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THE KARATE KID
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
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Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 2007 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.; review copyright (c) 2007 James Southall
They're not exactly classics, but for people who grew up in the 1980s, The Karate Kid and (to a lesser extent) its sequels will likely always strike a chord, the kind of heartwarming film that audiences - particularly teenage ones - loved. The law of diminishing returns operated as the series went on as they gradually became guilty pleasures more than anything (though perhaps "pleasure" is not something experienced by many people watching the last one). The first three were directed by John G. Avilsden, who had made the film which inspired Bill Conti's best score - Slow Dancing In the Big City - and also his most famous, Rocky. None of the scores had ever been released before Varese Sarabande issued a 4-CD box set containing all of them in its March 2007 CD Club batch.
There are obvious similarities between The Karate Kid's story and that of Rocky - good guy beating the odds (and the bad guys) through hard work and training - but the music takes a slightly different tack. The first score opens with the famous main theme, a wistful piece, quite romantic in its way, very attractive. The film was released in 1984, but even if you didn't know that in advance, you'd be left in little doubt by the time the drum machines and other synths took over proceedings in the second cue, "Fite Nite". It's quite enjoyable in a cheesy kind of way, but you probably wouldn't want anybody to catch you listening to it.
Inevitably, the score has its eastern influences (though it's a very western view of eastern music, of course) - the brief, but gorgeous, "Bonsai Tree" presents a lovely little theme, played on pan flute (which may not be the most eastern of instruments, admittedly, but it gets the job done). The pan flute does begin to dominate the score through its middle sections - it brings a nice, consistent timbre, but isn't the most colourful of instruments. (In fact the middle of the score is punctuated by the 80s cheesefest "Feel the Night" sung by Baxter Robertson, in a demo version - presumably Varese couldn't get the rights to the original songs Conti wrote for the series, apart from this demo, since they don't appear.)
Even at only 35 minutes, the album is somewhat repetitive, but there's a smattering of fine set-pieces which gee up the energy levels from time to time. Perhaps the finest is "Daniel Sees the Bird", a typical Conti classical pastiche which is pretty shameless but is a wonderful little scherzo. "Training Hard" is the best integration of pan flute and orchestra, with the latter sweeping away wonderfully. The vintage Conti moment is in the grand finale, "Daniel's Moment of Truth", one of those rousing marches only this composer would dream of getting away with (and get away with it, he does). The score as a whole is not exactly a classic, but it contains some wonderful moments.
The music for the second instalment is essentially more of the same, but with a slightly lesser focus on the 1980s stylings (though Gheorghe Zamfir and his pan pipes were replaced by a synthesised equivalent this time). It opens with an excellent main title piece opening with eastern colour before a short action passage and then a wonderful burst of the "Daniel's Moment of Truth" anthem which closed the first score. After that comes a set of seemingly-endless variations on the Mr Miyagi music. It's all OK by itself, but put together it shows why many scores are not well-suited to being presented in chronological, complete form. "The Funeral" is a lovely break from this and shows that Conti is perfectly capable of supplying subtle, introspective music when the need arises - its gentle, deft orchestration is quite touching in its way, and it's one of the series' finest reflective musical moments. "Daniel and Kumiko" is moving in a way you would never expect a cue built around a synthesised pan pipe to be, but it's based around a knockout melody and really is hugely impressive.
The third score opens with one of the darkest presentations of the scores' main themes, bolstered by some colourfully mysterious exotic elements (and the return of Zamfir and his pan flutes). The problem for a composer scoring his third film in a series is, I guess, how to keep things fresh. I'm not entirely sure that Conti manages! There's not much fresh material here - a retread of the finest stuff from the first two scores, in essence. As such, there are just as many enjoyable moments, but nothing much new to report. It may actually be the most consistently enjoyable of the albums, certainly helped by the slightly darker tone and perhaps the best action cues, "Miyagi Kicks Butt" and the explosive finale "The Final Blow".
Even the Karate Kid himself, Ralph Macchio, wasn't enticed back for 1994's final, desperate trip down to the well, The Next Karate Kid, but Conti was on hand once again to provide the music. Ironically, it is the most dated of all the scoes, with the drum machine the main culprit. The highlight is undoubtedly the gentle piano theme introduced in "Trainyard Emotions", a touching and beautiful piece; the rest is largely another retread of already-familiar (very familiar, if you're listening to these four discs in a row) material.
All in all, there is some excellent music here, but none of the four discs is truly excellent on its own. With such repetition from one score to the next, perhaps things are stretched a little thin over nearly three hours. However, the box set was released at a very reasonable price (far less than you would pay for four individual CDs), makes some of Conti's best-loved music available for the first time, and has splendid packaging in which Julie Kirgo's typically-excellent notes feature a new interview with the composer.