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THE IRON GIANT – Michael Kamen

irongiantOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

The thing which distinguishes The Iron Giant from the vast majority of other film scores is that, by and large, there are no recurring themes anywhere. Written in the short gap between finishing his historic “S&M” collaboration with Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and re-commencing work on his millennium symphony, “The New Moon in the Old Moon’s Arms”, composer Michael Kamen tackled The Iron Giant like a mini-symphony of its own, with each individual cue a standalone piece intended to depict a certain feeling or moment in childhood.

Adapted from the popular book by Ted Hughes, which was itself taken from a Scandinavian fable, The Iron Giant has become one of the most critically acclaimed and universally lauded animated motion pictures in history. Set in the 1950s at the height of the Cold War, it tells the story of a young fella named Hogarth Hughes who, while wandering in the forest near his suburban American home, finds a huge metal robot sitting in a clearing. It transpires that this metallic behemoth is capable of speech and interaction, and soon Hogarth and the giant become friends – despite the fact that a whole host of paranoid FBI agents are intent on capturing the gentle creation. With a voice cast that includes Jennifer Aniston and Harry Connick Jr., and with Brad Bird (the director of many Simpson’s episodes) at the helm, the simple sentiments and gentle parables of The Iron Giant have turned it into almost an instant classic.

As the film is set in the fifties, Bird specifically asked Kamen to become “inspired” by the music of Bernard Herrmann, and to try to create the richly textured sound one might have heard in the film music written by him during that period. In an attempt to achieve this, Kamen took himself off to Prague to record his score with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, and the mileage seems to have been worth it. Somehow, there is an extra feeling of depth and quality to the score, which ultimately makes the album seem a far better listening experience that might otherwise have been achieved had the score been performed by a contracted group of Los Angeles musicians.

While some people may be unable to grasp the concept of a film score having no recurring themes, and while I myself often discredit scores for that very same thing, I actually believe that Kamen’s approach here is absolutely spot-on. There are minor motifs, for Hogarth and for the Giant himself, which occasionally reappear, but for the most part Kamen’s music plays fluidly, almost like a symphony of its own. The score develops a series of different feelings as it progresses, initially sounding frightening and turbulent, gradually changing to be tentatively attractive, introspective and thoughtful, before becoming heartbreakingly operatic and emotional as the curtain comes down. This is a score unlike anything Kamen has composed before, and is without a doubt the most intelligent and creatively structured work of his career to date.

The album is full of highlight cues, but my personal favorites include ‘Eye of the Storm’, which opens the score with a chaos of churning and bubbling dissonance; opening; ‘The Giant Wakes’, which features some lovely innocent woodwind performances; ‘Cat and Mouse’, in which flighty woodwinds and massive tubas engage in some superb interplay; ‘Bedtime Stories’ and ‘Souls Don’t Die’, with their tenderly evocative string writing; ‘Space Car’, a cue composed of sheer joy and youthful ebullience; ‘The Army Arrives’ with its threatening snares and martial overtones; and the whole 12-minute finale from ‘The Giant Discovered’ onwards, which runs the gamut of emotions and eventually reaches a magical musical peak of almost Williams-eqsue proportions.

For many film score fans, Michael Kamen is a love-him-or-loathe-him composer who, despite having written such wonderful works as Mr. Holland’s Opus and Don Juan DeMarco, still has a fair amount of detractors. Hopefully, The Iron Giant will dispel the misconceptions about Kamen’s talent and make more people aware of the gifts he has. He has certainly matured in my eyes. Such was the film’s uncharacteristically poor box office performance, I can virtually guarantee that Kamen won’t be officially recognized by the Academy in February, but he is most deserving. The Iron Giant is one of the most surprisingly accomplished film scores of the year.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • The Eye of the Storm (2:31)
  • Hogarth Hughes (0:21)
  • Into The Forest (3:34)
  • The Giant Wakes (1:25)
  • Come and Get It (1:46)
  • Cat and Mouse (0:56)
  • Train Wreck (1:05)
  • You Can Fix Yourself? (1:18)
  • Hand Underfoot (2:00)
  • Bedtime Stories (2:26)
  • We Gotta Hide (0:50)
  • His Name is Dean (0:48)
  • Eating Art (0:43)
  • Space Car (0:59)
  • Souls Don’t Die (4:09)
  • Contest of Wills (4:36)
  • The Army Arrives (1:34)
  • Annie and Dean (1:19)
  • He’s A Weapon (2:43)
  • The Giant Discovered (4:29)
  • Trance-Former (4:25)
  • No Following (4:02)
  • The Last Giant Piece (1:46)

Running Time: 49 minutes 56 seconds

Varèse Sarabande VSD-6062 (1999)

Music composed and conducted by Michael Kamen. Performed by The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Orchestrations by Michael Kamen, Robert Elhai and Blake Neely. Featured musical soloist Chucho Merchan. Includes “Duck and Cover” written by Teddy Newton, performed by Brad Bird, Shannon Rowell and Dean Wellins. Recorded and mixed by Steve McLaughlin. Edited by Christopher Brooks. Album produced by Michael Kamen, Christopher Brooks, Teese Gohl and Stephen McLaughlin.

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