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  • Composed by Jerry Goldsmith
  • Quartet / 2017 / 72m

Based on Henri Charrière’s massively successful memoir of life in a French prison camp in Guyana, Papillon can boast the star power of Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman (the former giving one of his finest performances) and Franklin J. Schaffner’s film is an entertaining yarn, albeit one in which disbelief frequently has to be suspended (while Charrière almost certainly was imprisoned there, just about everything else has been disputed).

Jerry Goldsmith’s storied career featured many highlights – he personally considered his body of work for Schaffner (who gave the composer almost total freedom to do as he saw fit) as his best.  Coming after Planet of the Apes and Patton, Papillon has not historically been placed on such a high pedestal as those two masterful scores – perhaps because the film, rightly, itself isn’t – but it’s always been one of my favourite works by Goldsmith (or any film composer) and I’d put it up on a pedestal alongside pretty much anything.

Jerry Goldsmith

The somewhat Debussy-like main theme, given a concert arrangement to start the album, is not really like any other in the Goldsmith canon: a nostalgic Parisian waltz, accordion and strings carrying the melody, constant support on hand from a harpsichord and the rest of the orchestra, it is I think one of the finest themes any film has ever received.  Outrageously beautiful, instantly memorable, it is one of the most lyrical pieces ever written by one of cinema’s most lyrical composers.

The score itself gets underway with “The Camp”, with the abrasive theme for the prison making its first appearance, at the heart of some piercingly dissonant, cleverly claustrophobic material.  While the outward intensity drops as the piece goes on, the emotional intensity keeps up, Goldsmith closing the piece by building up a dirge-like feeling, swirling around inside the head.  This is in great contrast with the following piece, the beautiful “Catching Butterflies”, with fast-moving, impressionistic, floaty figures darting around; newly extended for this album, there’s now a much calmer coda to the piece, a distinctly sour feeling now entering.

The brief “The Dream” is an arrangement of the main theme for two accordions – no orchestra this time – and then comes the more substantial “Hospital”, which introduces a heartbreaking new theme representing the prisoners’ suffering, and also offers anguished takes on both the prison theme and the main theme, whose brief appearance is emotionally devastating.  “Papillion (Theme Variation)” – a track making its debut here – is a simple solo accordion take on the main theme.

The first of three escape attempts chronicled in the film (there were many more recounted in the book) is represented musically by “Freedom”, which begins with a soaring orchestral burst but it soon takes on a more harrowing note, with the prison theme appearing in particularly brutal fashion.  Particularly florid orchestration takes over as things take a darker turn before solemnity ensues, gently prodding winds over strings that eventually grow with some harsh cymbal crashes.  There is a ravishing arrangement of the main theme for solo flute before a Latin American feeling takes over (as the escapees’ boat makes landfall).  The florid, deeply personal style of the cue is a clear forerunner of a style Goldsmith would explore further in a later score for Schaffner, Islands in the Stream.

“New Friend” is the first of a pair of sensational action cues.  Harsh and brutal, it’s vintage Goldsmith action, build on an ever more complex motif representing the character Antonio – and the second in the pairing is then “Antonio’s Death”.  Both cues feature all the composer’s action hallmarks – the unusual meters, the low-end piano, the jabbing brass and percussion, the frantic strings.  There’s just a hint of The Wind and the Lion at times.  It’s scintillating music – not only has there never been a better film composer at writing action music than Goldsmith, in truth nobody’s ever come even remotely close.

After the action thrills comes the real centrepiece of the score, the ravishingly beautiful “Gift from the Sea”, expanded for this album to eight minutes.  It opens with a theme of great pastoral beauty, dancing around, as McQueen’s character enjoys – for a while – the freedom of life outside the prison.  Evoking Ravel, Goldsmith’s music alone carries the joy of the sequence – which plays with barely another sound in the film, let alone dialogue – but it goes from melting the heart to breaking it, as things become increasingly anguished later on (and is that the Raisuli’s theme I hear?)  It’s masterfully constructed, truly beautiful, and I’d put it up there with the composer’s finest individual pieces.

It wasn’t quite Raisuli’s theme, but it’s very close, and it then forms the basis for the very brief “The Pearl”.  After this comes “Reunion”, deeply sad but very touching.  Goldsmith is quoted in the liner notes as saying that the score starts complex and becomes simpler as it goes on, and it’s like he is stripping away the fat to leave the raw feelings exposed: when the main theme emerges with woodblock accompaniment, it’s just so tender, a beautiful expression of the bond between the two main characters.  The theme returns in the little vignette “The Garden”, this time in much busier style.

The final four cues underscore the film’s finale.  First is “Cruel Sea”, with the sad theme from “Freedom” expressing Papillon’s frustration as his latest escape attempt comes to nothing, but then hope returns in a set of variations on the main theme as he hatches his latest plan.  The newly-expanded, two-part “Freedom” opens with the main theme from which a massive orchestral sustain launches itself as Papillon dives into the sea; then his theme rises, slowly at first, building to a rousing, glorious rendition to close.

For the end titles Goldsmith brings things full circle, with some dissonant strains accompanying images of the now-decaying, overgrown prison, the horrors of the past reflected in the music.  Quartet’s new album adds a bit of new music (not as much as the running-time suggests: most of it’s previously-unreleased source music which nobody will ever listen to) but its real treasure comes in the sound, which is greatly improved over any previous release.  The only demerit is that the beautiful French vocal version of the main theme from the previous Universal album isn’t present, but an English-language one from Engelbert Humperdinck – with its own kind of musical horrors – is here instead.  Still, nothing can take away from the fact that this is an essential album, a luxurious presentation of a truly luxurious film score, the great Jerry Goldsmith at his magnificent best.

Essential Goldsmith masterpiece | |

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  1. ghostof82 (Reply) on Sunday 30 July, 2017 at 14:52

    Yes this is a great score and a great album, agree with you completely. Goldsmith really was a genius and his loss to film is so great- except that, were he alive today, I doubt he would be getting much work in Hollywood. Scoring like his is so out of fashion, alas, and film is lesser for it. Very nice review.

  2. Roman (Reply) on Sunday 30 July, 2017 at 17:31

    I picked this up on a whim, and being a Goldsmith fan I try to pick up most of scores when they get an expanded release. i had never heard it (or seen the film) before. I agree that the main theme is one of his best, and the way he builds the score is impressive as always. The sound quality is impressive too. An easy purchase for any Goldsmith fan.

  3. , Andre>>Cape Town (Reply) on Sunday 6 August, 2017 at 18:32

    I`ll have to give this expanded Papillon release a miss. The South African exchange rate is still in tatters, and there are many new CDs on my `want` list. Have you heard GOLDSMITH`S Thriller, James? Six titles from NBCs 1960s horror and suspense TV series were selected by James Fitzpatrick for reconstruction and re-recording. The music is relentlessly doom-laden with lots of tension-building cues–the type of music that BERNARD HERRMANN would endorse. There are two cues, regrettably very short but so lovely, that intrude on the suspenseful atmosphere. The music is totally different to Prometheus` release, The Early Years, that featured more accessible music for CBS` Playhouse TV series of the 1950s–music that lay the foundation for the magnificent and masterful scores we associate with GOLDSMITH`S Cinema music.Thriller is by no means a write-off. The scores are beguiling in their fascinating complexity.

  4. PhilM (Reply) on Monday 7 August, 2017 at 15:13

    Would that it were still possible to buy a copy. Didn’t see the news of it’s release until they were sold out. What chance now, if any, to listen to this score in it’s full glory?