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WAG THE DOG
Charming easy-going pop instrumentals for hilarious satire
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
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Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 1997 New Line Cinema; review copyright (c) 2008 James Southall
Barry Levinson's weird directorial career has hit all sorts of highs and lows - one can never be sure whether his next film's going to be another Toys or another Avalon - and he goes between wildly differing styles from one film to the next. A real highlight is the satire Wag the Dog, in which Robert de Niro plays a Washington adviser called in by a desperate president hit by a sex scandal just before election day. De Niro's solution is to concoct a fictional war with Albania and play it out in front of Hollywood cameras, so he enlists a suspiciously Robert Evans-like movie producer played by Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman's almost always excellent in comedies, though de Niro can sometimes appear to be sleepwalking - but not this time, with both men on top form delivering the razor-sharp dialogue, with the unmistakable David Mamet touch ("When the fit hits the shan somebody's going to have to stay behind after school").
Levinson has generally hired different composers for all his films, and in between Sleepers with its substantial John Williams score and Sphere with its substantial Elliot Goldenthal score came this, with Mark Knopfler providing something far from substantial. In fact, it's barely even a "score" at all, more a series of Dire Straits-style gentle country rock instrumentals which happen to be in a film, but Knopfler helps with the film's easy-going charm and does everything it needed. He's only an occasional film composer and one suspects is only really hired because the director wants to work with the man from Dire Straits, but so long as he's working on something which allows him to stay within his comfort zone he's perfectly decent. This is the sort of music Christopher Young has occasionally written - just guitars, drums and keyboard - and even though Knopfler is British, his delightful music is almost the definition of small-town America.
The very short album opens with Knopfler's title song, which is witty and enjoyable, though strangely doesn't feature any of the other songs which feature prominently in the film, including a couple of hilarious campaign song parodies written and sung on-screen by Willie Nelson. That's a real pity, but even so, the 24 minutes of music which do make this (low-price) CD are well worth it for fans of the film or of Knopfler's familiar (from his solo albums) style. Low-key film music like this certainly has its place in the right film, and this was that.