"Through every rift of discovery some seeming anomaly drops out of the darkness
and falls, as a golden link, into the great chain of order." - Edwin Hubbel
John Williams' Angela's Ashes is not the potent theatrical score one
might expect. It is barely disturbing, but is deeply emotional (the primary
aspect to prevent one's attention from wandering elsewhere). As with Williams'
"Stepmom," people can use this soundtrack to create a checklist for Williams'
personal clichés. It is a patchwork. However, "Angela's Ashes" is
superior in almost every other aspect, including how it gracefully veils
its own shortcomings. It shares a commonality with some of John Williams
earlier, but it is not stale.
Based on the award-winning book, Angela's Ashes is the tale of Frank
McCourt and his family living poor and miserable in Ireland, struggling to
find gladness in the depression. Williams eschews ethnic musical hallmarks
("Far and Away," for example) in favor of a straightforward retelling of
the story in a standard symphonic approach. The brass section is kept very
low-key, perhaps more so than "Schindler's List," yet the full orchestra
builds, rises, and crashes among meditative instrumental solos on cello,
harp, oboe, piano, and violin. The orchestrations, though overly familiar,
remain amazing and are unpretentiously -- again, also very emotionally --
used. The central melody is a capacious, sumptuous theme (think of that equally
well chosen dramatic score by Williams... Seven Years in Tibet), and
appears regularly to bring the work together further. Without a doubt, there
is as much of Williams' sensitivity as anyone expects. This is his music,
and he lets us know it.
Period recordings of 'The Dipsy Doodle' and 'Pennies from Heaven' add to
the veritable ambiance and to the album's affectivity. The narration from
the film is fractured, unnecessary, and gradually becomes more hindrance
than help. Had Williams arranged the music and adapted the narration into
a suite (as he did with his "The Reivers" Suite), the accomplishment would
be more worth the effort. As is, the effect is like a commercial interruption
for disheartening sentiments; the music does commendably on its own, without
supererogation from a narrator. Alan Parker's brief comments touch on the
genuineness of 'gush notes,' giving a cursory nod to the personal process
of working with a great film composer without the longwinded congratulatory
babble directors and producers have a fondness for. The disc is not a great
victory, but it drops into the general vicinity. And it falls, as a golden
link, into the great chain of order. Here is another pleasant addition to
John Williams' very extensive and prosperous career.
Ian Lace adds some comment after listening to the DECCA CD:-
"When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all.
It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth
your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable
Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood."
- Frank McCourt, Angela's Ashes.
As I write, I have just received the DECCA version of this score (the one
without the narration) although I hope to have the SONY version too, 'ere
long. There appears to be some confusion. I was told that the DECCA album
was for the UK market but I believe the SONY version will be on sale here
too? I will update this review as the situation clarifies itself.
I agree with everything that Jeffrey Wheeler says in his eloquent review
above. I admire John Williams's taste and skill in treading the fine line
between sentimental sensitivity and bathos. This virtually string-based score,
is deeply moving and quietly sympathetic to the screenplay underlining the
basic dignity and fortitude of the characters living in appalling conditions
in the oppressive and repressive Limerick of the 1940s.
[How different the City is today. I was impressed with its air of prosperity
when I visited it last summer; the west of Ireland, including Galway, has
one of the fastest growing economies in Europe now thanks to EEC funding.
I can however vouch for the sort of living conditions portrayed in the film.
I was brought up in a North West of England seaport during the 1940s. Thankfully
my parents were fairly prosperous retailers but I remember poorer children
playing in Barrow-in-Furness slums not much different to those portrayed
in Alan Parker's film]
The score opens with figures strongly reminiscent of some of the material
of John Williams's Presumed Innocent score before the main elegiac
theme is introduced. I was struck by the similarity of much of this music
to the great English string compositions by Vaughan Williams, Finzi, Britten,
and Tippett etc. 'Angela's Prayer', in particular has a beautiful luminous
intensity that lingers in the memory. Much of the music is poignant, sometimes
despondent, with few moments of elation and joy save in 'Plenty of Fish and
Chips in Heaven' and the final 'Back to America.' There is an urgent perkiness
reminiscent of E.T. in the pizzicato string cue, 'Delivering Telegrams'
which also adds a little contrast to the preponderantly slow tempos of the
majority of the cues. The latter cue mixes a sad sense of nostalgia with
a new hope, for a new life in a more vibrant America, and the brass, so sparingly
used, is allowed rein to express aspiration.
It may be John Williams in something of a retread mode, no matter -
And Gary S. Dalkin has the last word:-
I haven't had time to give this album the repeated playing is surely deserves,
but having heard about the Sony issue of the score, complete with dialogue
extracts, I am delighted that wisdom has prevailed and the UK has been graced
with a music only release. I can imagine that poetic dialogue over some of
this music might be enjoyable and atmospheric, once, but as Jeffery Wheeler
comments, such hybrid releases quickly become tiresome. Let's be blunt: John
Williams is still the greatest living film composer, and his music can stand
on its own, so do make sure you buy the Decca version.
Here is Williams in elegiac, rhapsodic mode. As noted above, he avoids the
'Orish' flavourings he brought to his wonderful Far and Away score,
adopting an idiom similar to parts of Presumed Innocent and its distant
piano-haunted all-passion-spent darkness. 'The Lanes of Limerick' uses a
harp to create a hazy, beguilingly heady dream-like atmosphere, but this
is as Irish as the score gets. Rather, there is as Ian says, an elegant
reflection of Finzi and Vaughan-Williams, to which names I would add Moeran
and Alwyn. Nevertheless, the melodic sensibility remains John Williams own.
It is perhaps this leaning towards the classical, towards a purer synthesis
of music and image, that has alienated some who love passionately Williams
earlier scores. Williams scores of the 90's may be less thematically driven
- though he can still write great tunes, and the main theme here is gorgeous
- yet as such masterpieces as Nixon and Seven Years in Tibet
demonstrate, his music has become ever more richly interwoven with the
psychological fabric of film. Williams is a film composer first, he
paints people and their worlds in sound, and we should not forget that in
the desire for another great soundtrack album. Yet here, he has given us
just that. Even after two listens it is becoming obvious that this is a
wonderfully crafted work, full of marvellous string writing and achingly
lovely melodies, more finely developed than mere 'big tunes'.
It has been suggested that this score harks back to Williams past, a patchwork.
I would call it style, with the clearest source being the more darkly romantic
aspects of the composer's score for Brian De Palma's compelling psychokinetic
gothic fairytale, The Fury. Listen to the pizzicato strings of 'My
Dad's Stories' and 'Delivering Telegrams' for examples (this latter cue also
shares scurrying violins with Close Encounters of the Third Kind).
Not having yet seen the film I can not say whether the apparent reference
to Brief Encounter which opens 'Angels Never Cough' is coincidental
or intentional, but Angela's Ashes is set during the period David
Lean's film was in the cinemas.
The flow of Williams score is briefly interrupted by two period 'pop' tunes,
'The Dipsy Doodle' and 'Pennies from Heaven', which might better have been
placed at the end of the disc as bonus tracks, but they can easily be skipped
or reprogrammed. If you like John Williams you should have no hesitation
in buying this disc, and even if you think you don't, or don't like his recent
writing you should consider buying this. It is only mid-January, but I strongly
suspect Angela's Ashes is going to stand as one of the years' best
scores. It has much the same dignified beauty as last year Mark Isham brought
to October Sky, but it also has a greater scale and more variety of
writing. Romantic shadows linger throughout much of the score, such that
anyone with a fondness for Williams Jane Eyre (one of the very finest
television scores ever written) or the incarnadine sadness of
Monsignor will revel in this delicious music. With each track I re-play
this score grows on me more, and I have no hesitation in declaring it a triumph.
Gary S. Dalkin
The book and the film:
I was interested to read a review of Alan Parker's film of Angela's
Ashes in a leading UK film magazine. Many of these magazines are written
for a young audience; and I guess that this particular reviewer was probably
no older than 35 for he insisted that the film was set in the 1930s (it was
actually set in the 1940s -- Ireland was neutral in World War II). The whole
story must now seem as remote to his generation as Dickens does to mine.
Such depravation, as described in Frank Court's memoirs, may have been more
intense in Limerick, and generally so in Ireland than in the UK, but many
poor children ran barefoot throughout the British Isles in those times.
The film is fairly faithful to the book retaining many of its anecdotes although
I would have liked to have seen the inclusion of more character-building
episodes like when Angela is remembered by her old dancing partner as he
lies dying of consumption. It tells us something of her past before she left
Limerick in the first place, for New York. Emily Watson as Angela is everything
I imagined the character to be from the book. She communicates the young
Angela's vulnerability and most vividly in the harrowing early scene in Brooklyn,
where she looses her baby daughter. She is consistently impressive in
communicating Angela's strength and stoicism through all her tribulations:
the deaths of two more of her children, the bigotry and intransigence of
her family and the Irish authorities, her ineffective and drunken husband,
Malachy (another penetrating performance by Robert Carlyle) and her appalling
living conditions. Your heart aches as you watch her downward spiral from
youthful innocence through disillusion to hard-faced acceptance of a repulsive
compromise to permit herself and her younger children to survive.
The boys who play Frank through the various stages of his growing up are
all good - particularly the youngest. The minor characters are well portrayed
too. Where I found fault was in the mood and in the settings. Having been
to Limerick, I cannot believe that it rains as much as all that. Surely one
or two scenes along the Shannon and in O'Connell Street (with its monument)
could have been shot in brighter weather? The overall mood of the book was
of optimism and humour triumphing over adversity. The film is too bleak.
Given Frank McCourt's wonderfully descriptive prose its images should have
lingered longer in the mind, but again this may have been largely due to
the overly dour sets that either looked too dank and terrible or too shiningly
lit to be true.
The book is, of course, far superior and from over 400 pages only some of
its memorable episodic material and its marvellous gallery of characters
could be included in the film. Much of the school episodes and those in the
hospital as Frank recovers from typhoid, are missing, for instance. It is
the fact that the story is seen through Frank's eyes and is related in the
present tense that gives it such spontaneity, immediacy -- and such wit.
Angela's Ashes is one of those books that one cannot put down. It
will make you roar with laughter and it will be a strong man indeed who will
not be moved by its more poignant episodes. A marvellous book well deserving
of its Pulitzer prize.
Purchase the book: Amazon UK Amazon US