A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST – Joel McNeely
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Seth MacFarlane is one of those people who you either seem to love or hate. Since the debut of his animated TV show Family Guy in 1999 he has polarized audiences, who seem to both love and loathe his crude humor, oddball characters and self-aware pop culture references in equal measure. I have always been firmly in the “love him” camp, having greatly enjoyed Family Guy, it’s spin-off The Cleveland Show, and his other project American Dad, as well as his big-screen debut project Ted, which I still think is one of the funniest comedies in years. His sophomore effort is, somewhat surprisingly, a western: A Million Ways to Die in the West, which stars MacFarlane himself as Albert Stark, a sheep farmer in old Arizona circa 1880, who hates everything about his life, especially the way in which the environment, the weather, and everyone and everything around him has the potential to kill him: hence the title of the film. After breaking up with his needy girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried), Albert thinks he has reached his lowest ebb – until the arrival of the beautiful and spunky Anna (Charlize Theron), to whom Albert takes an immediate shine. The only problem, however, is the fact that Anna is the estranged wife of Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), the most dangerous bandit in the territory… and he wants his wife back.
Although A Million Ways to Die in the West is a broad comedy, filled with scatological jokes, sex references, gory deaths, and lots of bad language, the film has a surprisingly tender and heart-warming romance story at its core, and is also a loving homage to the great westerns of MacFarlane’s youth. There are some spectacular vistas of Utah’s Monument Valley, with a real sense of beauty in some of the shots, great attention to period detail, and many visual reminders and acknowledgements of everything from 3:10 to Yuma to Oklahoma and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Best of all, though, is Joel McNeely’s utterly spectacular score, which is itself both a tribute to all the great western scores of the past, and a truly great western score in its own right. MacFarlane is a self-proclaimed film score aficionado, with a genuine love of the sweeping, thematic orchestral scoring that I grew up listening to, and that love is clearly reflected in the score for this film; if you’ve ever sat back in a cinema and let yourself be enveloped by the wild west music of Elmer Bernstein, Alfred Newman, or Jerome Moross, then you are in for a real treat here.
The album actually opens with a song, “A Million Ways to Die”, written by McNeely and MacFarlane, and performed by country star Alan Jackson with smoke and gravel in his voice. Imagine what it would sound like if the Marlboro Man sang a song; that’s what this sounds like, with all the manliness and gravitas that implies. Like “Everyone Needs a Best Friend” from Ted before it, it will receive an Oscar nomination next year. There’s one other song too, an astonishingly appropriate hoe-down called “If You’ve Only Got a Moustache”, written in 1864 by Stephen Foster – he of “Camptown Races” and “Beautiful Dreamer” fame – and performed with straight-faced gusto by Broadway tenor Amick Byram. The lyrics were changed a little to better suit the film, but the meat of it is the same as it was 150 years ago, when it was first written.
Elmer Bernstein always said that comedies are funnier when the music isn’t in on the joke: his classic works in the genre, which range from Airplane! to Animal House and Stripes, play it absolutely straight, and thankfully Joel McNeely follows his lead, writing a non-ironic, iconic-sounding western score which could have been lifted directly from the genre’s heyday in the 1950s and 60s. There are clear homages to specific scores here and there – Bernstein’s The Magnificent Seven, Moross’s The Big Country, Newman’s How the West Was Won, Aaron Copland’s classical masterpieces Appalachian Spring and Rodeo – but McNeely’s themes are his own, and they’re outstanding.
The “Main Title” introduces the rousing, full orchestral main theme – expansive, buoyant, perfect – before moving into the first of several unexpectedly tender romantic passages in “Missing Louise”, which highlight Davis Weiss’s expressive oboe, George Doering’s intimate guitar, and Seth MacFarlane himself on his sonorous melodica. The romantic scoring continues in the lyrical “Rattlesnake Ridge”, and the absolutely gorgeous “Anna and Albert”, which features more sweetly dreamy oboe and guitar scoring, magical harp glissandi, as well as some truly lovely orchestral swells. The film’s prerequisite Native American scene, “Captured by Cochise”, also features a cello solo towards its conclusion that is simply sublime.
The score has several rambunctious action sequences too, including the barnstorming “Saloon Brawl” which pitches the might of the orchestra against a slamming banjo/dobro duet and several performances of the “Million Ways to Die” melody from the opening title, re-orchestrated for brass. Much more muscular brass and punchy percussion writing accompanies the Clinch Leatherwood character in cues like the tension-laden “Clinch Hunts Albert”, before opening up into the florid, energetic “Racing the Train”, which has a superb sense of forward motion and movement.
Back in the 1990s, after Bruce Broughton and before Michael Giacchino came along, McNeely was often touted as being the likely successor to John Williams, and you can hear little snippets of the maestro’s style here and there, in some of the instrumental phrasing, chord progressions, and rhythmic ideas. There is a bit of ‘Jim’s New Life’ from Empire of the Sun in the lightly energetic “The Shooting Lesson”, a bit of The Patriot in the aforementioned “Anna and Albert”, and a reference to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade towards the end of “Racing the Train”, especially in the flutes.
The conclusive trio of cues contain several performances of the score’s main themes, ranging from the tense drama of “The Showdown”, (which begins to approach Ennio Morricone spaghetti western territory), to the sweeping release of relief and beauty in the glorious “Sheep to the Horizon”, and the all-encompassing excellence of the “End Title Suite”.
I cannot recommend A Million Ways to Die in the West highly enough. It’s so refreshing to hear a score which so clearly wears its heart on its sleeve, which is so lovingly crafted to reference its genre predecessors yet stands on its own two feet, which has so much depth and care taken over the orchestrations, and which is so clearly being performed by musicians who are loving the experience of playing these melodies, these harmonies, these themes. As score fans, we should all be grateful to Seth MacFarlane not only for wanting his movie to have a score like this, but for having the money and influence to ensure it actually gets it. I’m also especially pleased for Joel McNeely, who hasn’t scored a major theatrical release since Holes in 2003, and has spent the last decade writing genuinely great music for projects that are beneath him – straight-to-DVD Disney animated sequels, Tinker Bell movies, and B-pictures like the Lindsay Lohan vehicle I Know Who Killed Me. I sincerely hope that this is the score that brings him back into the spotlight.
Buy the Million Ways to Die in the West soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- A Million Ways to Die (written by Joel McNeely and Seth MacFarlane, performed by Alan Jackson) (2:27)
- Main Title (2:33)
- Missing Louise (2:08)
- Old Stump (0:45)
- Saloon Brawl (1:50)
- Rattlesnake Ridge (1:28)
- People Die at the Fair (2:11)
- The Shooting Lesson (2:16)
- The Barn Dance (2:29)
- If You’ve Only Got a Moustache (written by Stephen Foster, additional lyrics by Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, performed by Amick Byram) (1:31)
- Anna and Albert (4:19)
- Clinch Hunts Albert (3:41)
- Racing the Train (2:21)
- Captured by Cochise (2:07)
- Albert Takes a Trip (2:24)
- The Showdown (2:20)
- Sheep to the Horizon (2:00)
- End Title Suite (2:30)
Running Time: 45 minutes 28 seconds
Backlot Music 267 (2014)
Music composed and conducted by Joel McNeely. Orchestrations by Joel McNeely and David Slonaker. Featured musical soloists George Doering, Seth MacFarlane, Dean Parks, Noam Pikelny and Gabe Witcher. Recorded and mixed by Rich Breen. Edited by Charles Martin Inouye. Album produced by Joel McNeely and Seth MacFarlane.