Cutthroat Island (John Debney)

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There have been cinematic shipwrecks since the first films set sail for the commercial waters, but few have run aground as sharply or as deadly as Cutthroat Island. It seemed like a surefire treasure cruise at the time: Renny Harlin, who had helmed the profitable galleons Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger was directing, his then-wife Geena Davis of Thelma & Louise and A League of Their Own was in the wheelhouse, and they sailed under the banner of Carolco Pictures, a studio that had underwritten such voyages as Rambo and Terminator 2. But an old-fashioned swashbuckling pirate tale was out of fashion in 1995, and the film’s marketing push failed to sell it to audiences. The movie cost up to $150 million doubloons to make but returned less than $20 million pieces of eight worldwide, a flop the likes of which would not be seen again until the wreck of the good ship Pluto Nash in 2002. Among the drowned: director Harlin’s blockbuster career, star Davis’s career as a leading lady, and studio Carolco’s very existence.

Renny Harlin had originally sought to engage rising young British corsair David Arnold to score his pirate extravaganza. Arnold was a sound choice, with his Stargate score from the year before having plenty of buckle and swash. Scheduling conflicts forced Arnold to back out of the voyage, though, and on the strength of a swashbucking synthesizer suite, Harlin brought Cap’n John Debney aboard as scoremaster. Debney’s career was, like Arnold’s, on the upswing in the early 1990s, having done yeoman’s work on modest hits like Hocus Pocus as a late replacement for James Horner. Cap’n Debney threw himself into the score for Cutthroat Island with a singular destination in his spyglass: to make the most of his scurvy crew from the London Symphony Orchestra and the London Voices to craft a modern homage to Admiral Erich Wolfgang Korngold, whose scores for classic swashbucklers like The Sea Hwak and The Adventures of Robin Hood.

While Admiral Korngold is the one given a 21-gun salute by Cap’n Debney, he happily plunders the very best of modern orchestral scoring for Cutthroat Island, taking inspiration for some of the orchestrations from the flourishes used by David Arnold and Nicholas Dodd in Stargate, John Williams in Hook, and James Horner in The Rocketeer. That’s not to say that the score is a cut and paste job, but rather that Cap’n Debney is able to load his guns with the best powder that modern film music has to offer, powering up Korngold’s piratey ideas with flourishes both orchestral and choral that the old admiral would never have had the budget or the equipment to match.

The themes and motifs Debney blasts out with a double-powder charge are almost too numerous to name, with a soaring main theme for the piratess heroine (“Morgan’s Ride”), a tender love theme (“Discovery of the Treasure”), and supporting musical ideas for the evil Uncle Dawg and the Morning Star pirate ship. The music is anchored by towering and rambunctious statements of these themes, with the “Carriage Chase” cue being perhaps the finest example of piratey swashbuckling ever recorded, a 7-minute tour-de-force of rollicking, thematic brass and percussion that builds a ferocious head of steam as is progresses. “Setting Sail” is one big rousing love letter to The Sea Hawk, while the massive concluding suite of “Dawg’s Demise” and “It’s Only Gold” is almost breathless in its intensity.

Cap’n Debney brings all of his Golden Age influences squarely into the modern era, with a crisp recording and none of the Hollywood treacle that Korngold was occasionally forced to write in between his magnificent statements of theme. The only real drawback to any listener looking for a piratey good time is the film’s breakneck (or cutthroat) pace: the moments of softer music are few and far between, making the lengthy score at times a bit of an endurance test in its unflaggingly adventurous pace. Pirate scores of the 2000s often suffered from the same problems, but the clarity and sheer overwhelming piratey spirit of Debney’s work makes this more forgivable than in some of his fellow Cap’n Zimmer’s less-inspired voyages.

The foundering of Cutthroat Island put an end to pirate movies, whatever flag they sailed under, for over a decade until the genre was refloated and salvaged by Pirates of the Caribbean. But Cap’n Debney was the last scoremaster to attempt to bring aboard the classic Golden Age Erich Wolfgang Korngold sound in a modern guise; future pirate movies would sail under the flag of Cap’n Zimmer and his Remote Control crew, whose very different ideas of piratey music would come to dominate the genre. Debney, though, was perhaps the only crewmember of the doomed vessel to escape unharmed: his score continued to be respected as a modern swashbuckling classic independent of the disastrous foundering of the film to which it was chained. A very generous album 70-minute album bubbled to the surface from the hold of the wreck in 1995, while the complete 150-minute score was brought into port 10 years later by Prometheus Records. Either release is highly recommended to all scurvy dogs that ply the seven seas; while Cap’n Debney has had many successful voyages since then, many still wait for his opportunity to sail under the Jolly Roger once more.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

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Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (Harry Gregson-Williams)

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The character of Sinbad the Sailor has his origins in a group of Arabic tales, but is probably most familiar to Western audiences through the massive cinematic spectacles of 1958’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and 1974’s The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, famous for their Ray Harryhausen stop-motion effects. It was perhaps this spectacle that Dreamworks Animation sought to capture with their 2003 film Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, though the film mistakenly places the Islamic tale in a Mediterranean world of Greeks and their gods. Despite being helmed by a capable captain, Tim Johnson of Antz, and Dreamworks’ usual crew of celebrity voices, including Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Joseph Fiennes, audiences were in no hurry to board. The Sinbad brand had been in drydock too long, and the harbor that summer was crowded with other vessels, but the Dreamworks rear admirals blamed the film’s sinking on its 2D animation (much as their enemy admiralty at Disney had done with Treasure Planet the previous summer), and they dedicated themselves anew to 3D films with quickly dated pop culture references and flavor-of-the-month voice actors.

Dreamworks Animation had tried to outgun the enemy Disney fleet by bringing on many veterans of that armada for their animated division, and that meant bringing Cap’n Hans Zimmer and his scurvy crew of proteges aboard. Zimmer himself had taken the helm on many of the projects, but his mates Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell had been responsible for many as well, including such hits as Antz,, Chicken Run, and Shrek, all of them energetic and creative voyages that had little in common with Cap’n Zimmer’s evolving “wall of sound” approach. By 2003, Powell had sailed for warmer ports and would go on to become the primary musical voice for rival Blue Sky studios; it therefore fell to Gregson-Williams to helm Sinbad solo as a scoremaster cap’n of his own. Newly promoted Cap’n Gragson-Williams responded enthusiastically, with a swashbucklery that hadn’t been seen since Cutthroat Island nearly a decade ago, creating in the process a sound that would serve his other efforts for fantasy/adventure blockbusters for the rest of the 2000s.

Cap’n Gregson-William’s primary idea for Sinbad is a piece of rousing orchestral swashbuckling derring-do, soaring to life in “Let the Games Begin” and “The Sea Monster.” While the theme is a rousing bit of seafaring excitement when it’s in full-on heroic mode, the real treat is to see how skillfully Cap’n Gregson-Williams steers it into other waters. Sinbad’s theme is present in a dizzying variety of guises, from playful romance as in “Chipped Paint” to melancholy contemplation as in “Is It the Shore or the Sea?” and even a vague Latin lit in “Rescue!” It’s mixed into nearly ever track as a primary idea or counterpoint, and the sheer number of ways that the composer twists and manipulates the theme keeps it from becoming played out or seeming repetitive–an extraordinary fit of seamanship that would make any other scoremaster on the high seas proud.

As incongruous as it was to see Sinbad and Greek myth sailing in formation, it was almost as odd for Cap’n Gregson-Williams to take much of his inspiration from the piratey scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold (perhaps filtered through Cap’n Debney’s Cutthroat Island), as Bernard Herrmann, Miklos Rosza, and Roy Budd had left their own distinctive stamps on Sinbads past. And it’s true that Gregson-Williams’ primary idea for the heroic sailor is as piratey and swashbuckling as they come, but much more so than Debney he put his own stamp on the music through his incorporation of female voices and light electronic enhancements. The electronics are generally subtle; pulses and synth tambourines in “Rescue!” and an electric violin that directly prefigures the sound Cap’n Gregson-Williams would use in his Narnia scores.

But it’s the vocals where Gregson-Williams really turns the swashbuckling formula on its ear and steers the sound into his own waters. Frequent collaborator Lisbeth Scott is behind the solo vocals in Sinbad, and they are a delight, pure and simple: used to represent the film’s villainess, Eris the goddess of chaos, the snarky and staccato vocals give the music a playfully dangerous edge that is excellent counterpoint to the more straightforward heroics of Sinbad’s own malleable theme. Cap’n Gregson-Williams combines the theme with oboe and woodwinds for Eris’s mischief in places like “Let the Games Begin” and “Eris Steals the Book” to great effect, but when combined with the full power of the orchestra and the London Metro Voices, the effect is electric. “Sirens” is undoubtedly the score’s high point, combining Scott’s cooing Eris vocals with sharp statements of Sinbad’s theme across a sea of sound both alluring and dangerous. As with Cap’n Debney’s own Cutthroat Island, the only real drawback is the sometimes overwhelming volume and length of the music, but Cap’n Gregson-Williams is able to break things up with some gentler music to the extent that it’s even less of a problem here than in Debney’s piratey classic.

With the failure of Sinbad,, the Dreamworks admiralty pulled back sharply from any movie, and any score, that might make waves, with a succession of mostly safe and bland 3D blockbusters to follow. For his part, Gregson-Williams would serve as scoremaster for many of these subsequent voyages, sequels to Shrek that sailed with depressing regularity and without much of the spark that had animated Sinbad’s swashbucklery. But he would have the opporunity to use many of the skills he’d honed on the project with scores like Kingdom of Heaven, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Prince Caspian; while none of these later scores matched Sinbad,, its stylistic fingerprints are easy to see. Still, as with his shipmate Cap’n John Debney, many of Gregson-Williams’ fans wait anxiously for the day when he will abandon the textual scores that have become his recent bread-and-butter for a return to swashbuckling adventure on the high seas.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar