hitchhikersguidetothegalaxyOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

It’s interesting to watch what happens when a cult becomes a phenomenon. When British author Douglas Adams first developed The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as a play for radio in 1978, he could scarcely have imagined the impact on British popular culture his inventive imagination would have. Since that date, Hitchhiker’s has grown to encompass a follow-up novel, four sequels (“The Restaurant at the End of the Universe”, “Life the Universe and Everything”, “So Long & Thanks For All The Fish” and “Mostly Harmless”), a well-respected British TV series in 1981, and now a multi-million dollar movie produced by Touchstone Pictures. Several phrases and ideas from the books have entered common language, from the online language translator Babelfish to the popular instant messaging programme Trillian and the chess super-computer Deep Thought.

For the uninitiated, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a science-fiction comedy set immediately after the end of the world, the Earth having been flattened by an alien race called the Vogons in order to make way for an intergalactic freeway. The only survivor is a rather ordinary man named Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) who, in the company of his old friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def) – an alien correspondent for the aforementioned Guide, and not a man from Guildford as he originally thought – manages to get aboard a Vogon ship just before the calamitous demolition. Before long, dressed in nothing but pyjamas and a dressing gown, Arthur finds himself on an amazing adventure which takes him across the Universe in search of the meaning of life, encountering all manner of diverse characters along the way, including former President of the Galaxy Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), depressed robot Marvin (Warwick Davis/Alan Rickman), planetary architect Slartibartfast (Bill Nighy), and religious leader Huma Kavala (John Malkovich). Originally planned to made in the 1980s with Ivan Reitman directing, the film version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy sat in development hell in Hollywood over a decade, until finally being taken over by British music video and advertising director Garth Jennings, who is making his film debut here. It’s just a shame that Adams never lived to see his vision brought to the big screen – he died suddenly in 2001.

34-year old Englishman Joby Talbot is regarded as one of Britain’s most exciting young composers, who first came to prominence through his association with the alternative pop group The Divine Comedy and its front-man Neil Hannon. Having already worked with Michael Nyman on a project at the Edinburgh Festival in 1997, Talbot won a Royal Television Society Award for Best Title Music in 2000 for the score for the highly surreal black comedy TV series The League of Gentlemen. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy marks Talbot’s cinematic film score debut – although his second film, The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse, is also due for release in 2005.

Written mainly for a fairly large symphony orchestra, but with prominent electronic embellishments, Talbot’s methodology in bringing musical life to Adams’s world is to approach it in exactly the same way the author would have: with numerous throwaway ideas, unexpected stylistics, a high level of inventiveness, a great deal of quirkiness, and frequent flashes of brilliance. Hitchhiker’s Guide purists will be delighted to know that Talbot has retained use of the seminal Eagles classic “Journey of the Sorcerer” as a theme tune; Bernie Leadon’s enormous prog-rock fanfare has become so synonymous with the series that it would have been sacrilege not to include it.

However, listeners should not go into The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy expecting to be blown away by memorable themes and rousing anthems: it’s not that kind of score. There are a few recurring motifs, notably the amusing pizzicato strings and comedy clarinets which typify Arthur’s tedious, slightly befuddled life in “Arthur Wakes Up”, as well as statements of the melody from the song So Long & Thanks For All The Fish (described below) which appear in various guises in cues such as “Earth Mark II” and “Shootout”. There’s also a straightforward string/piano romantic theme for Arthur and Trillian in “Love” but, for the most part, Talbot’s score is a mixed bag of styles and influences, and while the lack of a prominent central theme may elicit a negative reaction in some listeners, Talbot’s cleverness and bounteous enthusiasm elsewhere more than makes up for it.

Urgent orchestral material crops up during the first half of “Inside the Vogon Ship”, and later in “Vogon Command Centre”, the Aliens-esque “Capture of Trillian”, the flamboyant “Vogcity” and the thrilling “Shootout”, signifying that Talbot has the potential to succeed in other genres. Some of these cues revisit the unusual staccato style he adopted on The League of Gentlemen, and would seem to indicate the development of a rather unique approach to action scoring on Talbot’s part. He’s also not averse to laying on a few sci-fi clichés, with delightfully retro cosmic touches in the appropriately-named “Space”, the powerful and vivid “Deep Thought”, the impressive “Earth Mark II”, and the hugely satisfying “Planetary Factory Floor”, which uses a stirring ‘ooh-ahh’ orchestral crescendo to accompany Arthur’s wondrous tour through Slartibartfast’s unique manufacturing facility.

Other standout cues include the opening “The Dolphins”, which superimposes Stephen Fry’s witty narration over cooing vocal ambiences; “Vogon Poetry”, a wonderful musical in-joke which juxtaposes pretty melodies against the horrific rhyming torture devices employed by the nefarious intergalactic bureaucrats; “Trillian and Arthur Reunited”, which could be seen an homage to the wackiness of Danny Elfman’s 1980s scores for Tim Burton; and the music for the “Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster”, which must be what passes for cocktail lounge jazz on the other side of the galaxy.

“Huma’s Hymn” is an unexpectedly beautiful choral piece written in the style of a formal Christian worship song and performed by several hundred untrained members of the public invited to the recording via a call for singers circulated on the internet. The end result actually sounds like something another British comedy composer, Howard Goodall, might write: authentic, excellent sacred choral music, brought to the masses through its unusual pop-culture setting, but with deliciously funny lyrics which espouse the mighty Arkleseizure, a deity who sneezed the universe into existence, and whose followers await the return of the great white handkerchief to bring them back to their maker.

“The Whale”, an intriguing and unexpected by-product of the infinite improbability drive, features soothing oceanic textures to accompany the gigantic cetacean as it floats serenely through the heavens, while the wholly unique bonus track “Careless Talk” is a clever celebration of 1970s electronic scoring, a brilliant homage to the work of Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire, performed on antique synthesizers with all the love and reverence one would expect from a composer who fully acknowledges and appreciates his predecessors.

In addition to the score, Talbot has also penned a number of original songs, most of which are musically brilliant, and all of which are intentionally hilarious. “So Long & Thanks For All The Fish” is a wonderfully irreverent Cole Porter pastiche, named after the third book in Adams’ five-book trilogy, and which obviously takes its cue from songs such as “Let’s Face The Music and Dance”, albeit with delightfully cheeky lyrics. Its morose recapitulation in the “Reprise” by Talbot’s old Divine Comedy buddy Neil Hannon is an undisputed album highlight: imagine show tunes performed by Nick Cave, and with lyrics by the South Park gang, or Monty Python, and you’d be close.

”Vote Beeblebrox”, which apparently doesn’t feature in the final cut of the film, is a hilarious, thoroughly brilliant comedy propaganda song espousing Zaphod Beeblebrox’s intelligence and good looks, which has more than an echo of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, and even features a killer electric guitar solo. “Zaphod Beeblebrox for President/Building bridges between the stars/In no way is he stupid/In no way is his brain impaired/It’s just not true/He’s smarter than you/And he’s better-looking too”. However, the less said about “Reasons To Be Miserable (His Name Is Marvin)” the better – a Kraftwerk-inspired electronica track which features probably the first and last Stephen Fry rap vocal.

I am fully aware that this review of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is glowing and possibly even a little over-the-top, but I’ve been a Douglas Adams fan for many years, and I make no apologies for my enthusiasm. I also appreciate that score enthusiasts with no previous exposure to Joby Talbot’s music, and no affinity one way or the other for Adams and Hitchhiker’s Guide may find this album something of a curiosity. As has been stated, it has no real recurring main themes, and some of the tracks which have been described above as ‘unique’ could also be described as ‘strange’ or ‘odd’. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this album – songs and score and everything – and am eager to see what direction Talbot’s career will take if this film is a hit.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • The Dolphins (1:00)
  • So Long & Thanks For All The Fish (written by Joby Talbot, Garth Jennings and Christopher Austin, performed by Hilary Summers, Kenny Ominiyi and the RDVP Voices) (2:26)
  • Arthur Wakes Up (2:53)
  • Shoo-Rah! Shoo-Rah! (written by Allan Toussaint, performed by Betty Wright) (2:51)
  • Here I Am (Come & Take Me) (written by Al Green and Mabon Hodges, performed by Al Green) (4:13)
  • Destruction of Earth (1:31)
  • Journey of the Sorcerer (written by Bernie Leadon) (1:15)
  • The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy (1:14)
  • Inside the Vogon Ship (2:46)
  • Vogon Poetry (0:48)
  • Space (1:00)
  • Vogon Command Centre (1:00)
  • Trillian & Arthur Reunited (1:45)
  • Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster (1:40)
  • Tea In Space (1:08)
  • Deep Thought (2:06)
  • Infinite Improbability Drive (0:55)
  • Viltvodle Street Music (0:45)
  • Huma’s Hymn (1:02)
  • Capture of Trillian (4:27)
  • Vogcity (1:02)
  • Love (1:44)
  • The Whale (1:53)
  • Planet Factory Floor (2:29)
  • Earth Mark II (6:29)
  • Magic Moments (written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, performed by Perry Como) (2:37)
  • Shootout (3:23)
  • Finale (1:50)
  • Blast Off (0:16)
  • So Long And Thanks For All The Fish (Reprise) (written by Joby Talbot, Garth Jennings and Christopher Austin, performed by Neil Hannon) (2:54)
  • Careless Talk (1:42)
  • Vote Beeblebrox (written by Joby Talbot, performed by Neil Hannon, Douglas Payne, Andy Dunlop, Miggy Barradas, Chuck Norman, Hannah Thomas and Fran Balke) (3:27)
  • Reasons To Be Miserable (His Name Is Marvin) (written by Douglas Adams, Stephen Moore, John Sinclair, Keith Cox and ‘Bang Bang Club’, performed by Stephen Fry) (3:37)

Running Time: 70 minutes 08 seconds

Hollywood Records 5050467-8135-2-0 (2005)

Music composed by Joby Talbot. Conducted by Christopher Austin. Orchestrations by Christopher Austin, Joby Talbot and Gary Carpenter. Special vocal performances by Gabriel Crouch. “Voice of the Book” performed by Stephen Fry. Recorded and mixed by Mark Wyllie. Edited by Michael Connell. Album produced by Joby Talbot.

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