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ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD – Maurice Jarre

MOVIE MUSIC UK CLASSICS

Original Review by Craig Lysy

The screenplay for Island at the Top of the World was based on the novel “The Lost Ones”, which was written by Ian Cameron and set in the location of Prince Patrick Island. The film is a classic adventure and discovery tale set in London circa 1907. British nobleman Sir Anthony Ross organizes a rescue party to the Arctic in a desperate search to recover his lost son Donald, who had embarked on an expedition in search of the fabled isle – the “Graveyard of Whales”. Joined by famous archaeologist Professor Ivarsson and Captain Brieux, an aeronaut who pilots the expedition, the team sets off in the Hyperion, an incredible mechanized French dirigible. Fate would have it that they discover an uncharted island named Astragard, or “Garden Of The Gods”, which is home to a lost colony of Vikings separated from humanity for centuries. The team ultimately must contend with a romance between Donald and the Viking Freyja, xenophobic Vikings who are unwilling to let their existence be revealed to the outside world, a fanatical High Priest Godi intent on executing these “invaders”, and lastly, killer whales that defend their sacred Graveyard. The film regretfully was neither a critical or commercial success. It suffered from inferior production quality, rare for a Disney film, and just did not resonate with the public.

French composer Maurice Jarre relished his new assignment, as this would be his first collaboration with a Disney film. As was his custom, he created the otherworldly ambiance of Astragard by infusing its imagery with an array of exotic instruments, which he contrasted with his classic Western themes. Among the instruments he employed were immense Alpine horns, conch shell horns, glass rub rods, water chimes, waterphone, shakers, chimes and bell trees. The score features a multiplicity of themes, which Jarre employs as Leitmotifs. First and foremost is the versatile Adventure Theme, which has three variants; variant 1, a dramatic, nautical and horn-laden statement abounding with the spirit of adventure, variant 2, a mysterioso statement carried by cimbalom and solo flute, which is more subdued and ethnic, perfectly imparting the other-worldliness of Astragard, and lastly variant 3, a romantic statement carried by lyrical solo flute and kindred woodwinds, which convey its tender and loving sensibilities. At times the Adventure Theme is performed alla marcia or takes on a more menacing and aggressive tone, especially during chase scenes. Next we have Brieux’s Theme, created for our aeronaut Captain Brieux. Jarre provides him with a French infused theme that is both comic and regimental, perfectly attuned to his martinet like persona. We also have the Flight Theme, a lyrical waltz like statement that speaks to the awe and wonder of the Hyperion as it soars in the heavens. Jarre also provides the lyrical dance-like Artic Wonder Theme, which captures the wonder of the wild life seen in the Artic. Lastly, he provides a twinkling and textural solo piano carried Artic Motif that plays when imagery of Artic vistas are seen.

“Title and Theme” plays over the opening credits. It is essentially an Overture, which introduces a number of themes including all three variants of the Adventure Theme as well as the Artic Motif. Jarre makes a bold, romantic and complex statement that instantly captures our imagination and elicits us to join this magnificent adventure! Bravo! “We’re Under Way” features Sir Anthony and Professor Ivarsson traveling to Paris to meet Captain Brieux. Jarre provides customary travel music until their arrival and meeting with Captain Brieux. Fanfare at 0:48 reveals the Hyperion for the first time and introduces Brieux’s Theme, which concludes the cue. “The Dirigible” features our adventurers ascending in the Hyperion from the French countryside. Jarre provides a fine interplay of the flowing and balletic Flight Theme and the comic Brieux’s Theme. The cue’s waltz-like conclusion atop the Flight Theme as the Hyperion soars in the heavens is just wondrous!

In “Full Speed” an impatient Sir Anthony rams the Hyperion’s throttle to full against the insistence of Captain Brieux. We hear echoes of the syncopated Adventure Theme, now arrayed with exotic instrumental textures, which allude to their destination. This is nicely conceived. In the multi-scenic “Traveling” we are again treated to a multiplicity of themes. We open seeing Brieux heroically fixing a broken propeller fully supported by his theme. We change scenes and segue atop the Flight Theme to see panoramic Artic vistas as the Hyperion approaches the shores of Greenland. At 2:05 as the Hyperion moves inland we see a stunning array of wild life. Jarre introduces us to his sumptuous and dance-like Artic Wonder Theme, which is carried by lyrical strings and alight with glockenspiel accents. Juxtaposing a natural setting with a ballroom ambiance was brilliantly conceived and perfectly captures the wonder of the moment. At 3:36 the Adventure Theme, now heard with trepidation and the Flight Theme interplay as Brieux navigates the Hyperion through a narrow channel among the ice sheaths. I have to say this is a really enjoyable cue and a score highlight.

In “Oomiak Is Trapped” as the Hyperion prepares to land at an Eskimo village Jarre introduces a sparkling oriental infused line alight with chimes as Eskimos swing like pendulums in an attempt to anchor the Hyperion. This was ingenious! After Sir Anthony kidnaps Oomiak, who has knowledge of Donald’s disappearance, the cue concludes with plaintive woodwinds rendering of the Flight Theme as the Hyperion heads north. “Follow It” features vistas of sea ice and pods of several different whale species traveling north, suggesting a bearing to the mystic isle. Jarre offers a new rendering of the Adventure Theme, which is now expressed as slow flowing dance with glockenspiel accents that mirrors the movement of the whales – nicely done! As the Hyperion turns to follow we are treated to a resplendent statement of the Artic Wonder Theme. In “The Storm” we hear the Artic Motif now stripped of its ambient beauty and full of menace as the Hyperion battles against a fierce Artic storm. A crash against a rock face throws Sir Anthony, Ivarsson and Oomiak overboard as a helpless Brieux drifts away in the crippled Hyperion. Low register horns, chattering xylophone and trilling woodwinds herald the danger as the cue ends with a resonating dark low register sustain. In “They Start the Trek” the three men begin their trek in search of Donald, are captured by Vikings and taken to the verdant hot-spring supported valley where Astragard lies. Jarre opens the cue with an eerie and exotic soundscape that elicits uneasiness. As the captured men travel down to the valley we are treated to the Adventure Theme, now performed alla marcia replete with cimbalom, woodwinds and exotic instrumentation.

In “Donald’s House” our party goes to Donald’s house and meets Freyja and her father who explain that Donald was taken prisoner by the high priest Godi. The cue features the romantic 3rd variant of the Adventure Theme performed dance like in classic Western style. Jarre’s music speaks to the romantic love between Freyja and Donald. The theme interplays with harsh flutes and textural percussion as Donald’s fate is discussed. “We Know Donald” features a splendid rendering of the mysterioso second variant of the Adventure Theme, first performed tenderly by solo flute, cimbalom and harp followed by a beautiful joining of woodwinds and strings – just wonderful! Exotic percussion and electronica open “The Viking City” as our heroes enter the city of Astragard. Discordant percussion, woodwinds and percussion mark resistance to their passage until guards command the town folks to give way. Jarre provides a wonderful and pompous Adventure Theme now rendered alla marcia as the party ascends a steep path to the sacred temple that commands a hilltop overlooking the city. At 1:33 exotic, otherworldly textures and percussion signal their passage into the temple’s interior where they behold massive statues of the Viking gods Oden, Thor and Frey. Alpine horns sound with percussion as the council of five elders descend and take their seat upon stone thrones. Yet the fanatical high Priest Godi interrupts the proceedings and usurps the authority of the elders, issuing a religious edict that commands their execution.

In “The Chase” we see our three heroes tied to posts atop a funerary barge, which is set afire. As the Vikings watch on the shore, Freyja swims covertly to the barge, cuts them free and they escape in a boat with the Vikings in hot pursuit. This non-thematic textural cue opens ominously atop Alpine horns blended with Nordic and African percussive rhythms. At 1:21 as our party escapes, all hell breaks loose as Jarre accelerates this textural line into frenzy. Relentless pounding drums, Alpine horns and metallic percussion drive the musical flow. As the party hides in the bushes the percussive flow slows and subsides as Freyja misdirects the Vikings away. “In the Volcano” features our heroes and Freyja fleeing the pursuing Godi and his troops through the bubbling caldera of the volcano. Portentous horns sound the first variant of the Adventure Theme, which is accompanied with pounding percussion in a robust and determined march. As the volcano erupts in “Burning Lava” our party is forced to flee through a lava channel with magma flowing in pursuit. This cue is very textural with deep rumbling low register horns and bass countered by muted trumpets and eerie screeching violins. At 0:50 the romantic variant of the Adventure Theme returns, first on woodwinds, then French horns until shifting to the second variant atop solo flute and cimbalom. Nicely done!

“Escape Through the Ice Palace” displays our party’s escape through a crystalline ice passageway that leads to the graveyard of the dead, where whales down through the ages have come to die. Jarre uses Alpine horns to support the 2nd variant of the Adventure Theme again played alla marcia and adorned with a wondrous array of rhythmic percussive textures including hollow shakers and bell trees. The use of glass rub rods, water chimes and waterphone to create the sounds of cracking ice is brilliantly conceived and perfectly attenuated to the film’s imagery. In “Battle with the Sea Beasts” disquieting metallic percussive textures create a mysterioso ambiance of the whale graveyard. The music portends danger as the party swims to a floating piece of ice shelf, which they then use to paddle down the river. As killer whales attack Jarre employs celli and bass that use col legno techniques, which are joined by dark rumbling piano chords and water chimes to evoke their desperate battle to stay alive. Gun shots fired by Brieux which kill several whales saves the day and reunites our heroes.

“Flyin’ Without Engine” is a score highlight that features a fine interplay of the Hyperion Theme and an exquisitely beautiful rendering of the romantic variant of the Adventure Theme. The scene reveals the party detaching the Hyperion from its engineering gondola and engines to allow its balloon hull and passenger gondola to rise and gain the south winds for their escape. As the Hyperion ascends the Hyperion Theme sounds and is joined by piano, which provides a nice romantic sweep. At 1:10 we segue into an extended statement of the romantic variant of the Adventure Theme, first carried by solo piccolo, cimbalom and violins, and then later taken up by solo flute as Donald and Freyja contemplate their future. I adore this cue!

In “God’s Punishment” we are treated to a potent action cue. Fate would have it that the winds reverse and bring the Hyperion back to Godi and his troops. As Godi brings down the Hyperion with a fire arrow its crashing hulk fittingly consumes him. The cue opens with the Artic Motif on low register tremolo strings, which portend danger. Once Godi sights the Hyperion, all hell breaks loose. Jarre propels the music with harsh ostinato strings, blaring Alpine horns, discordant muted trumpets and driving percussion, until a shrill discordant horn blast signals Godi’s end. We conclude happily ever after in “Happy Ending” as the Elders grant permission for the team to leave on two conditions; that they not disclose Astragard to the outside world, and that Ivarsson stays behind as a willing hostage. We close with a truly resplendent presentation of the romantic variant of the Adventure Theme, as father, son and Freyja are reunited bringing our adventure to a satisfying conclusion.

I am most happy and thankful to Douglass Fake and Intrada for once again restoring and providing a rare score for lovers of film music. The complete stereo score was newly mixed from original multi-track session masters that were thankfully found in pristine condition in the Disney vaults. The sound quality is excellent and typical of Intrada production standards. This Jarre effort is a classic adventure score that is alight with a multiplicity of sweeping romantic, mystery and action themes. His use of exotic instruments to provide ethnic textures and rhythms served to create the wonderful otherworldly soundscapes that gave life to the mythic Astragard and Whale Graveyard. It suffices to say that this lost score is a rare missing gem in Jarre’s canon, one worthy of joining your collection.

Rating: ****

Buy the Island at the Top of the World soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Title and Theme (2:38)
  • We’re Under Way (1:46)
  • The Dirigible (3:12)
  • Full Speed (0:53)
  • Traveling (5:19)
  • Oomiak is Trapped (2:02)
  • Follow It (2:14)
  • The Storm (1:43)
  • They Start the Trek (1:50)
  • Donald’s House (1:40)
  • We Know Donald (2:11)
  • The Viking City (2:26)
  • The Chase (4:34)
  • In the Volcano (2:08)
  • Burning Lava (1:56)
  • Escape Through the Ice Palace (1:58)
  • Battle With the Sea Beasts (2:36)
  • Flyin’ Without Engine (2:41)
  • God’s Punishment (1:45)
  • Happy Ending (1:25)

Running Time: 46 minutes 57 seconds

Intrada Special Collection Volume 193 (1974/2012)

Music composed and conducted by Maurice Jarre. Orchestrations by Maurice Jarre. Edited by Evelyn Kennedy. Album produced by Douglass Fake.

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