Home > Reviews > APPALOOSA – Jeff Beal


September 19, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

A traditional, old-fashioned western based on the novel by Robert Parker, Appaloosa is the story of a tough marshal, Virgil Cole, and his deputy, Everett Hitch, two friends who are hired to defend a lawless 1880s wild west town from a ruthless rancher who is terrorizing the citizens. The film has an absolutely astonishing cast – Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Jeremy Irons, Renee Zellweger, Timothy Spall, Lance Henriksen – and is also directed by Harris, in his second outing behind the lens after his 2000 debut, Pollack. For the score, Harris turned once more to composer Jeff Beal, who also scored Pollack.

Jeff Beal has been quietly working his way into the Hollywood mainstream in recent years. He’s a jazz man by trade, and a virtuoso trumpeter, and since making his film music debut in the early 1990s, he’s written scores for numerous TV projects, notably Carnivàle, Nightmares and Dreamscapes, Rome, Monk, and Ugly Betty. He’s also been nominated for 8 Emmy Awards, winning on three occasions, including the last 2 years, for Nightmares and Dreamscapes: Battleground and The Company. Appaloosa is already his most high profile cinematic score to date, and could well lead him onto a greater big screen career.

Beal’s main theme from Appaloosa, first heard in the “Main Title”, is a superb piece – a lonely, spacious trumpet theme with a prominent percussion section, strumming guitars, a lush string accompaniment, and even a harmonica. You can imagine Harris and Mortensen’s lawmen riding purposefully across a windswept plain, or into a dusty frontier town, to the strains of this evocative music.

The theme appears in various stages of deconstruction in several cues thereafter – as a muscular cello-led theme in “New City Marshal”, on a playful solo fiddle in “Allison French”, on pizzicato guitars and fat brasses in the latter half of “Bragg is Captured”, with an expansive sweep in the superb “Hitch Rides”, led by Spanish guitars in “Riding in Rio Seco” – giving the score a nice, rounded feeling, with a sense of its own identity. It’s an unusual theme, not what one would really expect to hear in a western score, and it’s vaguely reminiscent of Randy Newman’s theme from the 1994 film Maverick, but somehow it fits in with Harris’s slightly skewed vision of the old west. Of course, Beal has explored this territory before, with his circus music-meets-Aaron Copland score for Carnivàle.

A great deal of Appaloosa is clearly inspired by the music of Ennio Morricone; at times, it is quite abstract, at others, wonderfully expressive, and often infused with a hint of jazz, as one might expect given Beal’s musical background. That’s not to say that the score is anachronistic in any way – instead, the jazz element comes through in the way Beal uses phrases his solo instruments for effect: a solo trumpet here, a more prominent stand up bass there. The more abstract cues – “The Kiss”, or “The Horse Trade”, for example – pit the lower-register string instruments against forlorn guitars and scraping metal percussion, wailing harmonicas, or a bullroarer and tribal shakers, resulting in some unusual, highly atmospheric moments. The action music, in cues such as “Bragg is Captured” and “The Indian Attack”, tense to be quite sharp and sparse, relying on a great deal of metallic percussion alongside the traditional orchestral ensemble.

There are also a number of stylistic references to Mychael Danna’s grossly underrated western score Ride With the Devil, especially in the way Beal incorporates traditional fiddles into the orchestra. Cues like “Dawn in Appaloosa”, “Apology Accepted” and “Readin’ and Writin’” are good examples of this, especially when he accompanies them with warm string harmonies, and anyone who, like me, enjoyed that score, will enjoy those pieces immensely.

Also, and somewhat surprisingly, there is a great deal of lightness in the score. Cues such as aforementioned “Allison French”, or the romantic, vaguely Mariachi-esque “Ballad of Rio Seco”, belie the otherwise quite serious nature of the film, and makes its protagonists more human. Best of all, the incredibly flamboyant “End Credits” feature all manner of flirtatious fiddle solos, piano scales, whip cracks, hooting harmonicas and trumpet improvisations dancing around an extrapolation of the main theme, in what is a thoroughly excellent finale. Finally, the song Ed Harris co-wrote and performed, “You’ll Never Leave My Heart”, is quite brilliant. It has all the musical seriousness of a classic Dimitri Tiomkin ballad, but with (un)intentionally hilarious lyrics. The first time I heard Harris, in his gravelly bass voice, sing the lines ‘Every cheatin’ bastard who takes you to his bed/Wish he’d kept his britches on when he’s lyin’ full of lead’ I almost bust a gut laughing. I hope beyond hope that this song receives an Oscar nomination next year.

I can imagine Appaloosa appealing to people who appreciate Morricone’s stylistic take on the western genre, or of Marco Beltrami’s similar-sounding Oscar-nominated score for 3:10 to Yuma last year. It’s good stuff from Beal, who continues to impress, and clearly has a bright future on the big screen ahead of him.

Rating: ***½

Track Listing:

  • Appaloosa Main Title (2:12)
  • New City Marshal (1:47)
  • Bragg’s Theme (0:45)
  • Allison French (1:50)
  • Allie Teases Virgil (0:39)
  • Dawn in Appaloosa (1:45)
  • Cole and Hitch Stalk Bragg (1:21)
  • Bragg is Captured (3:05)
  • Apology Accepted (1:26)
  • The Kiss (2:31)
  • Readin’ and Writin’ (1:52)
  • Allie is Kidnapped (2:51)
  • Cole Ponders (1:03)
  • Hitch Rides (1:39)
  • Finding Allie (1:24)
  • The Indian Attack (1:38)
  • The Horse Trade (3:54)
  • Riding Into Rio Seco (0:47)
  • Ballad of Rio Seco (2:37)
  • Shootout at Rio Seco (2:27)
  • Allie Goes Upstairs (0:56)
  • Hitch Settles a Score (2:43)
  • Riding Off/Appaloosa End Credits (3:44)
  • You’ll Never Leave My Heart (written by Jeff Beal and Ed Harris, performed by Ed Harris) (4:30)
  • Ain’t Nothin’ Like a Friend (written by Jeff Beal and Ed Harris, performed by Ed Harris) (3:15)

Running Time: 52 minutes 41 seconds

Lakeshore Records LKS 34043 (2008)

Music composed and conducted by Jeff Beal. Orchestrations by Jeff Beal. Featured musical soloists George Doering, Sid Page, David Low, Brian Kilcore, Jim Thatcher, Jeff Richman and Jeff Beal. Recorded and mixed by Jimmy Hoyson. Edited by Lise Richardson. Album produced by Jeff Beal.

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