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THE RIVER – John Williams

January 22, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The River is a contemporary drama film directed by Mark Rydell, starring Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek as Tom and Mae Garvey, a married couple trying to make ends meet on their farm in rural Tennessee. Over the course of several years, Tom and his family battle desperately to save and hold on to their home, despite the threats they face when a bank threatens to repossess their farm, when severe storms threaten to make the nearby river burst its banks and ruin their crops, and when a ruthless hydroelectric developer (played by Scott Glenn) threatens to cut off their power supply for his own ends. The film was a moderate critical success when it opened in cinemas in December 1984, and picked up four Academy Award nominations, with nods for Spacek as Best Actress, cinematography, sound, and John Williams’s folksy original score. Williams wrote The River at a time when he was still regularly working with multiple directors, and this was the last of his five collaborations with director Rydell, which previously encompassed similarly Americana-heavy films such as The Reivers, The Cowboys, The Long Goodbye, and Cinderella Liberty.

To match the homespun down-to-earthness of the film, Williams responded with a score which is similarly inspired by the simple folks who inhabit much of America’s rural heartland. Written for a full orchestra with highlighted solo performances for Jim Walker’s flute, Warren Luening’s trumpet and Tommy Tedesco’s guitar, Williams wrote four distinct themes for the film, each representing a different aspect of the Garvey family’s life, which weave in and out of each cue, with different instrumental leads and contrapuntal ideas. The four themes are presented consecutively in the album’s opening overture, “The River,” beginning with the Garvey family theme, a hopeful and upbeat motif for effervescent strings; this quickly segues into a more wholesome theme representing the idyll of rural Tennessee, heard initially on piano and guitar, before growing to include a larger string section and a modern percussion beat. The third theme, a jazzy, bluesy theme for trumpets, represents the relationship between Tom and Mae specifically; the final theme is a more abstract piece for impressionistic and jazz-inflected flutes, which seems to represent the intangible threats hanging over the Garveys: the weather, the government, and their own emotions.

As the score progresses, each subsequent cue performs one or more of these themes in different settings, giving the score a real sense of character, and of a composer who understands the dramatic ideas driving the movie. Both “Growing Up” and “The Pony Ride” revisit the Tennessee theme with guitar-led intimacy and lovely pastoral flute accompaniments, mirroring the country-style ideas from scores like The Reivers, and acting as a precursor to the similarly expressive music he would write 15 years later for Stepmom.

The “Love Theme from The River” contains extended performances of both the Love theme and the Environment theme; Warren Luening’s trumpet performances in these cues, while certainly accomplished technically, conjure up for me some perhaps unintended echoes of urban malaise – Jerry Goldsmith’s Chinatown, or Bernard Herrmann’s Taxi Driver – which give me a slight emotional disconnect from what Williams may have been trying to convey. However, the vibrato-rich strings in the piece’s second half have more than an echo of classic Hollywood romance, and go some way to redressing the balance by making the relationship between Tom and Mae seem strong enough to withstand whatever problems life may throw at it.

Darker versions of both the Tennessee theme and the Environment theme are heard in “Rain Clouds Gather,” which uses subtle electronics to add a sense of trepidation to the cue. Things alter slightly with the score’s most florid statement of the Garvey family theme in the first part of “From Farm to Factory,” which has a similar sense of verve and buoyancy as the seagoing adventure work in scores like Jaws 2. However, things become darker again quickly in the cue’s second half; the treacherous-sounding variation of the Family theme, underpinned by stark piano chords, is a perfect example of how a theme can be turned on its head completely simply by changing the key and the orchestrations.

Other cues of note include “The Ancestral Home,” another warm and defiantly optimistic take on the classic Americana sound which falls firmly within the realm of the composer’s soaring sound of the period; the much more dissonant “Tractor Scene”; and the conclusive pair, “A Family Meeting” and “Young Friends Farewell,” both of which take a final spin around the score’s main themes, illustrating yet again what a master Williams is at writing different themes which are distinct enough to be clearly identifiable, yet so ingrained into the fabric of the work as a whole that he can jump between them effortlessly, within the same cue, without suffering any jarring tonal shifts or awkward segues.

The River was written at the tail end of what I consider to be the most fruitful creative period of any composer in the history of cinema – 1976 through 1984 – and as such falls within the same group of scores as all his most-loved greats. However, much like scores such as The Fury and Dracula, The River tends to get overlooked when commentators talk about Williams’s output during the period. Clearly, something like The River is never going to have the crowd-pleasing popularity of a score like Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark or Superman – it’s much too subtle and low-key and rooted in folksy Americana for that – but there is still plenty to admire and enjoy, especially for those who appreciate Williams when he’s not trying to knock you out of your seat with a stirring march. The River was released on CD by Varèse Sarabande in 1991, but the score is somewhat scarce and quite expensive these days – copies are going for between $30 and $40 on Amazon – but I still recommend it to Williams fans as a perfect example of his more personal, unassuming side.

Buy the River soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The River (4:30)
  • Growing Up (2:53)
  • The Pony Ride (3:16)
  • Love Theme from The River (4:54)
  • The Ancestral Home (4:31)
  • Rain Clouds Gather (3:07)
  • From Farm to Factory (2:44)
  • Back From Town (3:40)
  • Tractor Scene (2:18)
  • A Family Meeting (2:39)
  • Young Friends Farewell (2:39)

Running Time: 37 minutes 11 seconds

Varèse Sarabande VSD-5298 (1984/1991)

Music composed and conducted by John Williams. Orchestrations by Herbert W. Spencer. Featured musical soloists Jim Walker, Warren Leuning and Tommy Tedesco. Recorded and mixed by Dan Wallin. Edited by Ken Wannberg. Score produced by John Williams. Album produced by Robert Townson.

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