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Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny

If I ask you to cast your mind back to 1959, then chances are you can’t, because you weren’t born yet. (But hello to anyone reading this who was!) The year saw the USA gain its 49th and 50th states, it saw Fidel Castro become leader of Cuba, it saw the Dalai Lama flee Tibet – and it also saw John Williams write his first film score. That’s 64 years ago – and he’s still at it. Composers (for film or otherwise) tend to be able to sustain a longevity not possible for other musical greats as long as their health keeps up; but even so, a 91-year-old man scoring a major blockbuster movie is just extraordinary.

I’m wittering on about this because I’ve been thinking about some of the online chatter I’ve read about the new Indiana Jones score, Dial of Destiny. It took me back to when I first came onto the internet and discovered the newsgroup (and now I’ve alienated younger readers, having alienated older ones earlier on) – one of my first posts was to express some enthusiasm for Jerry Goldsmith’s then-recent score for First Knight. Oh, how quickly I learned what a mistake that was – “what’s the point of that when you could listen to The Wind and the Lion?” / “he hasn’t written anything any good since Star Trek: TMP” and so on. My point is – some people tend to be very quick to dismiss new works of these legends because they can’t help but compare them with masterpieces of the past.

John Williams

Let’s get straight to it – is Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny as good as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Temple of Doom, Last Crusade? No – not by a million miles! Well, not in my opinion anyway. Can anything here come close to standing alongside “The Map Room – Dawn” or “Desert Chase” or “Parade of the Slave Children” or “Escape from Venice” or..? No! But at the same time, I can’t help but observe that those things are stone-cold classics, gold standard examples of film music – some of the best anybody’s ever written. Of course I wish Dial of Destiny was at that level – but of course it isn’t – filmmaking has changed unrecognisably, the process of creating film music has changed unrecognisably, John Williams has gone from being a fairly old man to being a very old man. It’s 34 years since Last Crusade!

None of this means that I am unable to enjoy Dial of Destiny for being precisely what it is – a partial nostalgic throwback to those great times of the past – a set of meticulously-composed new music by one of the greatest film composers we’ve ever had – an exhibition in skill and technique with the orchestra which is guaranteed to go beyond almost any other film music we hear this year. And enjoy it, I certainly do.

The film is not like the Star Wars sequels that seem to exist almost exclusively to serve nostalgia – instead, the filmmakers for the fifth (and surely final) Indiana Jones film have gone the other direction and Indy is almost like a bystander in someone else’s film this time round – the someone else being Helena Shaw, his goddaughter, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. It’s her film – and in many ways it’s her score, too. Williams’s “Helena’s Theme” – which he debuted many months prior to the film’s release in a concert – is great. He and director James Mangold have spoken about it having a golden age quality to it – and in its concert arrangement (a pair of which are presented on the album) it certainly does.

The thing I find slightly odd about this is that the character herself seems a long way removed from a 1940s femme fatale that the concert arrangement suggests – she’s a 1960s girl, smart and sassy – but then I think about other strong female characters Williams has written swooning romantic themes for – Marion, Princess Leia, take your pick – and surely the same observation could be made. Just because there’s this gorgeous piece created for the album and for him to conduct in concerts doesn’t particularly suggest he didn’t capture the character – because through the score we hear her theme in so many different guises – including numerous action ones – and it fits just fine.

Having said that – I’m not sure we really needed two different concert versions of the theme on the album. The first one, for orchestra, is great – a little piano introduction before the classical romantic stylings kick in. The second one, for violin, I’m not so sure – the piece takes on a very different guise – it’s beautiful for sure but completely at odds with the rest of the score, at times feeling even a little bit funereal – using it as the finale to the last ever Indiana Jones soundtrack album just doesn’t quite feel right. In its own right it’s great and would have been perfectly fine on another volume of Anne-Sophie Mutter recordings of Williams themes – it just doesn’t feel like it belongs here, especially with some of the great music featured in the film that isn’t on the album (one cue in particular – the one that everyone else has said).

Elsewhere there are various bad guy themes – a couple for the Nazis and one for the main villain, Voller – these are all somewhat related to each other musically, certainly of the same world – a bit like a cross between the Nazi music from the first and third films in the series with the bad guy material from the Star Wars sequel scores. The Voller theme, an angry little motif really, crops up quite often. As well as all this, we get a couple of other primary themes – one for the Dial itself, and one for Archimedes (yes, that Archimedes). Many of these are introduced in the album’s “Prologue”, which was actually written for the end credits.

One area of criticism of the album with which I can sympathise is how it represents the score from the film – “Germany, 1944” (the first actual score track we hear) which runs just under five minutes is the only representative of the whole opening act of the film, which is scored back-to-back. But the specific other criticism of this track in particular – that it quotes liberally from Last Crusade’s “On the Tank” – I don’t really understand. Even ignoring the obvious – that it’s music written by the same composer for another film in the series – it’s so brilliant a piece, I can’t complain for a moment about hearing it again. The piece also quotes the first film’s Nazi theme for good measure, along with our first glimpse of the Raiders March.

“Auction in Hotel L’Atlantique” is the closest we get to those delightful scherzos Williams wrote for the earlier scores – it’s light and comic, brings a smile to the face – and, rather oddly, is an absolutely blatant rewrite of the end titles music from The Adventures of Tin-Tin (which ironically was often referred to at the time as being like an Indiana Jones movie without Indiana Jones in it). Still – while harder to provide a logical justification for that music reappearing in this score than the last example – it’s great fun.

It’s hard not to like “Tuk-Tuk in Tangiers”, an action cue based on a set of variants on Helena’s Theme – this one feels like vintage Indiana Jones music, masterfully mickey-mousing the film’s action while being so musically well-architectured that it stands up brilliantly on its own, too. Later action highlights also see the theme being reworked into more dramatic settings – in “The Airport” it plays off against Voller’s Theme in classic Williams fashion, then in “The Battle of Syracuse” it is joined by a couple of the Nazi themes in a somewhat sedate but effective piece of action music. In “The Grafikos” Williams uses some quasi-religious music to create the same sort of awe-and-wonder he did in the earlier scores – it certainly doesn’t reach the heights that they did but it’s still a marvel to hear.

For the finale, “New York, 1969” we get to hear a melancholy version of Marion’s Theme as we near the end, before Williams allows the music to gently fade away over the final shot – I think it’s quite a poignant way to say goodbye to the character, though I understand why some wanted something a bit more triumphant. It doesn’t get more triumphant than the second half of the cue though, a big rendition of the classic main theme (sans the Marion middle section) – slightly slower than usual, which whether deliberate or not, is quite a neat way of summing up where we leave the character.

There are some aspects of the score in the film I’d have preferred had been handled a bit differently – not least, I’m amazed that the end credits didn’t conclude with the Raiders March the way the previous four did – and I’m somewhat puzzled by some of the decisions that went into the album. And yet – here I am, in 2023, listening to new Indiana Jones music written by John Williams – and I can’t help but feel what a privilege that is. He shouldn’t be immune from criticism just because he’s old but on this evidence – if he isn’t quite on top of his game the way he was in his prime – his game still exceeds that being played by a lot of his successors. It’s quite likely we’ll never hear a film score quite like this one again – nobody else scores films like John Williams and even if he does still have a few more in the tank, it’s very unlikely they’ll be for big action blockbusters – so I’m savouring every moment of it, and I’ve got a smile on my face every time I do. And that, I think, is the point.

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  1. Tom (Reply) on Friday 7 July, 2023 at 19:48

    Wonderful review and the opening of paragraph one is incredible!!

  2. Peter (Reply) on Friday 7 July, 2023 at 20:34

    I’d go full monty on this one. It wasnt as obvious in the film, something was different about the music, but on a separate listen… I listened to the score like 10 times already… it’s just amazing Williams is able to compose this kind of refined, fine and classic piece of music at 91. 91!

    And it is without a doubt the last time he composed music for something iconic associated with him.

    Goldsmith, Horner, Morricone, etc. Most of these titans of film music that is more romantic, sweeping, full of live instruments are dead by now. This style of film music is slowly dying too, it is inevitable. Silvestri will remain, maybe JN Howard is carrying the torch. But it is slowly going…and there hasnt been a more iconic composer in the past 5 decades (!) than John Williams, he is the benchmark. The one behind him who will be the worlds most known and respected composer after Mr. Williams is no longer here is Hans Zimmer. And that’s a different thing altogether.

    So I listened to this not just as a goodbye to Indiana Jones, to Amblin, to John Williams (hopefully not), but to five decades worth of film music that dominated and was popular and we wont hear stuff like this much more in the future.

    Just great stuff, and the string variation of Helena’s theme (I think) , the very last song on the album, in this spirit, made me shed a tear.

    Kudos to John Williams, for another classic and a great review by James and as he writes – it is a privilege.

  3. dominique (Reply) on Saturday 8 July, 2023 at 23:57

    i´m not really sure, what you were listening to, james, but this time i have to contradict, this score is so much uninspriring and boring…sorry, even helena´s theme is nothing special in composition and arrangement, it´s just so dull, the rest is just average.

  4. Dirk (Reply) on Tuesday 22 August, 2023 at 10:50

    I didn’t ever think it was possible in this universe, but here we are. Disney records only releasing a very limited run of the soundtrack on cd making me very angry. Who came up with that idea? Now for the first time in over forty years, as a soundtrack collector, I am unable to pick this one up. Shame on you Disney!!!

  5. Dirk (Reply) on Friday 25 August, 2023 at 12:31

    Well, Disney read my previous post and got scared:) The cd is back for ordering!