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THE RED CANVAS – James Peterson

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

When you hear as many film scores as I do, it’s remarkably easy to become jaded. The same old composers write the same old music for the same old films in the same old style; there is so little innovation or originality these days in the mainstream film music world that listening to the most banal new releases becomes more of a chore than a pleasure, something to be endured rather than embraced. It is for this reason that scores like The Red Canvas must be embraced and celebrated, and why young, massively talented composers like James Peterson need to be lauded; debuts as good as this don’t come along very often.

I freely admit I know next to nothing about James Peterson. He grew up in Southern California, graduated from UCLA, and wrote music for commercials, video games, short films, and for the South Bay Ballet Company, prior to scoring this, his first theatrical film. Directed by Kenneth Chamitoff, The Red Canvas is an action drama set in the world of underground mixed martial arts. Ernie Reyes Jr. (who fans will remember as the karate kid from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II back in the early 1990s) stars as Johnny Sanchez, a talented fighter who gets in trouble with the law, and who is forced by a crooked prison warden (John Savage) to take part in brutal illegal fights overseen by the evil Krang (George Takei). While the film itself sounds like a rather run-of-the-mill actioner – had it been made in the 80s it would have undoubtedly starred Jean-Claude Van Damme – the music is something else. It is utterly transcendent, rising above its low-budget roots.

As a break with convention, I’ll start at the end with the thing that everyone is talking about: “Ballet for Brawlers”. Written for a huge orchestra with special emphasis on brass, this gargantuan masterpiece of a cue is one of the greatest pieces of film music I have heard in several years – and, no, that’s not hyperbole. A colossal collision of sound and fury that mixes classic lyricism with contemporary musical brutality, Peterson’s piece sounds like it was written by the love child of Miklós Rózsa and Elliot Goldenthal. Beginning slowly from a bed of tense, martial cello rhythms, the piece gradually grows and grows to enormous proportions, eventually engaging the entire orchestra. The brass writing is fiendishly complicated, flashing across the orchestra from horns to trumpets to trombones with staggering speed and power. And it just doesn’t let up; for eleven and a half astounding minutes the brass snarls furiously, enveloped in staccato string ostinati and punctuated by throbbing, primal percussion. It changes tempo restlessly, constantly pits different motifs against themselves, and just when you think it’s reached its peak and can’t possibly get any more massive, Peterson shuffles the deck again. The first time I heard this piece my jaw literally dropped. These days, for a piece of film music to do this to me, it has to be something really special. Ballet for Brawlers is special.

Almost inevitably, the 33 minutes of score that precede this monumental piece do not quite reach the same lofty heights, but the multitude of motifs heard in it have their genesis here, and there is still a great deal of sensational music to be found. One of the best things about Peterson is his obvious Golden Age sensibility. As I mentioned before, there is more than a hint of Miklós Rózsa in his writing, especially in his brass phrasing, as well as clear allusions to both Bernard Herrmann in the strings and Max Steiner in his use of percussion. In today’s film music world it’s rare to hear a composer who has such a clear mastery of his orchestra, who knows how to get the best from his players, and who can create such rich and vivid colors through detailed instrumental combinations, clever performance techniques and engaging rhythmic energy. It’s especially rare to hear it from a composer as young and hitherto unheralded as James Peterson; if this score is anything to go by, his anonymity won’t last for long.

The opening “Out of Darkness” grows from a bed of growling cellos to present the first of several vicious brass fanfares, underpinned by a bed of slashing, dramatic string writing. A 5-note Rózsa-inspired motif features prominently in the brief “Johnny Likes Extortion”, before rising to the fore in the rich, ominous “Calling All Gladiators”. The two main action cues within the body of the score are the “Grease Monkey Brawl” and the “Jungle Rumble”, which feature all manner of orchestral carnage – flutter-tongued brass runs, whooping woodwinds, flashy string writing, booming drums – galloping over the top of a rumbling bass ostinato. It’s just a taste of things to come.

Thankfully, the score also contains a great deal of attractive down time. “Awaiting the News” features the first performance of a moodily graceful string motif that somehow manages to simultaneously elicit a sense of listless drudgery and resurgent hope. The theme is restated to gorgeous effect in cues such as “A Great Fighter”, “The Attic”, “Maria Cries”, “Bills and Tears”, “Prayer” and “A Not-So Conjugal Visit”, and gives Johnny’s plight a feeling of defiant nobility, and of him retaining his sense of self despite overwhelming adversity. Occasionally, the chord progressions Peterson uses remind me of another one of film music’s all-the great debut scores, Cliff Eidelman’s Triumph of the Spirit from 1989, although the similarities are purely superficial.

The two “Death and Resurrection” cues oscillate between more of the tumultuous, thrusting brass writing and a gorgeous, darkly romantic elegy for violins that gives the score a much-needed release of tension. And if that were not enough, the “Jazz Café” cue contains an unexpectedly warm and authentic-sounding trumpet refrain that oozes nightclub cool.

Rounding out MovieScore Media’s excellent album is the 20-minute “Moving Canvas Suite”, an original concert work that Peterson wrote in 2007. With its unashamedly cinematic approach, varied styles, and excellent technique, it clearly illustrates that Peterson is capable of writing standout music across multiple genres, from whimsical comedy to sweeping romance, gothic horror and lush sun-kissed Americana. The flighty, Williams-esque “The Sorcerer” and the achingly beautiful “Pastorale” are worth the price of admission alone.

Over the past couple of decades there have been maybe a half a dozen or so mainstream film music debuts as overwhelmingly impressive as James Peterson and The Red Canvas. Basil Poledouris and Big Wednesday in 1978; Patrick Doyle and Henry V in 1989; the aforementioned Cliff Eidelman’s and Triumph of the Spirit, also in 1989; David Arnold and Stargate in 1994; Michael Giacchino and The Incredibles in 2004; Douglas Pipes and Monster House in 2006. It’s no exaggeration to say that, based on the music on offer here, Peterson has the talent and potential to be as successful and popular as all these composers.

If I sound like I’m gushing, I apologize, but when one hears music this good, and when you compare it to all the anonymous dreck that Hollywood spews out on a far too regular basis, it’s difficult not to be overly-enthusiastic. Kudos should go once again to producer Mikael Carlsson and his independent label MovieScore Media, who time and again unearths fantastic scores from composers nobody knows, written for films nobody has seen, and blows us away. Buy this. Now.

Rating: ****½

Buy the Red Canvas soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Out of the Darkness (1:56)
  • Awaiting the News (2:22)
  • Death and Resurrection I (3:41)
  • A Great Fighter (2:01)
  • Jazz Café (1:43)
  • Johnny Likes Extortion (0:27)
  • The Attic (1:30)
  • Grease Monkey Prelude (1:44)
  • Grease Monkey Brawl (3:01)
  • Maria Cries (1:37)
  • Calling All Gladiators (1:08)
  • The Meeting (1:32)
  • Death and Resurrection II (3:28)
  • Bills and Tears (1:27)
  • Jungle Rumble (1:36)
  • Prayer (1:09)
  • A Not-So-Conjugal Visit (2:50)
  • Ballet for Brawlers (11:29)
  • Moving Images Suite: Fanfare (0:31)
  • Moving Images Suite: The Sorcerer (1:56)
  • Moving Images Suite: Americana (3:35)
  • Moving Images Suite: A Quirky Machine (2:46)
  • Moving Images Suite: Moonlit Desert Chase (2:32)
  • Moving Images Suite: Pastorale (4:35)
  • Moving Images Suite: Transylvania, 1955 (2:56)
  • Moving Images Suite: Epilogue (1:54)

Running Time: 65 minutes 26 seconds

MovieScore Media MMS-09025 (2009)

Music composed by James Peterson. Conducted by Adam Klemens. Orchestrations by James Peterson. Performed by The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. Album produced by Mikael Carlsson.

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