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SPIES LIKE US
Over-the-top music is one of Bernstein's best comedy scores
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
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Album cover copyright (c) Warner Bros., Inc.; review copyright (c) 2006 James Southall
Elmer Bernstein was in the middle of his comedy phase in 1985 when he scored the John Landis-directed Spies Like Us. In many ways it's a shame that such a great film composers was reduced to scoring this type of thing - I'm sure he had a lot of fun with them for a while, but he must have longed for the opportunity to do something a little more substantial. Anyway, he approached them all - of course - with his usual professionalism and always gave his best, and the more outlandish of them with vigour and produced music which is an absolute blast. Spies Like Us is an example of that.
It begins with "The Ace Tomato Company", and while it's already evident how silly it's all going to be, there's a pulsating action theme developed which could easily come from a more serious film (well, if it weren't for the even-odder-than-usual sounds of the ondes martenot) - it's Bernstein doing Rambo, or something, and it's great to hear. "Off to Spy" introduces the next theme - after a cheerful, jazzy opening comes an explosive, expansive theme which is one of (sadly) many examples where Bernstein was asked to parody his own classic Magnificent Seven theme during his later career. Still, it's unquestionably great fun, and done with real swagger.
Another action theme is introduced in "Russians in the Desert", with Bernstein going all out for a Lawrence of Arabia-style sense of grandeur - and finding one! However silly the film may have been, it still gave the composer a chance to write some imposing music. The piece's action music is developed further in "Escape", which is genuinely thrilling, especially when the heroic theme from "Off to Spy" bursts forth.
After these first five tracks have established this base of material, most of the rest of the score simply develops and/or restates what has already been done, but Bernstein does it with a glint in his eye and with a great deal of flair. The pounding action of "The Road to Russia" is probably too over-the-top to have ever been in a serious film, but it's perfect for this comedy, and perfect for a film music fan. Bernstein's comedy scores, after the blistering first couple (Animal House and Airplane), tended to be a bit hit and miss - this one is resolutely in the former category, a grandiose, yet elegant score for a film which didn't deserve it.