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STRAW DOGS – Larry Groupé

September 20, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The original Straw Dogs, which was directed by Sam Peckinpah, hit unsuspecting cinema goers like a hammer in 1971, and was an incredibly controversial film in it’s time. The film tells the story of a mild mannered American academic David (originally played by Dustin Hoffman) and his pleasant English wife Amy (originally played by Susan George), who move to a rural part of England and immediately become the subject of increasingly intense harassment by the locals. Things come to a head after Amy is brutally raped by several local men who are ostensibly working on the house, and before long David finds himself having to defend his house, his family, and his life, from circumstances that are spiraling out of control. The original film’s controversy arose due to the fact that, during the rape sequence, it was left intentionally ambiguous as to whether the Amy character actually enjoyed being raped, and this possible misogynism left a nasty taste in the mouths of censors and cinema viewers at the time. This remake of the film is directed by Rod Lurie, stars James Marsden and Kate Bosworth in the lead roles, and relocates the action from rural England to the Deep South of Mississippi, a regular location for the cinematic depiction of shitty-shoed rednecks and their unsavory sexual proclivities.

Throughout his career (and with a couple of notable exceptions) director Rod Lurie’s composer-of-choice has been Larry Groupé. The exceptionally talented Groupé’s career has never quite taken off as much as many – including me – hoped it might; his most notable work to date has included such excellent scores as The Contender and Resurrecting the Champ, and TV projects such as the short-lived Commander in Chief and the Emmy-nominated Line of Fire, but despite this he remains best known for the work he did with John Ottman on several of his early scores, most notably The Usual Suspects in 1995. His 2009 concept classical-crossover album Excelsius, parts of which were adapted from a series of scores he wrote for a German TV documentary series in 2003, was absolutely stunning, and one can only hope that Straw Dogs is a critical is a commercial success, and that Groupé’s stock rises as a result. He’s too talented a composer to be laboring in anonymity like this.

Jerry Fielding’s Oscar-nominated score for the original 1971 Straw Dogs was a difficult, progressive, modernistic affair, as a great many of Fielding’s scores tended to be, but Groupé intentionally went in a completely different direction with his music for this film; not only does his score have virtually nothing in common with Fielding’s, it also intentionally eschews the clichéd Deep South sound of the Cajun dueling banjos-style music that one often expects to hear in films in this setting. Instead, Groupé’s musical inspiration seems to be the string-based suspense scores of Bernard Herrmann, especially the likes of Cape Fear and, to a smaller extent, Psycho. Multi-layered strings carry the weight of much of the score, aggressive and insistent in places, moody and sinister in others, and only occasionally rising to embrace anything warm or hopeful. Straw Dogs is not a warm or hopeful story.

The main theme is a big, Gothic four-note statement which plays at the beginning of the “Main Title”, and appears prominently throughout much of the rest of the score, most notably in cues such as “Dogs of Straw” and “Hard Feelings”, where it is heard in a dejected horn setting, and “Going Inward”, where it is accompanied by the merest harp glissando.

Much of the early album is dedicated to suspenseful scene setting; Groupé uses his string and brass sections (there is virtually no percussion and virtually no woodwind in the score) in much the same way as composers like Don Davis and Elliot Goldenthal do, layering them across the top of each other, creating shifting, mesmerizing textures and soundscapes that intentionally make the listener feel a little uneasy. The score is always tonal, and generally has a thematic core, but that overarching sense of dread is never far away. At times, Groupé’s score also reminds me of the work Howard Shore did on his more ominous films in the late 1980s and early 1990s, especially things like The Silence of the Lambs. Cues like “Cover Thy Neighbors Wife”, with its churning cello chords and muted brass parts, and “Where’s Flutey”, with its lonely trumpet sequence, evoke wondefully an oppressive sense of tension and menace, capturing the mood of the film perfectly.

Occasionally a note of hope does creep into the proceedings, through cues such as the major key “The Farm”, but these calmer interludes are short-lived. Elsewhere, cues like “Quarry”, the quite avant-garde “Flashbacks”, and the angry “The Uninvited” have a touch more urgency, and set up the music for the more action-oriented finale that make’s up the score’s fourth quarter. The guttural, tremulous brass triplets and moaning, wailing trombones in cues such as the aforementioned “The Uninvited” and “Dead Flutey” are quite superb. To counterbalance this, the merest hint of softer romance appears in “Janice Flirts” and “Janice Love Theme”, during which a hesitant bass flute takes center stage, playing an almost folksy melody.

The most Herrmannesque music starts to infiltrate the score in “Coach Heddon”, which is all slithery string writing and rhythmic brass ostinati, and gradually builds and builds, through the angry and volatile “Janice Dies”, the almost dance-like “Charlie’s Appeal”, and the relentless and urgent “Who’s In Charge”. By the time we reach cues such “Sheriff Burke”, “Man Up”, the outstanding Matrix-like “Not On My Watch”, and the thrilling and anarchic “Amy’s Revenge”, Groupé is almost in full-on horror mode, with a richer and more varied orchestral palette, increased tempi with action-music overtones, and a whole range of dangerous-sounding textures which sound quite superb. It’s almost as though all that nervous energy that has been building for the preceding 40 minutes is being loosed in a fury of pent-up anger and emotion.

Everything comes to a head in “Got ‘Em All”, in which Groupé finally allows a touch of desperate, dark heroism to creep into his music by way of a more expansive version of the main theme. It’s not exactly a happy ending, but it is an ending, and the manner in which both the film and score conclude – with defiant, stubborn victory tempered by terrible tragedy – is almost operatic in its construct. Here, the briefest flashes of the Groupé that wrote the soaring music of Excelsius comes peeking through, but still there is no real emotional catharsis to be found, even in the “End Credits”, which simply recapitulates the main themes of the score in a longer version, extended to almost six minutes. There are no victors here.

I have always felt that Larry Groupé had the compositional capability to have a major career in Hollywood’s upper echelons, if only someone would give him the chance to show what he could do – but this is a familiar story, and could apply to many composers too numerous to name. It’s sort of ironic that Groupé’s one regular collaborator, Rod Lurie, should be the one to finally give him that chance, and I truly hope that as a result of his work on Straw Dogs, his career will finally embark on the trajectory I always hoped it would. This score is a dark, difficult, challenging work, not easy to like, but very easy to admire in terms of its intelligence and adherence to its stylistic and tonal choices. Highly recommended.

Rating: ****

Buy the Straw Dogs soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (1:17)
  • Charlie Flirts (0:54)
  • Southern Daddies (2:05)
  • Covet Thy Neighbor’s Wife (1:37)
  • The Farm (1:47)
  • Quarry (1:27)
  • Where’s Flutey (1:42)
  • David Goes Hunting (1:28)
  • Dogs of Straw (2:29)
  • Flashbacks (1:11)
  • The Uninvited (2:00)
  • Hard Feelings (2:01)
  • Janice Flirts (1:03)
  • Dead Flutey (1:31)
  • Going Inward (1:07)
  • Coach Heddon (1:56)
  • Janice Love Theme (1:38)
  • Janice Dies (1:04)
  • Charlie’s Appeal (2:54)
  • Liason Dare (1:31)
  • Who’s In Charge? (2:00)
  • Sheriff Burke (3:15)
  • Man Up (2:31)
  • Not On My Watch (3:16)
  • Amy’s Revenge (1:29)
  • Got Em All (1:22)
  • End Credits (5:31)

Running Time: 52 minutes 43 seconds

Madison Gate Records (2011)

Music composed and conducted by Larry Groupé. Orchestrations by Larry Groupé and Frank Macchia. Recorded and mixed by Greg Townley. Edited by Steven A. Saltzman. Album produced by Larry Groupé.

  1. February 8, 2012 at 9:49 pm

    I relaly liked what you wrote. I have never seen the film, but after reading your blog, I want to see it.

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