SQUANTO : A WARRIOR’S TALE (*****, Joel McNeely, Intrada Special Collection Volume 179)
The eighties were a magical time. It all started with Steven Spielberg, of course, the one filmmaker who can lay claim to having defined the tone of a decade. And naturally, Spielberg stood on the shoulders of Walt Disney, whose House of Mouse in the eighties as much as in any other decade, has told stories dripping with infectious optimism, unabashed sentimentality and plain rollicking fun. Disney has always had an uncanny talent for telling stories with a sort of sweeping imagination aimed primarily at children, but whose unwavering belief in the fundamental goodness that resides in the heart of man also appeals to adults, albeit on a somewhat deeper level, the child in all of us, as the cliché goes. Steven Spielberg is the embodiment of that philosophy for the kids of the eighties. The seventies were imbued with a gritty edginess, a kind of stark realism informed by the painful realization that we needed to be critical of society and its institutions. The eighties shone a brighter light, one singularly uncritical and even downright naive. Spielberg had portrayed aliens as fundamentally benevolent creatures in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND back in the seventies and in doing so, had paved the way for the relentless succession of bright-eyed movie characters that exuded good will. Movies like THE GOONIES, the BACK TO THE FUTURE and INDIANA JONES trilogies, and to a certain extent even grittier entries like GREMLINS, all sang the song of their decade. When in 2011 writer-director J. J. Abrams decided to pay hommage to his childhood years as well as to their beloved director, he merely needed to throw the familiar elements into the mix: an alien that represents the story’s catalyst and a poignant story about a bunch of kids trying to cope with absent parents, in this case a deceased mother and an estranged father. SUPER 8 ends with an operatic, E.T.-like finale, the letting go - message overstated enough that it becomes a glorious tribute to the naivete of an era gone by. Feelings were shouted out rather than held back, good guys were good, bad guys bad and there was nothing in between, that’s what the eighties were all about.
And quite naturally, all of this extended to the scoring scene of that time. The eighties were dominated largely by the famous triumvirate that pulled me and other fans of my age into film music: John, James and Jerry. John Williams had laid the foundations with STAR WARS, which was important not only because it brought music from the past (romanticism) to a story about the distant future, but also – and more importantly – because it made theme-based scores fashionable again. In recent years, even John Williams has very slightly abandoned this thematic approach. Not that Harry Potter got fewer themes, but within the fabric of the movie, the writing was more “organic” and didn’t draw attention to itself the way it was allowed to. Also, Williams didn’t let rip with the kind of concert arrangement-like setpieces that he littered the first STAR WARS trilogy with (cues like Here They Come, The Asteroid Field, The Forest Battle and so on). Jerry Goldsmith, who was experimenting wildly with the integration of electronics into the fabric of the orchestral sound back in the eighties, became somewhat embittered by the way film music evolved, and even James Horner, who thirty years ago was scoring the Spielberg-produced fare - and was praised by veteran Elmer Bernstein for composing in the vein of the old symphonic school – has slowly drifted, opting to alternate Hollywood blockbusters with smaller, arthouse fare that sees him exploring non-symphonic ground. His writing too, for all its relative bombast, is increasingly relocated to the depths of the movie’s sound track, where film music is perceived rather than heard, much less actually listened to.
But back in the eighties, the proudly symphonic, essentially orchestral and unashamedly conspicuous approach of these three giants produced a slew of themes that are still being performed and recognized today. In fact, in the three decades since, film music has increasingly abandoned thematic building stones, especially in the wake of Zimmer-triggered ambient music design. Much of that debate has now centered around the scores Hans Zimmer is producing for Christopher Nolan, THE DARK KNIGHT being a good case in point: overachieving intellectually and underachieving compositionally. It is diametrically opposed to the sound of the eighties. In the present climate, Michael Giacchino’s score for SUPER 8 is a glorious throwback, and one that regrettably sticks out like a sore thumb. Giacchino has themes (plural!) which he has no problem using - actually, he peppers almost every cue with them. The score is mixed very prominently in the movie’s sound track and the action writing has enough orchestral layers and overpowering activity that it would drive directors like Christopher Nolan nuts : it quite simply dates from a time when composers could parade themselves and their themes without having to fear that audiences or directors would perceive these themes as « distracting » and « overpowering » overscoring.
Joel McNeely’s SQUANTO score is steeped in this tradition and can not possibly be appreciated outside of it. Stated simply: restraint was never an option. (In this respect, there is definitely some truth to the argument of overscoring, but fans like me quite simply revel in it.) And since this is a Disney movie, the composer’s job is to heighten the mood already in place, painting white on white. (Again, this is open to discussion, but again, that’s simply how it was back then.) Vista shots and montages are treated to overwhelming statements of theme. When the drama hits, strings and brass shriek in agony. Romance is lifted to levels of unashamed sentiment and the story is consistently told through melodies, variations on them and arrangements of them. The two main themes are always there, orchestrated to fit particular moments. The accompaniment by a sensitive solo violin places the secondary theme in an intimistic setting, triangle and hyperactive brass add rambunctious flourishes to the primary theme for triumphant moments, McNeely fragments both melodies as needed, in fact, he would turn them upside down if he had to, but the building stones are always there. In fact, only in two six-minute cues toward the end of the album does McNeely turn his back on them, and as a listening experience, the album briefly suffers because of it. (But fans can easily program these cues out if they wish to, so there’s no beef to be had with Intrada’s decision to release a complete-score album.)
The other thing you have to understand about Joel McNeely – and this also applies to John Debney, especially in his earlier scores – is that he happily betrays his influences. This is a composer who relishes the music of John Willams and is not afraid to plunder the Maestro’s oeuvre. Halfway through FAR AND AWAY, run-down Tom Cruise has a dream of his father urging him to follow his dreams, he wakes up to find himself in a moving train, decides to get out and join the pioneers going west. The character’s newly found motivation to cut himself a slice of the American Dream is scored by Williams as a soaring crescendo of hope (climaxing in a majestic statement of the main theme). Joel McNeely lifted that crescendo and uses it twice in SQUANTO, as a bridging device in Horse Ride and End Credits. There’s no point in denying the influence of this and other scores (some quasi-religious writing at the start of “Goodbye” even reminded me of BEN HUR’s Adoration of the Magi). By and large, I suspect “hommages” like this ended up doing McNeely’s career more bad than good. As the SQUANTO album abundantly makes clear, this is a highly talented composer who has a knack for fabulous themes, expert orchestrations, fantastic orchestral layering (not to mention crystal-clear recording), but over the years, Joel McNeely has monumentally failed to develop a sound that is very much his own. On the other hand, his and Debney’s scores have contributed greatly to cementing a consistent Americana sound, taking their cue from the groundwork laid by Aaron Copland, John Williams and the likes, but elevating it to a kind of sweeping and energetic orchestral sound that transcends the work of individual composers to become a voice of its own. Take Debney’s DREAMER, WHITE FANG 2, LITTLE GIANTS, HOCUS POCUS, LAIR and McNeely’s RETURN TO NEVERLAND, IRON WILL , GOLD DIGGERS, WILD AMERICA, and what you have is the kind of quintessential Americana which avowedly carried over into the nineties (when Debney and McNeely started their careers) but whose origins lie in the eighties.
Come to that, it’s all in the, um, ear of the beholder, naturally. To us Europeans, this Americana sound, representative of the American heartland, is utterly exotic, not intellectual per se but always overwhelmingly and gratifyingly emotional. I suspect this is as short-sighted as Americans’ perception of Europe as being awash in stimulating arthouse intellectualism. Actually, in their worst productions, Hollywood blockbusters and European arthouse are equally dreary: the average American blockbuster may be stupefyingly dumb, Europe’s arthouse is very often an irritatingly talkative, would-be intellectual and frustratingly non-cinematic mess. A good movie is never a matter of low or high budget, or low or high art for that matter. Rather, it is always a matter of talent.
My rating of the SQUANTO score turns a deaf ear to the aforementioned issue of originality, but it reflects the rush of enthusiasm I felt upon (re)discovering it. As such, my assessment of the score is highly subjective. At any rate, Intrada’s album is a triumphant reminder of the kind of symphonic scoring that fans of the eighties will relish (even though the score itself was composed in 1994). For those of you who came to film music through Hans Zimmer, this score will take some getting used to, but even the most jaded fan of ambient design will be thrilled by the endlessly soaring themes and the infectious action material. And, as Intrada’s Douglass Fake rightfully points out, by the presence of a fully composed end title cue, something of a lost art these days, as if no one cared anymore about finishing what they started. The SQUANTO score was destined to remain on wishlists for all eternity until Intrada finally unlocked the Disney vaults, which hold a veritable treasure trove of musical gems. If SQUANTO is anything to go by, we’re in for a slew of treats !