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ANGELA’S ASHES – John Williams

December 24, 1999 Leave a comment Go to comments

angelasashesOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

With The Phantom Menace out of the way, John Williams has finally been able to write for a film which isn’t met with the same expectations as a cure for cancer or the second coming of Christ. With hindsight, it could be said that Williams tried a little too hard to please too many masters on Star Wars, and although enjoyable and well-written, the end result came out just a little muddled. His forceful follow up is Angela’s Ashes, a beautiful, if a little downbeat score which is totally and utterly wrecked on CD by a whole load of intrusive dialogue tracks.

Angela’s Ashes is based on the best-selling autobiographical novel by Frank McCourt and is directed by Alan Parker, who previously made The Commitments and Evita. Starring Emily Watson and Robert Carlyle, the film tells the tale of the McCourt family, a poor but hard-working Irish clan who are forced to return to their ancestral home in Limerick from Brooklyn, New York due to extreme poverty, but who face even more struggles and hardships when they get there. It’s a grim tale, to be sure, and one told with an unflinching sense of realism and desperation. One can only imagine what young Frank had to go through to even get as far as being able to write his life story. But, despite their desperate plight, the McCourts retained a sense of dignity and self-respect, as shown by the excellent performances of Watson, Carlyle, and especially child actors Ciaran Owens, Michael Legge and Joe Breen, who portray Frank at different times of his life, and whose face stares out at us from the CD cover.

Giving the story an emotional cinematic anchor is Williams’ dour but compelling score. Many times during the course of Angela’s Ashes Williams seems to have musically regressed back to the quasi-classical style he adopted in the 1970s and early 80s, typified by scores such as Jane Eyre and even E.T. The central theme, ‘Angela’s Ashes’, fully heard in the first and last tracks, is a morose and somber affair which fitfully swells to the sounds of rich strings, heavy cellos and Randy Kerber’s mesmerizing, expressive piano. But unlike the others in his classical oeuvre, the melody does not have the sweeping beauty or the magnitude of, say, Seven Years in Tibet, and never fully captures the attention of the listener. The twelve minutes that make up the bulk of the melodic content are certainly attractive, but they just seem a little too restrained for their own good, and fail to make a real and immediate impact.

The thing that is immediately noticeable about the underscore is that there is no “Irish” music anywhere. Thankfully, Williams has completely ignored all the usual musical stereotypes and composed purely to the situation and not the geographical setting. There are no kenas, bodhrans or uilleann pipes here, thank you very much. Instead, the score continually maintains its slow and doleful course, with cues such as ‘My Story’ and ‘My Mother Begging’ seemingly carrying the burden of the world on their musical shoulders. Having said that, other cues – especially ‘Angela’s Prayer’, ‘Plenty of Fish and Chips in Heaven’ and ‘Looking for Work’ – are ingrained with a beautifully tragic lyricism which is hard to ignore. Similarly, ‘My Dad’s Stories’ and ‘Delivering Telegrams’ lighten the mood a little with some playful pizzicato segments accompanying roving string lines, while ‘The Lanes of Limerick’ impresses with a superlative harp solo and ‘Back To America’ contains a wonderfully warm and nostalgic new theme brimming with hope.

With the exception of the first, third, seventeenth and last tracks, Andrew Bennett’s irritating narration – quoting lines from the book – features prominently, introducing cues, concluding cues and occasionally even appearing right in the middle of them. This last intrusion is the most unforgivable of all. When you have spent two minutes listening to John Williams casting his spell, the last thing you want is for the moment to be shattered by the music fading down and the dialogue fading up. Most of the time, I can cope with dialogue tracks. There are rare scores where the dialogue actually adds to the listening experience, and where it doesn’t, I can program it out. On Angela’s Ashes, though, the dialogue is mixed right into the music itself, meaning that if you want to listen to the score you have no option but to listen to the dialogue as well.

It is not entirely unthinkable that John Williams could be Oscar nominated for his work on Angela’s Ashes. It is one of those “worthy” films the Academy likes so much, and where Best Film nominations appear, Best Score nominations usually follow. Still, it remains to be seen whether this score will stand the test of time as well as Williams’ other works have done. It is certainly a well-written and appropriate piece of music, and includes several moments of what can only be described as orchestral magic. However, unlike many of Williams’ other recent scores, it has not had an immediate and overpowering effect on me. It did not, as they say, blow me away. Still, with John Williams being John Williams, it is virtually impossible for him to write a bad score in any way shape or form and, if you can grit your teeth and ignore the dialogue tracks, there is much to admire here.

*Note: The European release of Angela’s Ashes (Decca, 466-761-2) has the same running time and track listings as the above, but features NO DIALOGUE. I strongly suggest that anyone wishing to experience this marvelous score as it was supposed to be heard finds themselves a copy of the Decca CD, as opposed to the North American Sony release.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Theme from Angela’s Ashes (6:18)
  • My Story (2:19)
  • Angela’s Prayer (4:47)
  • My Dad’s Stories (1:55)
  • Lord, Why Do You Want The Wee Children? (4:03)
  • Plenty of Fish and Chips in Heaven (3:41)
  • The Dipsy Doodle (written by Larry Clinton, performed by Nat Gonella and his Georgians) (1:30)
  • The Lanes of Limerick (3:37)
  • Looking For Work (3:31)
  • Pennies from Heaven (written by Johnny Burke and Arthur Johnston, performed by Billie Holliday) (2:11)
  • My Mother Begging (3:36)
  • If I Were In America (2:34)
  • Delivering Telegrams (2:23)
  • I Think of Theresa (1:50)
  • Angels Never Cough (2:38)
  • Watching the Eclipse (3:00)
  • Back to America (2:38)
  • Angela’s Ashes Reprise (6:16)

Running Time: 59 minutes 02 seconds

Sony Classical SK-89009 (1999)

Music composed and conducted by John Williams. Orchestrations by John Neufeld. Featured musical soloists John Ellis, Steve Erdody, Jo Ann Turovsky and Randy Kerber. Narration by Andrew Bennett. Recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes. Edited by Ken Wannberg. Mastered by Patricia Sullivan. Album produced by John Williams.

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