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CD Reviews: Sky Captain and Vanity Fair

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow *** 1/2


Sony Classical – SK9293

18 tracks – 57:40

Edward Shearmur has been waiting in the wings for way too long. When he scored a well-made indie (Wings of the Dove), few people heard it, and when he landed a Hollywood hit (Charlie's Angels), few even realized there was a score between the Destiny's Child songs. I've been a huge fan of Shearmur's wonderful efforts on K-PAX and Johnny English, so I was thrilled to see him attached to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. The movie was one of the most anticipated of the year, with its retro noir look, big budget and stellar cast. The question was: "Would Shearmur be up to the challenge?"

The answer is "Yes." To say that the movie itself is all effects is an understatement. More or less an animated film with the occasional live actor thrown in for good measure, Kerry Conran's Sky Captain is a retro movie that couldn't have been made until now (due to technological requirements). Shearmur could have created a more futuristic score, but instead opts for a traditional orchestral approach that effectively grounds a movie that's constantly in flight.

Although he doesn't put his own personal stamp on the '40s spy drama/sci-fi action (!) genre, Shearmur does a good job of creating a rousing atmosphere. His music is reminiscent of John Williams' Superman and James Horner's The Rocketeer, but more as references than quotations. "The World of Tomorrow" is a great anthem to begin the CD, and from there Shearmur starts spinning music for the claustrophobic yet expansive world uncovered in the film. The bulk of the score is heroic action music, and this will likely make it popular with film music fans. From the exciting "Calling Sky Captain" to the impressive finale of "Totenkopf's Ark," Shearmur's music is never ironic or cloying; it's full-steam ahead, old-fashioned writing. The album's only real stain, a syrupy cover of "Somewhere over the Rainbow" by overrated jazz vocalist Jane Monheit, is thankfully at the very end of the CD.

Whatever you might think of the movie itself, the Sky Captain album is a fun ride. Shearmur's stock just went up, so hopefully some A-list directors are listening.     -- Cary Wong

Vanity Fair *** 1/2


Decca B0003076-02

25 tracks - 46:13

In a move reminiscent of Columbia's hiring Ang Lee to direct Sense and Sensibility in 1995, Focus Features turned to Mira Nair to helm its adaptation of William Thackeray's masterful Victorian novel, Vanity Fair. Nair, an Indian not known for directing English period pieces, in turn called upon composer Mychael Danna, with whom she had worked on Monsoon Wedding.

In Vanity Fair, Danna appears to be channeling Patrick Doyle's Sense and Sensibility, along with some occasional Mozart. The music is extremely classical in orientation, the orchestration open, with strings and woodwinds taking the bulk of the melodic lines. Consider the instrumental cue "Becky and Amelia Leave School": The 3/4 melody enters in straight forward four-bar phrases and is passed between strings and woodwinds. This is a standard classical structure handled beautifully throughout, even down to the embellishments and ornamentation. Elsewhere on the album there are delicate piano solos and simple songs that sound as though they could have come directly from a Victorian lady's parlor (or from any Jane Austin adaptation).

However, even within these rigid styles, Danna's personality shines through. The title sequence is underscored by a setting of "She Walks in Beauty" performed by soundtrack veteran Sissel. The melody of that song quickly asserts itself as the score's main theme, appearing whenever the heroine, Becky Sharp is making her move up the social ladder (or back down again). There are also two Indian popular music-inspired tracks, along with hints of Indian music elsewhere on the album.

My one complaint with this album is that many of the cues stop abruptly. These pieces cry out for proper cadences, (largely because of the style in which they were composed), and without such the score's faithfulness to the era is somewhat comprised. This minor quibble aside, Vanity Fair is a delight from beginning to end. Even coming from a composer known for delivering well-executed surprises, this score stands out as one of his most successful.     -- Andrew Granade

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