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THE DISH – Edmund Choi

thedishOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Composer Edmund Choi has had an unusual career to date. After graduating, he wrote music for Praying With Anger and Wide Awake, Sixth Sense director M. Night Shyamalan’s first two films, and the romantic comedy Down To You in early 2000. However, it was his re-scoring of the Australian comedy The Castle in 1999 (Miramax asked him to replace Craig Harnath’s original music for the American market) that landed him this assignment writing the score for Rob Sitch’s follow-up. Unfortunately, despite his undoubted talent, Choi has fallen into the trap many fledgling composers find themselves facing, and succumbed to a bad case of temp-track fever. Set in 1969, The Dish is a warm and appealing comedy starring Sam Neill as Cliff Buxton, an amateur astronomer from rural Parkes, NSW, Australia, who is the man in charge of the large satellite transmitter which sits proudly in the community’s main sheep paddock. Then, suddenly, Parkes is put on the map when NASA contacts Buxton to ask him to provide backup technology for Neil Armstrong’s historic walk on the face of the moon. With the help of his good natured but slightly inept assistants (Kevin Harrington, Patrick Warburton), Buxton is only too pleased to be of service to the Americans – but gets more than he bargained for when a technical glitch back home in Houston leaves the Parkes Dish solely responsible for sending out the lunar TV pictures to a world holding its collective breath. Sitch’s endearing film was one of 2001’s sleeper successes, at least critically – it did very little at any box-office, despite receiving glowing reviews – and boasts a charming lead performance from Neill, a world away from the histrionics of Jurassic Park and its sequels.

Before I go on to talk about the score I will say this: it is entirely possible that the music’s shortcomings are not entirely Edmund Choi’s fault. Stories of directors falling so in love with their temp scores are near-legendary, and when taking into account Choi’s youth and the stage he is at in his career, a little bit of musical genuflection is totally understandable. Having said that, I still think he could have been a bit less obvious. The Dish plays like a compilation of NASA’s greatest film scores, blatantly reproducing the faux-heroic tones of Apollo 13, Deep Impact, The Right Stuff, and several others.

From the very opening moments of the ‘Main Title’, the Horner influence on The Dish is wholly apparent – from the gentle piano chords that open the score to the noble horn melody that concludes the cue, and the gently nostalgic string tenure that washes through the rest of the score. Bill Conti’s The Right Stuff makes its first appearance in ‘Our Vital Contribution’, and is heard further in ‘A Commitment to NASA’ and ‘The Wind’, while the familiar Apollo 13 action music makes guest appearances in ‘Blackout’ and ‘Moving the Dish’. There’s even a bit of Jerry Goldsmith’s Capricorn One buried in the 32-second rhythm of ‘A Brief Listen’. It works in context, because those sounds and phrases are associated in the minds of the public with the space race, but in terms of making a purely musical statement, it more than smacks a little of laziness.

The other major problem The Dish has is its lack of development – of the 20 cues, only seven last longer than a minute, with the majority of the others hovering around the forty-second mark. Whereas other composers may have chosen to bring several cues together to form mini-suites, Choi’s cues are presented as-is, and allow little room for any kind emotional catharsis beyond a few abstract moods. The score really livens up during the longer cues – notably the final four tracks on the album. The four-minute ‘The Day the World Stood Still’ features the full might of the Australian Boys Choir and vocalist Tina Arena undertaking the Annie Lennox/Apollo 13 role. Her breathy vocal performance – even here, the similarities with Horner are unmistakable – is ethereally soothing and rates as by far the album’s high spot.

To give Choi his due, The Dish is certainly pleasant and listenable. The score has a constant tone which is appealing to the ear, a hopeful and nostalgic outlook, and several attractive themes and textures, especially when the choir makes an entrance. The jaunty ‘Bob’s Theme’ is a sprightly little march that stands out for its snare drum element, and its recapitulation with sleigh bells in ‘The World Waits’ is lovely.

Varése’s album is padded out by eight pop tunes that seek to represent the musical taste of the period. I can take them or leave them. Mason Williams’s “Classical Gas” is a familiar favourite, “Get Together” by The Youngbloods is a chill-out hippy mainstay, “Good Morning Starshine” by Oliver sounds like a reject from the Eurovision Song Contest, and The Loved Ones are obviously trying to vocally emulate The Rolling Stones. The operatic aria from Massenet’s “Cherubin” however, is something special and quite gorgeous – the vocal performance of soprano Dawn Upshaw is exceptionally clear and smooth.

Ultimately, your enjoyment of The Dish will hinge on your ability to ignore temp-track love and appreciate it for what it is – nothing more than a light and enjoyable piece of orchestral diversion from a composer who shows the talent to be able to go on to bigger and better things. As it stands, The Dish is the best Horner score Horner never wrote.

Rating: ***

Track Listing:

  • The Real Thing (written by John Young, performed by Russell Morris) (6:18)
  • Get Together (written by Chet Powers, performed by The Youngbloods) (4:37)
  • Classical Gas (written and performed by Mason Williams) (2:57)
  • The Loved One (written by Rob Lovett, Ian Clyne and Gerry Humphreys, performed by The Loved Ones) (2:51)
  • Good Morning Starshine (written by Galt McDermott, Gerome Ragni and James Rado, performed by Oliver) (3:39)
  • The Wings of an Eagle (written and performed by Russell Morris) (3:55)
  • A Taste of Honey (written by Bobby Scott and Rick Marlow, performed by The Peter Sullivan Band) (2:29)
  • Lorsque Vous N’Aurez Rien A Faire from Cherubin (written by Jules Massenet, performed by Dawn Upshaw with the München Rundfunkorchester, conducted by Pinchas Steinberg) (2:59)
  • Main Title – The Dish (2:21)
  • The Prime Minister Calls (0:31)
  • The Sheep Paddock (0:49)
  • Our Vital Contribution (0:55)
  • Parkes (0:50)
  • Bob’s Theme (0:57)
  • Glenn and Janine (0:34)
  • The World Waits (1:15)
  • The Ambassador Arrives (0:45)
  • Blackout (0:53)
  • Bullshitting NASA (0:32)
  • A Commitment to NASA (0:51)
  • Scanning for Apollo 11 (1:05)
  • A Brief Listen (0:32)
  • I Know Where Apollo 11 Is (0:43)
  • The Wind (0:37)
  • Moving the Dish (2:06)
  • The Day The World Stood Still (4:33)
  • The Pictures Came From Parkes (1:57)
  • Happy Birthday Cliff (2:20)

Running Time: 55 minutes 35 seconds

Varése Sarabande VSD-6226 (2001)

Music composed and conducted by Edmund Choi. Performed by The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by Sonny Kompaneck. Featured musical soloists Geoffrey Payne and Graeme Evans. Special vocal performances by Tina Arena and The Australian Boy’s Choir. Recorded and mixed by Lawrence Manchester. Edited by Doug Brady. Album produced by Edmund Choi and Jane Kennedy.

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