AMERIKA – Basil Poledouris
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
In the spring of 1987 viewers of the network TV channel ABC were treated to a 6-part mini-series imagining a horrific alternate reality for the United States where the country has been insidiously, but bloodlessly, overtaken by the Soviet Union. Amerika posits the country as being essentially a puppet state of Moscow, with the President and Congress mere figureheads for the Soviet regime; the population is kept under control by a UN peacekeeping force called the UNSSU, which is supposed to be multi-national but is in reality a Russian Communist military arm, which uses fear and intimidation tactics to suppress opposition. From out of this nightmare three heroes emerge: former politician Devin Mitford (Kris Kristofferson), who is released back into society after spending years in a labor camp for treason; administrator Peter Bradford (Robert Urich), who pretends to collaborate with the Soviets while working to bring down the regime from within; and Colonel Andrei Denisov (Sam Neill), a KGB agent becoming more and more disillusioned with his country’s politics. The series, which was written and directed by Donald Wrye, has been in the news of late after more than 20 years of relative obscurity, mainly due to the accusations of Russian influence in Donald Trump’s successful run for US President in 2016… this fiction couldn’t be happening in reality, could it?
The score for Amerika was by composer Basil Poledouris, who had scored director Wrye’s films Fire on the Mountain in 1981 and The House of God in 1984. Having spent most of his career to that point writing scores for feature films – including popular successes such as Big Wednesday, The Blue Lagoon, Conan the Barbarian, and Red Dawn – Amerika was Poledouris’s first experience writing for a television mini-series, and he responded by writing eight hours of music, the equivalent of four feature films, performed in his usual muscular style by the Hollywood Symphony Orchestra. However, whereas scores like Red Dawn, which covered similar geo-political ground, were full of guns-blazing flag-waving patriotism, Amerika’s score is more subtle and nuanced than that. Action music is kept to a bare minimum but, interestingly, so is anything that is overtly stereotypically Russian in its keys and chord progressions. Instead, Poledouris’s score is made up mostly of Americana pieces, some of which are warm and welcoming and nostalgic, but which also feels a little resigned, a little defeated, speaking to the sense of depression and hopelessness felt by the country in the face of its Soviet oppressors.
The one exception is the main title theme – “Amerika” – a stirring and bold recurring melody written in Poledouris’s inimitable style, albeit with hints of Aaron Copland, with a staccato brass fanfare that leads into a sequence for more poignant, sweeping strings and warm contrapuntal horn writing. After its show-stopping performance in the opening cue, the theme tends to be somewhat more reserved in the score proper. Its re-statements range from cues such as “Supper,” where the theme is deconstructed and re-arranged for mournful strings to give it feeling of a downtrodden compliance, to the bitterly beautiful piano and string variation in “Omaha Morning/Helmut Intervenes,” to “Devin’s Return” and “Ancestors’ Strength,” which swell with subdued optimism, and the possibility of a better life.
However, even in cues where this excellent theme is not present, Poledouris’s score shines. Cues involving “Alethea” tend to involve beautifully textured woodwind writing, with layered flutes and oboes, although “Humiliation of Alethea” does become somewhat distressing and aggressive as it develops. Pieces such as “UNSSU – United Nations Special Security Unit,” “Ghost/Indoctrination,” and “Milford Morning” increase the electronic and militaristic quotient, with the former featuring one of the score’s only concessions to Red Army stylistics, with martial brass flourishes and snare drum riffs. The orchestra-only reprise of the UNSSU motif in “The Dance Begins,” without the electronic pulses, is ominous and forthright, and ends with a battery of thunderous timpani.
“Ride to Brothel/Helmut and Alethea” is an unexpectedly gorgeous duet for violin and piano that becomes a pretty, delicate waltz-like piece, while elsewhere there is some utterly sumptuous cello writing, performed by Steve Erdody and Ron Leonard, in cues such as “Squatters,” the searing neo-classical “Dieter’s View,” “The Homeless’s March,” and the vivid, desperate-sounding “Burial”. People have often praised Basil Poledouris for his powerful, muscular action themes and rousing militaristic fanfares, but listening to these cues really emphasize what a gifted melody writer he was, and how much emotion he could wring out of the simplest instrumental combinations.
The final few cues on the album present the Amerika theme with subtle variations that underpin the dark, bitter ending to the series, but imbue it with a feint sense of hope for the future. “Andrei’s View” presents an inverted version of the Amerika theme, laden with tragedy and pathos, with more of that especially strong cello writing. “We’re All Prisoners Now” features a warm variation on the main theme which is slightly upbeat, defiant, and builds to a bold finale of overlapping heraldic brass. The conclusive “The Meaning” begins with sentimental oboe textures and nostalgic harmonies, until the main theme slowly emerges and takes over the cue, building to a majestic finish.
For more than 15 years the score for Amerika was one of Poledouris’s most sought-after titles, having never been released as an album at the time the series aired, and having only been available as a short suite on a re-recording release called Highlander: The Best of Fantasy, and via various bootlegs. This oversight was rectified in 2004 thanks to Belgian label Prometheus Records and producers Luc Van de Ven, Ford A. Thaxton, and Christopher Landry, who rescued the score from oblivion. Although the score does suffer from a few minor sonic issues – the result of inferior 1987 sound recording and archiving technology – the album is nevertheless an important landmark release in Basil Poledouris’s filmography, and is an essential addition for anyone who felt the pull of the composer’s most famous bombastic works and wants to explore further into the more nuanced regions of his excellent musical legacy.
Buy the Amerika soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Main Title – Amerika (2:18)
- Alethea (1:08)
- Supper (5:42)
- UNSSU – United Nations Special Security Unit (1:38)
- Red Tide Pimple (1:01)
- Ghost & Indoctrination (1:47)
- Humiliation of Alethea (1:56)
- Ride to Brothel/Helmut and Alethea (2:12)
- Devin’s Return (5:09)
- All Prisoners (2:27)
- Squatters [Homeless] (1:51)
- Milford Morning (2:04)
- Ancestors’ Strength (4:20)
- Omaha Morning/Helmut Intervenes (2:39)
- The Dance Begins (2:34)
- Dieter’s View (3:26)
- I’m An American (3:27)
- The Homeless’ March (4:38)
- Burial (3:47)
- Ceremony Montage (2:53)
- Train to Vladivostock (4:23)
- Terrorists Arrive/Capitol Means (1:53)
- Andrei’s View (3:57)
- We’re All Prisoners Now (2:38)
- The Meaning (5:16)
Running Time: 75 minutes 29 seconds
Prometheus Records PCR-519 (1987/2004)
Music composed and conducted by Basil Poledouris. Orchestrations by Greig McRitchie, Jack Smalley and Scott Smalley. Recorded and mixed by Dan Wallin. Edited by Tom Villano. Score produced byBasil Poledouris. Album produced byLuc Van de Ven, Ford A. Thaxton, Basil Poledouris and Christopher Landry.