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INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL
Brilliant album stands as great companion piece to the old favourites, stands by itself very well too
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
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Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 2008 Lucasfilm Limited; review copyright (c) 2008 James Southall
If the purpose of a review is to inform people about something to the extent that it will influence their decision over whether to buy it or not, then this is probably the most pointless review I have ever written. Who out there will be buying the soundtrack album for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull based on what I say about it? Nobody, I'm sure, so I will instead use this space to offer some ruminations on rice pudding, and particularly the part it played in Hitler's downfall. Actually, I won't.
Just as with The Phantom Menace in 1999, there was absolutely no chance whatsoever that this film wouldn't receive mixed, but generally lukewarm, reviews. The people writing the reviews were generally a few years old, perhaps teenagers, when the previous films were released - they grew up with them. They love them as much for the nostalgic glimpse back into their childhood as they do for their quality as films. It's inevitable. And there is simply no way that a new version, nearly twenty years later, is going to be able to offer that same nostalgic snapshot - so I guess the question becomes, why make it? Obviously none of the key players needs the money, so one must assume it was just so they could have a good time - and let the audience have a good time as a result. On that level, the film is an unqualified success (unlike The Phantom Menace) - fun, lighthearted (the Harrison Ford / Sean Connery partnership from the previous film replaced, with some success, with that between Ford and Shia LeBeouf), enjoyable action sequences, old-fashioned stunt work - basically doing all the things everyone loved in the previous films.
The same is true of the music. How could John Williams ever satisfy the absurd expectation levels which built up around the score? This wasn't helped by the elongated break he took from writing any film music - people weren't just clamouring for a new Indy score, they were clamouring for any new Williams music at all. He could have written the greatest score of all time, and it would still have initially received a backlash, just because it isn't yet able to give people those little recollections of the films, of the good times they had when they were first released, and so on. As it happens, he didn't write the greatest score of all time, but he did write an extremely good one, and give it twenty years and it will spark just the same reaction as the other Indy scores do today.
"Raiders March" has become one of the most famous film themes, and it's no surprise that Williams opens the album with a new recording - though given how many times he must have conducted the piece, one might forgive him for being a little bored by it. The next three tracks present the score's three primary new themes. First is "Call of the Crystal", a mysterious piece reflecting the otherworldly nature of the crystal skull. It's highly-effective and memorable, playing like a darker version of the Ark music from the first score. "The Adventures of Mutt" on the other hand is lighthearted and fun, a great concert version of Indy's new sidekick's theme. It's a little like the "Young Indy" music from Last Crusade, but is more potent and catchy. I guess you could say it's this score's "Basket Chase" or "Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra". Finally there's "Irina's Theme", a beautifully over-the-top piece for the main Russian villain (played by Cate Blanchett).
The score proper begins with "The Snake Pit", the first of the action set-pieces - with a lighthearted tone being the order of the day, it's one of those pieces that only Williams attempts, and that's because only Williams would get away with it. Classic Indy music. Speaking of which, "The Spell of the Skull" rolls out an old favourite, the Ark theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark - aside from the themes for Indy and Marion, it's the only music from earlier in the series which makes its way onto the soundtrack album, though there is some more stuff in the film. "The Journey to Akator" begins with some Raiders March variations accompanying the traditional "plane travelling across the map" scene, before turning into something highly-unexpected on an Indiana Jones album - source music - South American, to be precise, and while it comes as a bit of a jolt out of nothing it's really good fun.
"A Whirl Through Academe" is one of the most enjoyable tracks, Williams breathlessly incorporating both the wit and excitement of the chase through Indy's college. How people have listened to this score and said it doesn't sound like an Indiana Jones score will forever remain one of life's great mysteries - even without the familiar themes you would never mistake it for anything but. It's amazing that for all the successful film series Williams has been involved in, each one has its own unique sound world and Indy is no different. For sure, some of the "Star Wars prequel action music" style carries over here, but that's just evidence of Williams's evolution as a composer, not some kind of sign that he has dampened-down the Indy style in favour of something more generic. "A Whirl Through Academe" is such good fun, it will surely end up on everyone's Indy compilations.
"Return" is a more subdued piece. The Crystal Skull theme gets another airing, for one of the score's darkest pieces. Musically I guess these sections might not be to everyone's taste, but I think it's nice to break up the more manic action music in this way. And the action music doesn't get more manic than "The Jungle Chase" which follows, accompanying the film's finest action set-piece - and classic Williams action scoring, building in everyone's themes (Irina's, Mutt's, Indy's) in a four-minute tour de force. "Orellana's Cradle" presents some of the score's creepiest music, with rumbling variations on the Crystal Skull theme. "Grave Robbers" briefly sounds like it could come from The Lost World, with its throbbing percussion, and it turns into yet another action highlight - the darkest action music of the score, and a wonderful piece.
"Hidden Treasure and the City of Gold" begins with spooky, atmospheric music - the Crystal Skull theme again forming the basis - but this time that theme's more expansive B-section gets more of an airing - and then some War of the Worlds-type aggressive action rounds out the cue. I don't know if there might be a bit of a nod and a wink from Williams and Spielberg here, referring back to one of their recent collaborations - or perhaps I'm just reading too much into it. The atmosphere of the first half of the cue continues in "Secret Doors and Scorpions" and "Oxley's Dilemma" - you can tell Williams is trying to build tension by sequencing the cues in this way (the album doesn't even vaguely resemble film order) and you just know that he is not a composer to leave tension unresolved - and so "Ants!" lets everything explode, with another great big action cue.
The next couple of cues, "Temple Ruins and the Secret Revealed" and "The Departure", underscore the frantic finale - with the Crystal Skull theme finally getting the kind of huge performance the Ark theme got at the finale of the first film, and then the things at the heart of the departure in question (I don't want to give the plot away!) getting their own explosive piece. Williams rounds things up with a wonderful ten-minute end title track incorporating Irina's, Mutt's and Marion's themes and the Raiders March, best of all including a brilliant new version of it for the end of the track. This is a wonderful album, heaven for a Williams fan, and there's the added sense that every second of it should be savoured - its composer is 76 years old, and the fact that he hadn't scored a film before this for three years suggests that the best his fans can hope for is a handful of new ones - but it really isn't difficult to savour music like this. It just gets better and better with each listen, and hats off to Williams for recapturing that old magic so very well.