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A Million Ways to Die in the West
  • Composed by Joel McNeely
  • Backlot Music / 2014 / 41m

A bawdy comedy western from Seth MacFarlane, A Million Ways to Die in the West stars its writer and director alongside Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried and Liam Neeson.  MacFarlane tends to polarise opinion, many loving Family Guy and American Dad and Ted and a fair number disliking them in equal measure.  For film music fans, even if you don’t like his work, it’s hard not to like his love of film music – something he’s been very vocal about in the lead-up to the release of this film (and indeed is in this album’s liner notes, in which he savages the current state of film music); presumably he was responsible for Alan Silvestri being hired for Cosmos earlier in the year (MacFarlane being one of its executive producers) and now he has turned to the wonderful Joel McNeely and given his American Dad collaborator his first major film to score (excepting Disney projects) in around a decade.

For McNeely, the mission was clear: ignore the comedy, play it straight, pay considerable homage to the classic western scores.  He delivers exactly that and it’s quite wonderful.  Things start off with an old-fashioned title song (Dimitri Tiomkin-style), Alan Jackson perfectly straight-faced while belting out “A Million Ways to Die” with music by McNeely and lyrics by MacFarlane.  It’s very enjoyable and sets the stall for what’s to follow.

Joel McNeely

Joel McNeely

For the main title, McNeely introduces two of his rousing main themes, a few bars of the main action theme before swirling Big Country-style strings introduce the bouncy, rambunctious main theme itself.  This leads to a third theme, this time a bit more Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.  All three tunes introduced in the 150-second track are memorable and will induce a smile on the face of most lovers of western soundtracks, I’d have thought.  The homage is made respectfully and with no shortage of panache – it’s lovingly executed and great to hear.  A love theme is then introduced in “Missing Louise”, a beautiful melody – this time for solo harmonica, with accompaniment from guitar and the orchestra’s strings – before we’re back in playful territory in “Old Stump”, as Elmer Bernstein as they come.

The first action cue is “Saloon Brawl” and here McNeely’s own voice is heard distinctly amongst the histrionics – including the cheerful song melody briefly, brilliantly bursting forth over the fight music.  In “Rattlesnake Ridge” the music takes an emotional turn, a gorgeous piece evoking sunset over the plains but the pace soon quickens again, in the surprisingly flowery “People Die at the Fair”.  There’s a hint of The Magnificent Seven in “The Shooting Lesson” (OK, maybe more than a hint) – the vintage Bernstein-style bouncy action music an absolute treat to hear.  Many have aped the great man’s style over the years but few have pulled it off with as much charm and class as McNeely does here.  “The Barn Dance” sounds exactly as you would expect it to, then there’s another song, the very amusing “If You’ve Only Got a Moustache”, sung with great gusto by Texan tenor Amick Byram.

“Anna and Albert” is a gorgeous piece of romantic music, genuinely charming and gently moving, an outstanding piece that would have graced any of the classic scores A Million Ways to Die in the West at other points recalls.  “Clinch Hunts Albert” opens in similar fashion – though with a slightly darker tinge – then suddenly there is a turning point in the score and some full-bodied orchestral action music emerges, the light air that dominated the album up to that point absent, replaced by a fantastic action style clearly recalling some of McNeely’s great scores from the 1990s (and by extension some of John Williams’s great scores from the 1980s) – there’s a great swagger here, which reaches even greater heights in “Racing the Train” (featuring a clear Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade nod) – it’s a wonderful piece of music, bound to have a blockbuster appeal to anyone who loves a certain kind of film music (the kind that I love).  “Captured by Crochise” allows a bit of a breather, albeit with more than a dash of suspense, before the action continues in the dramatic “Albert Takes a Trip”, hints of the earlier “Saloon Brawl” combining with the darker stylings which dominate the second half of the score.  The opening of “The Showdown” sounds like the sun musically rising over the horizon at dawn, there’s a blast of the main theme but then it turns very dramatic, before the celebratory finale “Sheep to the Horizon” and the terrific end titles piece which makes a perfect conclusion.

A Million Ways to Die in the West is such an enjoyable album.  Yes, of course much of it is pastiche, but that’s precisely what makes it so enjoyable, particularly with McNeely’s own style emerging more strongly later on.  The themes are strong and memorable, the recording first-rate – this is just so much fun, its closest modern cousin being Randy Newman’s wonderful Maverick but of course its lineage goes much further back than that (the composer himself namechecks Elmer Bernstein, Jerome Moross and Alfred Newman in the liner notes).  Clearly aimed to appeal to those with a nostalgic affection for great film scores of the past, it hits the mark precisely and is exactly what I was hoping it would be – a first-rate piece of entertainment.  Yee-haw.

Rating: **** | |

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  1. Michael Horne (Reply) on Friday 30 May, 2014 at 06:53

    For a moment I was expecting a horrific modern synth score but then I started reading the review and breathed a sigh of relief. One for the collection I reckon!

  2. orion_mk3 (Reply) on Friday 30 May, 2014 at 17:23

    So with Walter Murphy and Joel McNeely getting to write great film scores for MacFarlane, I wonder how long it’ll be before he gives Ron Jones a film to score?

  3. Mike (Reply) on Sunday 1 June, 2014 at 20:06

    I like this score, I really do. The song is fun (I wish it appeared more in the score), and it’s refreshing to hear a real orchestral action score with themes!

    But….those themes stayed a little too close the temp track! I was hoping McNeely would get away from this, because he can when he chooses too: (see: Avengers, Return to Neverland)…but my the one theme in this movie is basically Marc Shaiman’s City Slickers! And I’m pretty sure James Newton Howard’s Wyatt Earp is another.

    Still, a fun score.

  4. Elfenthalsmith (Reply) on Monday 2 June, 2014 at 14:22

    This film’s tepid box-office reception confirms that there’s a curse on McNeely. The guy is insanely talented, but cannot ever get a big screen success. Terminal Velocity, Soldier, Virus, The Avengers, I Know Who Killed Me and now A Million Ways to Die in the West… I guess on the other hand he’s lucky to be Disney’s composer of choice for video sequels and spin-offs, but still, if even half these high-profile failure had had their intended box-office reception, he might still be working on the big screen on a regular basis.

  5. A. Rubinstein (Reply) on Tuesday 3 June, 2014 at 13:07

    It’s true that this score is a close cousin of Newman’s Maverick and Shaiman’s City Slickers, but the resemblance is just stylistic, not melodic. Since McNeely bases his themes on the traditional western chords progression, they might sound familiar to unarmed ears. But as someone who has listened to City Slickers and Wyatt Earp dozens of times, I can say that the themes here are quite original and don’t sound like either of those scores.
    McNeely is an extremely talented composer who tragically keeps getting involved in failed projects that prevent him from getting the wide recognition he deserves.

  6. Edmund Meinerts (Reply) on Tuesday 3 June, 2014 at 17:06

    I don’t hear Wyatt Earp either, but there’s definitely a melodic similarity between the City Slickers theme and, for example, the theme at 1:09 of this score’s main titles.

  7. Matt (Reply) on Thursday 5 June, 2014 at 21:51

    I can hear stylistic similarities to Wyatt Earp and City Slickers, but i think McNeely has made this score his own. It’s a great listen paying homage to Bernstein and Morose just like McNeely references in the liner notes. McNeely is such a talented composer and unfortunately has not gotten the recognition he deserves. I was hoping this project would give him that, but no such luck. Either way I will continue to purchase all of his scores that get released, because they are always consistently good!