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The Age of the Dino Scores

by Doug Adams, the Voice of Reason

If you look really close at the end of The Lost World, when Richard Attenborough appears on the television screen you can see the reflection of Steven Spielberg sitting on the couch. Or is it really Spielberg? Maybe this inverted image isn't really a reflection at all—maybe it's the Bizarro Spielberg, the same director responsible for such gems as 1941, Hook, and now, The Lost World.

I really wanted to enjoy this movie, but it was just an utterly confused mess with outstanding special effects—i.e. a typical summer movie. John Williams' score was as lost as everything else. The majority of the score is chase music, and that's where the trouble begins. Music can help chase scenes first by providing continuity to glue all of the quick editing together. And how better to do this than to score through everything with very linear music. However, in order to have the music reflect the more immediate actions, it needs to interact with the visuals as well. So it can't be linear on every front. Williams' solution is to place Latin American/African percussion on repeating patterns and use the winds, brass, and strings to punch on-screen specific actions. Clever idea. The problem is that these percussion patterns—the cues' linear element—never change. They don't go anywhere musically or dramatically. If the pitch- oriented instruments are going to be as non-participatory as they are here, you've got to be sure that the percussion instruments are doing something worth while, not just looping two bars. The writing is also problematic in that the patterns are too organized—not the kind of scoring that works with the random violence of nature. It probably goes with Williams' ideas about the "balletic sense" he's always mentioning, and it definitely made everything feel choreographed, but to the detriment of the picture in my opinion.

In the film the score is almost a non-issue. Some scenes also appear to have had their intended cues removed and are sloppily tracked over with the theme. This doesn't really matter because the score brings almost nothing to the film anyway. In Jurassic Park, there's an awful lot of fat on the score from the over reliance on the celeste to the fact that everything is far too cheery for what's essentially a monster movie, but at least Williams has his angle on things clearly carved out. There's the four note motif which represents the danger of the dinosaurs (in Lost World this motif is played three times the first time someone says "Velociraptor," then is never heard again), there's a chorale theme that represents their majestry, there's a Dies Irae-like theme that is used in a lot of the tension music, and there's the march that represents the pageantry of the park in operation.

In The Lost World, what is being scored really? The King Kong island theme represents the safari aspect of things. It's a nice piece of music with the growling trombone pedal tones, ominous timpani and contrabass clarinet lines, and some particularly deft realization of counter melodies. And, interestingly, the beginning harmony is the same as the march from Jurassic Park. It's also a terrible piece of musical material for Williams to have saddled himself with for a main theme because it's so fully realized and self contained he can't do anything with it. It's comprised of these long, arcing phrases—which are actually just part of a minor scale rendered as major chords on each scale degree. As interesting as this sounds, it's really two strikes against it. The long phrase shape of the theme means it can't be compressed to a quick, recognizable statement. It's harmonic construction means it can't be down-sized at all. It's either a thick chordal statement or nothing at all—if you give the theme to a solo instrument it's just playing a minor scale. What results is that we usually hear this theme whenever there's a long scene of trekking to or through the jungle, but it can't work anywhere else in the score. Note how clumsy it feels when the young T Rex eats the corporate villain.

Seven for Luck

I think part of John Williams' popularity as a film composer is due to the fact that he often writes music that is a surrogate for the audience. He takes some element of the film and scores it the way an audience member would perceive it if he/she were in this story. Compare this to some of Jerry Goldsmith's efforts where he scores more from the inside of the film and how things appear from within the story, like Logan's Run. Neither technique is better, but Williams' seems like it's been more accepted by general audiences, probably because it's so immediate. In Lost World, it sounds like he couldn't find anything inside the film to write music about, so he just chose a kind of random undulating sense of fear which is A) too intangible to begin with and B) a given in a film like this anyway, so why score it? Actually, scratch that—it can be done. This was pretty much Howard Shore's approach in much of Seven. Seven is more successful because the score hangs over the film's proceedings like an unending nausea. It doesn't just try to paste in fear whenever John Doe is near. And if you think about it, the uneasiness of the rotting city really is a story element in Seven. In Lost World it's just a reaction to a story element. Maybe one of Lost World's biggest problems is that it's mainly a reactionary score. This is why music feels so incredibly redundant in the trailer-on-the-cliff and the tent scenes. Scored like Seven, Lost World would have had the most important music occurring when little to nothing was happening on the screen, and that would have been a lot more interesting and effective.

Since all these reactions are all different, the overall score is almost completely devoid of unifying devices. The old Jurassic themes pop up occasionally, but they don't do anything except tie this score to its predecessor. There is also an attempt to color the scenes with the Compys similarly—all sorts of aleatoric upper woodwinds and muted brass which are actually pretty interesting. The rest of the score is geared towards a sort of vague menace with little connection to the bar before and even less to the rest of the score. If the first responsibility of chase scenes is to provide continuity, then the second is to create dramatic context—give scenes a soul. The music's disjointedness makes this an impossible task.

I'm probably being too hard on this score overall, but it's Williams doing an adventure score and he's set a pretty high precedent. Under all the missteps there are some really creative attempts at getting a foothold. Listen to the twisted child's tune that plays when the little girl skips in the film's opening. Or hear Williams play with samba rhythms during the Raptors attack—it doesn't work, but he's searching for something interesting to do. And the incredible layers of complexity in "The Hunt" reminds you that no other film composer can manipulate the orchestra like Williams can. Of, course this wasn't even in the film.

Maybe the fact is that John Williams just isn't interested in dinosaurs, I once heard him talk about the music he had written for the Brontosaurus Rex (there is no such species). It sounds like he was bored here, I can only hope that in the future he will stick to projects he has a genuine interest in.

Comments? DAdams1127@aol.com


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