ANGEL HEART – Trevor Jones
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Angel Heart is a neo-noir mystery-thriller with elements of psychological horror, written and directed by Alan Parker, based on the novel Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg. Set in the 1950s, the film stars Mickey Rourke as Harry Angel, a hard-boiled New York private detective who is hired by a mysterious businessman named Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to track down Johnny Favorite, a musician who Cyphre helped become successful before World War II, but who has been missing for more than a decade. The trail leads Angel from New York to New Orleans, where he becomes embroiled in a labyrinthine plot of sex, murder, betrayal, and occult voodoo symbolism, which leads him to question his own sanity. The film was not especially well-received when it was first released, and was more notorious at the time for the fact that it cast 19-year-old Lisa Bonet – best known as the wholesome Denise on The Cosby Show – as a sultry Cajun nymphomaniac named Epiphany who has a torrid love scene with Rourke. However, time has been kind to the movie, and it is well-respected today for its sweat-soaked Southern Gothic atmosphere, intelligent screenplay, compelling lead performances, and impressive visual style.
The score for Angel Heart is by South African composer Trevor Jones, who in 1987 was on the cusp of his breakthrough from British cinema to mainstream Hollywood, off the back of popular works such as Excalibur, The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, and others. Director Parker had been an admirer of Jones’s all-electronic score for the 1985 action movie Runaway Train, and thought that something of a similar tone would work well on Angel Heart; as such, Jones’s score is performed mostly on a synclavier synthesizer, but with special featured performances by British jazz saxophone virtuoso Courtney Pine.
Conceptually, Jones said he wanted to explore the nature of evil, saying: “Evil is the greatest of human fears. I tried to give that feeling to the score using daily ordinary music that would bridge the world between Angel’s everyday life and that which he’s getting into, the black magic, his search. It was like a psychological journey for me always trying to relate to the fears and emotions of the audience.” In addition to his synths and Pine’s saxophone, the score prominently features the melody of a song from 1937, “Girl of My Dreams” by Glen Gray, as a recurring motif that would “haunt” viewers as it haunts Angel throughout the film.
The six score cues on the soundtrack album are, for the most part, entirely built around one style – slow, dark, moody synth textures overlaid by Pine’s sultry, smoky saxophone. It creates an atmosphere of dread and subdued sexiness, and captures the neo-noir pretensions of the piece, but unless you already have an appreciation for this type of music, its lack of diversity is likely to become tiresome very quickly. Two of the cues are actually extended suites made up of four of five distinct cues edited together. In the first, the opening “Harry Angel” sequence introduces Pine’s saxophone as the main theme for the film, offset by softly textured choral effects. As it develops, “Introducing Mr. Cyphre” is sinisterly cool, and “Fowler’s” is a dense bed of fluttering electronic woodwinds, while the “Harlem Chase” is a clattering, frantic action sequence with a throbbing percussion element.
Later, “Looking For Johnny” returns to the rattling action music from the Harlem Chase sequence, “Cajuns” and “Epiphany” both showcase the vivid combinations between saxophone and piano, tempestuous and passionate, while “Frightened Eyes Never Lie” is a little more elegiac, in a subdued sort of way.
Of the other cues, “Nightmare” underpins the electronics and wandering saxophones with an unsettling combination of a heartbeat motif and religioso choral textures, making the sex sequence between Johnny and Epiphany oddly disturbing. “I Got This Thing About Chickens” sees Pine’s saxophones at their angriest and most aggressive, accompanied by a staccato piano motif and fat, muted blatts from other parts of the brass section. “Bloodmare” offsets the religious vocal textures against the saxophones and urgent pulsating electronic rhythms, and the conclusive “Johnny Favorite” underscores the film’s shocking ending with a return to the brooding textures of the opening cue: synths, solo vocals, and Pine’s saxophones, which convey a growing sense of nightmarish realization and revelation.
In addition to Jones’s score, the soundtrack features several traditional blues and R&B performances, including the classic “Honeyman Blues” performed by the legendary Bessie Smith, the suggestive “The Right Key But The Wrong Keyhole” performed by Lilian Boutte, and “Rainy Rainy Day” performed by Brownie McGhee. Unfortunately, listeners will be aghast to discover that the album is also awash with dialogue and sound effects taken from the film. Worse still, the score is structured such that tracks bleed into each other, making it impossible to skip them or edit them out without subjecting Jones’s score to blunt cuts. This was a plague that cursed many albums in the 1980s and 1990s, and Angel Heart is one of the worst culprits of all time. As the album unfolds we hear everything from opening and closing doors to ringing telephones, barking dogs, raindrops, and applause, as well as entire conversations between Rourke and De Niro, Rourke and Bonet, and others. To be frank, it utterly spoils the listening experience, as the dialogue often completely obfuscates Jones’s music, rendering it inaudible.
Anyone who is familiar with Trevor Jones’s more lavish orchestral scores may be surprised to hear him writing music inspired so heavily by the sounds of the American south, but the South African has always been more versatile than people give him credit for, and Angel Heart is one of the most unusual scores of his long career. However, while it’s a very easy score to appreciate, enjoying it may be another matter entirely. For the majority of its running time the music plays entirely to the mood of the film, without any overt or memorable thematic content, and listeners must have a deep appreciation of both textural electronic writing and contemporary saxophone jazz to be able to truly get to the score’s emotional core. This, combined with the very real problem of the overlapping dialogue and sound effects, make Angel Heart a challenging, occasionally frustrating listen, but one that fans of Jones may want to investigate, if only to experience a completely different side to his musical personality.
Buy the Angel Heart soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Harry Angel/Kingdom Mission/Introducing Mr. Cyphre/Fowler’s/Harlem Chase/Lanza’s (7:56)
- Honeyman Blues (written by Robert Johnson, performed by Bessie Smith) (1:18)
- Nightmare/Secret Loves (2:11)
- Girl Of My Dreams (written by Glen Gray) (0:50)
- I Got This Thing About Chickens (3:42)
- The Right Key But The Wrong Keyhole (written by Clarence Williams and Eddie Green, performed by Lilian Boutte) (3:24)
- Rainy Rainy Day (written and performed by Brownie McGhee) (2:57)
- Looking For Johnny/Cajuns/Epiphany/I Am An Atheist/Frightened Eyes Never Lie (7:29)
- Bloodmare/Dog Tags (3:08)
- Johnny Favorite (4:34)
Running Time: 37 minutes 33 seconds
Island Masters 262047 (1987)
Music composed and arranged by Trevor Jones. Featured musical soloist Courtney Pine. Recorded and mixed by Paul Hulme. Album produced byTrevor Jones.