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 (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.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Danny Elfman, 2005): Tim Burton’s 2005 remake of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was largely a more faithful adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel, while also bringing Burton’s distinctive style to a story that was pretty well-suited to it.  It was definitely a challenge to remake a film that is a childhood favorite for many and still holds up well, but the result was a different take on the story that stands up quite well to the earlier version.

As usual, Burton enlisted Danny Elfman to write the music for the film and he provided one of his most enjoyable recent scores.  While this version was not a full musical like the earlier one, Elfman still did have the opportunity to write four songs for the Oompa Loompas as well as “Willy Wonka’s Welcome Song” that plays during the character’s first entrance.  The lyrics to the songs are taken directly from the versions of the songs in Dahl’s book, while Elfman provides some distinctively strange pop/rock style melodies for each.  The songs from this film actually resemble Elfman’s work with Oingo Boingo more than almost anything else he has done in his film scores.  The “End Credit Suite” cue is a reprise of the Welcome Song followed by instrumental versions of the Oompa Loompa songs.

The score occasionally uses the melodies of the songs as well as instrumental-only themes.  The score is very distinctly Elfman’s, complete with his trademark use of unusual orchestrations, otherworldly gothic choral elements, and very fast-paced and dynamic piano, string and brass instrumentation.  He also includes some of his more gentle, fairy-tale melodies for the quieter moments.  The exciting “Main Title” cue provides a great overview of the film’s themes and range of styles. While this score is definitely in the style that is most associated with Elfman, there is a reason why that style has become so popular.  This score really is an example of Elfman firing on all cylinders. 

Charlotte's Web

Charlotte’s Web (Danny Elfman, 2006): Just a year after Charley and the Chocolate Factory, Danny Elfman once again took on the score for another film remake based on a classic children’s story.  His score for Charlotte’s Web was considerably less manic than his previous one, maintaining a gentle, fairly-tale style with a bit of a rural flavor to it.

The soundtrack opens with a very lively “Main Title” cue that is very string heavy, giving it a bit of an orchestral country feel.  It is melodic, although it doesn’t quite coalesce into a particularly distinctive theme.  In later cues, Elfman also adds quite a bit of fairly lively piano work as well as some nice woodwind melodies.  Brass is present, but mostly fairly muted.  Choral elements are used fairly sparingly, but are included periodically.

The most distinct thematic material in the score is a lullaby that is introduced with a child’s vocals in the cue entitled “Lullaby/Escape” early in the score.  The melody from this song is then weaved pretty liberally into the rest of the score, essentially serving as the film’s primary theme.  While the lullaby emphasizes the fairy-tale nature of the story, the rural setting is reflected by the pretty extensive use of violins, often with fast-paced, fiddle-style playing.

The soundtrack album ends with a folksy pop song entitled “Ordinary Miracle”, which is performed by Sarah McLaughlan.  The song was written by Glen Ballard Steward and David A. Stewart and is not connected to the score at all.


Checkmate (Johnny Williams, 1960): Originally released on LP at the time that the TV series was on the air, I believe that the TV soundtrack to “Checkmate” is the earliest album released of music composed by John Williams (billed as “Johnny” in those days).  I came across the LP at a record store back in the late 1980s and thought it was an especially cool find.  The album was released on CD by Film Score Monthly in 2006, paired on the disc with Williams’ 1961 jazz album “Rhythm in Motion”.

Performed by a relatively small ensemble primarily featuring horns and piano, this is a very jazz-oriented score that still provides some early examples of Williams’ melodic skills.  The album opens with the series’ main theme, which is a fast paced theme for horns, piano, and percussion.  Williams has often said that Henry Mancini was one of his earliest influences and it is definitely evident here with a theme that is cut from the same cloth as Mancini’s “Peter Gunn” (on which Williams played piano) as well as other similar themes from that era.

The album’s second cue, entitled “The Isolated Pawn”, is a moody, melodic piece that more closely resembles the more symphonic melodic style that would come to dominate the majority of Williams’ scores.  While still played by the smaller ensemble, and thus missing a string component, this piece is still pretty recognizably a John Williams composition.  Through the rest of the album, the music tends to shift back and forth between very jazzy, sometimes swing-styled music and the more moody, melodic elements.

Cherry 2000

Cherry 2000 (Basil Poledouris, 1987): For a time, the CD release of this soundtrack was one of the rarest titles out there and one of the most expensive to obtain on the secondary market.  It was an early release of the Varese Sarabande CD Club with only 1500 copies available and the rare copies that went up for sale often sold for hundreds of dollars.  In 2004, Prometheus Records released an expanded edition of the score (paired with Poledouris’ No Man’s Land).  While out-of-print as well now, that edition is currently fairly easy to find at reasonably inexpensive prices. Finally, the score is now available as a downloadable release as well.

The film itself is not a particularly well-regarded, kind of exploitative late-80s sci-fi entry, but the score is quite strong.  Poledouris provided an orchestral, fairly lush and melodic score that even could, at times, qualify as romantic in approach.  The score is pretty strongly thematic, with core melodies that sound like they could possibly have come from a western, but with carefully placed additions of electronic instrumentation used to give it a futuristic edge. 

This score hasn’t managed the same level of prominence as other Poledouris scores from that time period (the film was in theaters at the same time as Robocop), almost certainly because the film itself is so widely regarded as being terrible.  This is a case of a bad film inspiring a very strong score, though.  In fact, I think it is one of Poledouris’ best.


Chicago (John Kander & Fred Ebb, 2002): I had heard of the Kander & Ebb musical Chicago before the 2002 film version and was familiar with a couple of the songs (particularly “All That Jazz” and “Razzle Dazzle”), but I had never seen the show or even heard a cast album recording of it.  After hearing good things about the film, my wife and I decided to go see it and we thoroughly enjoyed it and quickly purchased the soundtrack CD afterward.

The film was cast with generally well-known actors, but most were not generally associated with musicals.  The two female leads were Catherine Zeta-Jones and Rene Zellweger while Richard Gere was in the most prominent male role.  All handled the musical performances extremely well and brought a considerable amount of personality to the roles.  Zeta-Jones’ performance (which won her an Oscar) was extremely high energy and tremendously amusing, while Zellweger showed a much darker side than she had generally shown in past performances.

Richard Gere was something of a revelation in his performance.  Not only does he handle the songs better than expected, he also brought a light touch to his overall performance (especially his singing) that was definitely a change from the usually grave and brooding performances for which he was generally known.  He has three major showstopper numbers in the film (“All I Care About”, “We Both Reached for the Gun”, and “Razzle Dazzle”) and all play extremely well both in the film itself and on the soundtrack album.

In the two most important supporting roles, they did cast actors with more of a musical background: John C. Reilly as Zellweger’s suffering husband and Queen Latifah as the prison warden.  Reilly, who had a fair amount of stage experience, has a part that is relatively small, but his one featured solo, “Mr. Cellophane”, is one of the musical’s most famous songs.  Latifah is the one performer in the film that probably saw the biggest career change from her performance.  Known almost exclusively as a hip-hop/rap performer up to that point, the skill with which she belted out the old-fashioned jazz number “When You’re Good to Mama” was quite a surprise.  She has since released at least one album of jazz standards.

Since seeing the movie and hearing the soundtrack, I did purchase the recent Broadway cast album featuring Bebe Newirth and Ann Reinking, but I have to say that I generally prefer the film soundtrack.  I’m sure much of that comes from simply becoming familiar with those performances first, but I simply find it to be a more lively and engaging version of the album.  The soundtrack album does include one new song that was written by Kander & Ebb for the film, “I Move On”, a duet performed by Zeta-Jones and Zellweger over the end credits.  One key song from the show, “Class”, was cut from the movie, but is still included on the soundtrack album.  It is a duet between Zeta-Jones and Latifah.

Danny Elfman was the surprising choice to provide additional musical score for the film and the soundtrack does contain two short cues of his contribution.  Both are very jazzy instrumentals that Elfman definitely designed to blend well with Kander’s compositions.  It is nice that a sampling of his music is included.  I’m not really sure how much additional music Elfman wrote for the film, but it is possible that these two cues are a pretty complete representation.

The soundtrack ends with two songs not used in the film.  The first is a hip-hop/rap version of “Cell Block Tango (He Had It Comin’)” performed by Queen Latifah along with a couple other hip-hop performers, which has very little resemblance to the original song.  The other is a totally unrelated pop song entitled “Love Is a Crime” performed by Anastacia.  Neither of these are to my taste and I generally skip them when listening to the album.  They are easy to ignore since they are at the very end.

Chicken Little

Chicken Little (John Debney & various artists, 2005): This was the first fully computer animated feature from Disney’s Feature Animation division (Dinosaur featured live-action backgrounds) and had a fairly strange and uneven style that is reflected in the soundtrack album.  The album opens with a number of songs by various artists, some not written or recorded for the film (or both).  This is followed by a handful of cover songs performed by the film’s cast.  Finally, the album ends with about 15 minutes of John Debney’s score from the film.

The first cue on the song is actually a sort of modern updated remix of a song from another movie, Patti LaBelle’s “Stir It Up” from Beverly Hills Cop.  This version of the song adds some kind of hip-hop style electronic overlays and is credited to both LaBelle and Joss Stone.  The second cue is “One Little Slip” by Barenaked Ladies, which I think may have been specifically done for the film, although I’m not sure.  This part of the album continues with a cover of “Shake a Tail Feather” from Disney Channel stars The Cheetah Girls, “All I Know” from Five for Fighting, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Donna Summer, and R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)”.

The songs performed by the film’s cast are “We Are the Champions”, “Wannabe”, and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”.  While these are familiar songs, of course, the performances by the film’s characters do make for fun versions that tie in well with the film.  The last one, in particular, is lots of fun and I can’t help wonder if the film might have worked better had they gone ahead and made it fully a musical instead of using so much music by various pop artists.  Note that these three cues are all extremely short, adding up to only just under 3 1/2 minutes total.

The best words to use to describe Debney’s score are probably “big” and “broad”.  He pretty much scores the film as if it were a big science fiction/fantasy epic.  The opening score cue, “The Sky Is Falling”, contains religous-sounding choral elements, old-fashioned science fiction motifs, and some driving, partly electronic action music.  The other score cues include a lot of brassy fanfares and pretty broad action music as well as some quieter, fairly rural sounding cues.  It is fun stuff, although I think it is reasonable to say that the score is as much all over the map as the songs, and the film itself, were.

Chicken Run

Chicken Run (John Powell & Harry Gregson-Williams, 2000): The first full-length feature film from “Wallace and Grommit” creators Aardman Animation was a very loose parody of The Great Escape starring chickens  striving to escape from an oppressive chicken farm.  The score re-teamed composers John Powell and Harry Gregson-Williams, who had previously teamed up for Antz and would later separately or together be very much in-demand as animation composers.

The score is a very lively orchestral work that, as the source material would suggest, contains a lot of parody music.  Of course, Elmer Bernstein’s famous Great Escape score is an obvious inspiration here, with a “Main Title” theme that isn’t a direct copy but certainly brings Bernstein’s score to mind.  One very obvious element that moves this theme more into comedy territory, though, is the composers’ use of a chorus of kazoos.  Additional color is added to the score through the use of harmonicas (particularly prominent in the cue “Chickens Are Not Organized”), bagpipes, and even whistling at various points.

The score is mainly orchestral with electronic elements occasionally included, but used very sparingly.  The composers also make very good use of choral elements in several cues, especially during the impressive finale cue “Lift Off”.  Typically, the choral elements are used to give the score a bit more of an epic scope in some of the film’s bigger sequences.  The score also includes a few cues that have some jazzy/swing rhythms, including in the cues “Rocky and the Circus” and “Flight Training”.  The score does occasionally include some more serious elements, particularly in the tender, even melancholy cue “Rocky, a Fake All Along”.

The soundtrack album also includes the songs “Flip Flop and Fly” performed by Ells Hall and “The Wanderer” performed by Dion.  Both are familiar songs that were used in the film, but were hardly original to them.  They seem a bit like padding on the soundtrack CD.

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