January 2000 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

Mark ISHAM October Sky   Score composed and produced by Mark Isham, conducted and orchestrated by Ken Kugler ; album also includes seven 'rock and roll' songs from the 1950's   SONY SK 61696 [Total time 52:42 -- Score: 35:42 / Songs: 17:00]

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October Sky is director Joe Johnson's first feature since 1995's Jumanji, and a distinct change of pace. After that special effects dominated blockbuster, comes a low-key, sensitive study of youthful dreams. Based on a true story, adapted from the book "Rocket Boys" by Homer H. Hickam Jr., the film is set at the dawn of the Space Race, in small-town West Virginia in the Autumn of 1957. Sputnik is in orbit, and four teenage boys long for the stars and experiment with building their own rockets. Here, following a decade of directing escapist fantasy - The Rocketeer, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, The Pagemaster, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles - Johnson offers a more mature examination of the urge to escape itself, resulting in a film which has garnered by far the finest reviews of his career. Unfortunately the film did only moderate business in the States, and despite being scheduled for a December 10 release in the UK, has yet to reach our screens.

There is another way in which October Sky marks a change for Joe Johnson: it is his first feature not to be scored by regular collaborator James Horner. Perhaps Horner is now too expensive for such a comparatively small scale project, but Mark Isham, for whom this is just one of at least nine scores this year, makes a fine replacement. This is a score characterised by wistful nostalgia, yet of a kind devoid of sentiment, built upon folk-like, hymnal elements and a simply gorgeous central melody. There are 17 score selections, totalling 35 minutes, yet this music is very much of a piece, the complete score being far greater than its individually lovely parts. Or at least it is if you take the trouble to programme your CD deck before pressing play, for this is one of the most thoughtlessly sequenced CDs I have recently encountered.

Besides the score, the album contains seven 1950's popular tunes used as source music in the film. There is nothing wrong with this, and I have no problem with the songs. However, given that the valedictory, orchestral sound of the score is so at odds with the 'rock and roll', it seems ridiculous to shatter the mood every few minutes by interspersing one or two of these tunes. Presumably the music has been sequenced here in the order it appears on screen, but a CD is not a film and far more sensible would have been to place the 17 minutes of 'rock and roll' together either at the beginning or end of the disc. Few film music aficionados are going to be interested in these tunes, or if they are, they will probably already have them elsewhere on various pop releases, while 'rock and roll' fans aren't going to be buying the soundtrack of October Sky to get these numbers.

The opening 'Coalwood' introduces the main theme on solo violin, and the first thing that may spring to mind is the opening of James Horner's Legends of the Fall. While a Horner influence is detectable in various places in the score - notably beginning 54 seconds into 'The Search for Auk 13', which just might be a deliberate in-joke reference to Titanic - Isham brings his own elegant style to the score. There is an overwhelming mood of dignified melancholy to this music, an American sound that will appeal to those who appreciate the more sombre romanticism both of Samuel Barber and John Williams. While there is a pleasingly light-hearted feel to certain sequences, by the time the title track gets under way, and if Joe Johnson has done his job properly, there won't be a dry eye in the cinema. 'October Sky' ends the score with a statement of the main theme which is at once noble, reflective, nostalgic, and aching with resignation. For this tale of coming of age in the space age, Mark Isham has employed all his innate taste as a jazz man and all-round musician, and has crafted a spare and finally honed work which has all the hallmarks of a classic Americana score. It is, quite simply, one of the year's best, and should not be missed.


Gary S. Dalkin


Gary S. Dalkin

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