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CD Review: Maltin's Choice

Critic's Choice: Leonard Maltin's Best Movie Themes of the 90s ***

VARIOUS

Atlantic Records / Q Records, 92882-2

Disc One: 10 tracks - 75:05

Disc Two: 10 tracks - 75:19

The best thing about this new compilation album (featuring suites and rerecordings performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra under the conducting of David Michael Frank) is the fascinating booklet that accompanies it. I grew up poring over Leonard Maltin's Film and Video Guides, and it's not at all surprising to find that his knowledge of film music is as comprehensive as his knowledge of film. Each selection from this surprisingly bearable collection has an essay on the music in the booklet, often featuring informative tidbits culled from various film-music publications, as well as from interviews with Maltin and the composers. Most interesting are the write-ups on First Knight and Fast, Cheap and Out of Control; the latter features a lengthy discussion between Maltin and documentarian Errol Morris about the film's deceased composer, Caleb Sampson.

As for the music, if you're looking for sound-alike performances of popular scores of the decade, this is decent for its kind. Conductor Frank's original composition, "Critic's Choice Theme," starts off the first disc with nicely wistful passages, but quickly and unfortunately delves into cheesy territory with a synthesized rhythm section. The inevitable inclusion of a Titanic suite is more bearable than one might think--say what you will about Horner's score, but its indigenous sense of majesty and scope are well-captured here, with a live chorus ably replacing the original's synthesized vocals. Renditions of suites from Basic Instinct and Maverick are serviceable, but lack, respectively, Goldsmith's elegant sheen and Newman's sardonic edge. Dave Grusin's piano score from The Firm is well-played, but I wished that his beautifully low-key love theme had made it into the suite somewhere. Subsequent takes on Shore's Ed Wood, Warbeck's Shakespeare in Love, and Elfman's The Nightmare Before Christmas are watered-down, Bud-Lite versions of the music--the same notes are there, but there's not much energy behind them. Frank's leisurely take on Horner's The Mask of Zorro is particularly lackluster, with clumsy flip-flopping between the flamenco material and Horner's undulating love theme (I never thought I'd actually want to hear Horner's original recording to feel better, but so it goes). And, truth be told, I've heard John Williams' "Hymn to the Fallen" from Saving Private Ryan on so many occasions in the past few years that it's starting to become as nerve-rattling as the opening flute notes of "My Heart Will Go On." Frank's take on the piece sounds thin and nervous, and he can't seem to capture the sense of tragedy inherent in Williams' original composition.

The second disc starts off with a hideously wobbly take on Goldsmith's fanfare for King Arthur from First Knight; the rest of the suite is played with the same uncertainty, robbing the music's crisp dignity. The quieter love-theme elements come across OK, but the more strident passages seem to be more than Frank and the CPPO can handle. Surprisingly enough, their rendition of Sampson's beautiful "Eternal Future II" from Fast, Cheap and Out of Control manages to capture the exquisite power of the original; this is one of my personal favorite scores from the '90s and it's a pleasure to see it recorded here with such expression. Frank expands much of the original's solo passages into full-string-section with admirable success, and keeps the music focused and strong. Zimmer's As Good as It Gets lends itself well to rerecording, and while the larger orchestra used here takes a little of the music's quirky intimacy away, it's not bad. Yared's The English Patient gets an equally respectable take here, though this is another piece of music that's starting to suffer from overexposure. Thomas Newman's American Beauty hardly lends itself well to a concert-style arrangement, and while the chromatic percussion and tabla effects are here, they don't have the same quirkiness that usually exudes naturally from Newman's compositions. The suite also includes a take on the film's haunting climactic cue ("Any Other Name"), and it goes so far overboard on synth effects that it drowns out the quiet, haunting beauty of the low-key piano writing. It's back to overkill territory with a suite from Braveheart; like many Horner scores, this is a love-it-or-hate-it effort that I love, and the recording of the end-credits material here does acceptable justice to the music (but those damned bagpipes are getting annoying). Nicola Piovani's inexplicably popular score to Life IsBeautiful gets a simplistic, cursory treatment here, as does Elmer Bernstein's blues-based score to Coppola's The Rainmaker. The Lion King somehow merits a nine-minute orchestral suite, mixing Zimmer's score material with the songs of Elton John and Tim Rice; Frank tries hard to pump up Zimmer's already-bombastic effort, and stumbles in the process by trying to replicate Zimmer's complicated and dexterous electronic patterns. A good take on Williams' Schindler's List rounds out the set--without Itzhak Perlman on board, the music's going to suffer, but the violin soloist here does a commendable job.

One's tolerance for this kind of collection certainly determines how well the album succeeds; there's a certain amount of masochistic adventurousness needed on the part of the listener, a willingness to sit through a performance of a favorite piece of music that may or may not be butchered. Of course, if you're willing to sample Maltin's taste in current film music (or, at least, to argue with his choices), go ahead and take the plunge.

--Jason Comerford

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