Home > Reviews > THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE – Rachel Portman


November 3, 2000 Leave a comment Go to comments

legendofbaggervanceOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

With increasing frequency, British composer Rachel Portman is finding herself being asked to score films with “Academy potential”. After her award-winning turn on Emma in 1995, which secured her status in history as the first woman to win a composing Oscar, the undisputed queen of film music has scored such acclaimed movies as Marvin’s Room, Beloved, and last year’s successful drama The Cider House Rules, cementing her status as a member of Hollywood’s A-list. Her latest assignment is The Legend of Bagger Vance, a tale of life, love, and the open fairway which seeks to do for golf what Field of Dreams did for baseball, directed by Robert Redford from the novel by Steven Pressfield. It stars Matt Damon, Will Smith and Charlize Theron, and tells the story of Adele Invergordon (Theron), who inherits her late father’s golf resort in late 1920s Savannah, Georgia. In order to get rid of some of the debts, she decides stages a celebrity golf tournament at the course, and invites three of the state’s top players, one of whom is Rannulph Junuh (Damon), her one-time beau and a former top pro who retuned from the war a drunken, shell-shocked, broken man. Initially reluctant to start swinging the clubs again, Junuh unexpectedly finds himself receiving encouragement from the mysterious Bagger Vance (Smith), who offers to be his caddy in exchange for a mere $5, and begins to impart to Junuh all the wisdom he possesses about life, love and golf.

Rachel Portman’s compositional style is immediately recognizable, and with the exception of the musically challenging Beloved, has remained constant throughout her career. Light, buoyant woodwind melodies, gentle strings in soothing counterpoint, rhapsodic pianos, and an overall air of heartfelt whimsy have characterized the vast majority of her scores to date; true to form, The Legend of Bagger Vance does not rock the boat.

The one thing which The Legend of Bagger Vance does have over many other Portman scores, though, is an increased use of brasses; the trumpet solos in the self-titled opening track speak of heroism, nobility, friendship, and all those other wonderful qualities that often abound in sporting mortality tales such as this one. Their recapitulations, in ‘Hole in One’, ‘Bagger Leaves’ and others, are undoubted highlights of the album. It’s perhaps no coincidence that, on several occasions, Portman’s work is slightly reminiscent of William Ross’s triumphant score for that other golfing drama, Tin Cup.

The score is pretty much mono-thematic throughout, but typified by various instrumental solos that come to the fore as the album progresses – lush and lyrical pianos in ‘Savannah Needs A Hero’, sweeping strings in ‘The Day of the Match Dawns’, intimate and sentimental oboes in ‘Birdie’, and so on. It’s also a testament to Portman’s prowess that, somehow, she managed to make certain statements of the theme seem more emotionally potent than others. Other than by occasionally adding a soft and soulful choir into the mix, I really don’t know how she does it, technically speaking, but tracks such as ‘Junuh Sees the Field’, ‘Junuh Comes Out of the Woods’ and the conclusive ‘Old Hardy Joins Bagger by the Sea’ rank as some of the most beautiful and compelling tracks of Portman’s entire career.

One of Portman’s other familiar contributions are her “comedy scherzos”, light-hearted little marches that express the more comical elements of her movies. Although less prominent in this score than in some of her earlier work, parts of ‘Savannah Needs a Hero’, ‘Junuh Sees the Field’ and ‘Junuh Comes Out of the Woods’ still resonate to wonderfully effervescent horn and tuba dances that raise both a smile and a foot-tap. Rounding out Chapter III’s album are tracks of old-time jazz and blues from Fats Domino, Muggsy Spanier and Duke Ellington; down-home songs which highlight each soloist’s instrumental prowess despite the obvious sonic limitations in each track. It is also perhaps worth mentioning that this score was the last one ever to be recorded at the legendary CTS Studios in Wembley, England before it was razed to the ground to make way for a new sports stadium.

Although The Legend of Bagger Vance is very much a stereotypical Rachel Portman score, although it adheres to the tried and tested formula she has adopted throughout virtually her entire career, and although it was quite obviously temp-tracked with The Cider House Rules, this is still an excellent piece of work. She imbues each and every cue with a sentimentality, a nobility, and a sense of good old-fashioned decency that is lacking in so much of today’s film music. She may not be as compositionally extravagant or ground-breaking as some of her contemporaries, but Rachel Portman remains one of cinema’s greatest tunesmiths.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Best Wishes (written by Ted Koehler and Samuel Pokrass, performed by Fats Waller) (2:27)
  • The Legend of Bagger Vance (2:11)
  • Savannah Needs a Hero (4:53)
  • Bagger Offers to Caddy for Junuh (4:07)
  • Bagger & Hardy Measure the Course at Night (2:32)
  • The Day of the Match Dawns (3:07)
  • Birdie (1:46)
  • Junuh Sees the Field (5:11)
  • Hole in One (2:30)
  • Junuh Comes Out of the Woods (3:55)
  • Bagger Leaves (3:12)
  • Old Hardy Joins Bagger by the Sea (5:50)
  • Bluin’ The Blues (written by D.J. LaRocca, Larry Shields, H.W. Ragas and Sidney Mitchell, performed by Muggsy Spanier) (2:27)
  • Mood Indigo (written by Irving Mills, Duke Ellington and Barney Bigard, performed by Duke Ellington) (3:07)

Running Time: 47 minutes 44 seconds

Chapter III Records CHA1009-2 (2000)

Music composed by Rachel Portman. Conducted by David Snell. Orchestrations by Rachel Portman and Jeff Atmajian. Trumpet solos performed by Andrew Crowley. Recorded and mixed by Chris Dibble. Mastered by David Mitson. Album produced by Bill Abbott, Rachel Portman and John Bissell.

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