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Frank and Jesse
  • Composed by Mark McKenzie
  • Intrada / 1994 / 39m

Frank and Jesse tells the story of the James brothers, whose lives have been well documented over the years at the cinema.  Robert Boris’s film follows the brothers from the end of the American Civil War up to Jesse’s infamous death in 1882.  Starring Rob Lowe and Bill Paxton, the film didn’t garner great reviews at the time and rather disappeared; it really should be remembered for Mark McKenzie’s excellent music.  It was only the third film he scored (though he had been orchestrating in Hollywood for Bruce Broughton, Basil Poledouris, Danny Elfman and many others for some years beforehand) and it provided an early glimpse of his considerable talents.

The album begins with a generous overture, the “Frank and Jesse Suite”, which offers a neat summary of the main ideas which are to follow.  (I presume it is actually the end titles music, though I may be wrong.)  There are two sides to the score – a very intimate sound from a group of five folk music instruments representing the close bond between the brothers and then an orchestral sound for the moments of higher drama.  The suite opens with the outstanding main theme first heard through a lilting recorder solo joined after a few bars by a guitar – a beautiful melody, warm and generous of spirit.  A B-section to the theme is then introduced by strings (very warm, still) before giving way to the terrific all-action second theme, an incredibly dynamic and incredibly memorable rousing western theme in the great tradition of such things.  McKenzie skilfully slows things down again for the piece’s conclusion, a wonderful third theme alternating between strings and violin.

Mark McKenzie

Mark McKenzie

The album continues with the main title piece, again opening with a lilting section before the main theme soars majestically from the speakers like an eagle flying over the wide open spaces of the old west.  (The brief martial coda to the piece sounds a little bit like Jerry Goldsmith – for whom McKenzie would of course become orchestrator late in the master’s career.)  “Family Moments” sees the guitar and subtle strings accompanying a gorgeous duet between recorder and harmonica – it’s such lovely music, so full of love and friendship.

The album offers numerous highlights both in its more intimate moments and its expressions of bold drama.  Perhaps the great triumph here is the seamless way the two styles work with each other and musically tell a story, taking the listener on a great dramatic journey; I’ve always thought that is one of the main attractions of strong film music, its storytelling properties, and the best film music is able to tell a story regardless of whether the listener has seen the film or even knows anything about it.  You can’t listen to Frank and Jesse and not be transported off into dreaming up some journey through love, friendship, drama and ultimately tragedy – that’s where the music goes.

This is such a fine album.  There isn’t a dull moment but some cues are worthy of special note.  “Marauding” is a bold, thrilling piece of action; “The Lord is Callin’ You” thrilling also, this time with much darker undertones to begin with before the wonderful action theme bursts heroically forth.  “Northfield Battle” may be best of all, a grade-A action spectacular full of as much emotion as it is excitement.  Amongst all this, the music never loses even a jot of appeal when it is pared down to the slim ensemble used for the less action-oriented moments of the film; indeed, the emotional connection the composer manages to make is so direct and so compelling.  Frank and Jesse is wonderful – stirring and heroic, heartfelt and personal.  As with all McKenzie’s music, it seems to come straight from the heart.  An album to cherish.

Rating: *****

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  1. Jim on Wednesday 7 May, 2014 at 11:07

    I totally agree, Mark Mckenzie has a way of making music which stirs the soul, and his work with the oft underrated Recorder is truly beautiful.