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December 2005 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Managing Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

index page/ monthly listings/ December/

Cutthroat Island: Expanded Edition (2-Disc)  
Music composed by John Debney
One track composed by Dechter
The London Symphony Orchestra, The London Voices
  Available on Prometheus Records (XPCD157)
Disc One: 72:24
Disc Two: 73:12
Total Running Time: 145:36

For films that bomb in the box office, it’s always a thrill to scour from them brilliant or personally satisfying gems.  In the case of the 1995 exemplar by Renny Harlin, Cutthroat Island is liked (or loved) primarily by those that can enjoy a genre-slotted guilty pleasure.  The genre being that one with ship-wrassling high seas escapades, swordfights, roguish charm, classist patois, lush tropical backdrops, and of course… pirates.  Boatloads of them.  If movie-lovers outside of the “I heart swashbuckling/I am a pirate” continuum gravitate towards this monster cliché of a film, it might be due to its uncharacteristic, semi-clever plot morsels along with the spoonfuls of romance.  However, most music enthusiasts will find themselves at odds with feeling when they don the popular opinion, i.e., the notion that the movie is “unequivocally crap”; if one is moved by emotion, whatever degree of distaste will always be tempered by Cutthroat’s glorious score by then-newcomer, John Debney.

Hailed by many as one of the best film scores of the 1990s, Cutthroat Island returns a decade later in an expanded album release from Prometheus Records.  In it, a detailed, seven-paged, liner note commentary by Paul Tonks offers timeline snapshots of the film’s trip from pre-production to overseas and DVD sale successes.  Debney (having come a long way since Cutthroat to create hit scores such as The Scorpion King, The Passion of the Christ, Sin City and Dreamer) is given a small entry at the end; it’s a mild disappointment that he doesn’t comment on the unreleased cues.  Nevertheless, the phenomenal, near two hour and thirty minute experience is spread across two discs; fans of film scores will cheer since it’s a rare thing indeed when nearly half of the original score is returned and arranged so that the listening experience becomes filmic storytelling through music.  (The movie itself is inordinately long for a near two-hour piece, but explanations anon.)  And audiophiles will rejoice upon hearing the London Symphony Orchestra and chorus maintain the same exceptional quality as heard in the Silva Screen original.

However… this is perhaps one of the rare occasions that previously unreleased tracks paradoxically add to the fullness of the film, but then attenuate what’s already there (and the rest of the score).  A problem with Cutthroat Island—just one of many—was that it was just too damned long; if the script wasn’t tight to begin with, Harlin (best known for Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane) only exacerbated it all with his expert (non-)direction.  By lingering on every stale/artificial line of dialogue, confused nuance, amusing Frank Langella bitchy fit, and ham-fisted revelation (via camera, acting, or plot), the director’s decisions make watching the film not unlike navigating choppy seas; imagine battling storms and rough waters that spontaneously vanish to give you patches of lethargic, sunny calm. (One can almost note the withering of excitement each time a non-Dawg Brown character speaks at length.) But Debney’s sensibility as a composer is demonstrated in these situations since the film’s frequent tendency to explode with energy and then pause unnecessarily—unexpectedly—is reflected in the score.

These stop and go trends (in action or camerawork) are transformed into a swirling, impressive mass of emotions; extended, crescendoing passages seem to swell to fortissimo (sometimes blastissimo) and retreat to subtle shades and gradients whenever underscoring becomes narrative to move the film along.  For instance, “Shaw is Caught” is an addition to the album that offers naught but incidental music and a rehash—albeit a lovely one—of Morgan’s theme.  Aural exposition is more effective in the film than outside, so it doesn’t offer listeners something new to latch onto.  In the cliffhanger (no pun intended) entitled “The Hangman’s Noose”, military drums, horns, and strings illustrate the anxious verve normally associated with official/public executions; while it appears near the end of both album and film, it’s also one of countless climactic builds. The alleged utter seriousness of such scenes are always flanked (and marred) by staid comedy or random capers—so what moments of “tension” soon become exhaustion, if not vague irritation. Why the composer didn't implement or emulate the fun, playful banality of, say... Dave Grusin's Goonies score, for narration ruins what could’ve been worthy expanded album cues.  “Dawg’s Plan” is a prime example of surplus booty; a tarnished, semi-valuable thing in the treasure cache, one can’t help but notice that it doesn’t shine as brightly as the rest of the loot.  “Shaw Discovers the Location” has all the pretense of a thrilling cue before its premature decrescendo; the fade into the background makes it seem like a mellow fifth-wheel waxing on about the finer points of on-screen visuals.  In comparison to the ’95 Silva Screen release—which offers a very powerful, focused arrangement, this 2005 version has all of the emotion of the original, but none of its lasting momentum.

Whether it’s the fault of the director or editors, the film meanders (takes it sweet time with revealing every fun pirate cliché and red herring), so the music follows suit.  The sheer length of the expanded score makes it almost like sitting through the entire movie… twice, but not everyone can approach works like John Ottman (an editor/composer—a  combination that works to great effect).  The majority of the musical decision-making and aesthetic choices in Cutthroat Island also seem not to have been made by Debney.  Consequently, the listeners will hear the influence of other composers—mostly David Arnold, although peculiar traces of John Williams, James Horner, Danny Elfman, and Alan Silvestri show up every so often.

Of the unreleased cues, only a few of them have a welcome place in the album since they truly add to the diversity and excitement of the ambiance.  The “Purcell Snatcher”, composed by Debney’s orchestrator, Brad Dechter, is a lively baroque-esque piece focusing on a Shaw-related ploy and does wonders for standout musical continuity.  Debney’s later cue, “The Language of Romance”, features a similarly ornate motif with flute, strings, and harpsichord. In the Silva Screen original, this brief phrase was a strange, yet alluring, one-time occurrence in a divinely underscored moment of subdued (and foreshadowed) attraction; in the expanded album, it’s a clever reminder of Shaw’s wiles as he proves his worth in earnest to a suspicious Morgan.  “The Wedding Waltz” is an initially charming, bittersweet theme that gradually reaches great symphonic heights—so much that it sounds like it could’ve ended the film, but the track note states that it was never included in the final cut. Its strange placement in the album (the first piece on the second disc) makes it so that audiences and score lovers alike will never know the true origin or context in which this cue was used. “To Dawg’s Ship” and “Morgan Battles Dawg” are two thrilling excerpts injected into one of the album’s several re-organized suite-like tracks.   They feature an enormously exciting rendition of Morgan’s theme with a mind-blowing intensity maintained by brilliant strings, titan horns, heart-pounding percussion, and haunting chorus.  Without the tedious visuals of the film getting in the way, the music alone is enough to inspire serious proportions of heroic romanticism.

This expanded album also comes with five, unfortunately not-so-bonus tracks.  The highlight of those being the unreleased version of the famed “Carriage Chase”—nitpickers will find that the Horner-esque Rocketeer phrase wasn't a fluke; while the original works best with the film, it’s interesting nonetheless to compare and contrast subtleties.  Alongside that are two prominently featured cues performed without the chorus, the album-edit of “First Kiss”—which is mostly redundant, cropped filler, and the last (and possibly worst) track, the synthesized demo for “Morgan's Ride & The Rescue”.  The latter might be of interest to those curious about professional mockups, but it’s absurd to think that the underdeveloped passages and ancient samples could hold a candle to the final, live orchestra and choir.

Hardcore aficionados will have this expanded version of Cutthroat Island in their collection for pleasure or musical reference, but for anyone that’s not that intent on studying the full score, the Silva Screen original is highly recommended.

Tina Huang

Expanded Ed. Rating: 4
In Film: 4

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