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BIG – Howard Shore

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Big was one of the most popular and successful comedies of 1988 – in fact, of the 1980s as a whole – and was, in many ways, the film which made Tom Hanks a bonafide box office star. Directed by Penny Marshall from a screenplay by Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg, Big is the story of childhood wish fulfillment, in which a regular 12 year old boy from New Jersey named Josh Baskin makes a wish ‘to be big’ on an old fortune teller machine at a traveling carnival, and then wakes up the following morning transformed into a 30 year old man (Hanks). After having terrified his mother, who believes that adult Josh is actually a kidnapper holding her son for ransom, he calls on his best friend Billy (Jared Rushton) for help, and together they travel to Manhattan to track down the carnival – only to be told that it will take months for the paperwork to come through. In the meantime, through a fortuitous set of circumstances, Josh manages to get a job at a toy company, working for the gruff but kindly Mr. MacMillan (Robert Loggia). He impresses his new colleagues – including the beautiful Susan (Elizabeth Perkins), who soon falls for Josh’s ‘child-like’ charm – but as much as Josh begins to enjoy his new adult life, he continues to search for the fortune teller machine so he can return home.

Big was the most successful of the spate of 1980s body-swap comedies that also included titles like All of Me, Like Father Like Son, and Vice Versa, thanks mainly to Hanks’s fantastic lead performance, which would eventually earn him his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Hanks’s winning personality, effortless charm, and perfect mimicry of a 12-year-old’s mannerisms won over audiences, and his on-screen relationships with Perkins, Loggia, Rushton, and John Heard (who plays a corporate rival) are perfectly judged. It also helps immensely that the film is both genuinely funny and unexpectedly poignant: the cocktail party scene where Josh eats caviar for the first time, the board meeting where Josh wins over his new colleagues with an unexpected product pitch, his first date with Susan, and of course the legendary ‘walking piano’ scene are classics.

The score for Big is from an unexpected source: Canadian composer Howard Shore. Although Shore began his career in comedy as the bandleader for Saturday Night Live, his work in film during the decade from 1978, when he made his film music debut, to 1988, was typified almost entirely by fairly serious dramas, horror movies, and thrillers – titles like The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome, and The Fly. He showed a lighter touch when scoring After Hours for Martin Scorsese in 1985, as well as the 1987 Jeff Bridges-Kim Basinger comedy Nadine, but he had never scored a film like Big, which was all about childhood sentiment, poignant emotion, sweetness, and upbeat whimsy. As such, Big offered a totally new side to Howard Shore’s personality, one that is a world away from the music he was normally asked to write.

From the first bars of the “Opening,” one can immediately tell that this is a very different Howard Shore score. Light jazzy piano figures, tinkling metallic percussion, sunny synth chords, acoustic and electric guitars, and warm orchestral harmonies eventually give way to the first performance of the 5-note main theme, an infectiously good-natured piece that captures Josh and his upbeat nature, as well as his wholesome relationship with his best friend. It’s an idyllic portrait of a carefree childhood, and this sound carries on through much of the score – cues like “Waking Up,” “Racquetball,” and “The Envelope” feature it prominently, although Josh’s racquetball game with Paul has an undercurrent of big-business one-upmanship that he was clearly not expecting. What’s interesting, though, is the fact that that Big still sounds very much like a Howard Shore score – some of the chord progressions and instrumental combinations he uses are clearly part of the personal style he has used throughout his career, with some moments feeling like a more lightweight version of The Silence of the Lambs.

A secondary theme, a more poignant and bittersweet theme for solo oboe, strings, and orchestra, concerns itself with the less-than-perfect aspects of Josh’s life – his wishes, his dreams – and first appears at the beginning of “Zoltar,” after he has been humiliated in front of a girl for not being tall enough to go on a carnival ride. This ‘poignancy theme’ appears several times thereafter, especially in the lovely “Billy and Mom,” and is cleverly disguised underneath a couple of toe-tapping rock/blues instrumentals during the middle of “Waking Up,” and later in “New York,” both of which insinuate Josh’s problems into what would otherwise just be seen as a straightforward depiction of the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple.

However, as the score develops, Shore does something very unexpected by blending both these themes together into a love theme for Josh and Elizabeth, first heard on a tender solo piano in “In Bed”. Despite the jailbait connotations of the relationship that would not fly today – Josh is 12 but looks 30, Elizabeth is actually 28 – Shore’s music gives their time together a pretty, innocent sheen that is quite captivating, and will surprise anyone who is only used to Shore’s heavy, imposing writing in the fantasy and horror genres. Further performances of the love theme can be heard in “Falling in Love,” which features some beautiful writing for acoustic guitar and solo flute, as well as in the first part of “Josh and Susan.” The second half of this latter cue is a superb comedy montage cue which begins with a hearty jazz piece the morning after Josh has become a man, and ends with a bouncy orchestral scherzo that is more Carl Stalling than Howard Shore.

The other interesting recurring idea is the music for the traveling carnival (“Calliope”) and the magical fortune teller machine which grants wishes to the unwary (“Zoltar”). In these cues Shore puts a slightly sinister spin on traditional circus music, with an old-fashioned piece for a calliope and solo trumpet in the former, and a creepy waltz for cimbalom, chimes, and strings in the latter, giving it all a sort of Munsters/Addams Family-esque vibe. The chimes from the Zoltar motif run through the score in parallel to the other ideas, including in the final moments of “Waking Up,” and later during “Finding Zoltar,” but mostly re-occur when anything vaguely ‘magical’ happens.

This magic is inherent in the closing cue, “Goodbye and End Title,” as Susan witnesses 30-year-old Josh turn back into 12-year-old Josh before her eyes, and the kid who wanted to be big returns home to his mom wearing an ill-fitting suit. The sweep of the two main themes, especially when they are blended into the love theme, is really quite delightful, and the whole thing reaches for some strong emotional heights during the climactic moments, before the End Credits begin.

In addition to the score there are several pieces of source music, the most famous of which is “Toy Store Walking Piano,” which includes excerpts from “Heart and Soul” written by Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser, and “Chopsticks” written by Arthur de Lulli, performed on-screen by Hanks and Loggia on the famous walking piano at the Manhattan toy store FAO Schwartz. In addition to this there’s a lovely arrangement of Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade,” a gorgeous orchestra-and-chorus version of David Pomeranz’s famous 1975 song “It’s In Every One Of Us” in the moving “Visiting Home,” and a second rendition of “Heart and Soul” in the aforementioned 8-minute “End Titles” sequence.

Despite the success of the film at the time a soundtrack album for Big was not released, and for almost 15 years soundtrack fans had to be content with a somewhat shoddily-constructed bootleg which appeared in the mid 1990s. Thankfully, in 2002, record label Varese Sarabande and producers Nick Redman and Robert Townson rectified the situation when they released it as part of the limited edition CD Club. The album contains all the most important parts of Shore’s score, and the source music, plus a number of alternates and bonus cues. Unfortunately the score has been out of print for some time, and it commands some fairly hefty prices on the secondary market, but anyone who has any curiosity about the lighter and more charming side of Howard Shore’s musical personality, as well as fans of the film, will want to add this little gem to their collection.

Buy the Big soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Opening (2:52)
  • Calliope (2:35)
  • Zoltar (3:06)
  • Waking up (3:38)
  • New York (1:19)
  • Alone in the Hotel (0:28)
  • Toy Store Walking Piano (includes “Heart and Soul” written by Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser, and “Chopsticks” written by Arthur de Lulli) (1:58)
  • To Bed (1:36)
  • Racquetball (1:54)
  • Falling in Love (1:18)
  • Moonlight Serenade (written by by Glenn Miller) (3:00)
  • Josh and Susan (2:25)
  • The Envelope (1:50)
  • Visiting Home (includes “It’s In Every One Of Us” written by David Pomeranz) (3:18)
  • The Confession (0:42)
  • Billy and Mom (1:17)
  • Finding Zoltar (4:31)
  • Goodbye and End Titles (includes “Heart and Soul” written by Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser) (8:01)
  • Waking Up (Alternate) (3:23) – BONUS
  • New York (Alternate) (1:17) – BONUS
  • Visiting Home (Alternate) (3:03) – BONUS
  • Visiting Home (Alternate #2) (1:47) – BONUS
  • Billy and Mom (Alternate) (1:13) – BONUS
  • Goodbye – Part One (Alternate) (1:36) – BONUS
  • Goodbye – Part Two (Alternate) (3:21) – BONUS
  • End Titles (Alternate) (1:35) – BONUS

Running Time: 63 minutes 03 seconds

Varese Sarabande VCL-1102-1-15 (1988/2002)

Music composed and conducted by Howard Shore. Orchestrations by Homer Denison. Recorded and mixed by Armin Steiner. Edited by Jim Weidman, Susana Peric and Scott Grusin. Score produced by Howard Shore. Album produced by Nick Redman and Robert Townson.

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