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Dennis the Menace
  • 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.

Jerry Goldsmith

Jerry Goldsmith

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.

Rating: *** | |

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  1. orion_mk3 (Reply) on Friday 4 July, 2014 at 00:07

    I made the exact same Superman-Supergirl comparison myself! Poor Goldsmith, always the bridesmaid and never the bride. I do feel like his main theme here is dynamite, even if the rest of the score can’t quite measure up.

  2. Spielboy (Reply) on Friday 4 July, 2014 at 01:11

    Williams did JFK, Goldsmith did LOVE FIELD


  3. Yavar Moradi (Reply) on Friday 4 July, 2014 at 02:55

    Williams did Jurassic Park, Goldsmith did Congo…

  4. Elfenthalsmith (Reply) on Friday 4 July, 2014 at 13:42

    Williams did The Towering Inferno, Goldsmith did The Swarm…

  5. Juanki (Reply) on Friday 4 July, 2014 at 15:44

    Williams did “E.T.”, Goldsmith did “Gremlins”…

    In this time that every score is getting expanded and remastered, I miss reviews to tell us if the new material is worthy or just repetition. Very fond on your comment that reads:

    “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”

    Now, I need this info as an owner of the previously cd. Very nice review James, keep doing the good stuff

  6. Yavar Moradi (Reply) on Friday 4 July, 2014 at 17:48

    I do have to express surprise James that you bother to pick up these slightly-expanded Goldsmith titles (which are admittedly still always improvements when it comes to this composer) but somehow you passed up the complete Masada, which was even a totally unique recording, and even if it wasn’t there was tons of unreleased stuff! I really hope that it gets reissued one of these days — and hopefully with the LP rerecording correctly mastered for CD included this time — so that you get another crack at it. I’m also surprised you haven’t gotten around to reviewing Tadlow’s complete QBVII yet…do expanded releases for Goldsmith’s Jewish scores just turn you off for some reason?

  7. James Southall (Reply) on Friday 4 July, 2014 at 17:59

    To be honest it’s just an aversion to 2-CD sets – I don’t have time to listen to them. QB VII is absolutely fantastic but I’ve had it for months and only listened to it once.

    To be honest again, I very rarely buy expansions of anything – LLL sent a promo of Dennis the Menace. I almost always prefer the original album (Goldsmith certainly a frequent exception to that).

  8. Yavar Moradi (Reply) on Friday 4 July, 2014 at 18:21

    Well it’s nice that they send you promos for these, and nice that you do your duty and review them for us!

    I can’t remember the last time a Goldsmith expansion came out that you said you didn’t like…glad to hear you did like QB VII.

    Doesn’t a 2 CD set take about as much time to listen to as 2 single CD releases? 🙂

    • James Southall (Reply) on Friday 4 July, 2014 at 18:40

      They do, but they don’t have to be listened to in one go!

  9. Yavar Moradi (Reply) on Friday 4 July, 2014 at 20:09

    Neither does QBVII or Masada. When QBVII aired it was as two separate parts and Tadlow kindly keep that even split for their release, even having the main and end titles on both discs. Each disc plays wonderfully on its own and you can think of Disc 2 as the “sequel” which carries on with some of the same themes (and adds a couple new ones!)

    Masada is an even greater example because it aired on four separate nights with unique credits music and had two separate composers handling duties…

  10. James Southall (Reply) on Friday 4 July, 2014 at 20:30

    Fair point!

  11. Yavar Moradi (Reply) on Saturday 5 July, 2014 at 05:43

    Thanks! Now get a friend with a good CD burner to make you a copy of Goldsmith’s masterpiece Masada….;)

  12. Spielboy (Reply) on Sunday 6 July, 2014 at 00:44

    I also dislike 2-cd sets. Talking about Goldsmith, it’s the reason I didnt purchase Intrada EXPANDED release (well, the main rason being I am not a fan of the score anyway).

    about expanding goldsmiths, I think his 90-00’s output works better in the shorter releases: Bad Girls, Dennis the Menace, Forever Young, Basic Instinct, Congo, Sum of all fears, S T Nemesis…

  13. Spielboy (Reply) on Sunday 6 July, 2014 at 00:45

    ouch… I was talking about THE SHADOW in my previous first paragraph.

  14. Busy Man (Reply) on Tuesday 15 July, 2014 at 03:18

    The villain’s theme is my favourite Goldsmith take on that bit from Rite of Spring that appears prominently in Mulan and can be heard briefly in Secret of NIMH, among others. Here, it’s nasty yet tongue-in-cheek. Highly listenable!

    Thanks for the ever-enjoyable reviews, Mr. Southall!