The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Joby Talbot)

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Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is one of the few truly multimedia creations to explode into the popular consciousness. The witty and oft-absurd saga science fiction saga of Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Marvin the Paranoid Android, and a supporting cast numbering in the hundreds began life as a BBC radio serial in 1978, the show’s tight deadlines serving as a comic crucible for Adams and his cast. Since then, Hitchhiker’s Guide has been a TV show, a computer game, a series of novels, live theater, spoken word albums, and an array of merchandise. For many years, the only two mediums that had not seen an adaptation of Hitchhiker’s Guide were smoke signals and film. But for many years the film version was trapped in development hell, with multiple directors, writers, producers, and actors–including Douglas Adams himself–taking stabs at the material until the British music video directing duo “Hammer & Tongs” (Garth Jennings and Nick Goldsmith) were retained, ironically and sadly several year’s after Adams’ sudden death from heart failure in 2001. The film version of Hitchhiker’s Guide was dogged by fan complaints about casting and changes to the story–particularly nonsensical given how many variations of the material there were–but it was nevertheless a decent success, though any talk of sequels was stillborn due to how expensive it had been to make.

For the film’s score, Hammer & Tongs selected Joby Talbot, a classically trained British composer who had written for the small screen, theater, and concert hall but never for film. They had collaborated once before, for a British TV commercial, which Talbot had scored due to a former association with the band Divine Comedy. Not only were the film’s producers impressed, but Talbot also brought along his former bandmate Neil Hannon for vocal work as well. A part of the film’s production from the very beginning, Talbot wrote hours of temp music before constructing his final score and co-wrote the film’s centerpiece song, a gala based on hyperintelligent dolphins’ last message to a soon-to-be-destroyed human race: “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish.”

That song, the first to be written, was an outgrowth of a jam session Talbot, director Jennings, and orchestrator/conductor Christopher Austin had near the beginning of production, and it’s an outgrowth of the enthusiasm all the participants had for a universe they’d been fans of for years. Written in an over-the-top faux-Broadway-revue style complete with Adams-esque lyrics, “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish” opens the album and a lounge version by Neil Hannon closes it, but the tune is malleable enough that Talbot essentially employs it as the film’s main theme. It gets twisted into almost a love theme (the tail end of “Shootout”), a bouncy sendoff (“Finale”), and electronics (“Careless Talk”), and is always good catchy fun when it appears.

Since Talbot is scoring a comedy, there is some more overtly “funny” music. “Huma’s Hymn” sounds like a classical choral interlude until one hears the lyrics extolling a deity who sneezed the universe into being, and “Destruction of Earth” parodies James Horner’s “Bishop’s Countdown” from Aliens by drawing out the final Holst-inspired string hits far longer than they should, matching a scene of endless zoom-out jump cuts. There’s some quirky music for electronics, chiefly for scenes involving the guide itself (the Uematsu-esque gentle arpeggios of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”) and the comic antics of the cast (the bouncy “Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster” foxtrot), working with Nigel Goodrich, who would later score Scott Pilgrim vs. The World for Edgar Wright. The original “Journey of the Sorcerer” theme by the Eagles, used for the opening theme of the radio and TV series, gets a resounding recording complete with theremin as an homage.

There’s plenty of fully orchestral music of science fiction awe and wonder to fill the remainder of the album; it’s always pretty if not always distinctive. The “serious” highlight of the album is probably the back-to-back duo of “Planet Factory Floor” and “Earth Mark II” which is soaring and pastoral in the way that Talbot’s later career highlight Arctic Tale would be. The music is always bright and breezy; if there’s a weakness to be found it’s that (much like the subject matter) it is often all over the map veering from electronic to orchestral and silly to serious at the drop of a hat. There are enough highlights of both the straitlaced and the silly-faced music to please most listeners, though they’ll probably wind up creating a custom playlist from the music’s bits.

Hollywood Records put out a CD for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to coincide with the theatrical release, packing a few needledropped songs and a bizarre rap by Stephen Fry (the voice of the Guide in the film) around 55 minutes of original score and songs. Talbot’s score led to more film work in the 2000s, including Son of Rambow, the next (and so far only) film produced by Hammer & Tongs, but despite strong work he never managed to break out into the mainstream of film scoring or land a major international assignment, though he has continued to be active in other venues. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is in every way a pleasant surprise; while a little inconsistent and mickey-mousey at times, it offers an impressive variety of serious and silly music, and should be an easy recommendation for score and Douglas Adams fans.

Rating: starstarstarstar

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