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The Call of the Wild
  • Composed by John Powell
  • Hollywood Records / 67m

It’s a sanitised take on Jack London’s vintage novel but the latest (of many) big-screen retelling of The Call of the Wild is a decent family adventure film. Much of the criticism seems to have centred on the CGI – it moves in unnatural ways, the hairs don’t seem realistic enough, you’d never see that colour combination in real life – but honestly, I thought Harrison Ford’s beard was absolutely fine.

It’s the fourth film directed by Chris Sanders and the first that is (kind of) not an animation; two of the previous three were scored by Alan Silvestri. The other, How to Train Your Dragon, was (gloriously) scored by John Powell who doesn’t do that many films these days – when he does, he tends to write music worth hearing. This is no exception.

John Powell

It’s an action-packed, adventurous, colourful score which is packed with many of the composer’s trademarks, which come together into a wonderful package. The album opens with “Wake the Girls”, in a wonderful folksy style, with banjo, guitar, whistles and fiddles (a good fiddle always reminds me of the great outdoors). The piece also offers a gentle introduction to the score’s wonderful main theme, all happy and playful in this initial guise.

Things take a darker turn in “Train North”, with the malleability of the theme already on full display as here it is heard as a desperately dramatic horn solo behind some rumbling orchestra and eventually choir. Then we get a real sense of place in the delightful “Skagway, Alaska” with more lovely folk touches alongside the strings. The score’s first action music comes in “Snowy Climb”, and rich and expansive action music it is – Powell’s giving the dog a real heart and there is a warmth running through the score that is quite wonderful. This is evident too in the following cue, “First Sledding Attempt”, which is surprisingly gentle and emotional to begin with before in come the drums and banjo and it’s great fun.

There’s sometimes a mystical side to the music too and this is first heard in “The Ghost Wolf of Dreams” with some shimmering strings and winds featuring in the brief track. A secondary theme is introduced in “Joining the Team” – the team in question is a dog sledding team and Powell scores it here with the smaller folk ensemble – there’s some great colour from guitars along with the wonderful melody on violin before the orchestra joins in later on.

The orchestra gets a great workout (along with the choir) in the excellent piece “Ice Rescue”, which is classic adventure scoring – things look desperate, in steps the hero, the day is saved – it sounds like it’s going to be a frantic action track, but develops into something more serious and surprisingly affecting. Another surprise comes in “Sometimes Nature’s Cruel and Gods Fight” which features some really dark and engaging action music enhanced considerably by a chanting choir – and some gloriously heroic material in the second half of the cue which will set any John Powell fan’s heart racing. It’s magnificent.

If you fancy a breather after that then you certainly don’t get it in “Buck Takes the Lead”, perhaps the album’s strongest piece (of many candidates) – admittedly the arrangement of Buck’s theme that opens it is rather laid-back but it soon explodes into heroic thrills. Anyone who loved the unadulterated joy expressed in the most soaring musical moments of the How to Train Your Dragon scores (and that is, basically, everyone) will love this too.

Another great expression of the score’s big heart comes in “We Carry Love”, here the main theme carried by the strings, and this continues in “Couldn’t Find the Words” which is a really touching piece, a wonderful intimacy coming from the solo violin. By contrast there’s a dark start to “Overpacked Sled”, the piece which accompanies the introduction of the story’s villains, but even this turns into a beautifully lilting solo guitar. “Newfangled Telegraph” on the other hand is unstintingly sad, affectingly so, and this continues into the opening of “In My Bed?” – but the warmth can’t stay away for long and as that piece develops it becomes spine-tingling in the way it conveys a loving relationship.

“Buck and Thornton’s Big Adventure” starts innocuously but it’s not long before it turns into another rousing spectacle – another of the score’s real standout pieces, full of joy. So too (in a gentler way) is “Finding Bears and Love in the Woods”, a lovely and very evocative piece. Another lilting guitar introduces “They’re All Gone”, which is so calm and soothing it causes yet another widening of the grin that inevitably appears while listening to this album. The second half of the piece does go quite sad – quite affectingly so – such moments are relatively rare and that scarcity increases their impact. It doesn’t last, needless to say – the next piece, “Rewilding”, is an action track full of energy and thrills.

Things slow down again in “Animal Nature”, a florid and colourful depiction of the beautiful landscape and its relationship to the creatures that inhabit it. “Come Say Goodbye” is more emotional, the score’s trademark warmth in evidence again, but there’s a tragic feel as the piece comes to an end; but that sad moment in the story is put into context in “What an Adventure” which is shot through with all the grit, determination and goodness that the story is all about. The album ends with the title track, a brilliant take on the main theme and – inevitably – it’s a very satisfying conclusion.

John Powell’s focus on only scoring “nice” movies (to outrageously simplify what he actually said) might narrow the scope somewhat of what he can do, but while it’s disappointing we may never hear something like the Bourne scores from him again, if he keeps on producing music like this then nobody will be in a position to complain. Let’s face it, the world is a bit rubbish at the moment and there is so much to feel downhearted about for so many people – it’s great when positive things come along and sometimes the right joyful book or film or album comes along just when you need it to – which is what’s happened to me with this. The Call of the Wild is so big-hearted, so full of warmth – as well as classic action/adventure music – all put through the composer’s trademark busy, intricate style, this time with some colourful folk touches to add extra colour. The 67-minute album doesn’t sag at all, just keeps offering fresh delights – it’s Powell at his very best.

Rating: *****

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  1. Peter (Reply) on Monday 24 February, 2020 at 20:14

    Can’t wait to hear this. John Powell is the f’n man. His score for Solo was one of the best things I’ve heard in years. Such rich, colorful music.