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XPCD 157

Artwork copyright (c) 1995 Cutthroat Productions LP; review copyright (c) 2005 James Southall



Shiver me timbers!


A film which destroyed a studio (Carolco) by taking in some $80m less than it cost to make, which dispelled any notion that Matthew Modine would make a bankable leading man (many people may have been able to point this out beforehand) and virtually ended the career of Geena Davis, it's fair to say that Cutthroat Island was not a resounding success.  However, somehow director Renny Harlin seemed to emerge relatively unscathed, with a couple of fairly successful films coming in the couple of years which followed, though he has hardly done himself any favours with the recent Exorcist: The Beginning.  An old-fashioned pirate movie, it was by no means spectacularly bad, and it's odd that it was such a resounding failure, but one aspect of it has received almost unanimous praise over the years and that's John Debney's music, easily his most popular and well-known score until The Passion of the Christ came along almost a decade later.

Back in the days when I was a hardened cynic (it's hard to believe such times existed, I know) I was always sceptical as to just how good Debney's music could be.  Until then he had rarely written anything that stood out, and it was a film with a wretched reputation.  Out of curiosity I bought it anyway, and was - to put it mildly - pleased with what I discovered.  A spectacular, unashamedly old-fashioned work, it is truly one of the most entertaining and accomplished scores of the decade.  Of course, pirate movies inspired some of the earliest classic film scores by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, notably Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk, which remain two of the finest film scores ever written, and Debney dedicates his score to "Messrs Rozsa, Korngold, Steiner and Newman, and to all that have sailed the high seas".  There is little directly related to their style in the score - the use of choir is distinctly modern, and the orchestral writing actually reminds me of James Horner's early stuff more than anything - but the sense of old-fashioned fun is impossible to resist.

The score was originally released on CD in 1995 by Silva Screen Records, running 70 minutes.  You might think that was an adequate representation of a film score, but so spectacular is it that many fans were left wanting even more and so, ten years later, Prometheus Records has released a double-CD album, featuring all two hours of the score, plus about 25 minutes of bonus material, including (most intriguingly) the original seven-minute synth demo cue Debney wrote which got him the assignment.  I think the original album contains all the important material and should be sufficient, but there is no dip in quality in any of the additional music provided on the expanded release.  

Impressively, for such a long score, it isn't nearly as repetitive as you might expect.  For sure, the orchestral timbre rarely shifts - it's larger-than-life orchestral action music almost all the way through - but Debney does some interesting things with his base material, not just stating and restating things.  The main theme, introduced in "Morgan's Ride", is memorable and impressive.  Essentially, the whole thing is a delight, but some moments do stand out and are worthy of a special mention.  "Setting Sail" is a wonderfully nautical-sounding piece, if brief; "First Kiss" is a gloriously overblown romantic cue; the previously-unreleased "The Wedding Waltz" another beautiful and memorable romantic set piece; and the final 18-minute action track (which again features a chunk of previously-unreleased material) is truly spectacular from start to finish.  Best of all, though, is the ten-minute end credit piece, "It's Only Gold", which reprises some of the major themes for rousing final performances.

Cutthroat Island is a great score, one of the best action works of the 1990s.  It's a great pity that Debney hasn't had chance to flex his muscles on anything quite like this scale since.  This shows off all his best qualities and ought to be in everyone's collection, one of the few modern scores which should appeal in equal measure to fans of golden age film music.  If truth be told, any of the wonderful composers to whom Debney dedicates the score would have been proud of it.

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Disc One

  1. Morgan's Ride (4:38)
  2. The Rescue / Morgan Saves Harry (3:41)
  3. Purcell Snatcher (2:58)
  4. Shaw is Caught (1:15)
  5. The Funeral (1:29)
  6. Morgan in Command (2:51)
  7. The Language of Romance (2:40)
  8. A Lady Scorned (1:38)
  9. Carriage Chase (7:21)
  10. Ainclee Plots / To Spittelfield (3:46)
  11. Uncle Mordechai (2:02)
  12. Morgan Captured / Sword Fight (5:23)
  13. Escape from Mordechai's (2:09)
  14. Setting Sail (1:03)
  15. Charting the Course (2:19)
  16. First Kiss / Love Scene / Dawg's Plan (3:12)
  17. Shaw Discovers the Location (2:04)
  18. Betrayal (2:12)
  19. The Storm Begins (2:33)
  20. To the Bottom of the Sea (2:43)
  21. The Island (3:41)
  22. Shaw Steals the Map (3:30)
  23. Discovery of the Cave (4:39)
  24. Discovery of the Treasure (2:19)

Disc Two

  1. The Wedding Waltz (2:43)
  2. Caught (1:37)
  3. The Rope (2:17)
  4. Morgan and Shaw Jump Off the Cliff / The Big Jump (2:38)
  5. Shaw Captured (2:32)
  6. Morgan Takes the Ship (4:30)
  7. The Hangman's Noose (3:56)
  8. The Battle / To Dawg's Ship / Morgan Battles Dawg / Dawg's Demise / The Triumph (17:54)
  9. It's Only Gold (9:42)
  10. Morgan's Ride (alternate) (4:48)
  11. Carriage Chase (alternate) (7:26)
  12. The First Kiss (alternate) (1:54)
  13. Dawg's Demise / The Triumph (alternate) (3:31)
  14. Morgan's Ride / The Rescue (synth demo) (7:25)