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FREE BIRDS – Dominic Lewis

November 8, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

freebirdsOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

There aren’t many films about Thanksgiving, that most peculiar of American holidays where families gather together to show how thankful they are for everything they have in life by eating enormous meals and watching American football on TV. For those who don’t know, the holiday originated with the original pilgrims who emigrated to the continent from Europe, and who were so inadequately prepared for life on a new continent that they almost starved to death in their first winter, until they were saved by the local natives, who basically showed them how to hunt and plant crops and not die. The pilgrims were so thankful that they almost immediately began a 200-year systematic eradication of Native American life and culture, but that’s another matter entirely; nowadays, the holiday is most closely associated with mass consumption of the humble turkey, which were plentiful during pilgrim times. Free Birds is most likely the first film to feature a cast of anthropomorphic animated turkeys, but you can’t have a Thanksgiving film without those tasty tryptophan-enhanced morsels, and so here we are…

The unexpectedly complicated plot of Free Birds involves an outcast fowl named Reggie (Owen Wilson) who, after being ceremonially pardoned by the President and therefore spared his fate on a dinner plate, somehow finds himself traveling back in time to colonial era North America, where he intends to alter history by disrupting the first Thanksgiving meal and taking turkey off the menu forever. The film, which also features the voices of Woody Harrelson, Amy Poehler, Colm Meaney and George Takei, is directed by Jimmy Hayward (the director of Horton Hears a Who) and has a score by Dominic Lewis.

English-born Lewis is a graduate of Royal Academy of Music, and since moving the United States has spent much of his time working with John Powell and Henry Jackman, writing additional music for films such as Rio, Kung Fu Panda 2, Puss in Boots and Wreck-It Ralph; Free Birds is his first large project as lead composer, but his pedigree is clearly apparent in this music, which shows all the hallmarks of a confident, seasoned veteran, not a nervous newcomer. His associations with Powell and Jackman have clearly influenced his style of writing, because the score is a joyous, fully orchestral-and-choral delight, much like those other animated scores he worked on earlier in his career. The orchestrations are rich and vivid, the pacing is crisp and swift, and there are several moments of genuine beauty that make you forget the film is about animated talking turkeys.

Bouncy, upbeat comedy music dominates much of the score’s first half. Cues such as “All the Trimmings” and “Turkatory” jump from genre to genre in a way that comes a little close to mickey-mousing, managing to work everything from banjos and fiddles to into the mix, but the good humor and dazzling orchestrations make up for the scatterbrained changed of musical direction; this style is picked up later by the frenzied fun of “Tryptophan Traps” and “Jive Turkey”, 90 seconds of hilarious musical chaos. “El Solo Pavo” somehow manages to mix traditional Mexican Mariachi music with 80s-era British ska and two tone rhythms a la Madness – all hooting saxophones and unusually-timed beats – in a combination which shouldn’t work, but does.

There is a recurring main theme – a noble 6-note motif that appears in numerous different guises throughout the score – but it is constantly buried underneath layer upon layer of other instruments, and is altered so frequently that it doesn’t leave quite as much of an impact as it otherwise might. Doing this both a blessing and a curse; on the one hand, it shows a composer’s talent in the way that he can adapt and mold his theme in multiple styles and tempos throughout the score, but on the other hand its lack of straightforward obviousness might cause some less-observant listeners to deny its existence entirely. Nevertheless, its performances during the middle section of “Poultry Pardon”, towards the end of “Shell Shocked”, in “Eggs-istential Crisis”, in “The Great Turkey”, and as an action motif in “Hold On To Your Giblets” are amongst the score’s thematic highlights.

There’s quite a bit of exciting action and tension music throughout the score’s middle section too, notably “Turknapped”, the anticipatory “Shell Shocked”, the fabulous “Cranberry Saucer” (which has some cool, sci-fi electronic effects), and the fast-paced and flamboyant pair “Killing Two Birds with One Standish” and “Fly or Get Stuffed”. The best, however, is saved for the quartet of comprising “The Great Egg-Scape”, “Hold On To Your Giblets” the amazing “Fowl Play” and the conclusive “Iratus Aves”, which leap around the orchestra with wild abandon; the interplay between strings and riotous woodwinds in these cues is especially notable, as is the generally rapid pacing and energetic performance of the orchestra itself. Parts of these cues remind me of the big action finale of that other animated feathery film, George Fenton’s Valiant, from a few years ago, as well as something Michael Giacchino might write, and that is entirely meant to be a compliment.

The real highlights for me, however, come during the more romantic, uplifting, beautiful pieces; “School of Flock” has a gorgeous string melody which, when accompanied by an angelic choir and softly shimmering chimes, absolutely soars. Later, “Laid to Rest”, the first part of “Cold Turkey”” have an equally poignant emotive quality that is absolutely beautiful, and totally unexpected for a film like this.

It’s also worth mentioning the hilarious Giacchino-esque cue titles, which stuff more puns and crack as more jokes about turkeys, eggs and stuffing into the hour of music than one could think possible.

Free Birds is one of the most pleasant unexpected surprises of 2013. While those who knew about Dominic Lewis’s recent composing history might have anticipated he would write something in this style for his debut film, those with no knowledge of who he is might have overlooked this as just another silly animated comedy score. My advice to those people is: don’t be so quick to judge. Anyone who has enjoyed the animated efforts of John Powell and Henry Jackman will find Free Birds to be of equal quality, and that’s no yolk.

Buy the Free Birds soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Up Around the Bend (written by John Fogerty, performed by Social Distortion) (3:22)
  • Starry Side Up (0:42)
  • All the Trimmings (0:44)
  • Turkatory (2:50)
  • Poultry Pardon (2:18)
  • El Solo Pavo (1:56)
  • Turknapped (1:22)
  • Shell Shocked (2:30)
  • Secret Military Baster (1:56)
  • Cranberry Saucer (4:16)
  • Eggs-istential Crisis (0:30)
  • Killing Two Birds with One Standish (0:52)
  • Fly or Get Stuffed (1:51)
  • School of Flock (2:38)
  • Roast This! (1:00)
  • Tryptophan Traps (0:31)
  • Jive Turkey (1:07)
  • Lazy Eye View (1:19)
  • Birds of a Feather (1:10)
  • Great Egg-scape (2:23)
  • Hold on to Your Giblets (4:56)
  • The Right Stuffing (0:39)
  • Fowl Play (5:23)
  • Laid to Rest (3:01)
  • Cold Turkey (3:54)
  • The Great Turkey (1:20)
  • Iratus Aves (3:48)
  • Ocellata Turkeys (3:19)
  • Back in Time (written by Marshall Manning, performed by Mattybraps) (3:06)

Running Time 65 minutes 03 seconds

Relativity Music Group (2013)

Music composed and conducted by Dominic Lewis. Orchestrations by Stephen Coleman, Jonathan Sacks and Tommy Laurence. Recorded and mixed by Nick Wollage. Edited by Dave Metzner. Album produced by Dominic Lewis.

  1. Craig Richard Lysy
    November 9, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    I just love this score for both the sentimentality and action pieces. We need to hear more from this guy.

    Nice review!

  2. ilovecartoons9120
    August 13, 2014 at 4:47 pm

    The movie itself maybe pretty bad (as many people I know would say), but the music score is actually quite the opposite. And it is one of the things that makes the movie more of a mixed bag for me.

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