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PUBLIC ENEMIES – Elliot Goldenthal

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Waiting for Public Enemies has been a test of patience for Elliot Goldenthal fans. It’s been a long six years since Goldenthal’s last theatrical score – S.W.A.T. in 2003 – although the intervening period has been an eventful one in Goldenthal’s life; he wrote his first opera, Grendel, in collaboration with his partner Julie Taymor, and produced the Beatles songs used in her 2007 film Across the Universe, but most seriously he suffered a potentially life-threatening head injury in 2005 when he fell off a chair and smacked his head on the marble floor of his kitchen, rendering him literally speechless for several months. So, is Public Enemies the triumphant return to the cinema fans of scores like Titus, Final Fantasy and Interview With the Vampire had wanted? The answer, a touch disappointingly, is no.

Public Enemies is a film about the life of notorious bank robber John Dillinger, and the FBI agent who tried to bring an end to his crime sprees. Set at the height of the Great Depression, it stars Johnny Depp as Dillinger, who robbed banks across the United States during the 1930s, and somewhat unexpectedly captured the imagination of the American public, who saw him as a modern day Robin Hood, despite the fact that he killed numerous people along the way. The film is directed by Michael Mann, who previously worked with Goldenthal on Heat in 1995, and co-stars Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Channing Tatum and Giovanni Ribisi.

So why is Public Enemies a disappointment? It’s actually a little difficult to pin down the specific reasons. Part of it is to do with expectation; the fact that his last four major scores before his hiatus – Titus, Final Fantasy, the Oscar-winning Frida and S.W.A.T. – were so amazingly good, one after the other, that he seemed to be on an unstoppable upward trajectory of creativity and brilliance which was frustratingly stemmed mid-flow. Part of it is also to do with the wait; six years is a long time for a composer’s voice to be silenced.

It’s not even that the music is bad in any way, because it isn’t. It’s probably Goldenthal’s most accessible score since Michael Collins more than a decade ago, and contains a number of familiar Goldenthalisms that will please his fans greatly, as well as some very tonal and almost romantic passages which highlight a new side to his personality. But it’s also very safe, very non-confrontational, and – at times – even a little bland. Even more unexpectedly, a little temp-track bleed through can be heard in some of the score’s quieter moments, which seem to evoke the shifting string textures Hans Zimmer employed in scores like The Thin Red Line, The Ring, The Da Vinci Code, and even Batman Begins. There’s very little of the convention-challenging music one has come to expect from him, very little in the way of the wonderfully realized dissonance fans of his adore, none of those trademark rasping trombones which have become uniquely associated with his sound. Of course, this is clearly the score Michael Mann needed him to write, and you can only write for the film in front of you, but even so, Goldenthal seems to be just dipping his toe back into the film music pool rather than diving confidently into the deep end.

However, this is not to that the score is without merit, because at times Public Enemies enthralls. Much of the score is written with heavy emphasis on strings, very little brass, but with regular guest appearances by a soft, melancholy pianos, as if foreshadowing the ultimately desperate life Dillinger would lead. “Billie’s Arrest”, for example, drips with pathos, with a simple piano motif eventually giving way to a dark, tragic-sounding string section underpinned by furious rumbling violins that give the piece an overwhelming sense of emotion that one doesn’t usually associate with Goldenthal’s writing.

The sadly brief “Love in the Dunes” is an almost dream-like romance piece for disconnected piano chords, accentuated by a subtle synth-string wash which gives it its wistful aura, while “Phone Call to Billie” has a jazzy muted saxophone element that maintains the feeling of separation and longing.

Later, “Plane to Chicago” contains a magnificent brooding string elegy, accompanied by waving harps and tolling bells, that seems to become darker as it develops, and gradually turns into a thrusting scherzo full of motion and menace that actually reminds me of something Carter Burwell might write on his better days. The score’s climax, “JD Dies”, is where the Zimmer echoes really come to the fore, coming across as a combination of the “Finale” from Goldenthal’s Titus, and the “Chevaliers de Sangreal” cue from The Da Vinci Code.

In addition to Goldenthal’s score – which runs for a hair over 16 minutes – the album from Decca records contains a number of jazz, blues and swing standards from the era, including some old classics from Billie Holliday, and two fantastic tracks from the wonderfully smoky-voiced Otis Taylor (the opening song, “Ten Million Slaves”, is superb). There’s also a sultry new version of the standard “Bye Bye Blackbird” by Mrs. Mark Isham, Diana Krall, a rollicking big band piece called “Chicago Shake” by Bruce Fowler (one of Hans Zimmer’s regular orchestrators), and a indescribable version of the traditional hymn “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah”, skewed and warped into something that is equal parts disturbing and hypnotic. Score fans may not enjoy the fact that Goldenthal’s score has to share the album with a whole load of songs, but I found that it actually added a great deal to the experience.

So why is Public Enemies disappointing? This may sound like a lame response, but it just is, and it’s partly my own fault – after being starved of his talent for so long, I had been looking forward to feasting on a breathtaking new score, and instead we’re given an appetizer. Pleasant, sure, technically accomplished, of course, but a relatively minor work even amongst Goldenthal’s own filmography. Like I said, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Public Enemies at all, and parts of it are really very good indeed. I should be grateful that Goldenthal is alive and able to write music at all, and of course I am – but I can’t help but feel slightly unsatisfied.

Rating: ***½

Buy the Public Enemies soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Ten Million Slaves (performed by Otis Taylor) (4:07)
  • Chicago Shake (performed by The Bruce Fowler Big Band) (3:08)
  • Drive to Bohemia (1:10)
  • Love Me or Leave Me (performed by Billie Holiday ft. Teddy Wilson & His Orchestra) (3:20)
  • Billie’s Arrest (2:19)
  • Am I Blue? (performed by Billie Holiday & Her Orchestra) (2:50)
  • Love in the Dunes (1:48)
  • Bye Bye Blackbird (performed by Diana Krall) (3:44)
  • Phone Call to Billie (1:42)
  • Nasty Letter (performed by Otis Taylor) (5:04)
  • Plane to Chicago (3:22)
  • Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah (performed by Indian Bottom Association, Old Regular Baptists & Elliot Goldenthal) (1:35)
  • Gold Coast Restaurant (2:04)
  • The Man I Love (performed by Billie Holiday & Her Orchestra) (3:05)
  • JD Dies (3:54)
  • Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground (performed by Blind Willie Johnson) (3:19)

Running Time: 46 minutes 37 seconds

Decca B001307202 (2009)

Music composed by Elliot Goldenthal. Orchestrations by Robert Elhai, Jeff Toyne and Mark Bächle. Recorded and mixed by Joel Iwataki. Edited by Steve Durkee. Album produced by Elliot Goldenthal.

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