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ALL THE KING'S MEN
Stirring drama from Horner which never quite reaches the heights it might
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
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Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 2006 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc.; review copyright (c) 2006 James Southall
Ever since Titanic, James Horner's had a knack of finding films to score which have a great Oscar buzz. Sometimes they end up being trite nonsense, other times he finds some genuinely good films and provides them with genuinely good scores, but he hasn't nabbed another statuette for himself yet... All the King's Men was meant to be the film which did it for him. Trouble is, then it got released, and people read the reviews, few of which were particularly complimentary, and fewer still were complimentary about the music.
I haven't seen the film yet, sadly - I would love to have done so before writing this, but living in a backwater country like the United Kingdom, of course I have to wait an age before it gets released - but it's easy to imagine why people had the reaction they did to the music. The film marks the third (if you believe the IMDB) time that Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer-winning novel has been adapted for the screen - first, there was the 1949 movie which won three Oscars, including Best Picture, Actor and Actress - then it claims a 1958 tv movie (I didn't know such things existed then) directed by none other than Sidney Lumet - and now comes Steven Zaillian's adaptation with an all-star cast of Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, James Gandolfini, Mark Ruffalo, Patricia Clarkson and Anthony Hopkins. Whatever he does in his career, Zaillian's name will probably always be prefixed by "screenwriter of Schindler's List", but he's also written a number of other fine screenplays and directed a few times, most notably previously Searching for Bobby Fischer, also scored by Horner.
This is the prototypical James Horner drama score - it contains ingredients from so many of the composer's previous works that it renders early reports that it was his most original work in years, truly mystifying. The film chronicles fictional southern governor Willie Stark, obviously largely based on Huey P. Long, and provides Sean Penn with an ideal opportunity to act Big. Horner is never one to shy away from scoring Big either, and he certainly ratchets up the earnestness and seriousness of it all, at every opportunity.
This is grand, sweeping music written on a large scale - but, while (with the odd exception) it doesn't actually quote melodies from past Horner scores, it is so similar to so many of them that even for the rabid Horner listener it ends up somehow seeming to be slightly less than the sum of its parts. The crashing pianos, the rumbling bass, the sweeping strings are all here, and of course it's true that Horner is simply composing in his own instantly-identifiable style, but after the relative freshness of his scores in the recent past it's a little disappointing to see him once again treading over old ground to this extent.
Now, having said all that, it would be remiss not to point out all of the score's very good features, features which render the album - despite its faults - highly-recommended, and make it clearly one of the year's stronger ones. The dark main theme which opens the album is (at first - more on this later) quite engaging, particularly in its piano incarnation, but the first notable cue is "Give Me the Hammer and I'll Nail 'Em Up!" which is intensely dramatic and effective, briefly quoting Braveheart though it does. Horner's style might be familiar, but it's so effective it's hard to be too critical of him just extending other scores in this cue. It's Horner at his best, using all of his powers to stir and inspire - it's easily the album's finest track (but ironically, wasn't actually used in the film).
While he certainly lays it on thick at times, the score is probably at its finest when Horner strips things down to the bare essentials, such as "Conjuring the Hick Vote", with very subtle orchestration for the most part highlighting plucked strings, harp and a deep horn solo. "Anne Memories" is a sweetly emotional theme which suggests a great remorse and sadness, and is really quite moving. And indeed, it must seem like I am singing this score's praises up to the heavens, thus contradicting my earlier comments - and it's funny because all of these elements of the score work just fine, and some are fantastic, but when put together, however well-wrought the components may be, the whole is just slightly uncompelling. It starts, builds up and up, and then ends without quite hitting the heights one expects it to reach at any moment. In some ways, the worst feature is the main theme - at first it seemed an intriguing portrait of gloom, but by the time it has been repeated a large number of times the earnest gloominess has been simply emphasised too much. I can see what Horner was trying to do - emphasising the conflict inside the central character, stressing the darkness facing the light - but it's almost as if he tried too hard and went a little over-complicated when something far simpler would have proved more compelling.
I used to find myself saying about every new Horner album that "this is far too long" - but an outstanding run from the composer seemed to have left those days behind. Unfortunately All the King's Men marks something of a return - there is an oustanding core of material here which is simply stretched a little thin over 56 minutes. It remains a very good score by Horner, but it remains one step behind his other recent work, and it looks like he might have to rely on his other scores of this year for the Oscar bait.