Released in 1993, Free Willy proved an enormous hit, becoming firmly entombed in mid-1990’s pop culture and making an international superstar of Keiko the whale. The film’s musical personality, both on album and in the film, was split between composer Basil Poledouris and erstwhile entertainer Michael Jackson, with Poledouris contributing the score and Jackson performing a pop ballad.
The pop music padding in Free Willy is rather unfortunate; the album’s producers chose to load it with songs unrelated to and not appearing in the film (a practice that was worryingly common in the mid-1990s). These tunes really have very little to do with anything other than promoting artists signed the the record label at the time, and offer little to anyone who is not an established fan of the group in question. The album producers also recruited Michal Jackson to the project, at a time when the King of Pop was awkwardly transitioning from superstar to tabloid fodder. Jackson’s “Will You Be There” receives top billing; rather disgustingly, the song is labeled “Theme from Free Willy,” and its printed title dwarfs Poledouris’ on the album cover.
Of course, the true “Theme from Free Willy” was composed by Poledouris, and thirty minutes of his music are present on the album. The late Poledouris was always most in his element when scoring the sea, and he responded with a thoughtful and exuberant effort. Mindful of the film’s contemporary setting and the expectations of music supervisors, the composer adopted a scoring approach that seamlessly melds synthesizers and an orchestra. At times, notably in the first and last score cues, Poledouris uses an electronic pulse to underscore tense situations, reminiscent of his work on The Hunt for Red October. More often, though, the electronics serve to lend percussive rhythm to the music, or to generate a feeling of calm through the use of undulating synthesizer notes.
Poledouris’ grand main theme bookends the score portion of the album with sustained, slightly moody performances. It’s impressive music with a nautical twist, and even in its less serious incarnations, is hugely impressive. A much lighter secondary theme appears in “The Gifts,” “Friends Montage” and “Audition,” a sprightly tune performed by woodwinds with electronic rhythm instruments behind. It’s charming music, much more affecting and effective than the cloying Jackson song, and effectively underscores the light and happy scenes in the movie with a contemporary flair.
The incidental music is surprisingly effective even when it’s not tied to either theme, with an impressive variety of strong scoring in the final track alone. The aforementioned October pulse melds with menacing strings to create tension, but the real highlight may just be the finale. Poledouris builds up orchestral steam before unleashing a triumphant fanfare at the end of the “Farewell Suite,” beautifully punctuating Willy’s escape with bold brass and a synth choir.
Even though the predominance of pop material and the brief running time of the score are definite drawbacks, Free Willy remains a highly recommended purchase for all score fans. Thirty minutes of top-notch Poledouris material featuring excellent integration of electronics and orchestra is worth buying even as part of an album laden with pop songs….just be sure to program your CD player to tracks 6-11, or buy the score tracks digitally.