- Composed by John Scott
- Varèse Encore / 2012 / 36:31
Based on A.J. Quinnell’s novel, Man on Fire stars Scott Glenn as a man charged with protected – and subsequently rescuing from kidnap – the daughter of a rich American family in Italy. It had a prestigious start as life as a film – it was to be directed by Sergio Leone, no less, and the screenplay was by his regular collaborator Sergio Donati (amongst others). Robert de Niro was to play the lead (after Marlon Brando – a somewhat improbable action star by 1987 – puled out). Eventually, none of that came to be, and it was directed instead by Frenchman Elie Chouraqui. (At one stage Tony Scott was attached to direct – he did of course film his own version of the story in 2004, with Denzel Washington in the lead.) The film’s box office performance left something to be desired – it recouped just over $0.5m of its $14m budget.
John Scott had been a prolific film composer since 1965 (and is still active, albeit a lot more sporadically, today) but it’s fair to say that the mid-1980s was his real heyday in terms of higher-profile Hollywood films. Many of them weren’t that successful (such as this), but Greystoke, The Shooting Party and King Kong Lives had all come in the couple of years before Man on Fire. It’s a shame really that he didn’t get that one big break of a film which may have seen his career take off to an even greater extent – he has worked steadily (IMDB lists almost 150 films on his résumé but obviously he never really built up anything like the profile of many of his contemporaries, like John Barry.
For all his versatility, one wouldn’t really think of Scott when it comes to gritty action thrillers, and the first piece on the album (actually the end titles) suggests this isn’t really going to be a score along the lines of others composed around that time for films like this. It is a ravishing, romantic piece presenting two of the score’s main themes – it’s a wonderful piece of music, but unexpected given the film. As it turns out, while there are a couple of other pieces along those lines during the main body of the score (including the wonderful, Williamsesque “Sam Wins the Race”, which is simply fantastic, and the finale, “Reunited”) that’s not really representative of it as a whole.
While it remains largely melodic throughout, some of the action material is really rather hard-hitting – the dissonant “Rabbia Must Die”, for instance, is a brilliant piece of murky suspense which recalls the great thriller scores of the 1970s. There is a slight concession to the fashions of the period with a drum kit and keyboards added to one track (the dynamic “Start of the Search”), but otherwise Scott manages to write music which – while not sounding old-fashioned – is firmly orchestral while being exciting and energetic. It’s well-composed, well-orchestrated music which actually has something to say – it’s not just wallpaper.
The score is unusual in that it is probably more famous for its (brief) use in a film for which it was not written than the one for which it was – “We’ve Got Each Other” was famously tracked by John McTiernan into the finale of Die Hard (where it worked very well). This is a terrific album – the 2012 release by Varèse is a straight reissue of their original album released at the time of the film, albeit with new liner notes by Jim Lochner which feature new interview material with the composer. (As an aside, I’d love to make one of his quotes from that interview in which he explains how he put the original album together into mandatory reading for all soundtrack album producers at the start of each working day – “If you listen to a film score without the film, it is very different, is it not? And if you have three cues of the same identical tune one after the other, I don’t think that’s a very satisfactory listening experience.”) This is a fantastic listen, highly recommended – and a great example of John Scott’s versatility. ****