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RACING STRIPES – Mark Isham

January 14, 2005 Leave a comment Go to comments

racingstripesOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Considering that 2005 is just a few weeks old, it has already seen a film music landmark: the best score of Mark Isham’s career to date. Despite being best known for his jazz-inspired trumpet performances and beautiful orchestral works such as the Oscar-nominated A River Runs Through It and Fly Away Home, he had often in the past professed a desire to write a big, thematic, heroic orchestral score: his “Star Wars”, as he puts it. Obviously, Racing Stripes is in a totally different genre, but this could well be the very score he was describing.

Directed by Frederik Du Chau, who previously worked as an animator on Quest for Camelot back in the 1998, Racing Stripes is a family adventure film following the fortunes of a zebra who thinks he’s a racehorse. Hayden Panettiere stars as a 16-year old Kentucky girl Channing Walsh, who with the help of her kind but protective father (Brice Greenwood) seeks to fulfill her dreams of riding her pet zebra, Stripes, in races. Meanwhile (in a reflection of the hit comedy Babe), we also get to see and hear Stripes himself, as he is both helped and hindered on his way by a supporting cast of talking animals – a Shetland Pony named Tucker (Dustin Hoffman), a hyperactive goat (Whoopi Goldberg), a Mafioso pelican named Goose (Joe Pantoliano), and two jive-talking comic flies (Steve Harvey and David Spade). Stripes himself is voiced by Malcolm in the Middle himself, Frankie Muniz.

Many people have been longing for Mark Isham to let rip with an orchestra for some time, after he hinted at his potential through scores such as the aforementioned Fly Away Home, The Majestic, and 2004’s Miracle – myself included. His score for Racing Stripes is a majestic, triumphant celebration of epic proportions; filled to the brim with noble themes, interesting orchestral touches, and a sense of grandeur and majesty rarely heard in the composer’s work.

The centerpieces of the score are the ‘racing’ moments: training montages, moments where obstacles are overcome, and where victories are sealed. Cues such as “Run Like the Wind”, “Upstaged By a Zebra”, the beautiful “If You Build It They Will Come” and the stirring “Spring Training” at times swell to enormous proportions, but the set-piece finale, comprising “The Big Race” and “In The Winners Circle”, could well represent the best nine minutes of Isham’s entire career to date. Bolstered by huge brass performances, sweeping strings, cymbal rings, timpani rolls, and triumphant statements of the score’s heroic theme, it’s hard to over-state just how phenomenally good these two cues are. In many ways, they are a continuation of the style Isham first adopted in Miracle last year. It’s obvious that he is one of those composers who are inspired by themes of teamwork, sporting heroism, and overcoming the odds.

But, despite the enlarged orchestral forces at work, this is still very much a Mark Isham score, in terms of the some of the compositional techniques he employs. The rapid see-sawing motion in the string section which has characterized so many of his previous works is again in evidence, giving a sense of fluidity and motion to cues such as the opening “It Was a Dark and Stormy Night”, parts of “Upstaged By a Zebra”, the angry-sounding “Ambushed!”, and the tense “They’re All In”. It is also worth nothing the especially excellent brass performances in these cues as well, with echoing triplets which actually remind me of Mychael Danna’s score for Ride with the Devil more than anything else.

Moments of quiet reflection can be heard in “At Home on Walsh Farm”, “Twilight Run”, “A Brave Decision” and “Glory Days”, cues which bring to mind the pastoral serenity that has typified much of Isham’s more popular past works. The latter track features a rhapsodic piano accompaniment which is worth a special note. To illustrate Stripes’s African heritage, Isham frequently makes use of a faraway-sounding African vocalist (sort of Lebo M-lite), who lends his poignant tones to cues such as “It Was a Dark and Stormy Night”, “Twilight Run” and “Out of Africa”.

Surprisingly, country music also plays a part in the score, with Isham using traditional instruments such as jaw harps, banjos and slide guitars in cues such as the bouncy “The Blue Moon Races” and “Tucker Lays It Out” to illustrate the film’s Kentucky setting. And then there are the moments of pure slapstick – “A Pelican Named Goose”, “Goose Makes a Hit on the Iron Horse” – light, whimsical, vaguely Nino Rota-ish pieces of caper music which utilize accordions, clarinets and more banjos to their fullest comedy potential, making light of Goose’s stereotypical Italianate heritage.

And then, if that were not enough, there are also two original songs, one written by Isham and performed by Sting, the other performed by Bryan Adams. Both are excellent, but special mention should be made of “Taking the Inside Rail”, the Sting collaboration. It makes use of the slightly subdued theme heard in “The Blue Moon Races” and “Filly in Distress” and then adds intelligent, appropriate lyrics which, when combined with the slightly downbeat aspect, and the predominantly minor key thematics, makes for a song with for a very unique feel.

There’s very little else to say about Racing Stripes, except to recommend it wholeheartedly. Anyone who has appreciated Isham’s orchestral works in the past, or who has longed to hear him employ larger forces in a more strongly thematic setting, will find much to their liking here. It’s just a shame that such ambitious, stirring music accompanies such a childish-looking film which virtually no-one will remember in the long run, and will certainly never feature in anyone’s “Best of…” lists come 2006.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Taking the Inside Rail (written by Mark Isham and Sting, performed by Sting) (4:16)
  • It Was a Dark and Stormy Night (4:05)
  • At Home on Walsh Farm (5:01)
  • I’m a Racehorse (2:51)
  • The Blue Moon Races (3:39)
  • A Pelican Named Goose (1:19)
  • Tucker Lays It Out! (2:25)
  • Goose Makes a Hit on the Iron Horse (2:10)
  • Run Like the Wind (2:04)
  • Twilight Run (2:27)
  • Upstaged by a Zebra (2:46)
  • A Brave Decision (1:48)
  • Glory Days (3:18)
  • If You Build It, They Will Come (2:21)
  • Out of Africa (1:06)
  • Spring Training (2:31)
  • Ambushed! (4:48)
  • Filly in Distress (1:05)
  • Race Day (1:03)
  • They’re All In! (1:12)
  • The Big Race (7:19)
  • In the Winner’s Circle (1:54)
  • It Ain’t Over Yet (written by Bryan Adams, Gretchen Peters and Elliot Kennedy, performed by Bryan Adams) (3:18)

Running Time: 64 minutes 44 seconds

Varèse Sarabande VSD-6631 (2005)

Music composed by Mark Isham. Conducted and orchestrated by Ken Kugler. Recorded and mixed by Stephen Krause. Edited by Curtis Roush. Mastered by Patricia Sullivan-Fourstar. Album produced by Mark Isham.

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