Son of Rambow (Joby Talbot)

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Part coming-of-age story, part loving parody of 1980s action movies, 2007’s Son of Rambow tells the tale of a British schoolchild from a strict religious family who accidentally sees First Blood and becomes obsessed with creating his own amateur “Rambow” movie whilst navigating the trials and tribulations of adolescence. The second and so far final movie produced by “Hammer & Tongs” (director Garth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith), Son of Rambow was made possible by its low budget and the modest success of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and it too was modestly successful with good reviews and enough revenue to recoup its small budget.

Hammer & Tongs had always planned to have a soundtrack that mixed pop tunes of the early 1980s with an original score for Son of Rambow, and the latter was provided by British composer Joby Talbot. Talbot had, of course, been Hammer & Tongs’ choice for The Hitchhiker’s Guide as well; Son of Rambow would wind up being the composer’s second major film score. With the need to work around song placements in a 90-minute film–in his liner notes, director Jennings notes his desire to make the CD his “ultimate 80s mixtape”–Talbot turned in a score just about 25 minutes long, about half the length of The Hitchhiker’s Guide.

One might expect, naturally, for a score like Son of Rambow to reference, pastiche, or pay homage to Jerry Goldsmith’s seminal action score for First Blood similar to something like what John Du Prez did with UHF in 1989. Instead, it’s clear from the outset of Talbot’s score that he’s more interested in the characters’ reactions to “Rambow” than anything else. The score opens with a great galumphing comic march, “The Best Day Ever,” which is a million miles removed from even the lightest portions of Goldsmith’s First Blood. “The Best Day Ever” theme, reprised in full for “First Day Filming” and “Son of Rambow,” is a delightful tune wherever it appears and (with apologies to Duran Duran) the album’s clear highlight.

The remainder of Talbot’s score is rather similar to what he provided for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (albeit lacking the synths some parts of that work featured): tuneful music in diverse styles that occasionally seem a bit scattershot. There’s some soft alternatives to the brassy “Best Day” march in “The Sad Day” and “Can You Fix It,” the latter performed in full James Horner style by Talbot himself. Fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide will appreciate more quirky music such as the goofy “I’m French, Non?” which is probably the most like that earlier score, and the percussive “The Scarecrow” which sounds like an amped-up version of the Blue Man Group tracks from John Powell’s Robots.

Along with The Hitchhiker’s Guide, Son of Rambow was the beginning of a very active period of composition for Talbot, with scores for Arctic Tale, Penelope, and Franklyn coming over the next two years. Sadly, none of the films was the sort of breakout success that would lead to more film work, and the composer’s main efforts continued to be directed toward the small screen, theater, and ballet.

Rating: starstarstarstar

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Titan A.E. (Graeme Revell)

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After boldly leaving Disney during the latter’s late-70s doldrums, animator Don Bluth and his compatriots made a series of well-regarded films in the 1980s, from The Secret of NIMH to An American Tail to The Land Before Time. But Bluth was unable to capitalize on the films’ success, and his output in the 1990s was a series of box office bombs and creative compromises that eventually led to the bankruptcy of his studio. Hired by Fox to head its new Fox Animation Studios, Bluth’s Anastasia was a Disney-size hit in 1997, with a bevy of Oscar nominations to boot, but Bluth’s second feature for Fox, 2000’s Titan A.E., was not. Despite an innovative visual style combining cel and 3D animation, the talents of a diverse group of collaborators including Joss Whedon and Matt Damon, and an eye-popping trailer before The Phantom Menace, the ambitious science fiction animation never found an audience. Perhaps parents were put off by the violent destruction of Earth in the film’s trailer and opening; in any case, the film was the first in a series of high-profile cel animation adventures to underperform in the 2000s which led studios to move toward 3D as “the format people wanted to see.” Bluth never made another movie, and Fox Animation was dissolved.

Bluth had collaborated with a diverse array of composers in his earlier animation work, from Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner in his 1980s salad days to Robert Folk and David Newman in the 1990s. For Titan A.E., though, New Zelander Graeme Revell was signed to score. Revell had an incredibly diverse career since making his mark with Child’s Play 2 in 1990, dabbling in everything from popcorn fantasy (Power Rangers) to horror (From Dusk Till Dawn) to superheroes (The Crow). In 2000, though, Revell was primarily known as an action composer on the back of efforts like The Negotiator, and it’s likely for that reason Bluth chose him for Titan A.E.. Unlike Bluth’s earlier efforts, though, there was a definite attempt to appeal to a youth demographic from Fox, so Revell’s score was forced to jostle for screen time with an array of banal late-90s rock songs. To help add an electronic edge to the work, Revell also brought on former Tangerine Dream member (and future film composer in his own right) Paul Haslinger as an arranger and synthesizer performer.

With a palette including Haslinger’s electronics and a full orchestra with choir, Revell’s approach to the score is grounded in an overarching theme that he holds to through much of the music. First heard on gentle piano in “Prologue/Drej Attack” and wistful Star Trek brass in “Wow,” Revell puts his Titan theme through plenty of variations similar to the way Jerry Goldsmith often played with his main themes at the time, but none is more satisfying than its massive statements for the film’s biggest triumphs. The first hint of choral majesty in “The Broken Moon” gives way to the film and score’s stunning finale in “Creation/Bob” when Revell lets his theme rip in all its glory with full brassy orchestra, chorus, and Haslinger’s electronic pulses. It’s a stunning statement of sci-fi awe, and one of the finest and most satisfying moments of the composer’s career, finishing out with a tender love-theme rendition of the primary motif for the film’s denouement (and its funniest Whedon-scripted line).

There’s solid orchestral writing throughout the score even when Revell isn’t developing his primary theme as well, like the mournful vocals of “Recovery” or the sci-fi wonder of “Don’t Lose ‘Em.” But, unfortunately, there is also material that’s much less compelling: for many of the movie’s big action setpieces, Revell and Haslinger resort to a pounding series of repetitive and simplistic drum beats (“Hydrogen Forest Chase,” “The Dreaded Drej”) that’s deeply out of sync with the more orchestral parts of the score; perhaps a need to make room and/or fit in with the dreadful 90s-style rock songs led to that approach. Worse still is the music for the alien Drej antagonists and their queen; beings of pure energy, they are represented by Haslinger’s electronics at their harshest and most unrestrained (“Start Running, Keep Running,” “Mother Drej,” parts of “Power Struggle”). The simplistic action and temple-pounding Drej synths simply don’t play nice with the rest of what is otherwise a superior score, dragging significant portions of it down to near-unlistenable levels.

Titan A.E.‘s failure has made it, to date, Graeme Revell’s only animated feature. But his career prospered in the 2000s with a number of science fiction and horror films from Pitch Black to Daredevil before gradually petering out in the 2010s. Thanks to Fox’s ill-fated marketing attempts there was a Titan soundtrack, but it was strictly composed of songs without a note of Revell’s score. Good-quality bootlegs abounded but it wasn’t until 2014 that La-La Land Records put out the complete score as part of a limited edition. While the music isn’t perfect, with an overreliance on harsh electronic textures and being forced to tiptoe around songs, Revell’s grand main theme and especially its outings in the first and last cues make the album worth the effort. Like the film it accompanies, the music isn’t Oscar caliber but remains sorely underrated.

Rating: starstarstar

Congo (Jerry Coldsmith)

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Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. That has been a sore spot for many of film score composer Jerry Goldsmith’s fans for years, the fact that the he often seemed to get also-rans and warmed-over leftovers of major films while those films themselves went to other people (often Goldsmith’s contemporary John Williams). Williams scored Superman, Goldsmith got Supergirl; Williams scored Home Alone, Goldsmith got Dennis the Menace; Williams scored Raiders of the Lost Ark, Goldsmith got King Solomon’s Mines. And, of course, Williams scored Jurassic Park and Goldsmith got Congo.

While author Michael Crichton’s novels had been made into films before–The Andromeda Strain, Westworld, Runaway–the massive success of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 adaptation of Jurassic Park started a scramble to film Crichton’s remaining properties. John Williams, as Spielberg’s regular collaborator, was never in doubt for the dinosaur movie, but the process was murkier for the author’s most similar novel, Congo. Rising star James Newton Howard was originally attached to the project, but scheduling conflicts led to him departing in favor of Goldsmith, who already had a history of scoring Crichton projects with 1979’s The Great Train Robbery. The resulting adaptation of Congo was a modest box office success; it was no Jurassic Park, but it had a certain campy guilty-pleasure appeal, which is more than can be said for many such piggybacking films.

Stepping into the breach, Goldsmith continued a collaboration begun by Howard with African musician and arranger Lebo M, who had catapulted to international notice the previous year with his contributions to The Lion King. With Lebo M as an arranger and lyricist, Goldsmith created “Spirit of Africa,” which would serve as his main theme for Congo and bookend the film. While the singer and lyrics courtesy of Lebo M aren’t exactly high points in his career, Goldsmith provided an attractive melody that he wove into the rest of the score (thankfully without the rather banal lyrics). It’s surprisingly gentle for a movie about explosions and lasers and murderous apes, but the composer integrates it wonderfully as counterpoint into a number of his action setpieces.

Among film score fans, Jerry Goldsmith is most famous as an action composer, though he sometimes chafed under that label. To his credit, he provides a strong suite of pule-pounding music for Congo, led by the album’s highlight, “Bail Out.” For that sequence of the main characters parachuting out of a plane under missile attack, the composer provides a ferocious action piece offset with grand major-key heroics and statements of his “Spirit of Africa” theme. There’s also a fair bit of red-meat action as the film approaches the Lost City of Zinj, with the back-to-back pair of “Amy’s Nightmare” and “Kahega” as a particular highlight.

A large portion of Congo takes place, as one might expect, in the jungles of the Congo, and to that end Goldsmith composed a fair bit of minimalistic jungle music. Led by embarrassingly synthetic panpipes, this music serves the picture well but is far from enjoyable on its own. Several of the tracks that were unreleased until 2013 feature stronger material and this rambling jungle ambience in the same track, which can at times make it a bit of a chore to listen to. These songs also serve to break up the highlights of the score, which will leave many listeners scrambling for their fast-forward buttons.

Jerry Goldsmith often had a prickly relationship with his fans, and the album edits the composer prepared for his scores were no exception. At the time of Congo‘s release he arranged a 30-minute suite of highlights which minimized the duller and ambient jungle music but also trimmed a few shorter action pieces; when asked, Goldsmith snapped that if his fans wanted more action music they should go listen to Rambo again. In 2013, Intrada released a complete version of Congo that added 20 minutes of score and copious extras (including the sole piece of score that Howard recorded before departing the project). For all that his fans complained, though, time has proven Goldsmith right: the absolute best parts of his score are all on the original album, and the best parts of what remains are substantially similar to the album cuts. As such, Intrada’s lovingly crafted release is a much flabbier listen than Goldsmith’s lean-beef 1995 arrangement.

Whether because he simply wrote what he was asked to write, or because (as so often happened) he found Congo to be underwhelming as a film, Jerry Goldsmith ultimately turned in a middle-of-the-road score for a middle-of-the-road movie. His excellent “Sprit of Africa” melody and punchy action music are offset by dull ambient jungle noise and some rather questionable lyrical choices by his collaborator Lebo M. Still, it’s a worthwhile addition to any Goldsmith fancier’s collection, though most will probably be satisfied with the cheap 1995 CD unless they specifically crave the detailed liner notes and deluxe presentation of the 2013 Intrada product.

Rating: starstarstar

Dennis the Menace (Jerry Goldsmith)

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An underrated film, Dennis the Menace didn’t make much of a box-office splash in 1993, despite its name recognition and top-notch cast, featuring a wonderfully cranky Walter Matthau. The late composer Jerry Goldsmith was no stranger to comedy scoring, with both Gremlins and The ‘Burbs to his credit, but was often (then as now) pigeonholed as a composer for action and science fiction. The film also was another slice of Goldsmith’s usual luck: the previous John Hughes family comedies, Home Alone and Home Alone 2, had been smash hits with John Williams scores. As with Supergirl before it, Goldsmith was left to score Williams’ leftovers.

Goldsmith anchors Dennis the Menace with a rollicking and carefree theme, a close cousin of his propulsive The Great Train Robbery motif, that is performed in full by an orchestra at the beginning and end of the album but mostly passed to soloists in the remaining tracks. The theme is therefore taken up by harmonica, woodwinds, and even tuba as circumstances dictate, usually at a slow and deliberate tempo. When presented in all its orchestral glory, Goldsmith’s theme is a treat–rambunctious, enthusiastic, but with an endearing undercurrent of innocence. The rest of the time, it’s far more subtle, and the endless interpretations and variations of the tune on album can grow tiresome.

There’s also a more menacing secondary motif for the ill-recieved character of Switchblade Sam–a series of repeated harpsichord notes with jagged brass vaguely similar to Capricorn One. This motif works well enough as a counterpoint, but isn’t very fully developed, leaving Dennis the Menace feeling at times like a monothematic score. The opportunity to have both themes in counterpoint or collision at the end of the film, which unwisely veered into Home Alone territory with a strong dose of The Ransom of Red Chief, was a bit of a missed opportunity.

Gentler material, notably at the beginning of “He’s Back” and “The Shaggy Dog,” is provided for the relatively few sentimental moments in the film–Goldsmith’s work here is effective , but rather low-key. In fact, “low-key” best describes the majority of the album: while there are occasional energetic outbursts, the music is generally restrained, meandering along with plentiful harmonica solos and single-instrument reinterpretations of the main theme to accompany the titular character’s inadvertent mischief.

The album can be difficult to find, as it was issued by the now-defunct Big Screen Records. Still, Dennis the Menace is well worth tracking down for the moments of orchestral exuberance and muscular main theme performances that bookend it, but even Jerry Goldsmith fans my find themselves skipping over some of the tracks in the middle.

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