Home > Reviews > THE MILAGRO BEANFIELD WAR – Dave Grusin

THE MILAGRO BEANFIELD WAR – Dave Grusin

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

In the annals of recent film music history, there is perhaps no more obscure a winner of the Academy Award for Best Original Score than Dave Grusin’s The Milagro Beanfield War. Even the film itself is virtually forgotten today, despite it being directed by Robert Redford and having a cast that includes Rubén Blades, Sônia Braga, Melanie Griffith, John Heard, Daniel Stern, and Christopher Walken. It’s a political comedy-drama – as Redford’s films often are – about the residents of a rural New Mexico town who find themselves in an ever-escalating confrontation with a group of unscrupulous businessmen. The businessmen want to buy tracts of land in order to invest in a series of lucrative property developments, but before they can do so they need the local residents to leave, so they divert the local water supply, leaving the farmers unable to irrigate their crops. It’s a very 1980s story about how the financial concerns of the wealthy ignore, and sometimes intentionally destroy, the rights of working class people.

In 1988 Dave Grusin was at the height of his career: he was a respected jazz composer, pianist, and recording artist, and had already enjoyed several successful forays into film music, having written the scores for films such as The Graduate, The Yakuza, Three Days of the Condor, The Goodbye Girl, Heaven Can Wait, The Champ, On Golden Pond, Tootsie, and The Goonies. The Milagro Beanfield War was Grusin’s fifth Oscar nomination and his first – and, to date, only – win, but as of the time of writing it remains the most recent Oscar-winning score without a dedicated soundtrack release. The only place the music appears is on two albums, both released on Grusin’s record label GRP Music: the 1989 album Migration, and the 1994 compilation Dave Grusin: The Orchestral Album. Both albums contain the same five cues – “Lupita,” “Coyote Angel,” “Pistolero,” “Milagro,” and “Fiesta” – which together run for a total of just over 11 minutes.

So what does the score sound like? Well, it’s very, very authentic, a combination of traditional Mexican norteño folk music, coupled with some orchestral stylings from the American west, and Grusin’s particular brand of laid-back jazz. “Lupita” introduces a recurring main theme which weaves its way through the first three cues; here, the theme is played in a lively, bouncy way on a jazzy solo piano, with flowery syncopations that give it a slightly comedic tone.

The subsequent “Coyote Angel” is more orchestral, and has a slightly magical, mystical sound, created by the combination of harp glissandi, accordion textures, and light metallic percussion. As the cue develops the accordion eventually picks up the main theme, and it grows to encompass the rest of the orchestra, becoming lively and appealing, and maintaining its wry, slightly comedic, caper-like tone. Things change in “Pistolero,” which transfers the theme to a dreamy, wistful solo guitar, augmented by subtle synths. Again, Grusin quickly develops the theme, adding in castanets, trumpet flourishes, and Bolero-esque rhythms that are very appealing.

“Milagro” presents a new theme, a sentimental and warm piano piece with a lullaby-like tone, which is clearly intended to evoke the strong feelings the townsfolk have for their home. Tender strings come into accompany the piano, castanets add a dash of local color, and some of the phrasing and chord progressions clearly have influences from traditional Mexican music. Finally, “Fiesta” is an upbeat, lively, celebratory piece with a thematic line that jumps from keyboards to pianos, to ethnic woodwinds, to mariachi-style trumpets, accompanied by a vivacious percussion section that includes hand claps, various rattlers and shakers, and a modern drum kit.

Whether this makes it good enough to have beaten all of 1988’s other great scores to the Academy Award is open for debate, but it was certainly popular at the time. The Suite from The Milagro Beanfield War as heard on the Migration album received the 1990 Grammy Award for Best Arrangement of an Instrumental, and in addition to winning the Oscar Grusin’s music was also nominated for a Golden Globe. However, when you look at the list of great scores that came out that year – Powaqqatsi, Willow, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Last Temptation of Christ, Gorillas in the Mist, Dead Ringers, The Land Before Time, Rain Man, Hellbound: Hellraiser II, The Accidental Tourist, Dangerous Liaisons – its limitations become clear, and the decision of the Academy becomes all the more inexplicable.

My personal opinion is that The Milagro Beanfield War is an oddity. The music is fun and lively, and it successfully emulates the sound and feel of northern Mexican music, but to me it never comes across as actual film music in the sense that it doesn’t provide any narrative flow, and doesn’t seem to relate to how the story progresses. In the film Grusin’s music successfully captures the half-serious half-comedic tone that Redford wanted, but it more often than not feels like source music rather than dramatic scoring. Similarly, and while it is certainly enjoyable to listen to, the recording never gives you any sort of connection to the film. I appreciate that it’s difficult to achieve that sort of connection when you’re limited to just 11 minutes of music, but until a longer dedicated soundtrack album is released, this is all we have to judge.

Despite these criticisms, I actually do enjoy The Milagro Beanfield War as a piece of music, and I would certainly recommend picking up the Dave Grusin Orchestral Album for anyone who is curious to hear this award-winning obscurity – not only does it contain this score, but there are also several excellent selections from other scores including Havana, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Three Days of the Condor, and On Golden Pond. Just don’t go into it expecting to hear a score of genuine Oscar caliber.

Buy the Milagro Beanfield War soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Lupita (1:08)
  • Coyote Angel (3:29)
  • Pistolero (1:47)
  • Milago (2:35)
  • Fiesta (2:14)

Running Time: 11 minutes 25 seconds

GRP Music GRP-97972 (1988/1994)

Music composed and conducted by Dave Grusin. Orchestrations by Dave Grusin. Featured musical soloists Dave Grusin, Ángel Romero, Harvey Mason, Abraham Laboriel and Mike Fisher. Recorded and mixed by Don Murray. Edited by James Flamberg and Else Blangsted. Album produced by Dave Grusin.

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  1. March 22, 2018 at 6:02 pm

    One of the weakest winners ever!!

    • Tor Harbin
      March 22, 2018 at 7:23 pm

      Never heard it, but it has to be better than “The Social Network”.

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