Grading the scores to four hot movies: 'Titanic,' 'Kundun,' 'Amistad,' and 'The Wings of the Dove'

Grading the soundtracks of ‘Titanic,’ ‘Kundun,’ ‘Amistad,’ and ‘The Wings of the Dove’

If pop soundtracks represent the Whitman sampler approach to movie scoring—a bunch of bonbons in a box, and no telling what you’ll bite into next—orchestral scores stand as more upscale confections. But what good is tiramisu if the ingredients are stale? James Horner’s music for Titanic is notably light on its feet for an epic, but the composer of Braveheart has gone to the Irish-music well too often now (Enya could sue over the opening bars of ”Leaving Port”), and the inevitable Celine Dion power ballad ”My Heart Will Go On” just sounds like ”The Morning After” for a new generation.

Philip Glass’ bag of tricks is even hoarier than Horner’s—has this guy met an arpeggio he didn’t like?—but Kundun rolls by pleasantly enough. For the Martin Scorsese film, Glass builds spinning, three-dimensional mandalas of sound, anchors them with growling bass tones, and still manages to create a conventional score. And the Carmina Burana-soundalike choir in ”Escape to India” hints that Glass has caught all those trailers that use the Carl Orff warhorse.

Parts of John Williams’ Amistad sound Orffly familiar as well, but otherwise this score may come as a shock if you equate the composer with the strident pomp of Star Wars. Once you get past the obviousness of the opening ”Dry Your Tears, Afrika” (which, embarrassingly, uses a faux-South African choir when the Amistad prisoners came from Sierra Leone—who cares that they’re over 3,000 miles apart?), this is dark stuff for Williams: moody, subliminal, bursting into lovely pastiche Copland at just the right moments. If you’re going to be derivative, this is the way to go.

Perhaps the season’s richest treat, though, is Edward Shearmur’s score for The Wings of the Dove, a dazzlingly melodic work that tips its hat to English composers of the film’s 1910 setting (Vaughan Williams, especially) and that pulses with the subterranean psychological intensity of author Henry James. With only a handful of themes, Shearmur’s music says all the things the film’s characters can’t, and with all the attendant, requisite sadness. This score stands on its own, but if you’ve feasted on the movie, it’s an even lovelier dessert. Titanic: B- Kundun: B Amistad: A- The Wings of the Dove: A

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