April 2002 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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EDITOR’s CHOICE April 2002

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DVD Film

A.I. Artificial Intelligence [Special Edition]
Music by John WILLIAMS
Directed by Steven Spielberg starring Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law and William Hurt
  WARNER Home Video ZI 21330 2 DVDs   [140 mins feature length]

AI

Film Music on the Web's reviewers chose John Williams's A.I. score as the best original score of 2001 and, of course, it has been Oscar-nominated. The soundtrack album was reviewed by many of Film Music on the Web reviewers and you can read again what we said at the foot of this DVD review.

The release of this special edition DVD package allows the opportunity of studying the score at leisure - and how well it works! Let me cite just one dimension. Personally, I do not have any trouble with the controversial 'fairy-tale' 2,000 years-later ending (just the earlier ambiguous scenes in that strange semi-submerged New York apartment-cum-laboratory). The far-future epilogue is nicely ironic in reuniting David with a practically robotic (cloned) mother for a day of sublime happiness before the beings arrange for David and Monica to die together. In response, Williams's lovely Monica's theme fully flowers in this final scene after being understated earlier underlining her melting ambivalence towards her robot child. (After all, one of the film's major themes is mother-love - one of the most powerful of emotions).

Of the two DVDs the second is feature-rich with items covering the actors' attitudes to their roles, the design and development of the robots, and the special effects and animation; plus observations on artificial intelligence by Spielberg, storyboards and many other aspects of the concept and production.

From our point of view, there is a separate two-part feature, 'The Sound and Music of A.I.': sound design and the score. In the former it is shown how choral music is processed to give the special sound required for the submersible's journey through the depths to the submerged theme park where David meets the Blue Fairy. In the score section John Williams talks too briefly about his music. He observes that of the two pieces of source music: an excerpt from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake ballet music and a Rosenkavalier waltz (Richard Strauss), Stanley Kubrick insisted on the inclusion of the latter but specified no exact scene for it. In the event, Williams elected to use it for the entry into Rouge City.

John Williams describes how he had to balance between an atonal sound for the robots and David's disorientation, especially in the New York robotics development facility, and the more tonal lyrical music for the bonding between David and his 'mother'. Williams's interview concentrates on discussing the development of Monica's theme as per my opening paragraph.

An A.1 score for a splendid film in an absorbing and educational DVD setting - especially at some of the bargain prices around at the moment.

Ian Lace

****(*)

What Film Music on the Web reviewers said about the A.I. soundtrack album:-

John Williams has always been inspired to give of his best for the science-fiction/fantasy genre – Star Wars, Superman, E.T. and Close Encounters… Now we have another noteworthy and imaginative score for the new Spielberg film A.I. Many will note, and disparage the references to, and reminiscences of all the aforementioned scores and Kubrick’s 2001…– so what! When magic is woven like this, with such arresting harmonies and orchestrations, such criticisms deserve to be ignored.

The opening track ‘Mecha World’ opens with a typical Williams broad expansive theme that introduces an insistent mechanical figure which one might associate with robotics and machinery set against the broad theme in development suggesting an imposing urban/industrial landscape. The monotonous robotic material then relaxes to be replaced by warmer, more intimate music scored for harps, celeste, horn, high strings and treble percussion giving a starry, other-worldly sound. This other-worldliness is further developed in two consecutive cues: ‘Stored Memories and Monica’s Theme’ and ‘Where Dreams are Born’ (the former lasting nearly 11 minutes) which lie at the heart of this score and are utterly compelling and worth the price of this album alone. A wordless chorus hums wistfully against a dreamy starry background (it is as if we are back in Superman’s ‘Fortress of Solitude’). Only brief heavy bass rumblings threaten the peace and tranquillity. Then solo cello and piano introduce Monica’s Theme against high-held strings which after some intriguing and discreet electronics is taken up first very quietly, almost imperceptibly by vocalist Barbara Bonney. She intones the Theme centre-stage through ‘Where Dreams Are Born’ – the song is wordless and really a lullaby for the robot child the family love. This Monica Theme is one of those lovely melodies that grow on you. It is, for me, more subtly appealing than John Williams’s Superman love theme. The vocal music on this album is of a much higher standard than the norm, avoiding the cloying stuff of so many other films. ‘Monica’s Theme’ flowers in its full glory in the final track ‘The Reunion’. The other vocalist Lara Fabian sings the song, ‘For Always’, developed from Monica’s Theme beautifully too, first as a solo and, to round off the album, in duet with the attractive light tenor voiced, Josh Groban (the brief odd gestures towards pop orchestrations may be forgiven).

There are of course more urgent, more dramatic cues; these too have a sparkle and freshness absent from so many similar scores. From the rest of the score I would mention, especially ‘Hide and Seek’ a delicate cue full of innocence and childhood dreams with star-bright orchestrations that enchant – this is magic at play.

VA welcome return to a John Williams in A1 form.

Ian Lace

*****

Gary S. Dalkin is equally enthusiastic --

From One Million Years BC to Steven Spielberg's 1941, only one film with a title dependent upon the calendar has come to be recognised as a landmark in cinema history. We are currently in the year immortalised by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke in their Space Odyssey of 1968, and science fiction and reality have since coincided to a remarkable degree. I am writing this review sitting under a tree in my garden using machine more powerful than HAL. At night one can see the International Space Station cross the sky. As I write Tim Burton's remake of the second most significant science fiction film of 1968, Planet of the Apes, is opening in cinemas across America. 2001: A Space Odyssey has been reissued in limited 70mm engagements, and transferred to that most science-fictional of formats, DVD.

In this most science-fictional of years it is no coincidence that A.I., which was to have been Kubrick's first SF film since A Clockwork Orange has been made and released by Steven Spielberg, always a director with one eye on the resonant commercial subject, the other on the possibility of critical prestige. Nothing could be more resonant this year than a thematic follow-up to 2001: A Space Odyssey, or more likely to attract critical interest than a realisation of Stanley Kubrick's last unfinished project. The links go deep. There is a level at which Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (also just released on DVD) is the director's more emotional reworking of 2001. Indeed, I have posters for the 1979 re-release of 2001 which consist of nothing but quotes from Spielberg and George Lucas, each effectively saying that without 2001 there would not have been respectively Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Star Wars.

And what do Close Encounters and Star Wars have in common? Most obviously, two of the greatest and best-loved film scores of John Williams. Works which along with Williams' music for Spielberg's Jaws effectively revived Hollywood's love affair with the epic, classically-based orchestral score. Williams almost always writes Spielberg's scores. The only Spielberg film Williams' didn't score was The Color Purple, for contractual reasons given the project was initiated by composer Quincy Jones who owned the rights to the source novel. So when it was announced Spielberg was to direct AI, penning his own screenplay from the material left from the many years work Kubrick expended on the project with a variety of writers including the top British SF novelists Brian Aldiss and Ian Watson, immediate interest was taken in the musical direction of the film. Kubrick had come increasingly to depend upon selections from classical works for his "scores" - 2001: A Space Odyssey being the most striking and famous example of such an approach - and it was unimaginable that Kubrick, had he lived to make A.I. himself, would ever have hired John Williams.

What AI is then, is an mixture of the styles and personalities of the two directors. Kubrick's cold, stark vision as filtered through Spielberg's more emotional, less intellectual approach. And John Williams has been given the challenge of finding a tone appropriate to this hybrid, Frankensteinesque patchwork; the story of AI, of the technological construct that wishes to become fully human goes back to the very beginnings of science fiction, to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Likewise it takes the development of the computer with the human personality in 2001 a stage further, integrating an artificially intelligent personality in a humanoid body and placing it at the centre of a lengthy quest drama. Williams scores all this as if it were a modern opera.

The opening track on the album - the cues are not in film order - "The Mecha World" is a gradually building, pulsating, surging and darkly driven selection introducing itself for all the world like something from a Philip Glass opera, then subsiding into a blend of gentle and savage atmospherics, including a swirl of mad flutes which recall the composer's score for Dracula (1979). "Abandoned in the Woods" is an even more powerfully pulsating piece, surging with just the slightest hint of the X Files theme before sounding something akin to Glass reworking Pino Donaggio's classic museum pursuit sequence from Dressed to Kill. "Replicas" is an appropriately titled selection in that it pays fairly direct homage to the Ligeti choral pieces Kubrick used in 2001, then to Williams' own atonal choral writing for Close Encounters. This latter score of course already paying its own tribute to Ligeti. "Hide and Seek" offers delicate call and response patterns, the motifs not quite resolving nor going where convention would dictate. The result is both charming and disconcerting. Though not as disconcerting as what happens next, for track five presents a ballad, "For Always", performed by Lara Fabian and though written by Williams, produced by David Foster.

This is a typical modern ballad filled with the sort of artificial emotion which is a speciality of Disney animated features, Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals and the school of pop singers inaccurately dubbed 'divas'. As such songs go it is way above average, being formulaic yet less clichéd than the title suggests, and produced in a slightly less sugary and histrionic fashion than usual. It does though have lyrics mentioning the words "go on", even if it doesn't preface them with "my heart will". And "go on" it surely does.

Fabian, whom I had not previously heard, has at least the advantage of being able to sing. Unlike so many she does not equate profound emotion with caterwauling; neither does her voice degenerate into harsh croaking on the high notes. Clearly her time has come, for she also has a song in one of the summer's other SF would-be blockbusters, Final Fantasy. She would appear to have won her place on the A.I. album by virtue of her connection with David Foster, who has previously produced her for his 143 Records (he has also produced the likes of Mariah Cary and Celine Dion), and which presumably not coincidentally has a distribution deal with Warner. (A.I. is an Amblin production released by Warner, with which company Kubrick had an exclusive deal - indeed, he is regardless of now being the late Stanley Kubrick, credited as a producer on the film). The last track on the album is a duet version of the same ballad, with Fabian reprising her performance alongside another singer of whom I had not previously heard, one Josh Groban. Mr Groban has previously recorded for 143 Records. Being a duet you may find this version of "For Always" twice as unpalatable as the solo rendition.

It would be difficult to imagine how either of these tracks could fit into the film A.I. with any integrity, and the good news is that they don't. Neither appears in the film. The mystery is that anyone ever thought they could. One can only suspect that Steven Spielberg had been casting glances at the film which usurped him from the top of the international box office charts in such titanic manner. It is a shame they have been allowed to appear on the album, when another 10 minutes of score would have been far more welcome.

"Cybertronics" provides moody strings textures while "The Moon Rising" is interrupted by 50 seconds of what is perhaps intended as futuristic rock. The problem with writing futuristic music is it always dates so rapidly, and this, right down to the female rock vocal, which being unaccredited is presumably a sample, sounds uncomfortably like the action music from Hans Zimmer's score for The Assassin. And that is already eight years past.

"Stored Memories and Monica's Theme" is a fine ten minute mood piece, delicate and lyrical, and introducing into the score in more subtle fashion the melody from "For Always". It is the first of three cues which feature the lovely wordless vocals of Barbara Bonney, the other two being "Where Dreams are Born" (actually the end title but appearing as track nine here) and "The Search for the Blue Fairy." Williams has long enjoyed collaborating with leading classical soloists - for example cellist Yo-Yo Ma for Seven Years in Tibet - and with Bonney being one of America's leading sopranos this choice further enhances the operatic aspect of the score.

"Where Dreams are Born" is a gorgeous, classical style statement of the melody from the ballad, and the theme appears elsewhere in the closing cues to appealing if somewhat saccharine effect. The title "The Search for the Blue Fairy" obviously refers to Pinocchio. Spielberg had Williams incorporate "When You Wish Upon a Star" from Disney's Pinocchio into the score of Close Encounters. But the title here is more than just a back reference to his earlier film, for Kubrick's original idea for A.I. was a science-fictional update of the famous fairytale. Much indeed to Brian Aldiss' disgust, as documented in John Baxter's biography Stanley Kubrick. The cue itself is questing and darkly romantic, a rippling harp something of a cliché to suggest a future flooded New York, developing a more atmospheric version of the material introduced in the opening selections. Rising from the textures a pan-pipe suggests a ghostly fairground ride, mounting strings hinting again at Close Encounters, Bonney's exquisite vocal setting the album up for the subdued, even melancholy romance of the finale, "Reunion".

Like every other recent John Williams' soundtrack album, the order and choice of tracks has left room for improvement. Don't however let this put you off what is a superb score. It's not one of Williams' very best, but it is his most imaginative and adventurous soundtrack work in several years. It is the best new score I have heard so far in 2001.

Gary S. Dalkin

*****

Jeffrey Wheeler is also impressed:-

Developed by the late Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg's "A.I." is a modern fairytale for adults. As Spielberg's most mature film, it touches on issues of humanity, morality and mortality in a manner that I am still deciphering weeks after experiencing it. The futuristic tale of a robotic boy, David, that was programmed to love acts as catalyst for an adventure that includes abandonment, friendship, evolution, bigotry and murder, and contemplates love, free will, family, religion and other issues that touch most of our lives in some way. Like "2001: A Space Odyssey," it is not so much ambiguous as it is universally provocative. If newsgroup reaction, or my own personal response, is any indication: Kubrick strikes again with a masterpiece that will have people thinking and debating at its mention for many years to come. That he does so posthumously is a credit solely to Spielberg, who had his own fair idea of what to do with Kubrick's notes and how to do it, resulting in a challenging blend of opposing ideals. Not a frame is wasted (a point that occasionally detracts from the experience, particularly in the second act where Spielberg deviates from Kubrick's outline the furthest), and along the way John Williams offers a score that suggests why Kubrick considered him for "The Shining" (scheduling conflicts interfered) and proves that Williams, popular for thunder-and-lightning film scores, does possess some undeniably cerebral symphonic abilities.

In the film, I wish Williams had held back in a couple of brief moments, namely for an argument between David's 'parents' where the music noodles on as though they are having a lazy Sunday, followed later by a redundant crescendo during one of Spielberg's (and Williams') most powerful scenes. But these faults became ultimately inconsequential, musically. His incredibly modern, then bittersweet score aids tremendously in smoothing out some of the choppy sequences. It also serves as a very intelligent complement and frequently appropriate contrast to the film's antiseptic environments. Even during the controversial final scenes it takes on a magical persona that embraces both the sentimentality and the chilling irony of the footage in an unexpected merger akin to how "2001: A Space Odyssey" features the sappily mundane 'Blue Danube' Waltz in a strikingly beautiful way.

According to Williams, Kubrick's only suggestion regarding the film's music was that Richard Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier" waltz appear. Williams chose the waltz for the entrance to Rouge City, which unfortunately does not appear on the soundtrack album. However, references to Kubrick's past musical uses appear... Aram Khachaturian's "Gayane" Suite (an obvious favorite of James Horner), Gyorgy Ligeti's "Atmospheres" and "Musica Ricercata II" are the most obvious paraphrases. The composer refers to this score as his "homage a Kubrick." There are also moments harking back to Williams' days on "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (which both "A.I." and its music occasionally recall), "E.T." and "Empire of the Sun," with "Seven Years in Tibet" and "Stepmom" added for good measure (though the latter is not very good). Despite these familiar pieces, the whole is distinctly innovative. The use of minimalism inspired by Philip Glass and Steve Reich is a first in Williams' repertoire, and the composer's knack for making disparate sounds gel gets a workout that pays off beautifully. Unlike his last two scores, "A.I." is a solid indicator that Mr. Williams still knows how to score a film in such a fashion that I cannot imagine it any other way.

The album is nearly as impressive. It is out of sequence and the sound is murky (did Dan Wallin sneak into the mixing booth and twiddle the dials?), there is quite a bit of music missing, including a couple of enchanting sequences, but the most prominent cues are present. Note the minimalistic techniques in tracks 1, 2, and 4, the serialism of track 3, the post-romanticism of tracks 6 and 8 (these are the most like "Close Encounters" and "Empire of the Sun"), the techno beats in track 7, and track 10, though seemingly a blend of two earlier selections, brings in a different mix and some jungle dancing! For rank sentimentalists such as myself, Track 8 introduces opera singer Barbara Bonney (who, incidentally, may be best known for her portrayal of Sophie in "Der Rosenkavalier") vocalizing one of John Williams' sweetest, most poignant melodies. It is the main theme for the film, and reprises in Tracks 9 (again with Bonney) and in an extended performance in Track 12. Two pop song editions of this tune appear on the album. But the highlight is track 11, which accompanies a search through a submerged Coney Island and begins with ominous writing not unlike the opening titles of "Nixon," observes the surreal carnival atmosphere with a calliope, and then segues into a heartbreaking melody sung wordlessly by Barbara Bonney. About those pop renditions. The lyrics by Cynthia Weil are charming and possess the currently rare trait of coherency. However, the poor production & arrangement by David Foster prompts flashbacks to his work with Celine Dion, a horrific recollection emphasized by hysterical performances from Lara Fabian and Josh Groban. One version was to play over the end credits, but Williams nixed that idea in favor of Track 9, which has similar timing and structure (and is, in fact, his original end credit music). Whether he did this out of egotism or good taste is uncertain, but moviegoers everywhere may rejoice... In other words, the songs are kinda fun, in a masochistic sort of way.

The print of "A.I." I saw included the trailer for the upcoming "Harry Potter" movie. Williams composed that trailer's underscore, as a preview of his music for the feature. It sounds absolutely astonishing. Yet the clip is full of the thunder and lightning we have all heard from him before. "A.I." offers Williams' best composition in a couple of years -- an effort of expected quality and unexpected content.

Jeffrey Wheeler

*****

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