Editors Choice - CD of the Month February
I had heard whispers of controversy about this score before my copy of the
album arrived for review. "Not the best John Williams...self-derivative...",
I had heard. True that Stepmom does not have a theme that is immediately
arresting and memorable; rather, this score is subtly understated with
long-breathed melodies and easy-flowing impressionistic music that, nonetheless,
should invidiously invade the listener's affections on repeated hearings.
And yes, there are many self quotations from E.T., Superman, and
The Accidental Tourist to name but three John Williams scores but his
consummate artistry weaves his older material into this new score so graciously
that instead of being irritated, one welcomes their return like old friends.
The overall mood is of gentle romance and family compassion. This is
easy-listening Williams not far removed from Sabrina or Stanley
and Iris and none the worse for that. The writing for the featured
guitar (Christopher Parkening is admirable, sensitive and poetic) is lovely
and occasionally very imaginative. The beautiful oboe playing of John Ellis
should also have been acknowledged more emphatically with a front page booklet
Stepmom stars Susan Sarandon as an older woman, Jackie ,who is supplanted
by new younger wife (of Luke played by Ed Harris), Isobel (Julia Roberts).
Circumstances force the two women to put aside their differences for the
sake of the family that they now must share.
The opening cue "Always and Always" opens with a celeste theme against strings
which suggests cosy domestic bliss - very feminine: delicate, pink, dreamy,
hazy. As the cue progresses the music proceeds hestitantly - almost prayer-like.
"The Days Between" carries this mood forward but there is soon a brief Copland
tinge before the music proceeds introspectively; the oboe singing a song
verging on sadness and regret. In this lovely cue the music is very reminiscent
of Finzi, Moeran and other British composers and there is a subtle recollection
of the Stanley and Iris music. The music is subtly Ravelian
impressionistic too and the entry of the guitar softly tinges the music
appropriately Spanish-coloured. "Time Spins its Web" is very evocative -
an insistent clock ticking rhythm on strings with web-spinning piano arpeggios
and clever rhythmic twists as the cue develops - a clever little invention.
"The Soccer Game" is a quietly exuberant creation for the children at play.
Again there is clever cross-rhythm writing and quieter music as we see the
children's game through the women's eyes and are touched by their emotions
and, fleetingly, their concerns and anguish: here, John Williams's astringent
writing for guitar (I think) is especially compelling
"A Christmas Quilt" is another exquisite cue; cosily romantic and warmly
nostalgic. Finzi comes to mind once more and there is an allusion to a well
known nursery tune. The magic of the E.T. score and the Close
Encounters music is recalled. Once more the oboe writing impresses. "Isobel's
Horse" is a short cue for strings alone and it mixes Copland with string
writing styles of British composers such as Holst and Elgar. There are some
nice humorous touches too. "Taking Pictures" is guitar-led with another ravishing
long-breathed melody strongly featuring the oboe. "Snowy Night" is very evocative
of gently falling, twisting snowflakes with nice writing for the celeste
again and the oboe. I was very much reminded of the feeling of isolation
and disorientation of The Accidental Tourist score at this point and
there are also reminders the remote beauty of "The Fortress of Solitude"
from Superman. "Ben's Antics" bring us down to earth again with childish
pranks. The music for this cue chugs along happily and comically but there
is also an edge as we share the women's views and conflicting emotions once
more. "Isobel's Picture Gallery" is music that has a remoteness suggesting
loss (The Accidental Tourist again comes to mind); but the temperature
soon rises and the music becomes poignant. There is an endearing delicacy
and fragility about this cue which includes an attractive Ravelian piano
In "Jackie and Isobel" Christopher Parkening plays the main theme against
a most refulgently romantic string backing - a ravishingly beautiful track
and worth the price of the album alone. "Jackie's Secret" is slow-treading
music beneath a mournful oboe - this is the most introspective and dramatic
cue. "Bonding" continues this mood; it begins pensively, almost eerily before
the tempo quickens and the mood lightens allowing the music to dance along
- if rather reflectively but not unattractively. This is thoughtful, quietly
brooding material with a softly veiled magic. The penultimate cue is the
obligatory pop song, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" but I cannot imagine
it dinting the charts. The End Titles music rounds off the score magically
with significant material for the guitar and oboe and piano.
Stepmom is not top drawer John Williams but it is nevertheless treasurable.
I know this album is going to visit my CD drawer many times this year
But Jeffrey Wheeler is not so keen :-
For the man who reigns as undisputed composer & king of space opera music,
it stands to reason that eventually he would tackle a subject slightly more
earthly in nature... the soap opera!
Better than a typical underscore for "The Young and the Restless," "Stepmom"
still cannot go beyond being John Williams' weakest since "Far & Away."
Like "Far & Away," it is an enjoyable melodramatic score that nevertheless
seems orchestrated with a paint-by-numbers kit close at hand. With kaleidoscopic
musical effects recycled from "Always" (plus a metamorphosis from 'Follow
Me' into 'Isebel's Horse and Buggy'), light comedic effects from "Sabrina,"
motifs lifted from "The Accidental Tourist," synthesizer elements carried
from "Sleepers," a theme from an episode of "Amazing Stories," it plays like
a compilation of John Williams' Dullest Hits. The redeeming highlights are
the inviting guitar solos, superbly performed by Christopher Parkening, who
regrettably appears on only four tracks and has an audible tendency to hum
along that quickly becomes distracting.
Perhaps the most spectacular track is "The Days Between." Of the music on
this disc, the track stands as Grade-A Williams material. Its bright
orchestrations revolve around the film's main theme (a lengthy but pleasing
melody) -- beautifully played and recorded, this is the soundtrack's centerpiece.
A breathy reprise occurs during the end credits with an expanded Parkening
That said, "Stepmom" improves as its subtleties come into view, an anti-populist
tradition many of Williams' recent scores observe. The result is an average
score that clearly aims much higher. It receives extra credit for the noticeable
attempt, but it does not quite attain the goal.
The album's packaging is fittingly Christmas-y, but more interesting are
the somewhat erudite gush-notes by director Chris Columbus. Instrumental
performances are top-notch, but oboist John Ellis steals the show; he brightens
the soundscape whenever he has the chance.