- Composed by Howard Shore
- WaterTower Music / 2012 / 127m
It always seemed quite likely that at some point The Hobbit would make it onto the big screen from the same team that brought forth the excellent Lord of the Rings trilogy just after the turn of the century. It took a decade, marred by numerous challenges to the production from financial problems at the studio and a change of director, for the first of the new trilogy to arrive. The first thing a lot of people thought when it was announced that the book was being split into two parts to be filmed was – why? It’s a pretty slight children’s book, nothing like as deep as the Lord of the Rings ones, so it seemed a dangerous game to play dramatically to split it in two. It was of course good news that Peter Jackson ultimately ended up in the director’s chair – Guillermo del Toro having been signed up for a while – but he isn’t exactly renowned for the tightness of his storytelling. Then the decision was taken – very late on – to try to milk the cash cow that little bit more by turning two films into three. Coming next from Jackson: a 365-part adaptation of The Silmarillion, one part for each of the book’s pages.
Not surprisingly, An Unexpected Journey feels like a particularly unfinished one. It’s nothing like a film – it sort of builds up to nothing, with unnecessary details added to pad out the running time that add nothing to the story, as slight as it is in the first place. To repeat an oft-heard quip: the film not only doesn’t go “there and back again”, it doesn’t even get “there” – hopefully once the three are released, the complete story will prove satisfying. The film relies a lot on good will towards Jackson’s Middle Earth universe generated by his previous tales, and it’s true that can get you a long way: it’s great to be back there. It’s a lighter, wittier story too.
Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings music was widely praised at the time and has since become beloved by many people in the way that few film scores are. But there was a bit of nervousness as to whether he would come back and do The Hobbit: Jackson had – to the shock of most – rejected Shore’s music for his bloated King Kong remake. There were numerous sighs of relief when it was announced that they had reconciled their differences and Shore would, indeed, be back in Middle Earth. When the film finally emerged, it seemed that something still might not quite be right – with music controversially tracked in from Lord of the Rings a few times to provide a bit of musical familiarity that didn’t make leitmotivic sense, replacing the composer’s original compositions for the new film.
I’m not the wild devotee that many have become, but I’m certainly a fan of Shore’s Rings scores: they’re very enjoyable, there are several fine themes, they hit just the right dramatic note all the time, and it’s great how the composer managed to create distinct musical worlds within the overall world – you know when you’re in Hobbiton or Lothlorien or wherever thanks to the different colours in the music. People have written thousands and thousands of words about the thematic depth of the scores, to the point of obsession; and while those same people are writing very similar words about The Hobbit, I’m afraid that The Unexpected Journey is a different beast entirely.
Gone are those distinctive musical worlds within the whole – this time around, everything takes place in the same dreary, murky soundscape. I’m sure there are dozens of new themes here – in fact I know there are, because people on messageboards keep telling me there are, and people on messageboards are never wrong – but the average listener is unlikely to notice them. And that same average listener is particularly badly-served by the album releases: there’s a special edition (this album) which is over two hours long, designed to allow those in love with Shore’s music or the film to explore it in great depth. And there’s a standard edition, which is almost two hours long, and I’m not really sure what that’s designed to do. It’s far too long to be satisfying to the average listener who wants a musically-satisfying collection of highlights, padded out with absolutely loads of uninteresting murkiness; and the devotees won’t buy it (except to hear the brief passages of music that are inexplicably on the shorter album but not the longer one). I don’t have an ideological opposition to long film score albums, but the music has to be interesting enough to sustain them; and this music, I’m afraid, falls a long way short of being interesting enough.
Most mystifying of all is just how maddeningly murky it all is. Where’s the lightness, the humour? For five tracks, covering 24 minutes, at the start of the album, you’re hit over the head repeatedly by extraordinarily oppressive, dense music with barely a light moment at all – there’s a nice return to familiar territory in “Old Friends” with Shore’s wonderful hobbit theme making an appearance, but asides from that and a bit of nice Beethoven-ish string writing in “An Unexpected Party”, it’s extremely downbeat and, sadly, dreary stuff – I can’t find fun here, nor any great satisfaction. No doubt someone will point out the four thousand thematic developments within these five tracks and that’s fine, it clearly takes a huge amount of work to conjure up something like that – but can it be that while doing so, Shore may just have lost track of the more pressing need to write something that does the film score’s most simple job, to support the film? Is it possible that in putting so much thought into the detail, he lost sight of the bigger picture? I don’t know – but I do wonder.
Fortunately there is an injection of something far more memorable in the next cue, “Misty Mountains”, which introduces a theme which goes on to run through the rest of the score, a lovely theme for the dwarves and by far the score’s most memorable feature. It’s not actually by Howard Shore – rather, by a New Zealand group called Plan 9 – but aside from that initial vocal introduction, it is given his very customary orchestration. More impressive too is the upbeat part of “The Adventure Begins”, which is lighthearted and playful in a way that I wish more of the score had been. The most satisfying portion of the album continues with “The World is Ahead”, in which the orchestral version of the “Misty Mountains” theme is heard for the first time.
After that I’m sorry to say that it’s more than a bit of a slog to get to the finish, a slog admittedly punctuated occasionally by moments of real quality. But somehow the murky chorus accompanied by piercing strings and blaring low horns which is so familiar from Shore’s past just doesn’t hold any appeal for me any more – “An Ancient Enemy” is dank, depressing and utterly unlikeable, coming across as an uninspired retread of similar (much better-executed) ideas in Lord of the Rings. I’ve no doubt that many will love hearing music like this again, but I find myself not just finding it hard to like it, I actually actively dislike it. Perhaps it’s me that’s changed or perhaps it’s Howard Shore, but all of a sudden a style of music that once sounded impressive now sounds tired and I’m just not that interested in hearing it. Even the concluding song – now a customary feature of these films – is a let down. Neil Finn’s “Song of the Lonely Mountain” (which draws in part from “Misty Mountains”) is singularly unattractive, particularly in its arrangement and the weird 80s stylisation to the vocal.
Nobody could doubt the compositional quality of a track like “Roast Mutton”, often cited as one of the score’s finest; but a brief burst of “Misty Mountains” aside, it’s so wearingly bleak, the score in a nutshell – I can hear the thought process that’s gone into it, I can see that it’s mirroring the pattern of the film, but I just can’t enjoy it. And there is so much music like that on the album. Given that geological eras come and go in the time it takes to play from start to finish, that’s a serious problem. I’m not sure there’s enough really interesting music here, the sort to make the listener sit up and take note, for an album even half as long as the original Lord of the Rings ones; and in fact, the album’s twice as long as them. I’m afraid I just don’t like it. There are some fine highlights (the action finale “Out of the Frying Pan” is pretty spectacular) and it’s very clear from the general reaction that my feelings place me firmly in the minority – and frankly it’s not difficult to imagine that the unnecessarily padded film left Shore in a much more difficult place than the fine ones he scored for Jackson before – but ultimately, it feels like a huge chore to sit through it all.