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.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (Tom Scott, 1972): The fourth film in the Planet of the Apes series was scored by Tom Scott, a newcomer to the film series.  This score was released by Film Score Monthly on a CD that paired it with Leonard Rosenman’s score for Battle of the Planet of the Apes.  Scott’s score runs for a little under 40 minutes on the CD and is billed as being complete as heard in the film plus a number of unused alternates.  This album is probably apt to be one that is more for completists than for more casual fans.

Scott continues the generally atonal approach that was established with Jerry Goldsmith’s score for the original and was carried through the rest of the scores during the 1970s films in the series.  Scott does bring a somewhat darker tone to the score, which is dominated  by a very wide variety of percussion instruments as well as brass that tends to be presented in a pretty harsh style.  Occasional more melodic elements are often presented on woodwinds, particularly a solo whistle.

One strange deviation in style is the source cue “1991 Restaurant”, which is a 70s style melodic pop/jazz cue.  This one definitely sticks out among the much more sonically unusual cues of the rest of the score, although it probably is a good reflection of Scott’s background as a jazz musician.  Another odd cue is “Subjugation Soul”, which has an otherworldly rock style to it, including some strange elements that sound like electronically altered vocals.

Conrack

Conrack (John Williams, 1974): The only music from this John Williams score available on an album is a 6-minute “Main Title” suite that Film Score Monthly included on their long out-of-print (and difficult to find) CD of music from The Poseidon Adventure and The Paper Chase.  Note that the “album art” shown above is a homemade one that I created from an image of the film’s poster as Conrack isn’t mentioned anywhere on the actual CD cover.  The suite is a nice sampling of Williams’ music and leaves me wishing for more of it. 

The suite opens with a very gentle theme that is principally performed on a solo flute.  This is a soft melody that is very reminiscent of Williams’ other Americana scores.  After this introduction, it switches to a country/bluegrass inspired series of themes.  Acoustic and electric guitar, harmonica, and fiddle are featured along with a full orchestral backing.  It is a nice mix of melody and dynamic instrumentation and it really would be nice to hear the rest of the score.

Contact

Contact (Alan Silvestri, 1997): I believe that the adaptation of Carl Sagan’s novel Contact was Robert Zemeckis’ best film to date and was one of the most intellectually interesting films of the 1990s.  The movie not only strove to provide a particularly plausible depiction of alien contact, but it also was rooted in an extremely thoughtful and fascinating evaluation of the relationship between faith and science.  The film was especially well supported by a non-obtrusive but very effective score by Zemeckis’ usual collaborator Alan Silvestri.

Silvestri provides a fairly simple, but memorable melody that serves as a primary theme.  This melody is often heard on harp, strings, or piano and is used throughout the score, but not with such a frequency that it becomes unwelcome.  In fact, the theme is kept very rare during the early parts of the score (it only plays through once during the “Main Title” cue), becoming more frequent towards the end.  The theme gets its most widespread play during the nearly 8-minute final cue entitled simply “Contact”.

The film has some sequences that are very genuinely suspenseful and this can often be reflected in the score.  The cues “The Primer” and “Test Run Bomber” are especially suspenseful in tone, with an increased use of percussion and deeper brass creating a more disquieting atmosphere.  Silvestri also makes some careful use of electronics to ramp up the tension at appropriate points, particularly during the latter cue.  There are also some cues that build a bit of an action-oriented pace, such as the lengthy and dynamic cue “Good To Go” that accompanied the film’s big launch sequence.

There is one fairly strange bit of trivia that surrounds the main theme.  Back when Dr. Phil’s daily television series first debuted, David Letterman had a running gag on his show where every night he would play one ludicrous, out-of-context clip during a segment he called “Dr. Phil’s Words of Wisdom”.  This went on for at least a year or so.  As it was a recurring gag, a short introductory title card was created for it and, for some reason, they chose to use the main theme from Contact as the theme music. 

Courage Under Fire

Courage Under Fire (James Horner, 1996): The third, and to-date last, of James Horner’s collaborations with director Edward Zwick was not as famous as the first two, Glory and Legends of the Fall.  The film was a lower-key, more character and drama driven film than the previous two and that is reflected in the score.  It still is an effective score that fit the film generally well, but it is a somewhat dull listening experience outside of the film. 

The soundtrack album opens with a short cue entitled “Hymn”, which is a fairly sad, almost funereal, string-driven melody that sets the mostly serious, kind of downbeat tone of the film.  This melody serves as the one really distinct main theme for the score and is re-used fairly regularly during the more dramatic segments of the rest of the score. 

This is followed by the 10 minute cue “Al Bathra/Main Title”, which contains quite a bit of Horner’s usual style of action music, with lots of percussion, aggressive piano, and fast paced strings as well as some occasional electric guitar riffs.  While Horner does this kind of music well, he doesn’t really establish any distinctive themes or other solid musical ideas to create much cohesion. The rest of the cues seem to largely alternate between the styles of these two opening cues, with the more downbeat and dramatic material perhaps dominating a bit.

Soundtrack enthusiasts often view this score as something of a transitional one for Horner.  It came just one year before Titanic and this score suggests a few of the musical ideas that he would use to great effect in that score (the action music here often feels like early drafts of the sinking music), while some of the more dramatic scoring seems more rooted in Horner’s earlier work.

I don’t want to give the impression that this is a bad score or one that isn’t worth getting, particularly for Horner’s fans.  As I mentioned at the beginning, the score works extremely well in the film and it does reflect Horner’s usual compositional skills.  As a stand-alone album, though, the relative lack of strong themes during the action scoring and the somewhat unfocused style makes it one of his lesser soundtracks.

The Cowboys

The Cowboys (John Williams, 1972): The main march from The Cowboys has become one of John Williams’ most popular themes and is a staple of his concerts and compilation albums.  It is one of the earliest and best of his famous marches.  Varese Sarabande issued the full soundtrack album to the film on CD, allowing the familiar march to be heard in context.

The original soundtrack version of the march may come as a bit of a surprise to those that know it from the various concert performances, such as those Williams did with the Boston Pops.  On the soundtrack, the march is not played by as large an orchestra, giving it a smaller ensemble sound with more use of solo instruments than is typically heard in the re-recordings.

The march is incorporated very regularly into the rest of the score, which is a dynamic and fast paced, western movie score.  Brass and strings dominate with piano and percussion playing a big role as well.  Occasional harmonica adds to the western flavor of the score.  Periodic quieter, more introspective cues, such as the lovely cue “The Ranch”, are welcome respites from the action.  Williams still makes very good use of the main theme during these parts, keeping them well connected to the rest of the music.

Unfortunately, the soundtrack CD to The Cowboys is out of print and can be fairly expensive to obtain now.  At the Amazon link above, used copies start at around $50.  The album is available from iTunes for only $10, but obviously not in a lossless recording.

Crimson Tide

Crimson Tide (Hans Zimmer, 1995): This was one of the earliest of the many scores that Hans Zimmer or his various protégés have written for films produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and it played a pretty key role in establishing the style that Bruckheimer himself has come to refer to as the “Jerry Bruckheimer sound”.

Zimmer gave the film a moody score with lots of electronic, rock-influenced melodies and fairly frequent wordless choral vocals.  Electric guitar and synthesizer are key instruments of the score, but with full orchestral backing.  The main theme has a rock anthem, authoritative style to it that has become very much associated with Zimmer’s thriller scores.  The nature of the film’s story put more focus on tension than on action, so the score also favors intensity over pace.

The soundtrack album features only 5 cues, but all but one are very lengthy resulting in a running time of a little over an hour.  The longest cues are “Alabama” at almost 24 minutes and “1SQ” at just over 18 minutes.  This approach gives the score an almost symphonic quality, with minimal pauses in the music.  It is an unusual approach, but not an invalid one.

Crosscurrent

Crosscurrent (Jerry Goldsmith, 1971): Film Score Monthly included this brief score from a failed TV pilot on a Silver Age Classics CD release that also included Goldsmith’s scores to The Last Run and The Scorpio Letters.  The score only runs a little over 12 minutes, but is an interesting inclusion on this set.

The score has a very 70s sound to it, with a style that fits the “mod” style that was popular at the time.  It is a very unusual score, almost entirely performed on percussion and other rhythm instruments including some very hard edged piano and occasional electronics.  It is a strange, but creative, sound.

One other interesting aspect of this score is that Goldsmith originated a melody here that would later become the main title theme for his score to Escape From the Planet of the Apes.  It is definitely unusual for Goldsmith to reuse a theme in two projects, but he likely presumed that since this was from a series that wasn’t picked up, it was reasonable to re-use that piece of music.

Crossed Swords

Crossed Swords (Maurice Jarre, 1978): Despite his fame and popularity as a composer, I have surprisingly little Maurice Jarre music in my film score collection.  I’m not really sure why that is as I have generally liked the music that I do have.  It may simply be that the films he chose to score didn’t all that often line up with my interests.  Crossed Swords is probably the most obscure Jarre title in my collection.  Film Score Monthly released it on CD as part of their Silver Age Classics series and the sample clips were enough to sell me on it.

The score is exciting, swashbuckling music that sounds like it could have come from a much earlier era.  The score is highly melodic and tends towards a pretty full-blooded orchestral approach, although the medieval setting did prompt Jarre to often use a lot of solo acoustic instruments as well, frequently performing the score’s very infectious main theme.  At the very beginning of the soundtrack, the theme is first introduced by a solo whistler, which is followed by the orchestra taking up a full performance.  The whistled version returns during a number of different parts of the score as well.

In addition to the swashbuckling main theme, Jarre also introduces a nicely melodic and romantic secondary theme that is a major highlight of this score.  A particularly good performance of this theme is presented in the cue “Hendon Hall”, where it is given solo flute and violin renditions as well as some nice fully orchestral treatment.

Adding to the period flavor, the score does contain a few particularly period sounding cues.  “Coronation” is a religious hymn performed by a choir.  The cues “Ruffler’s Men” and “Gaillard” have a rougher, old-fashioned sound with melodies played primarily on medieval instruments, including pipes and various shakers and other similar percussion instruments.  Cues such as these give the score a very distinctive flavor.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Tan Dun, 2000): Tan Dun’s score to Ang Lee’s hit action film was a fairly surprising Oscar winner in 2000, particularly since it beat out Hans Zimmer’s extremely popular score to Gladiator, that year’s Best Picture winner.  The score’s success with the Oscar voters probably had a lot to do with its strong east Asian influences, which gave it more of an exotic quality to those accustomed to more traditionally western film music.

The score is heavily dominated by solo cello, with featured soloist Yo Yo Ma continuing a long running collaboration with the composer.  While Yo Yo Ma was already somewhat known to film music fans from his solos on John Williams’ Seven Years in Tibet, this score was really what brought him widespread attention among western audiences.  Solo woodwinds also come into play pretty regularly, while brass is minimized. 

Percussion instruments also play a very broad role in the score, with percussion being allowed to often carry the action sequences with minimal or no support from other instruments.  Cues such as “Night Fight” and “To the South” contain some especially expressive and impressive rhythms that are both exotic and exciting.  Even in the musical segments that do not primarily focus on percussion, it is often present in the background, frequently used at points when most western composers wouldn’t have included it.

The most prominent theme that Dun establishes in the score is primarily introduced in the cue “The Eternal Vow” and then carefully and sparingly spotted throughout the rest of the cue.  It is a softly romantic melody, primarily featured on solo cello played very sensitively by Yo Yo Ma.  The melody serves as the basis for the song “A Love Before Time” that is performed by CoCo Lee in both English and Mandarin at the conclusion of the soundtrack.

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