For most film critics, this John McTiernan movie isn't much to rave about, in fact, it has been dumped on by just about everyone. But if all you're after is a fun romp with likeable characters, awkward, but droll dialogue, an environmental premise with a political message, knowledgeable albeit simple research, i.e. lab work with Hollywood drama, lush vistas of the rainforest and Sean Connery with a ponytail… Medicine Man is for you. If the visuals alone aren't enough to curry your favour, then perhaps the best thing would be the mind-blowing score by maestro Jerry Goldsmith. As one of my all-time favourite albums by Goldsmith, Medicine Man was the first to open my eyes to the synthesised works of the film score silver age. Prior to this film, I never paid much attention to works by composers that could mesh synthesisers with full orchestra in such a seamless fashion. Not only was this one of the most refreshing and creative scores heard within a movie, it also enhanced the appeal of the actual film... ten-fold.
Medicine Man is a politically correct film about a brilliant, but reclusive botanist, Dr. Robert Campbell, who finds the cure for cancer in the middle of a shrinking rainforest. The movie begins with the arrival of Dr. Rae Crane, a female biochemist from the Bronx; it is a festive, lighthearted occasion even though she also happens to head of the organisation funding Campbell's research... Her sojourn in the depths of the Amazon rainforest results in a formulaic battle of the sexes, the realisation of serious environmental issues, a glorious swing in the canopies, blunt etho-political commentary, and last of all, romance. (The plot is simplistic enough to summarise in a tagline, but nevertheless, the messages within and powerful visuals are enough to make a deep impression on any environmentalist or liberal.) Despite being a box office catastrophe in 1992, audiences still loved it enough to recommend the film by word of mouth years later. And fortunately for Goldsmith, his score missed the brunt of the panning and garnered much positive public notice - seeing as how it was used in a number of commercials, Green movement campaigns, and performed wherever tropical music is in need.
McTiernan (responsible for Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October, Predator, The Thomas Crown Affair remake) has made winners and flops in his career, but there is no bigger flop than Medicine Man. (What about his remake of Rollerball? – ed.) From a purely technical standpoint, there are a myriad of irrevocable flaws in spite of the exotic location, candid Brazilian Indians, and talented cinematographer, Donald McAlpine. While the visual quality of the film is sometimes suspect (grainy and misty looking), the plot follows suit along with the directing, bumbling screenplay by Tom Schulman (Dead Poets Society) and Sally Robinson, and the dithering sound engineering. Talented actors, Lorraine Bracco and Sean Connery, try to infuse personality, normalcy, and a modicum of grace in such contrived roles—and are somewhat successful, but it seems that Goldsmith's score is the only element that has the most purity, clarity in direction, instrumentation, and enough creativity to transcend the medium.
'Rae's Arrival' sets the tone for the score with the upbeat, flowing Caribbean guitar and flutes and that gradually transform into a style representative of the natives as Dr. Crane makes her way from civilisation to the unrefined mass of the jungle. Though ten minutes into the film, it becomes apparent that any adventure-related perils in the storyline are non-threateningly artificial. When the focus of audience concern is placed on the characters - due to incessant trade of quips and barbs in the dialogue taking a life of its own, the score is heavily relied on to create subtleties in mood and atmosphere. Goldsmith adeptly handles the character rapport by playing up the comedy ('Mountain High', 'The Harvest') and softening rough edges ('Injection', 'Without A Net') with beautiful and sufficiently tender cues; whether or not he is scoring for the forest itself or the characters is unknown, but the music is broad enough to encompass both and more.
Much like Ennio Morricone's score for The Mission, Medicine Man lacks numerous themes because there is a larger dichotomy involved; instead of cultural sophistication and simplicity with a pious spin, the two recognisable motifs in Goldsmith's score can be construed as beauty and destruction. In Medicine Man, the native tribe is fairly buoyant, though peaceful, and wholly without a theme; as the indigenous people, they are free of common illnesses and overwhelming intrusion by the outside world, so in their pristine or natural state, they are identified as an extension of the rainforest. In 'First Morning', the synthesisers are ingeniously combined with the orchestra to simulate the gentle trickling water all the while communicating an intimate setting of anticipation and awe. Goldsmith illustrates the beauty and lush splendor of the rainforest in one of the most breathtaking cues in his whole repertoire, 'The Trees' - a fully orchestrated theme that captures the essence of the picture, message, and visuals. The music adds many layers of beauty to the (already delicious) visual backdrop as Campbell and Crane glide through verdant vegetation in search of the Bromeliad flower; the camera captures the magnificence and vastness of such fertile landscape as far as the eye can see. Bass instruments are used much like the tolling of a death bell since danger always comes in the form of time loss and the encroachment of industry. 'The Fire' is a intricate, moving piece that characterises the messiness and sinister nature of construction; plumes of exhaust and smoke are represented by decayed, synthsised horns and harsh strikes of rhythmic drums which seem to overwhelm the audience until the strings emerge from behind the haze and steadily shape the melody. Amidst great tragedy, there is still hope...
If you are a fan of Goldsmith, this fifty minute score should keep you thoroughly entranced if you are watching the film or simply listening. Without a single wasted or inconsequential cue, Medicine Man is clearly one of Goldsmith's finest full-album works combining synthesisers and orchestra in a thoroughly original way. Simply put, this incredibly poignant score is a must have for everyone.