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EMPIRE OF THE SUN – John Williams


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

By the end of 1986, Steven Spielberg was probably the most famous and financially successful director in Hollywood. However, although he had directed a handful of the highest grossing films of all time – Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom –he privately expressed a desire to make more serious films. The comparative failure of The Color Purple in 1985 just magnified that desire, so in 1987 he decided to try again, by making a movie based on J. G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel Empire of the Sun. The film starred the then 13-year-old Christian Bale as Jim Graham, an upper class English schoolboy living with his diplomat parents in Shanghai in 1941, whose life is shattered by the outbreak of World War II, and who ends up desperately trying to survive in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Unfortunately for Spielberg, the film – which also starred John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson, and Nigel Havers – did not ignite the passions of audiences like his popcorn blockbusters did, and it was only a moderate critical and commercial success; Spielberg would have to wait another five years for his breakthrough into cinematic respectability with Schindler’s List in 1993. In addition, the film was largely overlooked at the Academy Awards, receiving only six technical nominations, but not winning any.

One of the six technical nominations was for John Williams’s original score. Empire of the Sun was the eighth collaboration between Williams and Spielberg, and saw them reuniting after The Color Purple, which was scored by Quincy Jones (Jones was an executive producer on the film and insisted on scoring it himself). Considering the nature of the film, the score for Empire of the Sun sound may much too jolly, upbeat, and heroic to accompany a film which deals with an occupying army, a young boy’s separation from his parents, and life in a prisoner of war camp, which ends with the Americans dropping a nuclear bomb on Nagasaki. However, what one must understand going into the score is that the music – much like the film itself – is entirely based around a child’s perspective of the horror. This is Jim’s story, and we both see it and hear it from Jim’s point of view; as such, for him, war is occasionally exciting, seeing the P-51 Mustang fighter planes is euphoric, and his life in Shanghai before the war is playful and whimsical. Once you understand this potentially odd tonal disconnect, the brilliance of Empire of the Sun becomes clear.

The score is bookended by two important songs – one by Williams, and one existing song which is used diegetically throughout the score. The existing song is “Suo Gân,” a lullaby dating from around the year 1794, which is sung in Welsh by boy soprano James Rainbird and the Ambrosian Junior Choir directed by John McCarthy. The lyrics – which are lip-synched by Bale in the film – speak of children sleeping peacefully in the bosom of their mother, and tap deeply into Jim’s psyche. Although he initially sings the song as part of a standard choir practice, the song eventually becomes his salvation: the prospect of sleeping peacefully amid the warm embrace of his family is literally the thing that keeps him motivated to stay alive through the terrible hardships he endures. It appears several times in the film, most notably when Jim sings it as a elegy for Japanese kamikaze pilots who – in his childlike need for companionship – he has befriended.

After this beautifully spiritual opening, Williams’s score takes over, beginning with two of the most important cues in the film. The first, “Cadillac of the Skies,” is the cue which accompanies Jim as he watches the American P-51 Mustang fighter planes dive-bomb his Japanese prisoner of war camp; the music is soaring, majestic, almost joyful, with surging orchestral outbursts and angelic choral glory. But, again, it’s important to remember that this is music that accompanies Jim’s fantasy of life in the camp, not the reality of what’s actually happening, and the way Williams is able to tap into that innocence and sense of magic is astonishing. The second half of the cue is softer, more hesitant, filled with darker tones and more sober, almost hymnal choral work, after Jim is ripped out of his daydream by Nigel Havers’s camp doctor and forced to deal with the actual aftermath of the raid. Later, “Imaginary Air Battle” offers a variation on this uplifting music, again with gorgeous religioso choral tones and soaring, sweeping orchestral lines, for a scene earlier in the film where Jim happens upon a downed Japanese fighter plane and play-acts a heroic dogfight with his balsa wood toys.

The second important cue is “Jim’s New Life,” a playful and effervescent scherzo for dancing strings, energetic brass, and twittering woodwinds that accompanies a montage of the young boy as his life in the Japanese internment camp unfolds. Again, Williams’s music speaks not to the bleak and harsh realities of life there, but to Jim’s internal view of it – his coping mechanism is to turn it all into a game, with the camp as his playground. Musically, the piece is wonderful, bursting with panache and joie de vivre; the trumpet refrain that kicks in at 0:49 is especiallu wonderful. This cue also features the first performance of the three versions of Jim’s Theme (it’s actually the second version heard in the film, but the first version that appears on the album), a recurring melody which follows the young boy through the story and gives him a musical identity of his own.

“Toy Planes, Home and Hearth” provides the most beautiful version of Jim’s Theme, and features a series of inviting, soft, gentle tones, with some especially beautiful French horn writing, and a gorgeous choral refrain that begins at 1:17. It’s a perfect depiction of the warmth and comfort that Jim so craves; it’s probably an overly-sentimentalized idyll but, again, everything needs to be experienced through the filter of Jim’s imagination and experience, and that sentimentality and longing for home is key to his survival. The cue also features a lovely rendition of Chopin’s Mazurka Op.17 No.4 in its second half, which relates directly to Jim’s memories of his mother, who would play the piece on the family piano.

Of course, not all is fun and games. “Lost in the Crowd” underscores the horror, confusion, and anguish of Jim’s forced separation from his parents as the Japanese forces move in. Low, surging string phrases are offset against turbulent, increasingly urgent brass clusters and darting, frantic, shrill woodwind lines. By the end the music has become dissonant and oppressive, as Jim’s nightmare scenario is confirmed. The subsequent “The Streets of Shanghai” features in a scene in which Jim, who is tying to eke out a life as an orphan, is pursued by Japanese soldiers. Williams treats the sequence as a frantic chase, full of daring string runs, pulsating brass triplets, and many familiar Williams-esque action tropes, including the prominent use of xylophones and piano in the percussion section. Some of this music here will remind listeners of the similarly named “Fast Streets of Shanghai” from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, although that earlier cue was much more light-hearted and playful.

Later, “The Return to the City” offers a somber, sobering look at life in Shanghai post-invasion. The music is full of tragedy-laden oboe solos and weeping strings, as the inhabitants of the camp are led back into the ruins of the one-bustling metropolis to be, they believe, released, unaware that the Japanese high command has ordered a very different fate. A turgid march for brass and choir accompanies the weary prisoners as they stagger towards a ruined sports stadium to meet their destiny. Hints of the angelic music from the Cadillac of the Skies sequence, as well as subtle references to Jim’s theme, keep the focus on the central character, while the use of an evocative shakuhachi adds a hint of Japanese music that creates a ghostly, haunting atmosphere.

The militaristic influences of Japanese music continue in “The Pheasant Hunt,” a stark and somewhat avant-garde piece which blends the familiar sound of a western snare drum with Japanese taiko drums, log drums, bamboo sticks, and the ubiquitous shakuhachi, which together create an ominous and oppressive mood. This abstraction leads into the conclusive cue, “No Road Home/Seeing the Bomb,” which again begins with a series of moody orchestral textures, but quickly becomes a moving, emotionally devastating variation on the choral music from “Cadillac of the Skies” as Jim witnesses first-hand the explosion of the atomic bomb over Nagasaki. Not understanding what he is seeing, his self-preservation mode kicks in and he rationalizes it as the souls of his friends from the camp ascending to heaven – this tonal juxtaposition of angelic choral beauty against what was, quite literally, one of the most devastating events in human history, is incredibly powerful. When Jim’s Theme emerges from the haze at 4:04, framed as the sound of blessed relief and deliverance, the effect is stunning.

Everything concludes with the third significant variation on Jim’s Theme, and the second important song: “Exsultate Justi.” Having already been heard in a more restrained version in “Liberation,” where it is playfully accompanied by tapped finger drums, the version in the final cue plays as a cathartic, celebratory explosion of relief in which a boy’s choir sings Latin lyrics praising God for salvation. It’s so clever that Williams was able to take this one central theme for the main character and frame it in so many different ways; the fact that the same theme was the building block for the melodic cores of “Cadillac of the Skies,” “Jim’s New Life,” “Toy Planes, Home and Hearth/Seeing the Bomb,” and “Exsultate Justi,” despite them seeming completely different from each other on a superficial level, is testament to his skill as a composer and his intelligence as a musical storyteller.

Empire of the Sun is, for my money, one of the most overlooked Williams scores of the 1980s, and one which deserves more praise. Not content with simply being outstanding music to listen to, the way Williams delves deeply into the psyche of the lead character is just masterful. A great deal of the score can be viewed as a score-within-a-score: it’s the music that plays in Jim’s head, accompanying the idealized version he experiences, and allowing him to live through the atrocities of war.

Note: this is a review of the original 1987 Warner Brothers release of the score. La-La Land Records and producer Mike Matessino released an expanded version of the complete score in 2014, digitally re-mastered for clearer sound, re-sequenced in film order, and presented in a handsome package featuring bonus cues, alternates, informative liner notes, and beautiful artwork. This version comes heartily recommended for who already love the score and want more.

Buy the Empire of the Sun soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Suo Gân (traditional, performed by The Ambrosian Junior Choir feat. James Rainbird) (2:19)
  • Cadillac of the Skies (3:48)
  • Jim’s New Life (2:33)
  • Lost in the Crowd (5:39)
  • Imaginary Air Battle (2:35)
  • The Return to the City (7:45)
  • Liberation: Exsultate Justi (1:46)
  • The British Grenadiers (traditional) (2:25)
  • Toy Planes, Home and Hearth (4:37)
  • The Streets of Shanghai (5:11)
  • The Pheasant Hunt (4:24)
  • No Road Home/Seeing the Bomb (6:10)
  • Exsultate Justi (4:59)
  • Suo Gân – Extended Version (traditional, performed by The Ambrosian Junior Choir feat. James Rainbird) (3:29)
  • Home and Hearth (3:50)
  • Trip Through the Crowd (2:33)
  • Imaginary Air Battle (2:38)
  • Japanese Infantry (3:00)
  • Lost in the Crowd (5:44)
  • Alone at Home (2:43)
  • The Empty Swimming Pool (3:14)
  • The Streets of Shanghai (5:15)
  • The Plane (3:15)
  • Jim’s New Life (2:34)
  • The Pheasant Hunt (4:28)
  • The British Grenadiers (traditional) (2:29)
  • Cadillac of the Skies (3:53)
  • Mrs. Victor and James (2:11)
  • The Return to the City (7:50)
  • Seeing the Bomb (4:48)
  • Bringing Them Back (2:41)
  • Liberation: Exsultate Justi (1:53)
  • Suo Gân (traditional, performed by The Ambrosian Junior Choir feat. James Rainbird) (2:23)
  • Exsultate Justi (Extended Version) (5:14)
  • Mazurka, Op. 17 No. 4 (Excerpt) (written by Frederic Chopin) (2:14) BONUS
  • Imaginary Air Battle (Alternate) (2:41) BONUS
  • Alone at Home (Alternate) (2:40) BONUS
  • The Streets of Shanghai (Film Version Segment) (1:18) BONUS
  • The Streets of Shanghai (Alternate Segment) (2:17) BONUS
  • Chopin Again (1:19) BONUS
  • The Plane (Alternate) (3:05) BONUS
  • Cadillac of the Skies (Alternate) (3:51) BONUS
  • The Return to the City (Alternate) (7:50) BONUS
  • Exsultate Justi (5:09) BONUS

Running Time: 54 minutes 11 seconds (1987 Original)
Running Time: 108 minutes 29 seconds (2014 Expanded)

Warner Brothers 7599-25668-2 (1987)
La-La Land Records LLLCD-1300 (1987/2014)

Music composed and conducted by John Williams. Orchestrations by Herbert W. Spencer and Alexander Courage. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Ken Wannberg. Score produced by John Williams 2014 LLL album produced by Mike Matessino.

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