Home > Reviews > CUTTHROAT ISLAND – John Debney



Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

In the decade that has passed since the original release of Cutthroat Island, several things have happened. Firstly, the studio which financed the film – Carolco – was bankrupted and went out of business, predominantly due to the failure of this film. Cutthroat Island cost approximately $92 million to make, and recouped just $10 million at the US box office, making it one of the most spectacular financial flops in cinematic history. Secondly, the film’s stars – Geena Davis and Matthew Modine – have virtually disappeared from our screens: Davis had made just three films since this one (The Long Kiss Goodnight and two Stuart Littles), while Modine has been reduced to starring in movies of the week, although he was nominated for a TV Golden Globe in 1998. Thirdly, and possibly most important in terms of this review, the international profile of John Debney has skyrocketed.

Directed by Renny Harlin, Cutthroat Island starred Geena Davis as Morgan Adams, the Caribbean’s most dangerous female pirate who, after her father’s death at the hands of her evil uncle Dawg Brown (Frank Langella), is entrusted with part a map which supposedly leads to the mystical Cutthroat Island, home to vast amounts of treasure left behind after a Spanish galleon sunk there fifty years before. However, she had problems. Firstly, parts of the map are held by Uncle Dawg and her kindly Uncle Mordechai Fingers respectively; and secondly, her map is in Latin. She solves the latter by procuring the services of one William Shaw (Matthew Modine) – liar, thief, cheat and speaker of Latin – who is to be sold as a slave having been caught stealing from Kingston’s noblewomen at a ball. Before long Morgan, William and her trusty crew head off in search of the missing treasure, hotly pursued by Dawg and his men, not knowing what dangers lie around the corner.

John Debney is arguably the only member of Cutthroat Island’s cast and crew whose career was not tarnished through their association with it. Until the release of The Passion of the Christ in 2004, Cutthroat Island was considered by many to be his best ever score – a raucous, stirring, swashbuckling epic in the grand tradition of Rózsa, Korngold, Steiner and Newman. In the minds of the majority of film music fans, Cutthroat Island was the score which launched John Debney’s career and set him on a road which has subsequently seen him scoring box office successes such as Bruce Almighty, Liar Liar, Elf, Inspector Gadget and The Princess Diaries, culminating in a long-overdue Oscar nomination for The Passion of the Christ in 2005. I personally feel that Cutthroat Island remains the crowning achievement of his career to date – easily one of the best scores of the 1990s.

The soundtrack for Cutthroat Island was released by Silva Screen in 1995, but for a while was considered something of a rarity, with copies becoming increasingly scarce as the decade progressed, particularly in North America. Meanwhile, fans of the score continually complained that, despite running for over 70 minutes, the CD was woefully incomplete, and omitted many key musical sequences, notably from the film’s large-scale finale. Thankfully, producer Ford A. Thaxton (who compiled the original album) and the nice people at Prometheus Records have finally seen fit to release the complete score for us all to enjoy, which can almost be seen as a celebration of the film’s 10th anniversary. Spanning two discs, and including over an hour of previously unreleased material (including alternate takes, orchestral performances prior to choir overdubs, and even an intriguing synth demo version of the main theme Debney prepared for Harlin during the earliest phases of post-production), this release is an absolute treasure trove. Listening to it now, the music remains as fresh and invigorating as it did a decade ago.

There are three words which effectively describe Cutthroat Island: loud, energetic and relentless. The main theme, first heard in “Main Title/Morgan’s Ride” is a majestic, long-lined, propulsive theme passed around the brass section, bolstered by the usual assortment of heavy percussion, cymbal clashes swooping woodwinds, and choral embellishments. It may be something of a cliché to call this kind of music swashbuckling, but nevertheless this word is the only one which does it justice. This is pirate music taken to the highest level, and is effortlessly enjoyable. The theme is recapitulated frequently throughout the score, often as a brief fanfare or leading into new action material, until it all comes together during the final cue.

However, apart from the theme, what anchors Cutthroat Island is its action writing. This is where the loud, energetic and relentless comes in as, cue after cue, Debney puts the London Symphony Orchestra through its paces. With a massive ensemble playing multiple layers of thick, complex action music, tracks such as “Carriage Chase”, “Morgan Captured/Sword Fight”, “Shaw Steals the Map”, “Morgan and Show Jump the Cliff”, the triumphant “Morgan Takes the Ship”, and the incredible 18-minute set piece “The Battle/To Dawg’s Ship/Morgan Battles Dawg/Dawg’s Demise/The Triumph” provide almost an embarrassment of riches.

Secondary themes for Morgan and Shaw, dramatic and threatening percussion for Dawg, a sea-shanty style theme for Morgan’s ship, and a tender love theme for Morgan and Shaw weave in and out of the fabric of the cues, creating a rich tapestry of music which is simply spellbinding. With each new listen, it is possible to pick out more and more subtle references to these themes underneath all the bluster, and to appreciate how clever Debney was in linking them altogether. It may not be immediately obvious as such, but this score is an excellent example of leitmotivic writing.
The choir, London Voices under the stewardship of Terry Edwards, also plays a major role – more often than not simply singing “aaah” to add weight and emotion to Debney’s music, but occasionally adding more dramatic and evocative tones: the bass throat-singing in “Morgan Captured” and “Escape from Mordechai’s”, and disbelieving realization in the previously-unreleased “Betrayal” are especially noteworthy. The glorious “Setting Sail” swells with the promise of adventure on high seas, while the sense of awe and wonder inherent in both “To the Bottom of the Sea” and “Discovery of the Treasure” is palpable.

To counterbalance the bombast, one or two cues of softer, occasionally more sinister music rears its head: “The Rescue” begins with some darkly moody choral work before making the first of several unmistakable David Arnold-Independence Day quotes in “Morgan Saves Harry” (note the juxtaposition of the jagged brass writing against the chorus). “Purcell Snatcher” is a previously unreleased of period source music, written by orchestrator Brad Dechter in the style of baroque composer Henry Purcell for a ballroom scene, and is a welcome diversion. Similarly, “The Wedding Waltz” which opens Disc 2 is a beautiful piece of Nino Rota-style sweeping classical pastiche arranged by Debney which, sadly, does not feature in the final film, but which is included here for completeness sake.

“The Language of Romance” is a mischievous setting of Morgan and Shaw’s romantic theme with harpsichord embellishments, and which features a delicate flute performance of the elegant, vaguely Star Wars-ish melody. It’s more straightforward recapitulations in “First Kiss” and “Love Scene” ranks among the most attractive tender moments of Debney’s career, and it even crops up later during “The Big Jump” and to mark the transition from “It’s Only Gold” to the “End Credits” as Morgan and Shaw kiss passionately on the desk of her pirate galleon. Speaking of the finale, “It’s Only Gold/End Credits” could well be one of the most spectacular finishes to a score in history, a 10-minute extravaganza during which all the main motifs are repeated, and the main theme is given a performance of such monumental proportions. Despite the excellence of the music which comes before if, Debney truly saved the best for last, and while it may sound like hyperbole, I would almost go as far as saying that this cue is one of my favorite tracks of all time. I find it impossible not to air-conduct while I listen, such the intoxicating sense of powering and life, and by the end of the cue, when Debney finishes things off with an inspiring percussion flourish, I am usually left breathless and grinning like an idiot.

If there is one drawback to Cutthroat Island– and this is the only negative aspect – is that it could almost be seen as too much of a good thing. The 2-CD set suffers from the same problem as the original release, in that 70-odd minutes of virtual wall-to-wall action scoring does tend to wear you down after a while – except in this case it is 140 minutes of virtual wall-to-wall action scoring, albeit with the addition of more moments of down time in the middle. While I acknowledge the importance of the complete score being available to all who want it, I do wonder if there is anyone out there with the time, the willpower, and the eardrums to be able to listen to this score on a regular basis. By the time the final cue comes around, you may well be exhausted.

Nevertheless, this one tiny criticism notwithstanding, Cutthroat Islands remains a spectacular effort from John Debney which every self respecting film music fan should add to his or her collection, be it the shorter original release or the new Prometheus version. I unreservedly recommend it to anyone with a mind to listen to one of the best action adventure scores of the last decade.

Rating: *****

2005 Prometheus Track Listing:

  • Main Title/Morgan’s Ride (4:38)
  • The Rescue/Morgan Saves Harry (3:41)
  • Purcell Snatcher (written by Brad Dechter) (2:58)*
  • Shaw is Caught (1:15)*
  • The Funeral (1:29)
  • Morgan in Command (2:51)*
  • The Language of Romance (2:40)
  • A Lady Scorned (1:38)*
  • Carriage Chase (7:21)
  • Ainclee Plots/To Spittelfield (3:46)*
  • Uncle Mordechai (2:02)*
  • Morgan Captured/Sword Fight (5:23)
  • Escape from Mordechai’s (2:09)
  • Setting Sail (1:03)
  • Charting the Course (2:19)
  • First Kiss/Love Scene/Dawg’s Plan* (3:12)
  • Shaw Discovers the Location (2:04)*
  • Betrayal (2:46)*
  • The Storm Begins (2:33)
  • To the Bottom of the Sea (2:43)
  • The Island (3:41)*
  • Shaw Steals the Map (3:30)
  • Discovery of the Cave (4:39)*
  • Discovery of the Treasure (2:19)
  • The Wedding Waltz (2:43)*
  • Caught (1:37)*
  • The Rope (2:17)*
  • Morgan and Show Jump the Cliff/The Big Jump (2:38)
  • Shaw Captured (2:32)*
  • Morgan Takes the Ship (4:30)
  • The Hangman’s Noose (3:56)*
  • The Battle/To Dawg’s Ship*/Morgan Battles Dawg*/Dawg’s Demise/The Triumph (17:52)
  • It’s Only Gold/End Credits (9:33)
  • Bonus Track: Main Title/Morgan’s Ride (without choir) (4:48)*
  • Bonus Track: Carriage Chase (alternate version) (7:21)*
  • Bonus Track: First Kiss (album edit) (1:54)
  • Bonus Track: Dawg’s Demise/The Triumph (without choir) (3:31)*
  • Special Bonus Track: Morgan’s Ride & The Rescue (original synth demo) (7:25)*

* indicates a previously unreleased track.

1995 Silva Screen Track Listing:

  • Main Title/Morgan’s Ride (4:38)
  • Carriage Chase (7:20)
  • The Language of Romance (2:39)
  • Setting Sail (1:03)
  • To the Bottom of the Sea (2:43)
  • Morgan Takes The Ship (4:30)
  • The Funeral (1:30)
  • The Rescue (3:41)
  • Discovery of the Treasure (2:19)
  • The Big Jump (2:38)
  • The Storm Begins (2:33)
  • Morgan Captured / Sword Fight (5:23)
  • Shaw Steals the Map (3:30)
  • Escape from Mordechai’s (2:09)
  • Charting the Course (2:19)
  • First Kiss (1:54)
  • The Battle (6:09)
  • Dawg’s Demise/The Triumph (3:31)
  • It’s Only Gold/End Credits (9:42)

1995 CD Running Time: 70 minutes 25 seconds
2005 2-CD Running Time: 145 minutes 46 seconds

Silva Screen FILMCD-178 (1995)
Prometheus XPCD-157 (2005)

Music composed by John Debney. Conducted by David Snell. Performed by The London Symphony Orchestra and London Voices. Orchestrations by Brad Dechter, Frank Bennett, Don Nemitz and Jeff Atmajian. Recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes. Edited by Tom Carlson. Mastered by Jene Grimaldi. 1995 album produced by John Debney and Ford A. Thaxton. 2005 album re-mastered by James Nelson. 2005 album produced by Ford A. Thaxton

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