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SKY PIRATES – Brian May

skypiratesTHROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Sky Pirates is an action-adventure film directed by Colin Eggleston, which has been described as ‘the Australian Raiders of the Lost Ark’. John Hargreaves stars as Lt. Dakota Harris, a Royal Air Force Pilot during World War II, who is entrusted by the Australian military with a mysterious object which apparently can be used to travel through time, and which they do not want to fall into the hands of the Nazis. Travelling with several companions, Harris starts on the journey to the United States, intending to the deliver the object to the Americans for safekeeping, but somewhere over the Pacific Ocean their plane is caught in a supernatural storm – apparently caused by the object – which transports them to a parallel dimension filled with the wreckage of military vehicles from numerous different wars. After escaping from this phantom zone, Harris shockingly finds himself being accused of treason by one of his comrades, General Savage (Max Phipps); with the help of a beautiful minister’s daughter, Melanie (Meredith Phillips), Harris must escape from military custody, and uncover the true secret of the object.

The score for Sky Pirates is by the late great Australian film composer Brian May, the writer of such lauded scores as Cloak & Dagger, the Chuck Norris vehicle Missing in Action 2: The Beginning, and most notably the first two Mad Max films. All of May’s scores were defiantly, almost stubbornly, rooted in old school orchestral scoring, and Sky Pirates is very much the same – it has the same wonderful sense of old-fashioned adventure that Williams brought to his Indiana Jones scores, with a rousing and heroic theme for the hero, a sinister motif for the bad guys, a swooning love theme, and plenty of action. The thematic content never comes close to rivaling anything Williams wrote – what could? – but May certainly manages to inject a fun, swashbuckling sense of adventure that permeates the entire score.

May’s score is built around three core themes, and one smaller motif, all of which weave around each other throughout the length of the work. The main theme is the theme for the central character, Dakota Harris, an upbeat and heroic march with plentiful brass fanfares, surging strings, and militaristic snare drum rhythms. The melody itself reminds me very much of the one Lee Holdridge wrote for The Beastmaster in 1982 and, curiously, also appears to have been something of an inspiration for Edward Shearmur’s 2004 masterpiece Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, sharing similar tonal qualities and chord progressions. It appears frequently throughout the score, both as a prominent anchor for an entire cue (“Main Title,” “Take Off,” “Harris Saves Melanie,” “The Great Plane Robbery”) or as a recurring leitmotif underneath the action music.

The first of the two secondary themes appears to represent the joy and breathtaking majesty of aviation and flying, and has a sense of freedom and openness which is very appealing. Broad, lush string writing typifies its appearances in cues such as “The Mission” and “To Easter Island,” while in “To Bora Bora” it is augmented by Polynesian tribal percussion and harp waves to give it a vivid South Seas flavor. The second of the two secondary themes represents the blossoming romance between Harris and Melanie; cues like “Melanie” and “Go to Sleep” showcase it strongly via swooning Golden Age strings, pretty woodwinds, and harp glissandi. The final theme is more of a motif, a dark and ominous brass idea that appears to represent the shadowy villain behind the plot, and which gradually insinuates itself into several cues as the score develops.

The action music is rich and plentiful, as heard in cues like “Mystic Force/The Crash,” “Sea of Lost Ships,” “Ya Gotta Trust Me,” and “Final Fighter Pass/Truck Chase,” among others. There is more than a hint of Jerry Goldsmith’s action stylistics in many of these sequences, with percussive piano lines, whooping string phrases, staccato brass, and clever contrapuntal writing, especially in the way the rhythmic ideas move from percussion to muted horns and back again. “Escape” features a superb setting of Harris’s theme as an action motif, underpinning it with flute accents, tinkling triangles, and harps, while it is simultaneously driven along by a fluid piano/string accelerando that adds a real sense of forward motion. Unexpectedly, the thrilling “Fighter Attack” re-imagines Harris’s theme in waltz time, bringing a curious old-fashioned classicism to what is otherwise an exciting ride.

Other cues tend to be moodier and more mysterious; after its initial thematic salvo, “Sea of Lost Ships” switches to eerie bassoon writing augmented by high string sustains, nervous high pianos, metallic chimes, and the first instance of the subtle choral accents that play a larger part in the score’s finale. Elsewhere, “Deserted Ship/Adrift” uses ghostly synths to give the cue an otherworldly feeling.

“Underwater To the Plane” introduces an idyllic, bass flute-and-harp variation on the main theme which is really lovely, with a distinctly John Barry-ish vibe of slightly jazzy seduction. This ushers in the film’s musical finale, comprising “Easter Island/Inner Secrets/The Sacred Tomb” and “He Who Disturbs the Sacred Moai Meets Death,” which bring Harris’s theme, Melanie’s theme, and the Villain theme into play at the same time, wraps them up in extended sequences of tension and suspense, and revisits the choral accents heard earlier in the score. During the finale the choral writing actually takes on a pseudo-religious quality, alluding to the supernatural origins of the maguffin at the center of the story. Everything is resolved by the time the “Closing Titles” roll, and May presents a medley of all his main themes in succession – a full throated performance of Harris’s theme, a statement of the Flying theme, a brief performance of the brass motif for the villains, and a lovely refrain of Melanie’s theme for solo violin augmented by tender harp waves, before returning to the main march for the grand finale.

I like Sky Pirates quite a lot, but it is very clearly a product of its time. In terms of its overall tone, I can certainly anticipate that younger listeners may find it to be a little too light and breezy, and as such it may suffer the same fate as something like Jerry Goldsmith’s King Solomon’s Mines, which often gets accused of being too light and not treating the subject matter seriously enough. There are also several unexpectedly abrupt emotional shifts which seem to be rather haphazard, and may come across a being a little ‘mickey-mousey’ to more sophisticated contemporary ears. Furthermore, I personally found the recording itself to be slightly muffled, and as a result the orchestra sounds more muted and smaller than it probably was, which in turn makes the score sound a little lightweight in places. It’s a shame, because May’s compositional ideas and creative orchestral colors are very admirable.

The score for Sky Pirates is still fairly rare; resources indicate that it has only ever been released once, on CD in 1989 by producer Philip Powers on the somewhat obscure Australian label One Mone Records, and prices for new copies via retailers like Amazon and eBay appear to be around the $200 mark at the time of writing (although used copies are much, much less). I certainly recommend it to anyone who has a soft spot for 1980s orchestral adventure scoring, especially those who enjoy the Indiana Jones series and can stand to hear a clearly inferior, but still enjoyable, homage from Down Under.

Buy the Sky Pirates soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Prologue/Main Title (5:01)
  • Take Off/The Mission (2:57)
  • Mystic Force/The Crash (5:21)
  • Sea of Lost Ships (2:32)
  • Deserted Ship/Adrift (2:22)
  • Melanie/Escape (4:40)
  • Harris Saves Melanie/Ya Gotta Trust Me (3:53)
  • The Great Plane Robbery/Fighter Attack (4:15)
  • Final Fighter Pass/Truck Chase (7:32)
  • Faulkner’s Bar (4:13)
  • Go To Sleep/To Bora Bora (2:37)
  • Ghost Busters (1:19)
  • Mystic Happening (2:15)
  • To Easter Island (1:20)
  • Underwater To the Plane (3:42)
  • Easter Island/Inner Secrets/The Sacred Tomb (7:38)
  • He Who Disturbs the Sacred Moai Meets Death (2:30)
  • Closing Titles (3:29)

Running Time: 67 minutes 36 seconds

One Mone Records 1M1CD-1002 (1986/1989)

Music composed and conducted by Brian May. Orchestrations by Brian May. Recorded and mixed by Robin Gray. Score produced by Brian May. Album produced by Philip Powers.

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