Though not a box-office success or a critical darling in its initial release, Brian De Palma’s gritty urban gangster movie Carlito’s Way met with a warmer reception on home video and is now considered a minor classic. The film was a departure from the excesses of De Palma’s earlier cult hit Scarface, and therefore presented a very different challenge than the one that confronted synthesist Giorgio Moroder for the 1983 picture.
De Palma has worked with an eclectic variety of composers including John Williams, Danny Elfman, Ennio Morricone, and others–aside from his on-again, off-again collaboration with Italian composer Pino Donaggio, De Palma has rarely used the same composer twice. For Carlito’s Way he teamed with rising star Patrick Doyle, the actor-turned-composer who had gotten his start with Kenneth Branagh. 1993 was Doyle’s breakout year in US cinema, with a score for the high-profile Stephen King adaptation Needful Things debuting alongside Carlito’s Way, and his success in those assignments would presage the composer’s back-to-back Oscar nominations in 1995 and 1996.
For Carlito’s Way, Doyle was required to write a very moderate amount of score, barely 40 minutes, and his music was forced to compete for space with scene-setting songs by musical supervisor Jellybean Benitez. The result is that Doyle’s music is most prominent at the start and end of the picture, and that the middle portions are given over largely to source-like music or short cues wedged in between Benitez’s chosen songs. Cues like “The Cafe” and “Laline” are practically source music in and of themselves, serving the film well but being stripped of most of their impact on album.
Doyle develops a few cues of action and suspense music as well, and these are typically gritty and rather sparse until the finale. Some low-key neo-noir is featured in the first part of “Carlito and Gail,” for instance, while action music is at the fore in “The Elevator” and “You’re Over, Man.” The action sound that Doyle uses is quite thin, often only a snare, piano, and marimba, keeping it from building much steam.
The major exception is the score’s centerpiece, “Grand Central,” which occupies a quarter of its short running time and is easily the musical highlight of the film. Doyle takes the anemic action themes from earlier cues and puts the full force of his orchestra behind it, creating intense and well-developed music that is really quite stunning. Modern film seldom allows such lengthy and developed cues, especially for action scenes, and however much Doyle’s pared-back action music might underwhelm earlier, in its fullest evolution it is breathtaking.
The final piece of the album is its most moving: a string-led elegy that opens and closes the album (and film) in “Carlito’s Way” and “Remember Me.” As lush and filmic as some of the middle cues are source-like, Doyle’s elegy is the emotional center of the film and album, and keen-eared listeners will hear in it many seeds of Doyle’s later work (“Death of Cedric” from Doyle’s later Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, for instance, is a direct lineal descendent of his gorgeous Carlito elegy theme).
While Patrick Doyle’s score for Carlito’s Way suffers somewhat from the fragmented middle portion of the album thanks to the film’s need for songs and source music, the “Grand Central” cue and the various iterations of the composer’s lush and tragic theme still make it a recommended purchase. Varèse Sarabande’s 40-minute score album (complete with the bland, generic cover art sometimes forced on the label by record executives worried about loss of sales for the song compilation) is still readily available, as is the aforementioned song compilation. For his part, Doyle would revisit the crime genre a few years later with Donnie Brasco, though such films would never form a major part of his discography.