Les Miserables (Basil Poledouris)

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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.

Score: * * *
Album: *
Overall: * *

Lassie (Basil Poledouris)

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There was a fever of a sort going around Hollywood in the early 1990’s: dozens of old TV shows were unearthed and turned into major motion pictures in one of the industry’s more overt displays of bankrupt creativity, not unlike the “reboot” fever of the 2010s. Lassie, produced in 1994, came as the movement was at its height, yet surprisingly failed to find much of an audience. It’s since become a curiosity that’s chiefly of interest to score fans, since Basil Poledouris provided the film with one of his most obscure scores.

With Conan and Blue Lagoon on his resume the composer may not have been the knee-jerk choice for a children’s movie, but Poledouris no doubt landed the job as a result of his involvement with the massively popular Free Willy the year before. The two scores could not be more different, though: while Willy added electronics to an orchestra, Lassie is wholly orchestral, brimming with full-force Americana rather than contemporary electronics and a much closer cousin to Poledouris’s Quigley Down Under or Lonesome Dove.

The album begins strongly with “Main Title,” a full concert presentation of the main theme. Swirling strings, noble brass, and mournful woodwinds are deftly combined; the music sounds like it could serve as the powerful opening to a nature documentary. The Lassie theme is performed boldly several other times, most notably in the latter half of the album, with a powerful performance in “Lassie Saves Matt” and a slower reprise in “Reunion/Return.”

Lassie’s other cues are equally strong, often incorporating parts of the main theme in more subdued or playful arrangements, and always remaining true to the Americana sound established in the opening. The orchestrations are especially lush, with racing strings often serving as a counterpart to the brass blasts of the main theme. The entire score is painted in very broad strokes with full long-lined melodic development and none of the mickey-mousing or self-consciously cute music that infests so many modern children’s films, an approach used with great success by composers like James Horner and Jerry Goldsmith in their finest children’s scores.

The score album, which runs a little under forty minutes, was released by the short lived Sony Wonder boutique label at the time of the film’s debut and has since become rather hard to find. Fans of Poledouris and Americana are urged to seek it out, especially if they enjoy the late composer’s other scores for children’s movies, and would enjoy a broad Americana style in that context.

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Free Willy 2 (Basil Poledouris)

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Free Willy was a breakout success in its initial release, and a sequel was therefore inevitable. Released in 1995, Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home was a modest success, despite ditching Keiko the whale in favor of animatronics, and paved the way for a third film later in the decade. The late composer Basil Poledouris signed on for the sequel, as did pop star Michael Jackson, but the resulting album was far weaker than the original.

While each of the first two Free Willy scores were padded with pop tunes designed to sell CD’s, Free Willy 2 represents a nightmare for all film score enthusiasts: a good score barely represented on album and buried by songs. Only ten minutes of Poledouris’ score made it onto the album, sandwiched between Michael Jackson songs (once again referred to as “Theme from Free Willy 2” on the packaging) and “bonus tracks” that did not appear in the film. None of the songs fit in well with the overall spirit of the film or Poledouris’ score, and by 1995 even Jackson was not much of a draw, his “Childhood” song seeming especially awkward in light of the troubled star’s legal difficulties between the release of the original film and its sequel.

Poledouris acquits himself well with limited album space, returning to and expanding upon his approach to the first film. “Main Titles” reintroduces the main theme from the first film, punctuated by sprightly flourishes and tasteful use of electronic accents and percussion. The theme is lighter and more charming than in the first installment, and performed by an impressive-sounding orchestral ensemble. “Whale Swim” features more electronics, including the undulating electronic notes found in the first score, combined with another robust orchestral performance and solo guitar. The track also reintroduces the secondary theme from Free Willy, delightfully punctuated with woodblocks. The final track, “Reunion,” is the most subdued of the three, and features no electronics of note, just lovely orchestral writing and a triumphant fanfare at the end. As always, Poledouris’s passion for the sea in his personal life bleeds wonderfully through into his music.

So, as a score fan, should you seek out Free Willy 2, despite its wretched album situation? If you’re looking for an introduction to the series and its themes, Free Willy is certainly superior to its sequel as an album. But if you’ve heard and enjoyed the first score, Free Willy 2 serves as an enjoyable expansion, if you can find the disc in a bargain bin for 50 cents; Poledouris’ tracks would make an excellent addition to any collection CD. Ironically, even if every note of Poledouris’ music from both Free Willy albums, and the entirety of Cliff Eidelman’s Free Willy 3 were placed on a single CD, there would still be space left.

Ultimately, only buy Free Willy 2 if If you think ten minutes of outstanding Poledouris material are worth sifting an album padded with pop garbage. Hopefully, someday an enterprising label like Intrada or La La Land will give the music from these films the release they deserve.

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