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OPEN RANGE – Michael Kamen

openrangeOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

As I write this review, it is now just over a week since Michael Kamen, the composer of Open Range, tragically died of a heart attack, at the age of just  55. In such circumstances, it is tempting to give in to sentimentality, and the fondness for which I held the man himself, and to allow it to cloud my judgment in giving what turned out to be his final score an impartial review. Kamen had taken something of a “sabbatical” during the years following the turn of the millennium, writing just three scores: Frequency, X-Men, and the amazing Band of Brothers. Even on Open Range he was not the first choice composer, being brought in as a replacement at short notice after the original score had been rejected by director Kevin Costner. Ultimately, Kamen wrote a gentle ballad to the old west, an evocative statement that celebrates the nobility, honor and steadfastness of the great American cowboy, a score which would have been just as lovely to listen to had its composer still been with us.

Based on the novel by Lauran Paine, Open Range returns to the “halcyon days” of the Old West, and stars Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner as Boss Spearman and Charley Waite, free ranging ranchers on a cattle-drive, who graze their herds unencumbered by the onset of modern civilization. When they are forced to visit a small town after one of their party is injured, Boss and Charley find themselves locking horns with Poole (James Russo), the corrupt town marshal, and rancher Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon), who rules the town with fear, and has an strong dislike for open range cattlemen. As the Boss and Charley find themselves getting closer to an inevitable showdown with the town authorities, the unexpected happens: Charley meets and falls for the Sue Barlow (Annette Bening), the sister of the town’s kindly doctor, causing Charley to re-evaluate his life as a drifter and former gunfighter in the light of his new affections.

Since Clint Eastwood introduced the “revisionist western” into the movie palette with films like Pale Rider and Unforgiven, the wild west has lost much of the rugged, romantic sheen it was given by John Ford and John Wayne, and instead is now seen as a much more hard and dangerous place to have lived. Kevin Costner showed the flipside of the frontier experience from the Native American point of view with Dances With Wolves in 1990, and similarly continues his love affair with the lifestyle here. In parallel, Kamen generally eschewed the sweeping statements of massive themes, and concentrated on something which was inherently more intimate. Many of the familiar elements are there, in terms of the instrumental palette, but Kamen’s work seems more focused on minutiae rather than the broad-brush heroism associated with the more rousing Western works.

The gentle lilt of the guitars, the crispness of the brass, the sweep of the strings, the familiar closeness of the orchestrations, and the height of the crescendos are all quintessential Kamen, and in the opening score track, ‘Open Range’, these things come together to create a powerful entrance. Despite accusations to the contrary, Kamen always could write strong themes, and his one at the center of Open Range is both beautiful and memorable: certainly not of the same vein as a Jerome Moross or an Elmer Bernstein, but developed enough to be able to stand on its own, and to go through several permutations and recapitulations without losing its potency. It actually reminds me of the one country star Marty Stuart wrote for All the Pretty Horses back in 1999, and is also reminiscent of both Lennie Niehaus’s Unforgiven, and Basil Poledouris’s Lonesome Dove – the latter not unsurprisingly, as Poledouris was the composer Kamen replaced.

The central theme appears several times throughout the score: with stunning richness in ‘Wagon Wheel’, accompanied by flamboyant guitar licks in ‘Ride to Town’, with a dominant muscularity in ‘Gunfight’, and with a sweet romantic edge in the superb finale cues, ‘Proposal’ and ‘Teapot’. A secondary love theme, first appearing as a piano solo in ‘Card Game’, provides subtle balance to the sprawling centerpiece, and appears later in gentle recapitulations in cues such as ‘Charley and Sue’ and ‘On the Porch’.

The two instrumental soloists add a great deal of color to the score. Neill McColl’s throbbing acoustic guitars enliven cues such as ‘Card Game’, ‘Decade’, ‘Starry Night’ and ‘Gunfight’, providing them with a slightly threatening overtone, as if insinuating that all is not well with the cowboy dream. ‘Wagon Wheel’ employs Jake Walker’s traditional country fiddle to great effect, retracing the musical steps the great Aaron Copland laid down as the defining musical style of both the period and setting. Other cues, such as ‘Spooks on the Hill’, ‘Cat and Mouse’ and the quite disturbing ‘Laudanum Dream’, inject some much darker material into the proceedings, with stark woodwind blatts and a threatening action element overlaid with tense vibrato strings. The song, ‘Holding All My Love For You’, performed by Kamen’s singer cousin Julianna Raye, is a true delight, built upon Kamen’s delicate love theme, and featuring heartfelt and truthful vocals delivered in a passionate and honest manner.

Throughout the score, you can hear familiar Kamenisms, from scores as varied as Robin Hood, Mr. Holland’s Opus and even Inventing the Abbots, in the orchestration, the chord structures, and the way he always used certain flourishes and instrumental combinations. Whatever else was said about Kamen, you could always tell you were listening to one his scores: his distinctive style of writing was one of his greatest talents, and elevated him above many of his contemporaries as a composer who had an individual and expressive voice.

Before Kamen died, he had already completed the music for another film, Against the Ropes, and was scheduled to write for two more movies in 2004 – which of course, now, we will never hear. I don’t want to go overboard by saying that Open Range is the best thing Kamen had ever written, because it isn’t. However, when you take this score and listen to it alongside with Band of Brothers and his millennium symphony “The New Moon in the Old Moon’s Arms” it shows that Kamen was in a rich vein of writing form during the last years of his life, and further highlights the tragedy of a composer, seemingly in his creative prime, who has been taken from us far too early. Rest in peace, Michael. Your music will be your legacy.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Holding All My Love For You (written by Michael Kamen and Julianna Raye, performed by Julianna Raye) (3:16)
  • Open Range (2:36)
  • Card Game (1:24)
  • Wagon Wheel (1:59)
  • Cattle Drive (1:15)
  • Ride to Town (3:27)
  • Decade (1:45)
  • Spooks on the Hill (1:21)
  • Starry Night (3:02)
  • Wounded Button (0:59)
  • Laudanum Dream (2:12)
  • Charley and Sue (1:45)
  • Boss Convinces Charley (2:15)
  • On the Porch (2:33)
  • Cat and Mouse (4:09)
  • Baxter Taunts Charley (1:32)
  • Face Off (1:35)
  • Gunfight (3:35)
  • Aftermath (2:22)
  • Charley Rides Off (3:03)
  • Proposal (3:31)
  • Teapot (1:59)

Running Time: 52 minutes 13 seconds

Hollywood 2061-62416-2 (2003)

Music composed and conducted by Michael Kamen. Performed by The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Orchestrations by Michael Kamen, Robert Elhai, Blake Neely, Brad Warnaar and Peter Boyer. Featured musical soloists Neill McColl and Jake Walker. Recorded and mixed by Steve McLaughlin. Edited by Tom Villano. Album produced by Michael Kamen and Teese Gohl.

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