In the flurry of attention swirling about the musical version of Les Misérables by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Victor Hugo’s original novel seems to have been lost in the fray; many who have been introduced to the tale in its musical form may not even know of the book’s existence. Nevertheless, the tale was adapted for the big screen in 1998 as a straight drama, with Bille August in the director’s chair and Basil Poledouris in the recording booth. The film would prove to be their only collaboration, and one of Poledouris’ final high-profile projects before his death in 2006.
Fans of the composer hoping for a return of the bold period stylings displayed in Conan the Barbarian and Flesh + Blood will be disappointed; Poledouris’ score takes the novel’s dark and heavy subject matter to heart and provides a restrained, tragic atmosphere. While certainly listenable, the sheer volume of unrelentingly morose music on disc can become tiresome, as Poledouris keeps the score’s volume, tone and instrument set largely consistent; this is further aggravated by the terrible situation of the album itself (see below).
Only in portions of the final two tracks does Poledouris abandon his restrained, dour, and elegiac approach. “Paris” begins with a lovely, delicate theme for Cosette, which resurfaces later in the cue but is sadly absent from the rest of the score and lacks a full concert presentation. Whirling, joyous period music makes an appearance in the same track, tied to the city of Paris; again, this lovely melody isn’t further developed. The beginning of the final track, “The Barricades,” provides a momentary outburst of full orchestra before returning to more subdued music.
In film music circles, Poledouris’ Les Misérables is infamous for its butchered contents; the track times listed on the packaging are grossly wrong, adding almost twenty minutes to the running time. Furthermore, the disc eschews individual cues in favor of four long suites that are not indexed to tracks, meaning that much of the best music is buried in the middle of suites and difficult to access at will. The individual track names appended in parentheses are worthless for determining the suites’ contents, since each features far more than the four internal divisions assigned it. As a result of this dreadful situation, a bootleg album has been seen in circulation, with the lengthy cues broken up and properly labeled and paired with additional tracks (ironically bringing the album to its advertised length of 60 minutes).
The result of this dreadful presentation, coupled with the depressing lack of variation in much of the score, makes it difficult to recommend. But patient fans of Poledouris will no doubt be drawn to the music’s livelier parts, and the album isn’t terribly difficult to find. In a poignant finale to their collaboration, Poledouris dedicated the album to orchestrator Grieg McRitchie, who died shortly after the two worked on Starship Troopers. If you’re willing to sift through a poorly-presented album and a great volume of depressingly morose score for some truly lovely Poledouris music, this Les Misérables may be for you. Otherwise, you are better off waiting for the inevitable boutique label to come along and fix Hollywood/Mandalay’s mess.