Home > Reviews > GOOD MORNING VIETNAM – Alex North

GOOD MORNING VIETNAM – Alex North

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Good Morning Vietnam was one of the greatest critical and commercial successes over the winter of late 1987 and early 1988. A showcase for the improvisational talents of the late great comedian and actor Robin Williams, the film tells the (mostly) true life story of Adrian Cronauer, a motor-mouthed DJ working for the United States Armed Services at the height of the Vietnam War in 1965. From his booth on an army base in Saigon, Cronauer uses his caustic wit and love of classic rock and roll to raise the morale of the troops – despite the misgivings of his superiors, who disapprove of his irreverent antics. The film was directed by Barry Levinson, co-starred Forest Whitaker and Bruno Kirby, and went on to bag Williams his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.

The score for Good Morning Vietnam is from an unexpected source – the highly respected, multi-Oscar nominated, avant-garde composer Alex North. This was the only film that North scored for Levinson (who previously worked with Randy Newman on The Natural and Bruce Broughton on Young Sherlock Holmes, among others), and was the second-to-last film North scored in his long and distinguished career; his last score would be the religious drama The Penitent in 1988, and he died of cancer three years later in 1991. Considering the nature of the film, which was as much about rock music as it was about anything else, the soundtrack for Good Morning Vietnam was littered with dozens and dozens of classic songs from the period, which left North with very little room to make any sort of impact, and as a result he only wrote around 20 minutes of original music for the film. However, what music is in the film is worthy of exploration.

With the more light hearted scenes taken care of, North’s remit was to score the film’s serious side – the sub-plot involving Cronauer’s relationship with a pretty Vietnamese girl named Trinh, and her brother, Tuan, who is ultimately revealed to be an undercover Vietcong operative responsible for a bombing attack on a local bar which kills American soldiers. North’s score for these scenes is dark, occasionally complicated, but also shows a more pastoral side to his writing. Instrumentally, he uses eight violas, eight cellos and four basses for their deeper tones – no violins at all – augmented by a rich brass and woodwind section, and a fair amount of regional percussion items to give the score a touch of local color. Surprisingly, he also manages to feature two recognizable themes that play off each other – one for the American troops, and one for the Vietnamese.

The American theme is present in three cues: “Goodbye to Troops” and its alternate, and “Troops Arriving”. The theme is steeped in Americana, making use of warm and lush string and woodwind harmonies accompanied by wholesome brass accents. The whole thing has an air of decency and honor, and there are vaguest hints of the stylistics of North contemporaries like Aaron Copland, Elmer Bernstein, and Jerome Moross, as well as hints of classical American folk music, which gives the theme a sort of ‘noble wild west’ feeling. It’s interesting that North should adopt this classic sound in what was, essentially, the last major score of his life, especially as he spent much of his film music career bucking the musical conventions of the Hollywood western through scores like Bite the Bullet.

The Vietnamese theme is introduced in “Village,” the longest cue of the score. Here, North’s writing blends east and west through the use of a standard orchestra augmented by various traditional Vietnamese percussion items, and even adds a third dimension by using a harpsichord to represent the faded glory of French colonialism that is prevalent in Vietnamese culture. Like the American theme, the Vietnamese theme is calm and pastoral, representing the welcoming introduction to the culture that Cronauer explores for the first time through his relationship with Trinh. The Vietnamese theme returns in “Goodbye Tuan,” where it is afforded a regretful, wistful variation for strings and woodwinds, and continues into the “End Credits,” where it receives an especially soulful statement on cellos, and becomes a little grander as it builds to its conclusion.

Of course, it would not be an Alex North score without some of his trademark dissonance. “Jimmy Wah’s Bombing,” which underscores the terrible aftermath of the attack on the US soldiers bar, makes use of gripping string and woodwind clusters which are at times reminiscent of some of the stylistics he used on Dragonheart in 1981, and includes some slurred, shell-shocked variations on the American theme. “Jungle” is similarly aggressive, featuring low piano chords offset by all manner of turbulent orchestral writing. However, perhaps the most interesting of these pieces is “Chasing Tuan” which makes use of an almost impossibly low contrabassoon, growling in the bowels of the orchestra, accented by pizzicato strings, various metallic rattles and chimes, and even some light synth writing. It’s nervous, dangerous-sounding stuff, full of movement and expression, and I was especially pleased to note some of the jazz inflections North worked into the brass writing. No matter where he went, North was never very far from his Streetcar Named Desire.

The album is rounded out by several tiny fanfare-like “sign-ons” and “tweets” for the radio broadcasts, which went mostly unused in the film, but these amount to only a few seconds of additional music. One additional source cue, “Chaplain’s Music,” is a brief piece of religioso pastiche for a sampled church organ.

Having been unavailable in any form since the film was released, Intrada Records and producer Douglass Fake finally released the score for Good Morning Vietnam in 2017, newly mixed and mastered from the 2-inch 24-track session elements that had been kept in pristine condition in the Walt Disney Pictures vault. Considering that the score is so short, it was paired with an expanded release of David Newman’s wonderful score for Operation Dumbo Drop, a 1995 comedy film also set during the Vietnam War. However, if you feel so inclined, for a true representation of the music as heard in the film I would actually recommend pairing North’s score with the smash-hit soundtrack album that features a barrage of classic period songs by The Beach Boys, Martha & the Vandellas, James Brown, Louis Armstrong, and many others, which are interspersed with hilarious dialog snippets of Robin Williams riffing in-character as Cronauer.

Good Morning Vietnam is a minor work in the context of Alex North’s wider career – it’s never going to be mentioned in the same breath as A Streetcar Named Desire, or Spartacus, or Cleopatra, or a dozen others – but what I like about it is that it showcases a slightly less abrasive side to North’s musical personality, with warmer tones and a more pleasing harmonic language. It also shows that North thought carefully and intelligently about the structure and thematic content of each score he wrote, even when he was limited in terms of where the music would be heard in the final cut of the film. As such, it comes recommended for anyone looking for an easy introduction to the great man’s work.

Buy the Good Morning Vietnam soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • SCORE ALBUM
  • Levitan Sign On – Alternate 3 (0:16)
  • Jimmy Wah’s Bombing (1:26)
  • Village (3:51)
  • Levitan Sign On (0:10)
  • Goodbye to Troops (1:11)
  • Jungle (0:33)
  • Goodbye to Troops – Alternate (1:11)
  • Levitan Sign On – Alternate 1 (0:10)
  • Chasing Tuan (2:27)
  • Troops Arriving (1:04)
  • Levitan Sign On – Alternate 2 (0:09)
  • Goodbye Tuan (0:59)
  • End Credits (2:42)
  • Chaplain’s Music (0:31) – Bonus
  • Like Tweet No. 1 (0:10) – Bonus
  • Like Tweet No. 2 (0:07) – Bonus
  • Like Tweet No. 3 (0:08) – Bonus
  • SOUNDTRACK ALBUM
  • Nowhere to Run (written by Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland, and Eddie Holland, performed by Martha & the Vandellas) (2:55)
  • I Get Around (written by Mike Love and Brian Wilson, performed by The Beach Boys) (2:09)
  • Game of Love (written by Clint Ballard, Jr., performed by Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders) (2:04)
  • Sugar and Spice (written by Fred Nightingale and Billy Stewart, performed by The Searchers) (2:13)
  • Liar, Liar (written by James Donna, performed by The Castaways) (1:51)
  • The Warmth of the Sun (written by Mike Love and Brian Wilson, performed by The Beach Boys) (2:48)
  • I Got You [I Feel Good] (written and performed by James Brown) (2:44)
  • Baby Please Don’t Go (written by Joe Williams, performed by Them) (2:40)
  • Danger Hearbreak Dead Ahead (written by Ivy Jo Hunter, Clarence Paul and William Stevenson, performed by The Marvelettes) (2:28)
  • Five O’Clock World (written by Allen Reynolds, performed by The Vogues) (2:18)
  • California Sun (written by Henry Glover and Morris Levy, performed by The Rivieras) (2:22)
  • What a Wonderful World (written by George Douglas, Bob Thiele, and George David Weiss, performed by Louis Armstrong) (2:16)

Running Time: 17 minutes 17 seconds – Score
Running Time: 42 minutes 35 seconds – Soundtrack

Intrada ISC-384 (1987/2017) – Score
A&M Records 750021-3340-2 (1987) – Soundtrack

Music composed and conducted by Alex North. Additional conducting by Artie Kane. Orchestrations by Henry Brant. Recorded and mixed by Dan Wallin. Edited by James Flamberg. Score produced by Alex North Intrada score album produced by Douglass Fake.

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