December 2001 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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John WILLIAMS
Harry Potter  
  OST
  WARNER SUNSET/NONESUCH ATLANTIC 7567-93086-5 CD1 soundtrack   [73:85]

Harry potter cd

CD2 is a CD-ROM that includes electronic arts game preview; electronic arts screen saver; Lego game preview; 6 film trailers; poster gallery; and wallpaper.

We know what to expect. John Williams rocketed to fame by scoring fanciful fiction, and a good deal of his music continues to live in the minds of the public. His nearly unparalleled relationship with fantasy stylings created the present blueprint for this genre's sound. He was the obvious choice for "Harry Potter". We expect the obvious, but not in a bad way.

Some pundits do complain that another Williams-scored fantasy is too obvious, too easy, and imply less than noble intentions from the composer. Regarding the latter, Williams' involvement with the film began when Steven Spielberg considered directing, and the final director, Chris Columbus, collaborated with Williams three times before: "Home Alone", Home Alone 2: Lost in New York", and "Stepmom", with the latter done as a favor after they decided to work together again. Seems innocent enough. For the former, despite the well-known bombast of John T. Williams, it is his underrated subtlety that pushes the drama forward. The score for "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" meets expectations in a very good way.

All but about ten minutes of the film receives some form of underscore, and it works -- the worst difficulty is that main theme is a touch too slow to develop in relation to how frequently it appears. The music is also less original than one might prefer, but more individualistic than certain people admit. Compare to "The Patriot," a derivative yet generally well-received (by me, at least) Williams score that, as I look back with some embarrassment, was nowhere near this interesting nor this enthusiastic. That "Potter" revives textures from virtually every Williams score of the past three decades -- chiefly "The Witches of Eastwick", "Hook", and the "Home Alone" films -- does not detract from the emotional resurrections being mostly successful. As a general rule, Williams' (and Miklos Rozsa's, and Bernard Herrmann's) recycling is more or less original to the composer, and supports new or improved reiterations such as we receive here. The moments that are familiar in a regrettable sense are few and far between. There's even a ghostly new Christmas carol, with music and lyrics by John Williams. This is a singular score with multiple layers of familiar dressing -- handsomely crafted and tremendously entertaining. The soundtrack album presents half of it, including some concert adaptations, with highlights shared between the movie and the melodic accompaniment...

A self-contained 'Prologue' opens the disc with the sparkling waltzing main 'magic' theme & its auxiliary (those melodies first heard in the trailers), impressively performed on celesta by Randy Kerber. Then we discover 'Harry's Wondrous World,' a full-bodied end credit medley of good-guy themes from the film that showcases a distinct British flavor via the magister's deference for Elgar and Vaughan Williams.

The opening of the film, 'The Arrival of Baby Harry', is one of the highlights -- a mysterioso cue with swirling and tinkling orchestral effects that presents the first dramatic use of Harry's theme, a melody swept like England's hills, and the multi-purpose valse originally written for Hedwig the Owl. 'Visit to the Zoo/Letters from Hogwarts' is another, traveling from comedy to majesty without missing a beat. 'Diagon Alley' is an intriguing attempt at simultaneously presenting source music and underscore (a reoccurring technique in the film) with its recorders, percussion & fiddle; its companion, 'The Gringotts Vault', has a darkly humorous angle, until the creepy three-note motif for the Sorcerer's Stone loudly appears, replete with the London Voices choir.

Next is 'Platform Nine-and-Three-Quarters/The Journey to Hogwarts', a mixed bag ranging from average filler & light comedy to a fanfare ditty for talk of Hogwarts & clever statements of the persistent main theme. 'Entry into the Great Hall/The Banquet' expands the Hogwarts fanfare, and introduces a thematic delight: a theme for Gryffindor, Harry Potter's house, that could be a long-lost school song penned by Sir Edward Elgar. Broomstick wrangling sounds like fun in 'Mr. Longbottom Flies', where the picture's jaunty secondary theme receives a brass workout.

Years ago, Williams spoke about his wish to author an updated "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra". Finding his opportunity with "Harry Potter", he recorded nine extra tracks to appear on a narrated recording sometime in the future. One of the tracks to appear early is 'Hogwarts Forever!', a bravura statement of the Gryffindor theme performed by a horn quartet; the selection precedes 'The Moving Stairs', which takes the tune to the soundtrack's only wholesale annoyance, a virtually note-for-note reprise of the swimming music from "The Phantom Menace" (merely referenced in Track 7), before reminding us of the sought-after stone. Lighthearted woodwinds return for 'The Norwegian Ridgeback', a bouncing baby dragon, before 'A Change of Season' triggers a luscious symphonic statement of Mr. Potter's theme.

'The Quidditch Match' exists as an eight-minute action cue with thematics, dynamics & chromatics changing direction as quickly as the intense game it builds on, maybe faster; I could probably get away with simply uttering the enthusiastic words, "It's a John Williams action cue!" but this entertainment also gives brief yet pivotal reference to the villainous Lord Voldemort. One especially amusing bit of scoring occurs during 'Christmas at Hogwarts' as three ghosts sing an unconventional carol, framed by celebratory music undeniably related to "Home Alone".

Marking a strong shift in tone, 'The Invisibility Cloak/The Library Scene' offers hollow synthesized chords, a bit of suspense, and subdued statements of the Harry Potter and Magic themes. Something fresh: 'Fluffy's Harp' plays onscreen while contrabassoon, an underused solo instrument, underscores the sleeping presence of the unfriendly beast -- this duet is new, and quietly exciting. The slimy tendrils felt 'In the Devil's Snare' cause an unpleasant experience, but 'The Flying Keys' compensates with a short roller-coaster ride. Aggressive percussion in 'The Chess Game' momentarily bows to subtle nobility, until the nature of a character's sacrifice becomes intensely clear - this, by the way, is classic music for a classic scene. The Sorcerer's Stone motif relentlessly builds in 'The Face of Voldemort', accompanied by Voldemort's slithery theme and all the orchestral might appropriate for a flashy duel between good and evil.

Ending the score properly is 'Leaving Hogwarts', an elegant presentation of Harry's theme -- sorrowful that this year at Hogwarts is over; strengthened that a new one will shortly begin. Closing the recording is 'Hedwig's Theme', an utterly smashing concert conglomeration of the trailer themes that represents everything grand about this composer's art.

Sound on the disc is hazy, though an improvement over Williams' last soundtrack. Imagine the musical impact with better mixing. The album itself comes with an online sweepstakes card (I didn't win anything) and the booklet -- with credits, stills, and mildly inspiring director's notes -- folds out into a mini-poster of Harry and Hedwig.

Images from the movie and themes from the soundtrack refuse to stay out of my head for very long. "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" is not a stretch for Williams, but the wizard in muggle disguise proves he has more than enough magic left in him.

Jeffrey Wheeler

****(*)

Ian Lace adds:-
One gets the impression that John Williams's inspiration was, to a certain extent, compromised by the Harry Potter story line; you had to have recognisable elements of wizardry, broomsticks and childhood fantasy. These are all here. John Williams's score for Harry Potter has undeniable magic but it is not so much in his thin thematic inspiration, more in the wonderfully complex richness of his harmonies and orchestrations. Once again many of the familiar Williams fingerprints are in evidence: the upward sweeping exhilaration and the broad romantic melodic lines but presented so appealingly that the ear never feels cheated.

There are some magical touches. The opening theme slight as it is, and sounding vaguely familiar as though it is a derivative amalgam, has that magic star dust quality, charmingly presented as a solo celeste. Indeed the busy celeste solist Randy Kerber is the only player featured in the booklet’s credits. The early cue 'Harry’s Wondrous World' sets out all the main material in high spirits.

There is sinister, dramatic and humorous material that recalls music from the Star Wars scores notably in ‘The Quidditch Match’ a sort of football match on broomsticks. I will just mention some impressive cues. The sly woodwind humour of ‘Visit to the Zoo’, in which Harry’s awful cousin is cast into the snake pit. ';Diagon Alley' is a glorious mix of early music pastiche complete with triangle and tambourine and a Lisztian Mephisto juxtapositioned commentary on solo violin for Harry’s shopping spree in the London behind the magic wall. ‘Fluffy’s Harp’ for the sequence where the three-headed giant dog that guards the Philosopher’s (Sorcerer’s in America!) Stone is memorable for its balance of a clumsy lugubrious contra-bassoon solo for the sleeping monster with the delicacy of the lulling harp melody. ‘The Chess Game’ is very dramatically scored for growling horns and trumpets and insistent snare drums and xylophones and adds immense excitement and tension to this scene in which the children do battle with the forces of evil in a giant chess tournament. The writing for the brass is of a consistently high standard throughout; for example the quirky fanfare flourishes in ‘Hogwart’s Forever!’ and at the beginning of ‘Entry into the Great Hall’. This is another interesting and colourful cue (with some of its material scored for choir) suggesting academic dignity (sometimes punctured).

Not top-drawer John Williams – it cannot compare with his other 2001 score, A.I. – Artificial Intelligence – but having said that it is an album that has many delights and the children will love the goodies that come on the second CD-ROM.

Ian Lace

****

OUR REVIEWERS’ OPINION OF THE FILM
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Richard Harris, Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman; Director: Chris Columbus; Producers: David Heyman, Tanya Seghatchian; Screenwriter: Steve Kloves, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling; Cinematographer: John Seale; Composer: John Williams; Costume Designer: Judianna Makovsky; Editor: Richard Francis-Bruce; Production Designer: Stuart Craig; Visual Effects Supervisor: Rob Legato Warner Bros

By the time we witness the opening of vault 713 in a goblin bank it is clear we are more than just over the rainbow, and by the last shot of the majestic Hogwarts Express we know for certain that we've been in a world of pure imagination.

"Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" ("...Sorcerer's Stone" in the United States, where it is assumed that my fellow Americans and I do not know what a philosopher is) is a cautious adaptation of J.K. Rowling's beloved book for older children through to older adults. Still, the manifestly time-conscious editing cannot butcher the film's classic air. The magic of these wizards does not exist in our ordinary, muggle lives, but I believe in cinema magic.

Writing this from the buckle of the U.S. Bible-belt, I observe that the controversy over the film's paranormal content is overblown. Like the book, the film is fantasy. Fantasy with fair morals, at that. If an eight-year-old is missing the reasoning skills necessary to sift through this motion picture, then "Harry Potter" is the least of his parents' worries.

Harry Potter (Radcliffe) is an eleven-year-old boy whose mystifying past returns to him, to the consternation of his abusive and piggish relatives who vowed to "put a stop to that rubbish" about Harry being born a wizard. Shortly after the world's finest mail delivery system besieges his home, the giant groundskeeper (Coltrane) for the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry enters Harry's life to allow the young magician to fulfill his destiny. At Hogwarts, Harry befriends studious Hermione Granger (Watson) and modest Ron Weasley (Grint), comes under the watchful eyes of wise Headmaster Dumbledore (Harris) and stern Deputy Headmistress McGonagall (Smith), and encounters more than a few intimidating characters, including the unpredictable potions instructor, Professor Snape (Rickman).

Before the magic really begins, we see a cat transform into a witch, a courteous reptile escape the London Zoo, a room fill with fluttering letters, and a trip to a wand shop reveal the spectacle of how the wand chooses its wizard. This is not to mention enchanted vehicles, walls, gadgets, candy and, yes, trading cards. Never mind about the various beasties, assorted surprises, timeless lessons of friendship and love, and school exams.

Once at Hogwarts, the highlights quickly build. I hope to never forget the excitement of a high-speed game on broomsticks, a three-headed hellhound named Fluffy who falls asleep to "Angela's Ashes"-style music (Cerberus fell into the ownership of "an Irish chappie," you see), a game of life-size, life-threatening chess, quieter scenes of a mirror that shows one's desires, and the grotesque battle with Vol-, uhh, You-Know-Who. Film is a visual medium, an invitation to discover new worlds, and "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" delivers fresh, at least re-envisioned, pleasures for the eyes and ears. For every average scene, such as the introduction of the Hogwarts ghosts, there are ten astonishing ones.

Steve Kloves' adaptation of the book is frequently precise and at times an improvement, such as the fuss over a baby dragon that, while hilarious and pivotal to advancing the plot, benefits from clever abbreviation. Other things are misses, particularly the reduction of Dumbledore into a generic storybook sorcerer, whose one bit of whimsical madness imported from the tome now feels out of character. My guess is that the screenplay will not win any awards. What deserves to is Stuart Craig's production design, which feels like it draws settings straight from the book. Also wondrous are the special visual effects -- the few major flaws actually add to the feel of an alternate reality, in a tale where strict adherence to the textures of our world would depreciate its own dazzling atmosphere. The deft cinematography, costumes and score complete the illusion with practicality, whimsy and grace.

Loaded with roles and guest appearances for every other major British actor of the last few decades, "Potter" is an acting treat, too. The young performers at the heart of the story hold their own, minus Radcliffe's moment or two of stiffness that could rival a broomstick's, but it is the old pros that know their roles and bring themselves into them with twinkles in their eyes, three above all. When Rickman makes his entrance as Snape ("Mr. Potter, our... new... celebrity..."), the performance is riveting. A firecracker with formality as one disguise, Dame Maggie Smith puts a supernatural spin on her performance from "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie". John Hurt gives a delightful turn as owner of a wand shop, simultaneously the creepiest and most compelling version of a shoe salesman I have ever seen.

The film is set to become a classic. That it is a well-crafted film undoubtedly helps, yet for its obvious splendor there is more than enough food for the imagination. For 152 minutes in a movie theatre, you imagine that the magic of these wizards does exist. As you make your way home, you almost wish some of it were true.

Jefrey Wheeler

****(*)

Ian Lace says:-

John Williams’s music certainly enhances the charm and excitement of the film.

We read that Joanne Rawlings was adamant in insisting that the film was faithful to the spirit of the book. She had a major say in all aspects of the production including set designs and wardrobe as well as casting. Her insistence that the film should have an all-British cast has paid off handsomely for all the roles are well-nigh perfectly cast: the effulgently whiskered Richard Harris’s Dumbledore is dignified but not without a twinkle; Maggie Smith nicely balances a strictness with sympathy in her portrayal of Professor McGonagall; while the nasties, Ian Hart as Professor Quirrell and Alan Rickman as Professor Snape are suitably oily and obsequious. Robbie Coltrane shines as the lovable but slightly mysterious giant, Hagrid – "Oh dear, I shouldn’t have said that should I?" But it is, of course, the children who take the major parts and carry the weight of the plot. Eleven-year old Daniel Radcliffe was presumably chosen because he looks so much like the bespectacled hero of the books. Radcliffe is sometimes rather tentative, I thought, and rather overshadowed by young Emma Watson as the ‘bossy-boots’ Hermione. Rupert Grint’s Ron is appealing too even though some of his role-playing seems just that bit forced. But the real star of the film is the special effects. These are very impressive ranging from the very life-like giant troll who goes rampaging through the Hogwart toilets, to Fluffy, the three-headed monster dog. The grand set pieces are brilliantly handled too like the Quidditch Match on flying broomsticks, the chess match played with explosive life-sized figures, the moving staircases and the haunted forest. In short magical. The younger under eleven members of our family have their say below. They surely are the best and most important critics.

Megan Clark (aged 10) and Abby Clark (aged 8) have the last word:-

Brilliant! The special effects were excellent. A few things were left out from the book and that was a little disappointing but apart from that it was just like the book; really it was all very good. There were some bits that had us on the edge of our seats, some parts were scary and we had to close our eyes – some of the film is probably a bit too frightening for little children. All the children were good. We liked the Quidditch match when they sped around playing the game on broomsticks,and the giant chess game, and the graphics for the face of Voldemort all were terrific!

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