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Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Among the outstanding film scores of master composer John Williams are his invaluable contributions to the Indiana Jones series. As director Steven Spielberg once said, "Sure, the whip, the hat, the jacket are part of the Indiana Jones iconography. But what really gives Indy his heart and spirit is John Williams' music."

Serving as highly convincing evidence of this comes three new CDs from Concord Records which contain the scores for RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, and INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE. All are fully-remastered and augmented by previously-unreleased material, and each comes with an illustrated booklet with liner notes by Spielberg. Today I had the pleasure of listening to these CDs and would like to share my impressions of them with you.

The first thing I noticed is that, unlike many soundtrack recordings, these tracks are in the proper sequence as they appear in the movie. This is good because it helps the listener to better relive the movie in his or her mind while listening. The score for RAIDERS begins with that exotic, foreboding melody that accompanies the Paramount logo and our first view of the mysterious whip-wielding man in the fedora as he and his guide trudge through the jungle. The first four pieces--"In the Jungle", "The Idol Temple", "Escape From the Temple", and "Flight From Peru"--allow us to experience that entire opening sequence of the film in our minds. The rest of the score similarly serves as the backdrop to our own mental journey through the familiar story.

Most of this probably wouldn't appeal a whole lot to people who haven't seen the movies, because much of the music is very scene-specific, and is, in fact, almost what you might call "Mickey Mousing" (an often derogatory term used to describe music that parallels a film's action too closely). But John Williams is so good that even when he does this (as the never-sit-still nature of these movies often requires) it's still fully realized music that is exciting and intriguing to listen to.

"The Map Room: Dawn" builds dramatically to that breathtaking moment in which Indy pinpoints the location of the Ark. The sequence inside the Well of Souls and Indy's punishing fistfight on the flying wing are fast-moving tracks filled with musical variety. The longer, more cohesive pieces, such as the playful "Basket Game" or the robust "Desert Chase", are as stirring in their own right as an overture or a movement in a symphony and provide lengthy intervals of listening pleasure punctuated by moments of sheer grandeur.

While it's impossible for most of us to know exactly what images each passage of music is describing, there are those particular moments that stand out--the beam of light passing through Indy's staff and striking the map, Indy marching his horse down the mountain with grim determination in order to overtake the truck convoy, and the grand finale in which the terrifying power of the Ark is unleashed. These are the musical touchstones that bring our memories of the film to life and make the overall listening experience all the more rewarding.

This score never gets dull because it's just as kinetic and ever-changing as the movie's action. Williams uses the entire orchestra beautifully. Marion's theme is as romantic and exotic as ever, while the haunting "Ark" theme never ceases to elicit chills and evoke a strong feeling of ancient mysticism. And of course, Indy's theme ("Raiders March"), which we finally get to hear in all its glory at the end, is one of the most joyfully celebratory themes ever written for a movie character.

TEMPLE OF DOOM, as you might expect, begins on an entirely different note with a jaunty, Asian-flavored shuffle through Cole Porter's "Anything Goes", followed by a slow tension-building piece called "Indy Negotiates." Then it's off on another multi-track journey through non-stop action with "The Nightclub Brawl", "Fast Streets of Shanghai", "Map/Out of Fuel", and "Slalom on Mt. Humol", all frantic hyperkineticism filled with the familiar Williams touches, including frequent dashes of Indy's theme.

Then Short Round gets his own heroic theme worthy of an Arthurian knight, after which our journey toward the Temple of Doom begins. Again, much of the music is very scene-specific, but this time it often has a lush, orchestral openness that seems to describe vast panoramas of musical adventure ("The Scroll/To Pankot Palace"), with the occasional detour into romantic lyricism and frivolity ("Nocturnal Activities").

At this point the movie is off and running again, and so is Williams as he gives his orchestra quite a workout. The extended sequence inside the temple itself yields a number of exciting and often downright dissonant tracks ("Children in Chains", "The Temple of Doom", "Short Round Escapes", "Saving Willie") filled with pounding drums and the occasional chanting vocal chorus. In "Short Round Helps", Indy's theme bursts through the darkness for a welcome return, but is quickly pulled back into the maelstrom again. If you don't know quite what's going on in the story at any given time, just imagine Indy, Short Round, and Willie in big trouble and that really creepy bad guy and his minions trying to kill them, and the music will do the rest.

What I was waiting for mainly was "The Mine Car Chase." That's what I remember most about this movie, and the score here, as expected, is a mad dash of intensity that doesn't let up for a moment. (I can imagine the musicians all falling out of their chairs after the last note.) "Water", "Sword Trick", and "The Broken Bridge/British Relief" bring the action to a climax in similar style, finally giving way to the triumphant fadeout and another stirring end credits rendition of the "Raiders March", this time sprinkled with various TEMPLE OF DOOM-related themes. Overall, it's a difficult, almost exhausting score to listen to--the most nightmarish of Indy's adventures--but I found the experience rather invigorating and cathartic.

LAST CRUSADE has my favorite opening of all--a near 12-minute piece called "Indy's Very First Adventure" which starts out in a slow but inviting manner, builds ever so gradually, and finally blossoms into an exciting, delightfully humorous, and fairly self-contained composition that moves briskly and ends with a fanfare version of Indy's theme. I can see Williams conducting this at some formal event, like maybe the ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new Piggly Wiggly or something.

There must not have been much music for awhile after that, because we skip directly to "The Boat Scene", "X Marks the Spot", and "Ah, Rats!!!" (if you've seen the movie you'll no doubt recall those particular scenes) which continue the uncommonly lush orchestration of the opening piece. This sound will continue throughout the entire score, making it perhaps the most genuinely listenable of the three. There's a richness to the orchestrations and an abundance of melody that are almost intoxicating, at times given a religious-epic tone by the stately "Grail" theme which appears intermittently, and a noticeable lack of the harsh dissonance found throughout TEMPLE OF DOOM.

The score continues in this vein as Indy and his dad make their way into Austria and battle the Nazis. I have no idea just what's going on throughout much of this, but there's a lot of tension-building stuff mixed with passages of pure romanticism and the occasional action stings, all of which are a distinct pleasure to listen to. "Scherzo For Motorcycle and Orchestra" is especially invigorating and enjoyable, and is a great example of how much fun Williams seems to be having with this entire score.

"On the Tank" and "Belly of the Steel Beast" are just what they sound like--it's the action centerpiece of the film and the music drives it forward like a powerful engine. It's like classical music that's been working out at Gold's Gym every day for a few years. Then we proceed into "The Canyon of the Crescent Moon" to meet "The Keeper of the Grail", wherein the music takes on a solemn yet richly substantive elegance (with that "Grail" theme finally kicking in full-force) until the rip-roaring "Finale & End Credits." This reprise of the "Raiders March" and its recap of various themes from the film seems more joyous and triumphant than ever.

After a while I stopped keeping up with the track titles and just let the music carry me along. Even the most scene-specific passages seem to flow as though the composer were simply writing the grandest music he could think of for his own amusement, and it's never less than effortlessly entertaining on its own. I think Williams really improved a lot in the years between the first Indy film and this one--if it weren't for the sentimental attachment I have to RAIDERS and the feelings its music evokes in me, this score would easily be my favorite of the three. Maybe it is anyway.

I'll definitely be keeping these three Indiana Jones CDs handy for frequent background listening. Each has its own feel and its own strengths, perfect for whatever mood I may happen to be in at the time, and each is a splendid example of motion picture scoring at its absolute finest.


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