If you don’t think that epic movies need epic music, just try to imagine Lawrence crossing Arabia to a chorus of kazoos. The paradox is that these sweeping scores need to be subtle as well. If a composer isn’t careful, the pomp will turn pompous, the grand will become grandiose, the overture will overkill. As three newly released soundtracks make clear, it’s not so much whether symphonic clichés are used as how they’re used.

Michael Mann tackles the problem uniquely in The Last of the Mohicans by divvying up chores between two composers of separate strengths. Trevor Jones, whose cuts take up the first half of the Mohicans album, handles the Big Stuff — the massive plainsong melodic theme that gets featured in moments of heroic high drama (not to mention TV ads). As glorious as that melody is, though, it palls after a few listens, because Jones only varies it by interweaving a lovely Scottish folk melody on two of the tracks. Randy Edelman’s music, less ”period” and closer to modern New Age, is much richer in nuance; in the delicately haunting ”Cora,” the theme for Madeleine Stowe’s character, he has written the finest melody of the entire set.

Francis Ford Coppola, on the other hand, gave scoring duties for Bram Stoker’s Dracula to a single composer, Wojciech Kilar — and the result is nearly catastrophic, one of the few weak links in Coppola’s enjoyably out-there fever dream. Kilar’s musical ideas constitute a wax museum of clichés: hokey discords, lugubrious choir chanting, a ”Vampire Hunters” theme that smacks of Danny Elfman’s Batman music (Hey, they’re both bats, right?). The one track that upends movie-music stereotypes is the electronic ”The Ring of Fire,” a startling roundelay of cackles and shardlike whispers that sounds like something H.P. Lovecraft might have heard in his sleep.

If Coppola’s movie has to fight uphill against its own score, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X is propelled up the slope by Terence Blanchard’s astonishing orchestral swing. Although the score is essentially string-laden and serious, Blanchard’s jazz schooling gooses his music in surprising directions. Branford Marsalis and Sir Roland Hanna are among the musicians who play on the handful of brief, small-group cuts; more unusual is the bop percussion that invades the blue symphonics of ”Black & White.”

But it’s Blanchard’s airy sense of dynamics, seemingly influenced by late-’50s masters like Elmer Bernstein and Alex North, that’s most refreshing. What a treat to hear modern film music that doesn’t throw the entire orchestra at your head! The movie also uses period pop songs, collected on a separate album, for ironic emphasis — Junior Walker’s ”Shotgun” is heard in the ballroom where Malcolm will later be killed — but Blanchard doesn’t really need them to make his points. Anybody who scores the hero’s violent assassination to an unaccompanied oboe has epic ideas of his own. The Last of the Mohicans: B Bram Stoker’s Dracula: D Malcolm X: A

Bram Stoker's Dracula
  • Movie
  • R
  • 128 minutes
  • Francis Ford Coppola