Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Seminal Scores: Jurassic Park (John Williams, 1993)

A review 65 million years in the making...

No, not really but this will be the first (hopefully) in my Seminal Movie Scores series (has to be done in capitals), celebrating the finest in film music (orchestral, not songs)

We kick off with what I believe is John Williams' finest effort, Jurassic Park

Come and walk with dinosaurs and enjoy (or, you know, just enjoy)


Steven Spielberg had a banner year in 1993, receiving critical acclaim and Oscar glory for Holocaust drama Schindler’s List, and thrilling global audiences with the recreated dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Fundamental to both films’ success but perhaps more overlooked in the hoopla, was composer John Williams. With a partnership stretching back to 1974’s Sugarland Express, and encompassing such classics as Jaws, the Indy trilogy and ET, it’s arguably the most successful of modern director-composer collaborations, Spielberg frequently providing the perfect canvas onto which the composer can project a bold musical soundscape.

Jurassic Park is one of Williams’ finest achievements. In a complete about face from the introverted, haunting Schindler’s List, it mixes both the rapturous Golden Age sound of his 80s heyday with the orchestral maturity to be developed further in darker 90s scores such as Nixon and Saving Private Ryan.

Shamefully, it was also overlooked for any major awards, in favour of the more dramatically subtle Schindler’s List. But there’s no doubt that Park is the better score. Traversing the full range of emotions from wonder to awe, terror to excitement, with at least two brilliant themes that have entered popular culture, it works brilliantly both inside and outside the film it’s designed for.

The moody Opening Titles begin with a burst of ominous choir and shakuhachi, immediately establishing a sense of danger and suspense, of man dabbling with forces beyond his control. The flipside is the glorious Theme from Jurassic Park, a majestic, beautiful representation of the resurrected dinosaurs in all their glory. Heard regularly throughout in various guises, its most famous rendition comes in Journey to the Island, an 8 minute tour de force that also weaves in the other central theme, a thrilling brass fanfare for the island itself.

As is usual with Williams though, the incidental tracks are as enjoyable and created with as much care as the big themes. Forgoing the stylistics of his earlier scores, his action compositions for Park are altogether darker, more uncompromising and utterly thrilling. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the frightening four note danger motif (used predominantly for the dreaded velociraptors) that dominates Incident at Isla Nublar, Raptor Attack, High Wire Stunts, Eye to Eye and T-Rex Rescue and Finale (the latter being one of the most breathlessly exciting, relentless pieces of Williams’ career).
By contrast there are also some truly gorgeous moments where the listener is allowed to bask in the beauty of the island’s more benign inhabitants. The moving, see-sawing strings of My Friend, the Brachiosaurus, show Williams at his lyrical, melodic best, utterly brilliant. A Tree for My Bed casts the main theme in a charming lullaby arrangement. Remembering Petticoat Lane sounds a melancholy tinkling lament for the island’s failed venture and experiment. Further bursts of tropical percussion come in Jurassic Park Gate, to be used more extensively in the 1997 sequel.

Pitted against the natural beauty of the location are the synthesised rhythms of Dennis Steals the Embryo, reinforcing the films core themes of science versus nature. Then there is of course the superbly rousing end credits suite Welcome to Jurassic Park that recaps all the major themes, although it’s strangely located mid-album; some programming is required to sort out the order.

It’s this regular fillip between beauty and horror, organic and synthetic, which marks Jurassic Park as a standout score, even by Williams’ standards. Coming at a pivotal moment after the more playful 80s but before the more subdued 90s, it really is a best of both worlds album and a magnificent score in its own right. A masterpiece.

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