The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (Marco Beltrami)


Based on novelist Chris Fuhrman’s only completed book, 2002’s The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is a coming-of-age tale of four friends going to Catholic school in the 1970s interspersed with a comic book that they are writing collaboratively. All the usual coming-of-age boxes are checked: bullies, first loves, nasty authority figures, and a friend that doesn’t make it to the end credits. The well-received novel helped attract a cast of up-and-comers like Emile Hirsch and veterans like Jodie Foster; veteran comic book artist Todd MacFarlane even stepped forward to turn the boys’ comic books into short animated segments. Ultimately, though, the film and its first-time director (music video veteran Peter Care) weren’t able to connect with audiences, and despite decent notices the film made back only a fraction of its indie budget.

In 2002, many of composer Marco Beltrami’s biggest hits were still ahead of him, meaning that the film composer was still affordable to indie productions like The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys. But Beltrami wouldn’t be tackling the film alone; guitarist Joshua Homme from Queens of the Stone Age wrote a number of tracks as well and contributed instrumental pieces to the score. Years later, Beltrami would recall that he had no idea how he’d been hired for the project, but that the project had been a “tough ride” fraught with difficulty understanding what the director wanted. Until the intercession of star Jodie Foster (herself an occasional director), the film had seem a lot of different musical avenues tried with a lot of (as Beltrami put it) “strangeness” along the way.

The unsettled nature of its composition definitely shows in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys on album. It plays not so much as a cohesive score but as a series of disjointed musical moments, wildly varying in theme, instrumentation, and tone. It doesn’t have much of a thematic skeleton to hold it up, and Beltrami’s own distinctive musical voice is muted as well, leaving little to latch onto. The music is fun when it has to be (“Story of the Fish”), scary when it has to be (“Torn Apart”) and sad when it has to be (“Eulogy”) but, like the film itself, seems to be checking off boxes more than transcending them.

Homme’s music doesn’t fit in with Beltrami’s very much, but since Beltrami’s music is disjointed to begin with, it’s not as big of a problem as it might be. Homme’s contributions are exactly what you’d expect to hear from a rock guitarist: technically skillful electric six-string playing that seems to be backing for vocals that never arrive. It’s successful in capturing a hint of the youthful rebellion in the titular altar boys, but very little else. When Homme adds vocals to the mix (“All the Same” ), the result is somewhat better; the others simply feel like important parts have been snipped out. Period songs by Canned Heat and Stephen Stills round out the brief album.

Released by Milan the year after The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys limped out of theaters, the CD was enough of a curiosity to Homme fans that Amazon repressed the platter as an on-demand CD-R once Milan’s run ended. It’s difficult to see what either Homme fans or Beltrami fans will get out of the music, though; the hodgepodge on screen and on album very clearly reflects the composer’s memories of a tortured and uncertain scoring process. It’s hard to blame either man for the music’s lack of cohesion and lack of interest given the circumstances, though. Homme would continue to write popular music in the years afterward but never again dabble in film composition, while Beltrami was only a year out from his big break with Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and the one-two punch of Hellboy and I, Robot in 2004. The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys would remain a footnote for both of them.

Rating: star