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Brilliant, old-fashioned family adventure score from Isham
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
* * * * 1/2
Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 2006 Walt Disney; review copyright (c) 2006 James Southall
This lovely film from director Frank Marshall about a group of Antarctic sledge dogs whose owners are forced to abandon them during the height of winter (and in which they end up saving the day) was well-received by family audiences and by critics, most of whom singled out the music by Mark Isham as being a wonderful positive aspect of the film. That's a little surprising, because for all the terrific scores he has composed, Isham is not a composer whose music usually leaps from the film and grabs much attention - he usually favours a much more subtle, organic sound.
From the opening bars of this "album" it is clear that this is not a subtle score! With a grand theme presented in the overture, it's a rousing and energetic one, far closer to Racing Stripes and parts of the sublime Fly Away Home than most Isham scores. Ironically, given that he is a trumpeter, Isham is not usually one for using much brass in his non-jazz scores, but that is resolutely not the case here: the trumpets and indeed the rest of the brass are all given hefty work-outs. Despite this change of sound (it's tempting to wonder whether orchestrator Mark McKenzie had anything to do with it - Isham's regular orchestrator Ken Kugler is nowhere to be found) the music is instantly identifiable as being by Isham, one of the most distinctive composers out there.
"The Journey Begins" presents a rousing theme which is enough to set any pulse racing; "The Rescue" is big and brassy and exciting; but of course, it's not all action. Any film like this needs to have some inspiring music for when heroic things happen, and Eight Below is no exception. "Pulling Through" is a great example of this. "Leopard Seal" opens as a terrific, pounding piece of action music before the middle section develops into something altogether more ethereal, returning at the end to the action music, which is by far the most explosive I've ever heard from the composer. The main theme is given an inspirational workout in "Almost Perfect", a stirring piece of music if ever I heard one. Alongside all that, there's some gorgeous pastoral music which evokes the beauty of the landscape (if not the harshness of it) - the fluttering, colourful "Fifteen Days" is a treat. "Southern Lights" is a beauty - a piano theme which opens the piece perfectly captures the colourful, mysterious specatcle, with the colourful music that follows very much doing the same. The modal "Black Ice" is also beautiful, with a splendid whistly flute solo, beautifully suggesting the cold scenery; arguably, the finale "My Best Girl", which is along similar lines, is even better. The end credits is another wonderful piece, a driving and memorable version of the main theme.
Unfortunately - I would say unforgivably - the music has not been released on CD, instead only available as a download from iTunes. While I can understand why albums which, frankly, hardly anyone is likely to buy can find an ideal home on iTunes - no distribution costs, no risk of manufacturing too many, etc - a muscular score for a popular Disney family movie should never be a candidate for such a release. For sure there are sentimental, illogical reasons - liking to have a physical CD in a proper box with a proper cover - but there are good, logical reasons too - for starters, there are so many people who can't access iTunes - so many more who can't be bothered - so many more who won't even know the music is there - so many more who live in a country where this particular album is not on offer. By all means, labels, put your albums on there, but put them in the shops as well - at least give people a choice.
With that rant out of the way, it only remains for me to recommend this very highly: it's one of Isham's most full-bodied, boistrous scores - maybe not quite on the level of Fly Away Home - but up there with Racing Stripes. Fantastic!