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DRAGONFLY – John Debney

February 22, 2002 Leave a comment Go to comments

dragonflyOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

I’m going let you into a personal anecdote about the score for Dragonfly. The first time I ever listened to this CD was in May 2002, while I was on holiday in Los Angeles. I was heading back from John Debney’s studio in Burbank to the hotel where I was staying in Culver City, having just been for lunch with him. John kindly gave me a copy of the score, and I eagerly played it as soon as I got back to the car. I took the scenic route home, driving over Mulholland Drive and down Laurel Canyon Boulevard to where it intersects with Sunset near the Bel Air gates. Half way down the hill on Laurel Canyon, the final track of the CD, ‘Emily’s Message Revealed’, kicked in. Seven minutes later, I almost had to stop the car because I couldn’t see for the tears. I had just heard one of the most beautiful and majestic cues in years. I realize that this story may not really mean very much to people, but for a cue to make me cry like that upon a first listen is rare indeed, and gives you an idea of the power inherent in this gorgeous score.

Dragonfly was an odd film which couldn’t seem to make its mind up whether it wanted to be a supernatural thriller, a romance, or a story about eternal life. Directed by Tom Shadyac, better known for his broad comedies Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Nutty Professor, it stars Kevin Costner as Dr Joe Darrow, a hotshot medic at a Chicago hospital, whose wife Emily (Susannah Thompson) is killed in a bus crash in Venezuela in the film’s opening sequence. Suffering from acute grief and depression as a result of his loss, Joe begins to alienate his friends and colleagues, only confiding in Miriam Belmont (Kathy Bates), the friendly lesbian-next-door. However, before long Joe finds himself haunted by visions of a strange, skewed crucifix-like image, and by ghostly goings-on at the house he and Emily shared. Even more strangely, a young boy in the hospital where Joe works claims to have had a near-death experience, in which he received a message – in the form of the aforementioned crucifix – from Emily herself. Could she be trying to communicate with him from beyond the grave?

In terms of pure musical enjoyment, I would go as far as saying that Dragonfly is John Debney’s best score since Cutthroat Island, way back in 1995. It is, of course, a VERY different kind of score – whereas his pirate epic was all about scale and bombast, Dragonfly is more subtle and moody, more dramatic and spooky, while still overflowing with deeply-felt emotion and spiritual resonance. One of the criticisms commonly made about the score is its lack of a main theme – a criticism which is entirely unfounded. The theme is a refined one, admittedly, but it is there, carefully floating around in the sound mix without blatantly hammering home its intentions.

The score is led by strings, piano and a mellow choir, and the main theme is an ascending repeated three-note motif, usually sung or hummed, but which is malleable enough to be passed around different sections of the orchestra without losing its impact or potency. It’s a theme which can be used to denote vastly different moods by simply changing the instrumentation – it is soaring and beautiful one moment, quiet and introspective the next, and downright heartbreaking the next. It appears in some form or another in virtually every track, providing the film with a solid motivic anchor, and Debney’s skill for effectively manipulating textures is showcased to its fullest extent throughout. Stylistically, one could compare Dragonfly to James Newton Howard’s The Sixth Sense, or to some of Rachel Portman’s works, albeit with a slightly more urgent and less fluffy feel.

The ‘Main Titles’ underscore the film’s pivotal moment – the Venezuelan bus crash that kills Emily – and adds a level of excitement and danger to the sound by adding a thrusting percussive element, horn trills and occasional dissonant stringers to the core trio of instruments, which swim underneath the chaos. The one moment of pure horror comes during ‘Donor Body Awakens’, which reverberates to icy string figures and shock-tactic orchestral blasts. Mid-album cues such as ‘Meeting Sister Madeline’ and ‘The Plane Ride’ are intentionally low key, maintaining instrumental consistency, but building upon recapitulations of the main motif with subtle variations. Debney brings in oboes to lead the melody for a few bars, accentuates the mood with harp waves, and allows the orchestra to build to quiet crescendos as revelations are unearthed. These modifications help keep the score fresh and interesting throughout the running time.

‘Emily’s Grave’ is much more urgent, concluding with a sorrowful cello solo which leads perfectly into ‘Emily’s Message Revealed’, the final track. Ohhh, the final track… It starts off quite slowly and deliberately – almost menacingly – with unexpectedly harsh and unnerving brass clusters and evil choral coos, until eventually, the main three-note theme begins to assert itself. Then, around the 4-minute mark, the choir becomes louder, and the melody changes into something much more resonant, heavenly, almost sacred. A solo cello adds to the mood, the piano adds rhapsodic accompaniment, and then it starts… gradually building, the choral element becoming more prominent, the intensity becoming greater, and the need for some kind of cathartic release becoming more essential. Debney’s exquisite key changes add to the overpowering emotional arc. And then, at exactly 5:55… pure, spine-tingling, film music ecstasy. I can say no more. Just listen to the audio clip.

My one and only complaint about Dragonfly is that it runs for a scant 30 minutes, and would surely have benefited from a longer, more comprehensive release. My other gripe is that, in the film itself, the climax to the final track is obscured by sound effects in the dub, diminishing its impact – something which left me deeply annoyed, as one of the main reasons I went to see the film was to hear this one cue in context. Nevertheless, this has nothing to do with John Debney, who has once again proved that he is an immensely talented and creative composer. Dragonfly is an unexpected delight and, despite its brevity, is one of my favorite albums of 2002.

Rating: ****½

Track Listing:

  • Main Titles (4:13)
  • Joe and Emily Flashback (3:43)
  • Donor Body Awakens (4:48)
  • Meeting Sister Madeline (5:35)
  • The Plane Ride (2:32)
  • Emily’s Grave (3:14)
  • Emily’s Message Revealed (7:11)

Running Time: 31 minutes 13 seconds

Varèse Sarabande VSD-6338 (2002)

Music composed and conducted by John Debney. Orchestrations by Brad Dechter, John Debney, Frank Bennett, Don Nemitz and Chris Klatman. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Jim Harrison. Album produced by John Debney and Michael Mason.

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