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.
Dances With Wolves (John Barry, 1990): John Barry’s Oscar winning score for Dances With Wolves remains a high point and, in some ways, almost a culmination of the composer’s long and distinguished career. Health issues had kept Barry from working for a couple years before and his scores continued to be fairly infrequent through the rest of the 1990s until his apparent retirement from film scoring after 2001’s Enigma. While he did score a handful of other prominent films in the 1990s, including Chaplin and Indecent Proposal, this was really his last score to earn widespread attention and acclaim and it remains one of his most popular works.
The soundtrack CD for Dances With Wolves was one of the best selling score albums. The version released with the film contained about 53 minutes of music. It provided a good overview of the score and was certainly a satisfying listening experience, but there were also several fairly key cues that were left off or substantially abridged on that release. In 2004, Epic Records released an expanded edition that runs an hour and 15 minutes in length and fills in the most significant gaps from the previous album. The expanded edition is definitely the one to get for first time buyers of the score and an upgrade is very much worth considering for major fans.
The mix of character-driven drama, epic settings, and several showpiece action sequences made Kevin Costner’s film an ideal venue for Barry’s signature mix of lush romanticism and energetically melodic action music. The score is instantly recognizable as the composer’s work with it’s use of soaring strings along with frequent and dynamic brass. The score manages a classical, rural sound while largely avoiding many of the scoring conventions for westerns, as was fitting the film’s generally revisionist approach.
The most familiar and frequently used theme from the score is “John Dunbar’s Theme”, a hopeful, vaguely melancholy theme that is extremely effective at musically capturing the personality of the lead character. Concert arrangements of the theme are presented a few times on the soundtrack (the expanded edition has 4 cues by that name) and the melody is regularly incorporated into the rest of the score, particularly during the character-driven and/or romantic segments.
The score also gives Barry several opportunities to show off his action music skills. The action music tends to be fast paced and exciting while still remaining steeped in the dominant lushly romantic style of the score, often with some enhanced percussion. Perhaps the most notable and impressive of the action cues is “The Buffalo Hunt”, which also came from the film’s most spectacular action showpiece. This is a cue that was unfortunately abridged to about half its length on the original soundtrack release, but received a very welcome restoration on the expanded edition.
The Dark Crystal (Trevor Jones, 1982): Jim Henson’s first major attempt to move beyond The Muppets into more serious fantasy material was a highly inventive and creative effort that provided a tremendous canvas for score composer Trevor Jones. The resultant score is a vivid and impressive orchestral fantasy score which was one of the best of the early 80s.
Prior to The Dark Crystal, Jones had created a very effective fantasy score for Excalibur, although that score is particularly known for its use of some existing orchestral works. The Dark Crystal gave Jones the opportunity to write a fully original score and this is really the one that ultimately put him on the map as a major film composer and, especially, led to him being very in demand for this type of score.
The score features a main theme that is pretty heavy on brass and strings, but with a darkly mysterious undertone. He also provides a very melodic and lush “Love Theme”, that is primarily featured on the solo recorder. These and the other key themes are introduced very effectively during an overture cue that opened the original soundtrack album and are also used throughout the score. Choral elements are introduced very late in the score, introducing an additional level of emotional power to the finale.
In addition to the traditional orchestral music, Jones occasionally introduces some synthesizer bits as well as occasional use of somewhat less traditional instruments such as the previously mentioned recorder or the pipes. These elements give the score a bit of an exotic flavor. Occasional bits of ethnic source music, such as the cue entitled “The Pod Dance”, definitely add to this flavor as well.
The original soundtrack release ran about 40 minutes and presented the score in suite form designed for a best-case listening experience. While the full score used in the film actually contains a great deal of darkly menacing music and was often not overly melodic, the soundtrack album strongly highlights the more lushly romantic portions of the score. This album was issued on CD a number of times, most recently by La La Land Records back in 2007 in a non-limited edition that remains readily available. The links above are to that edition.
In 2003, Numenorean Music released a 5000 copy limited edition 2-CD set that contains the original album on disc 1 and a 1 hour and 10 minute presentation of the complete score on disc 2. This release is out of print now, although copies can be found at varied prices. Amazon currently shows copies available ranging in price from $35-$85.
The complete score definitely reveals a very different side to this score than what was heard on the original album, making for a much darker and more challenging listening experience. Electronics are also much more prominent in the complete version of the score while the original album makes it sound like a more thoroughly orchestral score. The original album is probably going to be the preferable listening choice for most people, but the complete score is certainly a rich and impressive presentation.
Dave (James Newton Howard, 1993): James Newton Howard’s main theme for Ivan Reitman’s hit political comedy has a main theme that most people will recognize even if they don’t its source. It has been often used in TV commercials or other trailers enough that it is now a pretty familiar piece.
Of course, the reason that the theme gets re-used so often is that it is a charming and infectious melody. The theme is woven regularly throughout the score after being introduced via a very upbeat full rendition during the “Main Titles” cue. In most cases, the theme is principally presented using a mix of gentle woodwinds and piano. It forms a solid backbone for a score that very effectively juggles dramatic, comedic, romantic, and even occasionally regal elements. The latter is particularly heard in some more percussion and brass driven themes that are meant to have something of a presidential feel to them.
A secondary, piano-driven romantic theme is another highlight of the score. This theme is first introduced during “The Picnic”, which is the second cue of the soundtrack. It is also very effectively used later in the cue “Are You Threatening Me?”, which starts with a somewhat more dramatic, slightly foreboding instrumental before transitioning to the romantic theme and then eventually to some of the presidential music.
While Newton-Howard is often best known for his suspense and thriller scores, he has definitely shown a knack for gentler comedy of this kind and Dave is among the very best examples of this side of the composer.
David and Bathsheba (Alfred Newman, 1951): Religious epics were one of the mainstays of the movies of the 1940s and early 1950s and one of the highlights of those movies were frequently their big, often majestic musical scores. Alfred Newman, the long-time head of Fox’s music department, was one of the best at these scores.
Intrada released a now sold-out 1,500 copy limited edition CD containing a little under an hour of music from the film. The music is presented in mono due to the available source elements, but the sound quality is generally quite good, even if it sounds a bit flat compared to modern recordings. While sold out at Intrada, the disc generally runs around $30 or so from other sources.
As you might expect, the score features some pretty broad orchestrations. This includes some very dynamically brassy and percussive music for the film’s battle sequences, much of which is also accompanied by some fairly dark, tension-filled suspense music as well. The action music is pretty easy to locate with cues such as “The Battle of Rabbah”, “Gilboa/The Battle of Gilboa”, and “Goliath”.
Newman also provides a lush romantic theme for the title characters, built primarily on woodwinds and strings. This theme has a slightly melancholy feel to it, a tone that Newman also brings to some of the other more contemplative elements of the score. The cue “A Shepherd/A Love Scene” is a particularly strong example of the more romantic music, while the more contemplative side is heard in “Lament for Saul and Jonathan”, which transitions directly into a more ethnically flavored theme, “The Ark of the Covenant”.
The album ends with an especially effective choral version of The 23rd Psalm. As a bonus track, it also includes a stereo re-mix of this one cue as well.