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THE RUM DIARY – Christopher Young

November 2, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Rum Diary doesn’t quite know what kind of film it wants to be. On the one hand it’s another wry look at life through the alcohol-soaked and frequently hilarious lens of the late Gonzo author Hunter S. Thompson, on whose novel this film is based, and on whom the lead character Paul Kemp is clearly modeled. On the other hand, it’s a comparatively serious examination of the American suppression of native culture of Puerto Rico in the 1950s, specifically the way in which rich industrialists manipulate the system and steal from the local landowners in order to line their pockets. Then again, it’s a romance, in which the Kemp character falls in lust with the beautiful young wife of a shady entrepreneur. But, most of all, it’s a love letter to Puerto Rico itself – the unspoiled beaches, the sunny climes, the generous people, and the seemingly unlimited supply of alcohol that keep the wheels of the island greased.

The film stars Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Rispoli, Amber Heard, and a hilarious Giovanni Ribisi, and is directed by Bruce Robinson, making his return to the cinema 19 years after his last feature Jennifer Eight, and a full 24 years since his acclaimed debut, Withnail & I. The Jennifer Eight connection also allowed Robinson to reunite with his composer on that film, Christopher Young, although the two scores could not be more different: whereas Jennifer Eight was all about icy sensuality and tension, The Rum Diary is a light, breezy, upbeat jazz score which allows Young to return to a genre which he clearly loves, but is only occasionally allowed to explore. Young has a great jazz pedigree, through scores like Rounders, The Big Kahuna, Bandits and Wonder Boys, but the score The Rum Diary most resembles is actually The Man Who Knew Too Little, albeit without the overt slapstick overtones of that excellent 1997 score.

Instead, Young channels composers like John Barry, Henry Mancini, Les Baxter and Neal Hefti, infusing the music with a distinct Caribbean lilt that is hugely enjoyable, if somewhat lightweight when compared to his other, more serious works. After a trip down amnesia lane courtesy of Dean Martin’s “Volare”, Young opens with the sunny, effortlessly charming opening cue, “Rum Diary”, a wonderfully laid back combo of guitars, a sultry alto saxophone, a romantic string wash, and a snappy rhythm section, which immediately transports the listener to a world filled with sun, sand, palm trees, a deep rich ocean, and beautiful people. It’s a delicious cocktail of blues, fusion, funk, scat, and soft Brazilian samba stylings, and Young drinks from the same glass regularly, in later cues such as tremendous “My Car the Cockroach”, the marimba-drenched “Neon Popsicles”, and the rumba-inspired “Hefti-Tefti”.

Young continually revisits this style and instrumental combo throughout the score, although he keeps changing his lead instruments, adding in a guest performers, or changing tempos and beats to convey changing moods. There are Hammond organs, bongos and Bluesy scat-style vocals in “Suckfish and Snake”; florid Spanish-style guitars and cool muted trumpets in “Mother of Balls”; more groovy saxophones and flashy muted trumpets in the Louis Armstrong-style “Pink Jelly Remains”; a marvelously expressive piano element in the middle of “Rockin’ on Rooster”; breathy scat whispers, finger-snaps and wailing slide guitars in “Puerto Rican Piss-Off”; bluesy harmonicas in “Whacking a Salesman”; country-flavored rock and roll in “Desperate Drunks and Postcard Loons”, and much more besides. Young even contributes his own gravel-voiced vocals to “Black Note Blues”, growling about being born in the city down by Red Bank way, proving that had he not been a composer Young could have been a killer career as a 1950s crooner.

Things simmer down slightly in the more leisurely “Flagged Me Smiling”, and there is some more conventionally romantic material that appears via the recurring motif for “Chenault”, which overlays a dreamy piano line with a bass flute theme and soft brushed snares, idealizing the object of Kemp’s sexual urges into a gauzy musical fantasy. The motif re-occurs re-orchestrated in cues such as the lovely “Sweat Bee”, but does not really overwhelm the proceedings in conventional cheese. At the other end of the scale “The Biggest Crook in New Jersey” features an impressionistic, chaotic, free jazz-inspired saxophone performance alongside dissonant percussion rhythms, electric guitar pulses, and a much darker aspect, in one of the score’s more serious moments.

If that were not enough, Johnny Depp himself performs the piano part on the instrumental version of Young’s “Mermaid Song”, duets with guitarist JJ Holliday on “Kemp in the Village”, and his bluegrass-flavored JD Band performs the “What About El Monstruo?” and “Roll Out the Roosters” cues, while punk rock poet and 1970s legend Patti Smith sings the vocal version of “The Mermaid Song” that closes the album.

The Rum Diary is Christopher Young having fun; he’s back in his comfort zone, coming up with crazily creative cue titles, slipping in names of favorite composers, jamming with his friends and returning his roots. People forget that Young was a jazz drummer at North Texas State University before he became a composer, and was hugely influenced by the large jazz bands of the 50s and 60s throughout his youth. Young himself says that “most of the tracks on the CD were presented as thematic possibilities for the film” and that the film “gave me a chance to pour out music that has been inside of me all these years.”

Fans of smooth jazz, especially that written by aforementioned composers like Mancini, Hefti and Baxter, might find The Rum Diary something of a curio, and those who cannot tolerate non-orchestral scores or anything with a sly sense of humor or an unorthodox instrumental complement will not have a clue what’s going on. Personally, I found The Rum Diary to be a superbly eclectic, creative and original score that shows a totally different – and much welcome – side of Christopher Young’s musical personality. It’s one of the best comedy scores of the year.

Rating: ****

Buy the Rum Diary soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Volare (Nel Blu Di Pinto Di Blu) (performed by Dean Martin) (2:59)
  • Rum Diary (2:41)
  • Suckfish and Snake (2:32)
  • Mother of Balls (3:59)
  • Chenault (2:44)
  • Flagged Me Smiling (2:55)
  • Pink Jelly Remains (2:41)
  • Rockin’ on Rooster (With My Dead Monkey’s Mother) (3:05)
  • Sweat Bee (2:19)
  • Cock-of-the-Rock (3:54)
  • Black Note Blues (3:56)
  • My Car the Cockroach (3:50)
  • Neon Popsicles (2:30)
  • Hefti-Tefti (2:42)
  • He Must Be a Sadist (3:37)
  • Puerto Rican Piss-Off (3:22)
  • Whacking a Salesman (2:32)
  • The Biggest Crook in New Jersey (5:30)
  • Desperate Drunks and Postcard Loons (3:04)
  • The Mermaid Song (Instrumental) (performed by Johnny Depp) (1:34)
  • What About El Monstruo? (performed by JD Band) (2:38)
  • Roll Out the Roosters (performed by JD Band) (1:58)
  • Kemp in the Village (performed by Johnny Depp and JJ Holiday) (1:56)
  • The Mermaid Song (performed by Patti Smith) (2:09)

Running Time: 71 minutes 18 seconds

Lakeshore Records LKS-342432 (2011)

Music composed by Christopher Young. Conducted by Brandon K. Verrett. Orchestrations by Peter Bateman, Gary Liu, Joohyun Park and Brandon K. Verrett. Additional music and featured musical performances by Michael Barsimanto, Ugo Derouard, Ryan Franks, Johnny Hawthorn, JJ Holiday, Joohyun Park, Joe Sublett, Bruce Witkin and Jimmie Wood. Recorded and mixed by Max Blomgren and Andrew Spence. Edited by Thomas Milano and Paul Rabjohns. Album produced by Christopher Young.

  1. November 3, 2011 at 5:59 am

    Did you notice the shout-out to Neal Hefti’s 60s Batman theme in the appropriately titled “Hefti-Tefti”? Starting at 1:10, the saxophone figures are very similar to those infamous “bang!” “smack!” “pow!” brass bursts. Made me snicker when I heard it, very clever little reference from Chris Young.

    Otherwise I can definitely hear that a lot of fun was had in the creation of this score, but it isn’t really my genre so I can’t imagine myself returning to it often and would probably give it three stars.

    Oh, and Johnny Depp starring in a film about rum? Who’da thunk it? 😀

  2. November 3, 2011 at 10:52 am

    Boasts a highly impressive cast and contains some great touches, but it’s too long by a half hour and meanders severely in its second half. Nice review. Check out my review when you get the chance.

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