Gridiron Gang (Trevor Rabin)

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Gridiron Gang was a 2006 sports film which depicted, with considerable dramatic license, the story of the Kilpatrick Mustangs–an American football team made up of teens convicts from a juvenile hall. Though it’s doubtful that the actual 1990 Kilpatrick Mustangs came close to resembling the ones in the film, and their coach certainly had little in common with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the film was a solid performer in the “inspirational sports story” genre.

The 1990s Trevor Rabin presents a contrast to the composer in 2006 as well. The former member of Yes had transitioned to writing film scores in the mid to late 1990s and had exploded onto the scene with multiple high-grossing blockbusters like Armageddon and Enemy of the State, often working in collaboration with members of fellow former rocker Hans Zimmer’s Media Ventures (and later Remote Control) studio. But by 2006, Rabin’s biggest Hollywood collaborators, Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer, had largely moved on to using Zimmer and his associates for their films. Rabin responded by taking his distinctive sound into new genres; his success with the 2002 film Remember the Titans in particular leading to a profitable sideline for sports stories like Gridiron Gang.

Rabin provides an effective sound for the film that mixes his action style of the 1990s, the same one that had a significant influence on the development of the MV/RC “blockbuster sound,” with more relaxed and acoustic material more reminiscent of Thomas Newman than anyone. Much of the meaty 55-minute album is taken up with very sincere and functional, if unspectacular Americana in the vein of The Shawshank Redemption, albeit simplified and streamlined to fit Rabin’s compositional style and instrumental choices. It’s the sort of soft inspirational music which is very easy to do adequately but very difficult to do well.

There are, of course, definite moments when Rabin’s 90s action style comes rip-snorting to the front–most notably in the three lengthy “We’re Better Than This” cues that punctuate the album. Rabin moves, not always gracefully, from his Americana sound to his Wall of Sound–orchestral players blaring in unison and managing to sound like cheap synthesizers
in the process (another element that was developed by Rabin’s former MV/RC collaborators). While this music is noisy and satisfies the dramatic requirements of the film, it has some baggage: it sounds very dated, with Rabin’s techniques on display here little different from those he used in the 90s, and thanks to the ubiquity of the MV/RC sound it manages to appear almost like a knockoff (despite the fact that Rabin has been practicing his own blend of masculine music as long as Zimmer and company have).

Ultimately, Gridiron Gang is an adequate, if somewhat underachieving, score that plays it safe. It provides exactly what the film requires, no more and no less, and does so with Trevor Rabin’s distinct style. Given the unavailability of many of his best sports scores on album (like the aforementioned Remember the Titans and Coach Carter), Gridiron Gang also serves as the most easily obtainable representative of the composer’s sports score style. Thanks to copies of the score being remaindered by Varèse Sarabande to the Family Dollar chain, in fact, Gridiron Gang is often available for as little as three dollars.

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Being Julia (Mychael Danna)

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An obscure but well-received 2004 feature starring Annette Benning, Being Julia played out the tale of an aging actress during the golden age of cinema and nabbed its leading actress an Oscar nomination. Hungarian director István Szabó dabbled extensively in both European and Hollywood cinema before and after the film, and with the semi-retirement of Maurice Jarre, who gave the director’s previous English-language feature Sunshine one of his final (and finest) scores, Mychael Danna was hired for the project. One of a pair of stately period pieces (Vanity Fair being the other) the Canadian scored back-to back after the disappointment of his 2003 Hulk rejection, the talky picture had relatively little room for a traditional dramatic score.

Varèse Sarabande can’t be accused of holding anything back; Danna’s entire score is on the album down to the last track. It’s an incredibly short score, a mere 22:28 when stripped of the songs padding out the album, and with 22 score tracks that means that the average song is scarcely over a minute long. In fact, none of the score tops three minutes, 14 of the score tracks are less than a minute long (with three clocking in at under 30 seconds), and the shortest lasts a mere 13 seconds! It’s no wonder the album was padded a bit, as even with 13:34 of period songs it barely tops 36 minutes, nearly the exact length of Varèse’s “30-minute specials” from the 80s and 90s before the AFM musical re-use rule changes.

Ordinarily–at least when the artist is not Thomas Newman–the presence of so many short tracks means that the music will inevitably be highly fragmented, content to Mickey Mouse along with the action and little else. To his credit, Danna sidesteps this through the clever use of a wonderful theme. First heard in the opening track, “Curtain Up,” the theme is a delight, with sweeping neo-classical movements and a rapturous full-orchestral sound that is malleable enough to be adapted into forms both sprightly and dark. Hardly a track on the album goes by where Danna is not referencing his theme, whether in quirky pizzicato mode (“Birthday Presents”) or arranged for heartbreak and tragedy (“It Will Only End in Tears”). The score has only the one theme, and it is repeated early and often, but such is not always a problem–Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings certainly has 22 minutes of various themes kicking around all told.

The album is rather poorly produced, though: a recurring problem in period movies that use older songs to pad out the score CD (to bring up Thomas Newman again, his The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile are key examples of this). The songs break up the score, being completely different in tone and style, and they also suffer from muffled and archival sound which is inconsistent with not only the score but also each other. Nothing jars one out of experiencing Danna’s pristine new recording of variations on his theme than a song which was recorded on 1930s technology and sounds like is has spent the intervening 80 years in a hot barn surrounded by steel wool. A much more logical decision would have been to program Danna’s score as a whole, with the songs clustered at the beginning or end of the album.

While Being Julia remains a relatively obscure film on its own merits and in Mychael Danna’s filmography, the composer was able to transcend many limitations that hamstring short-tracked albums though the consistent application of his theme. While the music’s bittiness does remain a concern, and it’s too bad that the score was broken up by songs, the CD is well worth seeking out at the right price. One of the titles in Varèse Sarabande’s infamous “Family Dollar Housecleaning,” the album can often be found new for as little as $3 or $4 at the discount chain.

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