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THE BOURNE IDENTITY – John Powell

bourneidentityOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Film music is a funny thing. Sitting down to listen to The Bourne Identity, the latest score from British composer John Powell, I fully expected to hate it. Electronics, synthesizers, drum loops, very little in the way of an orchestral palette – all the things I generally dislike about certain types of score are in place here. But, much to my own surprise, I didn’t hate it at all – it actually entertained me for much of its running length, and left me marveling at the deftness of Powell’s MIDI programming and electronic inventiveness.

The Bourne Identity is a hi-tech spy thriller based on the best-selling novel by Robert Ludlum, directed by Doug Liman, whose previous efforts included the Las Vegas buddy movies Swingers and Go. Matt Damon stars as the eponymous Jason Bourne, a CIA assassin who, after a secret mission goes badly wrong and he is left for dead, wakes up to find himself floating in the ocean, and with no memory of his past. Desperately trying to piece together his personal history, and surprised to find himself proficient in deadly combat situations, Bourne hooks up with German beauty Marie Kreutz (Franka Potente), who offers to drive him back to his home in Paris. Once there, however, Bourne suddenly finds himself a target for assassination himself – at the hands of his former boss, CIA man Ted Conklin (Chris Cooper) – and sets about trying to find out who wants him dead, and why. And thus begins a deadly game of cat-and-mouse across the length and breadth of Europe, filled with car chases, action sequences, and a great deal of mystery and espionage.

I was going to begin this review by restating the strange phenomenon of John Powell and the fact that, with the exception of Evolution last year, he has generally failed to impress me as a solo composer. When he hooks up with fellow Media Ventures graduate Harry Gregson-Williams, as he did on Chicken Run, Shrek and others, he suddenly becomes brilliant – but, yet again, my argument has been nullified by the fact that The Bourne Identity is really rather good, and much more impressive than Face/Off, probably the closest previous Powell score in terms of tone and style.

Having already stated that The Bourne Identity is 90% electronic, the first cue – ‘Main Titles’ – is actually predominantly orchestral, building from a shadowy bassoon solo into a dark, moody theme which is recapitulated in the second track, ‘Bourne Gets Well’, and in a fuller version in both ‘Jason’s Theme’ and the vocally enhanced ‘The Bourne Identity’ later in the score. Nevertheless, the opening is something of a red herring, for as soon as ‘Treadstone Assassins’ kicks in, it becomes pads and loops all the way, with an occasional string backing and a few acoustic percussion overdubs to keep the sound fresh and alive. The bassoon theme does re-occur occasionally in different settings in subsequent cues – it plays as a string counterpoint in ‘At the Bank’ – and there are a couple of funky electric guitar solos thrown in for good measure too, but on the whole the action is thrust forward by Powell’s cache of synthesizers.

Cues notable for their drive and energy include ‘Escape from Embassy’, the heavily percussive ‘The Apartment’ and ‘At the Farmhouse’, the almost dance-like ‘Hotel Regina’, the marimba-led ‘The Investigation’, and the powerful ‘On Bridge Number 9’. Many of these would not sound out of place on an album of techno music, and could quite easily have been written by composers whose talents lie much more in that sphere of work – people such as BT, David Holmes, Craig Armstrong, Mark Snow, Randy Edelman and even David Arnold spring to mind.

The conclusive ‘Drum and Bass Remix’ is all about high-energy, and is likely to be one of those love-it-or-loathe-it tracks that will split film music fans down the middle. Not being a huge fan of the drum and bass genre, I have to admit it’s not completely my cup of tea, but I still have to marvel at Powell’s ingenuity and talent. At the other end of the spectrum, ‘Bourne on Land’ features an unexpected piano melody courtesy of T.J Lindgren and the quiet ‘The Drive to Paris’ simmers with understated sexual tension. These cues, as well as others such as ‘At the Hairdressers’ provide a welcome counterbalance to the progressiveness of the rest of the album, and further highlight Powell’s musical flexibility.

If I’ve learnt one thing in my time listening to film music, it’s never to judge a book – or a score – by its cover. Reading the predominantly negative reviews and hearing how Powell’s music was actually detrimental to the final film gave me a set of entirely unfounded preconceptions about what The Bourne Identity was like. It may not be ground-breaking, or teeming with powerful orchestral themes, but The Bourne Identity fulfills all its aims, deftly combines moments of subdued thoughtfulness with all-out electronic action, and never loses interest despite the quite lengthy running time. Fans of the techno-spy genre, and of scores such as Graeme Revell’s The Saint or Harry Gregson Williams’s Spy Game are likely to find much to enjoy here.

Trivia note: John Powell was a replacement on this project for composer Carter Burwell, whose original score was thrown out by Doug Liman so late in the day that some of the publicity material, and even trailer credits, featured Burwell’s name. Considering the amazingly short time Powell has to write the score, the fact that it IS this good is quite astounding.

Rating: ***

Track Listing:

  • Main Titles (4:17)
  • Bourne Gets Well (1:20)
  • Treadstone Assassins (2:09)
  • At the Bank (4:07)
  • Bourne on Land (1:42)
  • Escape from Embassy (3:12)
  • The Drive to Paris (1:29)
  • The Apartment (3:25)
  • At the Hairdressers (1:29)
  • Hotel Regina (2:11)
  • The Investigation (1:34)
  • Taxi Ride (3:43)
  • At the Farmhouse (2:54)
  • Jason Phones It In (3:04)
  • On Bridge Number 9 (3:41)
  • Jason’s Theme (2:20)
  • Mood Build (3:34)
  • The Bourne Identity (6:00)
  • Drum and Bass Remix (2:15)

Running Time: 54 minutes 51 seconds

Varèse Sarabande VSD-6367 (2002)

Music composed by John Powell. Conducted by Pete Anthony. Orchestrations by John Powell, Bruce Fowler and Suzette Moriarty. Featured musical soloists John Powell, Joel Richard, George Doering, Mike Fisher and T.J. Lindgren. Special vocal performances by Lionel Cole, Edward Cole, Leroi Holmes Jr. and Cameron Stone. Recorded and mixed by Alan Meyerson. Edited by Bunny Andrews. Mastered by Patricia Sullivan. Album produced by John Powell.

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