Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Play the Raiders March to any film music fan – hell, anyone who went to the cinema in the last 20 years or so – and the same imagery will pop into their mind: Harrison Ford, unkempt, unshaven, battered leather jacket, battered fedora hat, whip in one hand, gun in the other, a languorous grin on his face, preparing to dispatch some insidious bad guy standing in his way from rightfully claiming one of the world’s lost archeological artifacts. Such is the power and durability of John Williams’ classic themes that there are inextricably linked with their subject matter, from the sinister cello chords of Jaws to the breathless joy of E.T., to the effortless heroism of Star Wars. There’s no wonder Williams remains one of the most well-respected and well-loved film composers of all time, and why his music remains a pop culture touchstone for millions.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the fourth film in the series of films which began with Raiders of the Lost Ark back in 1981, was hyped by nostalgia to such a level that, even if the film had been the best film ever made, it likely would have never met the expectations that those ardent fans had. That it turned out to be such a bad film is something of a surprise, as all the elements were there: Harrison Ford returning to what is, perhaps, his greatest role; Steven Spielberg behind the camera; actors of high caliber – Cate Blanchett, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent, Shia Labeouf – in supporting roles; Karen Allen making an extended cameo as Indy’s true love; and, or course, John Williams and his music. Perhaps the only thorn in the ointment was the increasingly poisonous presence of George Lucas, whose second Star Wars trilogy has been increasingly criticized by those in the know, and whose magic touch, which served him so well in the 1970s and early 1980s, seems to have deserted him completely.

The plot of Crystal Skull, which grows increasingly ludicrous as the film progresses, sees Indiana Jones in the 1950s, and looking and feeling his age. He crosses paths with Irina Spalko (Blanchett), a Soviet agent with psychic abilities, who has ‘enlisted’ Indy’s help in finding a crystal skull, a mysterious magnetic object, the acquisition of which Spalko believes will help the Soviets gain an advantage in the not-yet-begun Cold War. After escaping from Spalko in the Nevada desert, and surviving a nuclear test blast, Indy teams up with young greaser Mutt Williams (Labeouf), and together the pair travel to Peru to find Indy’s old colleague, Harold Oxley (Hurt), who has disappeared while searching for crystal skulls himself.

It’s worth mentioning that, as was the case with the second Star Wars trilogy, the John Williams who wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark is not the same John Williams who has written Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. 19 years have passed since the last Indy adventure, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Williams’ style of writing has of course altered in the intervening years. Having said that, there is still more than a glimmer of the old Williams to be heard in this score, and the fact that it sits comfortably alongside the new, occasionally quite difficult and abstract Williams, makes this score a very interesting listen.

The album opens with a straight concert version of the legendary “Raiders March”, with the lush theme for Marion Ravenwood as the bridge, to set the scene. The three new themes for the film, which immediately follow the Raiders March, offer a dynamic new facet to the score. “Call of the Crystal” is a mysterious piece with eerie, glassy textures and fugue-like string writing that occasionally seems to echo some of his 1970s horror scores like Dracula and The Fury. It’s built around an ascending three-note theme that incessantly repeats, over and over, enticing the listener in, and is very effective indeed.

“The Adventures of Mutt” is a vibrant, energetic scherzo which revisits the style of cues such as “Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra” from Last Crusade, or the more recent Young Indiana Jones scores. The orchestra bounces around from section to section, strings dancing lithely up and down scales, woodwinds fluttering daintily in the background, brisk and lively. “Irina’s Theme”, however, is all tragic Slavic tones, muted brasses giving way to mournful sweeping strings. It’s beautiful, to be sure, and adds a level of depth to Irina’s character.

The underscore proper weaves these four themes constantly, offsetting them against each other, using them as counterpoint under the action in certain cues, allowing them to rise to the fore in others. Highlights include “The Snake Pit” and “A Whirl Through Academe”, a pair of bouncy scherzo action cues which expand upon the stylistics of Mutt’s theme and are hugely enjoyable; and “The Spell of the Skull”, which briefly recapitulates the wonderfully spooky Ark theme from the original Raiders score, and even revisits the suspense music from E.T. and the churning underbelly A.I., illustrating perfectly the juxtaposition between the Williams of old and the modern-day incarnation, and the way in which the two styles can sit alongside each other successfully.

The other action cues are tremendously exciting and inventive, and often contain a relentless forward motion which is impossible to not enjoy, especially when one of the new themes enters the fray in a bold new setting. “The Jungle Chase” has more than a hint of new Star Wars trilogy about it, in the way the horns flirt and flurry above the rest of the ensemble, and in the tremendous intricacy of the orchestrations. “Hidden Treasure and the City of Gold” ratchets up the tension to almost unbearable levels, eventually reaching a thoroughly stimulating conclusion. The arachnid and insectoid stars of the film receive their own skittery musical depictions towards the end of “Secret Doors and Scorpions” and in “Ants!”, where Williams plays on listeners’ fears of many-legged attackers through dense pizzicato strings and dissonant sound clusters.

“The Journey to Akator” contains a completely unexpected piece of Peruvian folk source music, complete with pan pipes, guitars and trumpets, which is nothing if not highly authentic, and sets the Andean scene well. “Grave Robbers” also contains a great deal of local color, again with pan pipes and all manner of shakers and drums, although this time the darkly threatening arrangement has more in common with The Lost World: Jurassic Park than Incantation.

As the score reaches its zenith, “Temple Ruins and the Secret Revealed” pits numerous variations on the Skull theme with a great deal of dark, bass heavy action music, again similar to that heard in A.I., with bassoons hooting underneath the dense brass and string writing. The merest hint of a chorus enters the mix, too, before the whole thing builds up to an enormous, celebratory crescendo at the end of “The Departure”… and the whole movie loses all its credibility. And then there’s the nine-minute “Finale”, which will undoubtedly go on to become a Williams concert hall staple over the years: an intimate performance of Marion’s theme, a recapitulation of the Raiders March, the moody theme for Irina, a more upbeat variation of Irina’s theme with a dancing flute solo, Mutt’s whirligig scherzo, a more lush setting of Indy and Marion’s love theme, and then a final, even more rousing statement of the Raiders March with an unexpected new brass counterpoint of the final flourish to bring things to a close.

While certainly the weakest of the four Williams Indiana Jones scores, this is not to say that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is in any way a bad score – had anyone else written music of this quality, it would likely have been a career highlight, such are Williams’ high standards and precedents. The scherzos are fun and inventive, the trio of new themes are each expertly crafted, and the integration of classic pieces from the original Indys make this score one which fans of the series will enjoy, and which fans of Williams’ light-hearted adventure music have missed.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Raiders March (5:06)
  • Call of the Crystal (3:50)
  • The Adventures of Mutt (3:12)
  • Irina’s Theme (2:26)
  • The Snake Pit (3:15)
  • The Spell of the Skull (4:24)
  • The Journey to Akator (3:08)
  • A Whirl Through Academe (3:34)
  • Return (3:12)
  • The Jungle Chase (4:23)
  • Orellana’s Cradle (4:22)
  • Grave Robbers (2:29)
  • Hidden Treasure and the City of Gold (5:14)
  • Secret Doors and Scorpions (2:17)
  • Oxley’s Dilemma (4:46)
  • Ants! (4:14)
  • Temple Ruins and the Secret Revealed (5:51)
  • The Departure (2:27)
  • Finale (9:20)

Running Time: 77 minutes 19 seconds

Concord Records 0888072308565 (2008)

Music composed and conducted by John Williams. Orchestrations by Conrad Pope and Eddie Karam. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Ramiro Belgart Album produced by John Williams.

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