldly elements from the original.  The result is a score that is in the same family as the first one, but perhaps a bit more conventional.  While less of a creative leap, I also think it is a somewhat more listenable score.

Just like with the first score, this one opens with a driving, percussion and brass action cue.  The cue this time is called “Prince Caspian Flees” and it perhaps demonstrates Gregson-Williams’ background in Hans Zimmer’s scoring company more than any of the cues in the previous score.  The piece definitely has a quality that reflects Zimmer’s driving, orchestral/electronic approach to action scoring.  This cue sets the tone for the kind of action scoring that dominates a lot of this score.  This opening cue does also introduce a new theme for the title character, although it is only sparingly used during the rest of the score and feels a bit underdeveloped.

The key themes from the original film are reprised here, with the primary theme for the siblings that are the story’s central character first making an appearance in the second cue, “The Kings and Queens of Old”.  The regal theme for Aslan is used very frequently in this score, initially making its re-appearance in the cue “Arrival at Aslan’s How”.  As in the first score, that theme tends to serve as a victory theme in the battle cues which, as noted earlier, dominate this score much more than the original.

As with the previous soundtrack, several songs are included at the end of the album.  Once again, they are generally in that modernistic, electronic folk ballad style and really aren’t exceptionally interesting.  This time, Gregson-Williams is not credited as a writer on any of the songs and the performers, Regina Spekter, Oren Lavie, Switchfoot, and Hanne Hukkelberg, are all unfamiliar to me.

Prince Caspian was the last released film in this series at the time that I’m writing this.  As of this point, this will be the last film in the series for Disney, Gregson-Williams, and director Andrew Adamson.  The third film in the series, The Voyage of the Dawn Trader, is scheduled for release (by Twentieth Century Fox) later this year with Michael Apted taking over as director and David Arnold taking over the scoring.  It will be interesting to hear whether Arnold chooses to retain any of Gregson-Williams’ themes.  I tend to hope that he at least retains the Aslan theme in order to keep some musical continuity to the series.

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Soundtrack Collection: Chain Reaction to Chicken Run

Chain Reaction

Chain Reaction (Jerry Goldsmith, 1996): During the 1990s, Jerry Goldsmith frequently took jobs scoring 2nd tier action films.  These were usually medium-budget major studio releases with reasonably well-known actors, but they weren’t big budget tentpole releases starting top box-office draws.  Goldsmith delivered very competent scores for these films, even often helping to elevate the film’s overall quality, although they didn’t usually count among the composer’s most memorable work.  Chain Reaction, which starred Keanu Reeves and Morgan Freeman, was one of the more forgettable of these films and scores.

Goldsmith created a nicely melodic main theme, introduced during the opening cue “Meet Eddie”.  The theme is orchestral with a strong emphasis on strings, but also with a substantial synthesizer assist.  The synthesizer component gives the theme a bit more of a pop sensibility, particularly in its overall rhythmic line.  The rest of the score (as presented on the CD) is pretty typical Goldsmith action and suspense music, very competent but not extremely distinctive.  The cue “Ice Chase” is one of the better examples of Goldsmith’s approach to chase music during this period of his career, though.

Most of Goldsmith’s scores during that era were recorded in Los Angeles with union musicians.  At that time, the musicians’ union had a pretty rigid and costly re-use fee regulations that would greatly limit the viability of soundtrack album releases that were unlikely to be big sellers.  Various music labels, especially Varese Sarabande, did still put out albums of these scores, but with short running times.  This one runs just slightly over 30 minutes in length.  While some of the scores from that era have received expanded releases now that the union has adopted more favorable fee structures, Chain Reaction is one that has not been revisited.  It is possible that this is a score that would make a bigger impression with a more complete release.

Chaplin

Chaplin (John Barry, 1992): Chaplin was John Barry’s first major film score after his big, Oscar-winning success with Dances With Wolves.  While this is a smaller-scale score than this one, it does clearly come from the same era of Barry’s career, when his focus had shifted more towards lushly romantic melodies than big action cues.

The score is dominated by piano and strings, although with some occasionally very prominent trumpet sections.  The main theme has a gentle, kind of melancholy quality to it.  While the score is mostly fairly upbeat, the lush style that Barry utilizes often gives it a bit of an edge of sadness.  This actually reflects the film pretty well as it is a biography of a comedic genius with a bit of a dark side. 

Barry also provides some very lively music for the segments depicting Chaplin filming.  The cue “Discovering the Tramp/Wedding Chase” contains great examples of this aspect of the score.  The cue “The Roll Dance” is a particularly fun, old-fashioned turn-of-the-century nickelodeon style cue. This overall more up-beat approach becomes somewhat dominant during the later part of the score, as the film shifted its focus to Chaplin’s professional career.  This puts the score into a more upbeat territory as it progresses.

Central to score is a melodic love theme that suffers a bit from a perhaps slightly too close resemblance to the main theme from Dances With Wolves.  The theme starts off almost the same as the previous film’s theme before veering off with a different conclusion.  This theme is particularly prominent in the cue “Charlie Proposes”.

The soundtrack also includes instrumental, orchestral versions of Charlie Chaplin’s famous song “Smile” incorporated into the score at a few points.  The album also ends with a vocal performance of the song, sung by the film’s star Robert Downey Jr.  It is a kind of odd, modern pop arrangement and it would have been nice if the soundtrack had included a more straightforward performance of it as well.

The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968)

The Charge of the Light Brigade (John Addison, 1968): This score was included in Film Score Monthly’s “MGM Soundtrack Treasury” boxed set.  The film was a remake of a 1936 Errol Flynn movie (with a score by Max Steiner) about the events surrounding England’s involvement in the 19th century Crimean War against Russia.

The album opens with a title song performed by Manfred Mann, featuring lyrics taken from Sir Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famous poem that served as a basis for the film’s storyline.  The song has a late-60s contemporary, folk song style.  The liner notes mention that it isn’t clear if the music to the song (which wasn’t used in the film) was written by score composer John Addison or by Mann, but the melody is not incorporated into the score.

The “Main Title” is a Victorian-style choral and orchestral work with a fairly royal sound to it.  This style continues to be incorporated into other parts of the score, with occasional repeats of this primary choral theme as well as other musical motifs that often bring to mind royalty. This includes some familiar, period-appropriate choral songs in the cues “War Fever” and “Across the Seas” as well as a very traditional sounding waltz in the cue “Lady Scarlett’s Ball”.  The score is heavy on brass fanfares and other brassy melodies. Strings are dominant in some of the more romantic sections of the score.

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Soundtrack Collection: Cartoon Concerto to Catch Me If You Can

 Cartoon Concerto

Cartoon Concerto (Bruce Broughton, 2003): I generally haven’t been including compilation albums in my reviews of my soundtrack collection (although I have many), but I am making an exception in order to call attention to this wonderful collection of cartoon scores composed by Bruce Broughton.  The scores are generally complete and not available anywhere else.  This is actually a promotional release, but copies can usually be tracked down with some searching.  At the time I’m writing this, there is one copy available at a reasonable price from the Amazon link above and Percepto Records (which, I believe, produced the album) has copies available from their website.

The CD includes complete scores to the Disney animated short “Off His Rockers” (which played with the Broughton-scored film Honey, I Blew Up the Kid) and the two Roger Rabbit shorts “Roller Coaster Rabbit” and “Trail Mix-Up”.  Also included is an 18-minute suite of music from Broughton’s numerous scores to the popular Steven Spielberg produced TV series “Tiny Toon Adventures”.  The CD also includes another 18 minute suite entitled “Scherzo Berzerko in 3 Portions”, which isn’t identified as coming from a specific source.  This is most likely a suite compiled from a variety of sources and, since this is a promo disc, it may be partly or entirely example music composed specifically for the promo.

Considering that the majority of the source music was pretty clearly inspired by the classic Warner Bros “Looney Toons” shorts, it isn’t surprising that Broughton’s style throughout this album calls to mind the work of Carl Stalling.  The music is all orchestral and extremely brass heavy with a very fast paced and lots of quick stings and humorous motifs, including occasional samples of familiar melodies.  The music is exceptionally well organized on this CD and it really does play like a cohesive symphonic work.  This disc is simply a lot of fun!

Casablanca

Casablanca (Max Steiner, 1942): Casablanca is a pretty likely candidate for being the most truly beloved of American films.  I’m sure there are people out there that don’t care for it, but I can’t say that I recall encountering any.  The movie was a nearly perfect mix of drama, romance, intrigue, and humor.  Max Steiner’s score and Dooley Wilson’s entertaining performances of several classic songs contributed a lot to the film’s success.

Rhino Records released a soundtrack CD, which contains a mix of dialog, songs, and score.  A better, purely score and songs release would certainly be welcome, although the Rhino release is probably a more commercially acceptable approach for this film.  The condition of the recordings is also surprisingly poor for such a famous film, with quite a bit of static and noise in many of the cues.  The orchestral score portions are in much better condition than the songs and dialog segments and sometimes there is a noticeable shift in quality even within a single cue.  In some cases, it sounds like the music may have come from LP sources.

The most famous music in the film is, of course, the song “As Time Goes By”, written by Herman Hupfeld.  The song wasn’t originally written for the film, but is now pretty much inseparably associated with it.  In addition to Wilson’s famous performance of the song, Steiner very frequently incorporates the melody into the score.  The rest of the score is extremely romantic, with extensive use of lush strings and piano melodies.  Some ethnic elements come into play, particularly during the medleys from the Paris sequences.

I’m generally not a fan of dialog on a soundtrack album and do feel that there is too much here.  On the other hand, Casablanca has such a rich selection of exceptionally well-known lines and speeches that it isn’t hard to understand why it was included.  Very little of the album features score that doesn’t have dialog and/or sound-effects over the top and it almost plays more like a story album than a score soundtrack.  At the end of the album, there are 3 cues, running about 15 minutes, that do present some of the score cues without the dialog.  A better presentation of Steiner’s score is definitely needed, but at least the key parts are there.

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