The latest in soundtracks
Consider the perversity of the movie soundtrack composer, a guy whose job is to create the musical equivalent of a supporting beam. He knows a good film score needs to be memorable, but not too memorable. If a scene gets cut, so may the best 10 bars of music he ever wrote. It’s only in the soundtrack album that he gets revenge. Here, pesky visual annoyances like movie stars get the heave-ho, leaving, in effect, a movie for one’s ears. Occasionally, that movie’s even better than the one on the screen.
Patriot Games, for example, is a perfectly acceptable popcorn thriller that evaporates from your head the moment the lights come up. Something more is James Horner’s score, which mixes traditional Irish sounds with symphonic suspense music for a work that happens to be functional and fascinating. A cut titled ”Boat Chase” illustrates Horner’s ingenuity; instead of the typical climactic oompah, he builds a free-floating arena of penny whistles, oriental cymbals, and distracted strings.
John Williams’ score for Far and Away also uses traditional Irish music as thematic flavoring (in this case, the Chieftains), but it never rises above the generic. Being a master of florid, Oscar-winning pastiche, Williams can’t help but chuck in whatever might work. So it’s Charles Ives-style dissonance in ”Burning the Manor House,” brass flourishes à la Carl Orff’s ”Carmina Burana” in ”The Land Race” — Williams even pillages the primary motif from his own JFK score as a major theme here. The result highlights the flaw that has dogged almost all of Williams’ work: his epic impersonality.
At least Williams swipes most of his ideas from the classics. Danny Elfman brought a fresh approach to movie scoring with 1985’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and has been running it into the ground ever since. With Batman Returns, he runs dry. Here are the same windswept demon choirs, tinkling music boxes, Fellini carny music, and chic Wagnerian pooting that sounded so great in Edward Scissorhands, Elfman’s peak. But like Batman Returns itself, this new score is neurotically hyperactive. It’s as if Elfman, stumped for new material, simply opted to throw the old stuff at us faster and louder. That’s fine if you’re a punching bag. If not, not.
Ironically, a far more innovative sequel soundtrack is the one for Alien3, a movie considered a box office downer. Composer Elliot Goldenthal is a relative newcomer, which may explain why his score literally sounds like nothing on earth. Simply put, he uses music, sound, and space as texture, creating an industrial-dread symphony that comes at you in terrifying shards. Elements of mutated rock evolve out of big Bruckneresque chords, mechanical thuds slip into an ineffably sad ”Adagio,” and somehow it’s all of a piece. Easy listening it ain’t — call it brunch music for houseguests who have overstayed their welcome — but Goldenthal at least shares with Alien3 director David Fincher the courage of his nasty convictions. He expresses them with fewer pretensions, too. If the film left you as boiling mad in the end as it does Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, give the soundtrack a listen and see if you can’t refilm it in your head.
Patriot Games: B+
Far and Away: C+
Batman Returns: D+