HOWARD THE DUCK – John Barry
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Howard the Duck was one of the most critically lambasted films of 1986, and probably represents the low point of George Lucas’s entire career as a filmmaker. The film was adapted from a cult comic book by Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik by screenwriters Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, and was originally intended to be an animated film, but became live-action because of a contractual obligation, a decision which rendered much of the original comic book’s surrealist imagery difficult to convey. Despite being about a walking, talking, anthropomorphic duck, the comic book was essentially a satire on the human condition; desperate to appeal to a larger audience, Huyck and Katz stripped away most of Gerber’s scathing social commentary and adult story elements, and reduced it to an absurdist action-buddy-comedy – as such, it failed to satisfy fans of the original comic, nor did it have any real crossover appeal with the general public, and unsurprisingly it failed miserably at the box office.
The story follows Howard, a regular joe who lives on Duckworld, a planet on the other side of the galaxy which is basically identical to Earth, except that it is populated by highly evolved mallards rather than highly evolved monkeys. One day, while relaxing at home, Howard is somehow sucked through an extra-dimensional wormhole and deposited on Earth in Cleveland, Ohio circa 1986. He soon makes friends with a young singer named Beverly Switzler (Lea Thompson), somehow becomes manager of her band Cherry Bomb, and even falls in love with her – DESPITE BEING A DUCK – but before long he starts to feel homesick, and begins desperately searching for a way to get back to Duckworld. Eventually Howard accepts the help of amateur inventor Phil Blumburtt (Tim Robbins), who thinks he knows how to re-open the wormhole, but instead the two of them inadvertently cause a rift in time and space which allows a monster to possess the body of fellow scientist Walter Jenning (Jeffrey Jones) and threaten to destroy the universe. Sounds like an average day in Cleveland to me.
Quite how John Barry got involved in all this malarkey is unclear. He had never scored a film for Lucasfilm before, he was not involved in any of director Willard Huyck’s earlier films, and his previous involvement with sci-fi films was limited to Starcrash in 1978 and The Black Hole in 1979 – although, of course, he did win an Oscar for Out of Africa in 1985, and was thusly in great demand. Whatever the circumstances were, Barry nevertheless found himself scoring this fowl movie, his last effort in the sci-fi genre, and he provided it with a typically classy and defiantly Barryesque score that far outstrips the quality of the film it accompanies. The soundtrack album for the film, which came out on MCA Records shortly after the movie, was only ever released on vinyl LP, and Barry’s portion of it is short, comprising just six score cues running for just under 20 minutes in length.
Barry’s score opens with “Lullaby of Duckland,” an unexpectedly moody piece of sexy jazz, with a lonesome trumpet refrain, tinkled ivories, and brushed snares, which establishes Howard as a duck of the world – at least while he’s still on his world. The jazz stylistics Barry employs here are reminiscent of his work on scores like Body Heat and Hammett, as well as the rejected score he would write for Playing By Heart in 1998, and the whole thing is wonderfully sleazy film noir pastiche.
“Journey to Earth” is the first of the score’s action cues; after a brief reprise of Howard’s jazz theme, it quickly changes tack and adopts the staccato snare-and-xylophone tension rhythms that typified much of Barry’s action music of the period. The trumpet triplets and swirling, mysterious string writing is a wonderful combination of The Black Hole and the space-bound James Bond film Moonraker, and the upbeat brass fanfares towards the end of the cue add a little touch of heroism and panache. However, the pacing of the writing remains as stately as Barry’s action music always was, and for some it will come across as more stodgy than exciting.
“You’re the Duckiest” introduces the romance theme for Howard and Beverly, and is a gorgeous swooning melody for woodwinds, strings, and a sultry saxophone, ripped right from the pages of the patented John Barry Love Theme playbook. Quite how Barry was inspired to write this sublime melody as a depiction of the relationship between a 25-year old human girl and a cigar-chomping aquatic bird is anyone’s guess, but fans of scores like The Scarlet Letter and Somewhere in Time will be delighted with the results.
“Ultralight Flight” returns to the action writing, underscoring a set piece where Howard and Phil steal a small plane and attempt to escape from the authorities in it. Again, Barry pits contrapuntal string and brass phrases against deliberate timpani rhythms and snare/xylophone tattoos, which eventually emerge into a restatement of Howard’s heroic theme from the end of “Journey to Earth”. Some of the passages later in the cue were clearly inspired by the ‘flying’ sequences from more adventurous scores like High Road to China, and also appear to have been the inspiration for some of the action sequences from Dances With Wolves, which clearly contains very similar brass and percussion combination writing; this fact is as surprising as it is hilarious, considering that he won an Oscar for that score. It’s worth noting here that some of the music Barry wrote, including the music for this scene, was replaced in the final cut of the movie with music written by composers Sylvester Levay and Dennis Dreith. None of Levay or Dreith’s synth-heavy additional music has ever been released.
“Beddy-Bye for Howard” is a slow, sentimental, dreamy-sounding piece for hypnotic see-sawing strings and fluffy woodwind textures, combined with a further statement of Howard’s jazz theme, which adds a pleasing sense of thematic consistency to the score as a whole.
The grand finale, “Dark Overlord,” does not contain the apocalyptic music one would expect from a sequence wherein an alien from a parallel dimension tries to destroy the known universe, but instead returns to the familiar Barry action stylistics from earlier in the score, albeit with slightly darker instrumental hues. Much of the cue is based around a variation on the circular string writing from The Black Hole, combined with a bed of pulsing brass chords, which occasionally expand into ominous horn fanfares, a leitmotif for the Overlord himself. More insistent timpani rhythms give the second half of the cue an urgency, flourishes of Howard’s heroic theme puts him in prime position to save the day, and the performance of Beverly and Howard’s love theme ensures we know that she has been rescued from the monsters. As a trivia note, there is a brief section beginning at the 3:30 mark that clearly introduces the throbbing 2-note string idea that would later go on to form a major part of his score for Swept from the Sea in 1997.
The rest of the album is given over to a handful of songs written by Thomas Dolby and Allee Wills, three of which – “Hunger City,” “Howard the Duck,” and “It Don’t Come Cheap” – are performed on-screen by Cherry Bomb, the fictional band for which Lea Thompson’s character Beverly Switzler is lead singer. The songs are all fine, fairly light rock/pop fluff typical of the era, but I still have some trouble accepting the sweet and likeable Thompson as a rocker with red hair and ripped tights, performing inside a cage inside a sweaty nightclub while being pelted with beer by the crowd.
If you’re a fan of John Barry, then Howard the Duck will certainly have something to offer to you, although it could easily be argued that the basic elements of the score – the jazz, the love theme, the action – have all been done elsewhere on other scores, and have been done better. It’s certainly true that Barry didn’t really stretch himself at all to capture the essence of the film; there are no electronics, and nothing particularly abstract or overtly horrific to depict the dark overlord from another dimension, but that was never really John Barry’s approach to these things anyway, so if you’re looking for that sort of innovation you’ll be disappointed. Having said that, Howard the Duck is clearly a prime candidate for a La-La-Land, Varese Sarabande, or Intrada expanded edition, at which time some of the score’s hidden depths may be revealed – assuming the original master tapes still exist somewhere in Universal or Lucasfilm’s vaults.
Buy the Howard the Duck soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Hunger City (written by Thomas Dolby and Allee Wills, performed by Dolby’s Cube featuring Cherry Bomb) (4:12)
- Howard the Duck (written by Thomas Dolby, Allee Wills and George Clinton, performed by Dolby’s Cube featuring Cherry Bomb) (3:55)
- Don’t Turn Away (written by Thomas Dolby and Allee Wills, performed by Thomas Dolby) (5:05)
- It Don’t Come Cheap (written by Thomas Dolby and Allee Wills, performed by Dolby’s Cube featuring Cherry Bomb) (4:46)
- I’m On My Way (written by Thomas Dolby and Allee Wills, performed by Thomas Dolby) (2:55)
- Lullaby of Duckland (2:28)
- Journey to Earth (2:42)
- You’re the Duckiest (2:09)
- Ultralight Flight (2:58)
- Beddy-Bye for Howard (2:46)
- Dark Overlord (5:30)
Running Time: 37 minutes 26 seconds
MCA Records MCA-6173 (1986)
Music composed and conducted by John Barry. Recorded and mixed by Dan Wallin. Edited by Christopher Brooks. Score produced by John Barry. Album produced by John Barry, Thomas Dolby and Clif Brigden.