December 1999 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

Collection: The Film Music of VAN DYKE PARKS - Wild Bill and The Two JakesSUPER TRACKS/PROMOTIONAL VDPCD001 [50:05]

This promotional disk contains 2 scores from Van Dyke Parks, whose credits as a film composer (about 16) are comparable to his appearances in movies and TV films (minor parts of course!!)

The first score is the 1995 rendition of the story of Wild Bill Hickock (aka Buffalo Bill), directed by Walter Hill. Walter Hill is no stranger to the Western genre having previously directed Geronimo and Long Riders (both scored by Ry Cooder). Hill narrates a different aspect of Buffalo Bill's life -- a semi-retired declining man, haunted by his reputation and glorious past, and addicted to opium.

Van Dyke Parks, seemingly chose not to adhere to the classic scoring approach of many western movies, i.e. grand main titles, sweeping love themes, bursting orchestral and galloping fight themes. His small ensemble comprised the traditional western instruments - banjo, harmonica, small percussion and a touch of piano and harpsichord giving a familiar western flavour to the score.

The score is introduced by the Love theme mainly on the piano but occasionally supported by banjo, grieving the unfulfilled love between Bill Hickcock and Calamity Jane. It is certainly not the most beautiful love theme ever penned, but it carries romance, albeit muted passion. Typical western material is presented in 'A New Day' by harmonica and banjo, sounding a cross between Missouri Breaks and Rosewood, but adding nothing particular to the score. 'Saloon Piano' is exactly that: a saloon piano piece reminiscent of the love theme.

In 'First Gunfight', Van Dyke Parks uses an underscore and atonal approach, with no recognisable interweaving melody, that in conjuction with the quite detailed orchestration, mainly strings which provide the track with an odd flavour of carousel music spiced with banjo, builds up a sense of anticipation and suspense, like one would feel when coming eye to eye with a gunslinger knowing that the first who'd be fast enough to draw his gun will live.

A radical change of mood and style takes place in 'The Heart of Darkness', a short but very dark piece, followed by an equally radical change in "Sempre Librera" an opera track written by Verdi. It is a passionate piece, but I question its suitability for a western!?! Underscoring persists in 'The Burning Sun' with no apparent statement of a theme, just scattered appearances of flute and piano, which nevertheless conveys the discomfort and torture of a blistering sun.

'Wild Bill' is an Egyptian-sounding, quite fun track that sounds completely out of place. I can't decide on whether its use is appropriate of not (since I haven't seen the movie). Nevertheless it is interesting and colourful. The score comes to conclusion with "Leaning on Jesus" a short gospel song, followed by a melodic, almost religious, piece of music performed by violin.

Some might argue that Wild Bill is not a typical western score. That might be true in some parts, but in general nothing new is really added to the western genre score. Typical material and orchestrations are reheated and presented; clichés are not avoided. Yet this doesn't make the score less enjoyable, it being just the right length to prevent it from becoming repetitive and boring. It is an entertaining listening experience but not a memorable one!

The Two Jakes is the 1990 follow-up to the successful Chinatown, this time directed by Jack Nicholson himself. Van Dyke Parks did not adhere to the Jerry Goldsmith's 74's jazz texture for Chinatown, but followed a more modernistic approach, yet, at the same time preserving something older-fashioned. This becomes apparent in the enjoyable Main Title that has a distinct film-noir flavour, intermixed with cabaret and lounge music, rendered mainly by brass and a layer of percussion. 'Jake on the Road' maintains this flavour, enhancing it with more orchestral colour, by adding rhythm and pulse to the music.

A mystery and suspense atmosphere is created in 'The Plot thickens', 'Oil Fields, 'An Old Friend' and 'The Shooting', while the story unfolds to reveal more secrets, assisted by the complex orchestration and textured music. The atonal mood of the previous 5 tracks is interrupted by 'Femme fatale' which is the usual underscoring of the film's woman to-die-for, by brass and jazzy feel. The score reverts, once again, to atmospheric underscoring in 'Clues' with a touch of synths. To make a long story short the same style is utilised in almost all the rest of the tracks with small variations in colour and orchestration.

Although given a decent theme, the score soon disintegrates to underscoring and atmospheric music and becomes tiring. Nothing original is offered here, well-defined and explored paths were followed. Detailed orchestration does not manage to give the score the appropriate boost, although it demonstrates the ability of the composer to handle the orchestra sufficiently well. The score is thematically underdeveloped, the music following and denoting the drama on screen rather than exploring and analysing the characters.

A nice but incomplete try by Van Dyke Parks which does not perform well when detached from the movie.


Kostas Anagnostou

Ratings: Wild Bill: The Two Jakes

Promotional Albums offer lesser celebrated film composers the opportunity to bring their work (often of good quality but unsung [if you will forgive the pun]) to the attention of prospective producers who might be interested in contracting them for film scoring assignments. Another market opportunity is for short films, trailers, commercials, and other theatre and TV projects where producers with limited budgets might be interested in buying material "off the shelf." Lastly, film music buffs who have admired the scores but hitherto have never had an opportunity of acquiring the music now have an opportunity of buying scores they have admired. For instance anybody who liked Hummie Mann's music for Mel Brook's farce, Dracula, Dead and Loving It (with Leslie Nielsen) can now buy it from specialist sellers such as:

P.O. Box 500
Linden, VA 22642-0500
PH: (540) 635-2575
FAX: (540) 635-8554

Specializes in soundtracks, and carries some of those scores you just won't find anywhere else.

12072 Brookhurst Street
Fountain Valley, CA 92840-2815
Voice: (714) 636-8700
Toll free: (800) 997-2434
Fax: (714) 636-8585


Kostas Anagnostou
Wild Bill:

The Two Jakes

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