- Composed by Jerry Goldsmith
- La-La Land Records / 2014 / 78m
Written and produced by John Hughes, 1993’s Dennis the Menace took the popular newspaper comic strip that had run from the 1950s (and been a live action tv show later that decade) and, under the direction of The Last Starfighter‘s Nick Castle, turned it into a post-Home Alone tale of a young boy fending off a villainous domestic intruder (and causing mischief for his elderly neighbour, played delightfully by Walter Matthau). The film wasn’t tremendously successful but found enough young fans to avoid box office disaster.
For composer Jerry Goldsmith it was the third of a curious trilogy of films which seemed to be far lesser versions of other – massively successful – films which had recently been scored by John Williams. Williams did Superman – Goldsmith did Supergirl. Williams did Raiders of the Lost Ark – Goldsmith did King Solomon’s Mines. Williams did Home Alone – Goldsmith did Dennis the Menace. It was probably nothing more than a combination of bad luck and coincidence that led to it, but I’ve always thought it was a shame that the composer – in my view the most talented American film composer there’s ever been – never quite got attached to anything that turned into genuine box office dynamite which may have allowed himself to become the kind of household name his most famous contemporary did.
This score – written in the middle of a period when Goldsmith was consciously avoiding the kind of action and science fiction movie he did a lot of, leading up to 1990’s Total Recall – is a boisterous, rambunctious one with a big heart. The opening cue, “Our Town”, might be termed the “main theme” but is actually made up of a number of distinctive thematic statements which go on to form the basis for almost the whole score – two separate themes for Dennis himself (great harmonica solos played by Tommy Morgan), one comic and one an expression of his innocence; a tuba theme for Matthau’s Mr Wilson; even a lovely romantic portrait of a suburban idyll.
One thing that’s immediately evident is the score’s great energy: the opening cue has always reminded me of The Great Train Robbery, mixed with the wit of the composer’s scores for Joe Dante; and that feeling only grows stronger during the album’s more elegant moments, which have a surprising dose of stately classicalism. The only major theme missing from that opening cue is the one for Christopher Lloyd’s villain: that makes its first appearance in “Dollnapping” and is enjoyably sinister – simple but effective.
Large parts of the score are very mickey-mousey, which is to say they mimic the action of the film very closely – unsurprisingly, the composer does this with no shortage of elegance, keeping everything resolutely musical while tackling that challenge. The orchestra is big, brass is prominent, there are frequent solos for harmonica and tuba to give the score its signature sound, the frantic pace very rarely lets up. One exception comes right in the middle of the score with the absolutely charmingly tender “Shaggy Dog Story”, heart-warming in the extreme.
Few people would list Dennis the Menace amongst their favourite Jerry Goldsmith scores and it’s not one that I would ever listen to over and over again, but as I always remind myself when writing about something that isn’t from his top (or even second) tier, this is more a reflection on just how exceptional much of his music was rather than any slight against this enjoyable score. La-La Land’s “Expanded Archival Edition” adds just over twenty minutes of previously-unreleased score to the previous 40-minute album – it is very much more of the same, nicely fleshing out the music’s many ideas further than the earlier CD allowed; and the album’s completed with a few different takes. It’s all entertaining stuff, underrated by the majority at the time as almost all of his 1990s scores were, and I’m sure all of the composer’s fans will be grateful for the expansion. If you haven’t heard it before then don’t expect a masterpiece, but do expect a solid and professional and delightfully energetic piece of music that should bring a smile to most faces.