Home > Reviews > WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT – Alan Silvestri



Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

When cinematic scholars make lists of truly groundbreaking films, very few of them ever mention Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but in my opinion they absolutely should. It’s an anarchic action-comedy-murder mystery directed by Robert Zemeckis, adapted from a novel by Gary K. Wolf. Set in Los Angeles in the 1940s, the film stars Bob Hoskins as Eddie Valiant, a down-on-his-luck private detective who is hired by the head of a movie studio to investigate the wife of one of its box office stars; there are rumors that she is having an affair, and the studio feels that the scuttlebutt is affecting their star’s performances. But here’s the catch: the star in question is a cartoon rabbit named Roger, and this version of Los Angeles is an alternate universe where all the classic animated characters from Disney and Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes live side-by-side with humans. As the plot progresses Eddie and Roger team up when Roger is accused of murder; as Eddie tries to exonerate the bothersome bunny he crosses paths not only with Roger’s sensationally seductive wife Jessica, but a creepy law enforcement officer named Judge Doom, who has a pathological hatred of cartoons, and wants Roger to pay the ultimate price for his alleged crime. The film co-stars Christopher Lloyd and Joanna Cassidy, as well as the voices of Charles Fleischer and Kathleen Turner.

Although humans and animated characters has shared the silver screen before – who can forget Jerry Mouse dancing with Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh, for example – nothing like Roger Rabbit had ever been attempted before, with so many animated characters in the film simultaneously, physically interacting with the real world around them, and sharing moments of emotion and action with the human actors. This was in the days before actors regularly worked with green-screens and tennis balls on sticks instead of third parties, and Bob Hoskins said the entire experience drove him a little insane, but the end result is a bonafide classic – a loving homage to classic Hollywood with a clever plot, appealing performances, memorable characters, and genuine technical genius. Many people have actually credited the film with ushering in a renewed interest in the Golden Age of American animation, as well as spearheading modern American animation and the Disney Renaissance that began with The Little Mermaid in 1989.

The score for Who Framed Roger Rabbit is by Alan Silvestri, whose career was in the ascendancy in the summer of 1988 off the back of classic scores like Back to the Future and Predator. This score is unique, however, because it gave him the chance to write in a style which was, at that point in his career, new to him – classic jazz. In order to capture the sound and feel of Los Angeles in the 1940s, Silvestri augmented his now-ubiquitous large symphony orchestra with a healthy doze of smoky film noir cool and upbeat toe-tapping big band jazz. Silvestri combines with some raucous comedy music for the cartoon sequences, and some terrific punchy action music for the film’s rousing second half, while interpolating a handful of character themes for the primary protagonists.

The score begins with the “Maroon Logo,” a sprightly and upbeat piece that is intentionally similar to the Merrie Melodies logo that fronted a hundred classic cartoons; this leads immediately into “Maroon Cartoon,” a fun, whimsical, lively piece of pastiche in the great Carl Stalling/Scott Bradley tradition, which underscores the film’s opening cartoon sequence where Roger babysits the mischievous Baby Herman, and all hell breaks loose! Silvestri’s music here is expressive and onomatopoeic, intentionally following every beat of the action with pointed orchestral gestures and phrases. The orchestrations, as they always are in these things, are wonderfully rich, and the technique he shows in being able to successfully mirror the Stalling style is very impressive.

Once the movie moves from the animated world and into the ‘real’ world, Silvestri begins introducing his character themes. The theme for Bob Hoskins’s character, Eddie Valiant, appears at the beginning of the third cue, “Valiant & Valiant.” The theme is a wonderful piece of music noir, perfect for a booze-soaked private dick with little on his mind except where to get his next shot of bourbon. The sultry trumpet solos augmented by lounge pianos, plucked basses, brushed snares, and smooth strings, give the character a weary feel, as if the cares of the world are on his shoulders, but there are hints of optimism and nostalgia too, especially when the violins occasionally adopt a hint of an old Hollywood sheen. At 2:00 the music changes to introduce the more determined-sounding ‘Investigation Theme,’ which plays whenever Eddie is on the case; the music here retains the same orchestrations, but adopts it a different vibe, wherein the languidness has been replaced by a sense of purpose, the basses are plucked with more stylish dynamism, the strings swirl more prominently, and the brass had more pep in its step. Later in the score “Eddie’s Theme” contains an appealing lounge jazz variant which is a little more upbeat, with a soulful and sultry sound; in it, the thematic line switches from trumpet to saxophone, then back to trumpet, before heading off into a series of rich virtuoso improvisations.

The film’s main protagonists, Judge Doom and the Weasels, have their own musical identity. “Judge Doom” introduces a sinister theme for low strings with chimes for the maniacal black-hatted law enforcement officer, who proves himself to be a nemesis for both Eddie and Roger as the film progresses. Similarly, “The Weasels” showcases the unusual woodwind theme for the titular gang, a pack of zoot-suited cartoon rodents who smoke like chimneys, talk with New York accents, and act as enforcers for Judge Doom. There’s an odd sense of comedy to Silvestri’s central motif for the weasels, which sees different parts of orchestra bouncing around off each other, performing a trilling four-note motif that moves between clarinets, strings, and a soprano trumpet. As they are all usually seen on screen together Doom’s theme regularly combines with the light comedy of the Weasel motif, creating an atmosphere that is sort of amusing, but also has a clear sense of ominous danger to it too – a difficult balancing act to pull off. The dramatic final few minutes of the “judge Doom” cue underscores one of the most traumatic scenes of my childhood, in which Doom summarily executes a terrified squeaking cartoon shoe by dropping it in ‘dip’ – the only thing that can kill an animated character.

“Jessica’s Theme” is a seductive and sultry piece for Jessica Rabbit, the “ultimate male fantasy, as drawn by a cartoonist,” a visual amalgam of Rita Hayworth’s figure, Veronica Lake’s hair, and Lauren Bacall’s voice. Silvestri’s music is a sizzling theme for saxophones and pianos backed up by a jazz combo, and half way through the piece there’s a wonderful interlude for femme fatale strings; she’s not bad – she’s just drawn that way. Interestingly, considering that he is he eponymous star of the movie, the only person who doesn’t seem to have a personal character theme is Roger himself, which is a curious decision by Silvestri, but it doesn’t seem to affect the score in any real negative way.

The other significant part of the score is action music. “No Justice for Toons,” the first significant action cue, is full of life and movement and creative orchestrations that make wonderful use of the full sonic palette. Silvestri’s writing is still ‘light’ in terms of its overall tone, but the music is also dense and complicated, and often employs a spiky, insistent edge that makes use of oddly-metered rhythms, woodwind trills, and clattering xylophones in the percussion section. One particular recurring motif moves through much of the action music, a sort of tremolo effect which is first heard in this cue on flutes, before shifting to strings at the 30 second mark. The subsequent “Toontown” features yet more vibrant and colorful action music, this time underpinned by an oompah beat, but again featuring densely packed orchestrations, including some especially rich writing for the woodwinds and a set of throbbing drums. There’s a brilliantly zany motif that runs through the entirety of this piece as a motif for the character Benny the Cab – a wisecracking cartoon taxi which acts as Eddie’s getaway car. Benny’s motif dashes across the different instruments, offset by moments of sneaky skullduggery, hints of both Doom’s theme and the Weasel motif, and a raucous piano-led version of the Investigation Theme.

The film’s action climax comes in “The Gag Factory,” which opens with magical chimes and a mood of dark mystery in the strings to accompany the revelation about Judge Doom’s true identity; the weasel motif interjects frequently, before it all heads off into a surprisingly epic-sounding action sequence for the full orchestra. The tremolo motif from earlier in the score comes back here for ridiculously fast flutter-tongued brass that has to be heard to be believed – listen to the writing at 1:45 especially, and how insane those horns are! Everything builds to a rollicking climax as Doom and the Weasels first try to kill Eddie with a steamroller, and then try to drown Roger and Jessica with a dip-cannon; Silvestri’s writing here has clear stylistic similarities to the bold orchestral music Silvestri wrote for the aforementioned Back to the Future and Predator, and which he would later go on to write in scores like The Abyss, Super Mario Bros., Death Becomes Her, and others – it’s just brilliant.

Everything comes to a head in “The Will,” a warm a melody-filled finale that emerges as the villains are defeated and the inhabitants of Toontown celebrate with a bold, heroic brass fanfare and sweeping strings. The “End Title” offers a super recapitulation of most of the score’s main themes, beginning with a wonderfully upbeat arrangement of Eddie’s theme full of classic Hollywood zip and pizzazz, followed by a full-on burlesque striptease version of Jessica’s theme, and then a couple of minutes of the wonderfully frantic action music including a reprise of Benny the Cab theme, a brief sequence of Western pastiche, and more of that astonishing flutter-tongued brass writing. The whole thing builds to a rousing final fanfare, ending the score on a high.

Buena Vista’s original album is rounded out by a number of songs and pieces of source music. “Hungarian Rhapsody (Dueling Pianos)” is an anarchic version of the classic Liszt piece, performed in character by Tony Anselmo and Mel Blanc as Donald Duck and Daffy Duck, respectively, during the sequence in the ‘Ink and Paint Club’ where the two ferocious fowl face off across a set of mistreated Steinways. “Why Don’t You Do Right?” is the song for the famous set piece where Amy Irving, in character as Jessica Rabbit, proves beyond doubt that cartoon characters can be erotic by slinking her way through this classic sultry blues ballad for the Ink and Paint Club’s male patrons. “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down (Roger’s Song)” is a depiction of Roger’s unbridled wackiness, as an in-character Charles Fleischer lisps and stutters his way through a bizarre variation on the classic song that fronted all the Looney Tunes cartoons since their creation in the 1930s. “Smile, Darn Ya, Smile!” is performed at the very end of the movie, immediately before the credits roll, by the inhabitants of Toontown, as a nostalgic tribute to one of the very first Merrie Melodies animated shorts, dating back all the way to 1931.

The original album for Who Framed Roger Rabbit went out of print almost immediately after it was released in 1988, and throughout the 1990s and 2000s it was a rare and highly prized collectible until it was finally re-released in 2007. A surprisingly decent-sounding bootleg of the complete score emerged into the market around 2005, but this was finally rendered obsolete in January 2018 when Intrada Records released a magnificent 3-CD set of the complete score, re-mastered for crisp sound, and featuring numerous bonus cues and alternates, including the scores for the the standalone Roger Rabbit shorts scored by Bruce Broughton and James Horner. Although I have always been fond of the concise original album presentation, Intrada’s album is a revelation, as it really emphasizes the depth and quality of Silvestri’s writing, especially in the action-heavy final half hour.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a landmark score in Alan Silvestri’s career, and should take pride of place in the collection of anyone who admires his music. His depiction of 1940s Hollywood through a series of original jazz pieces is wonderfully authentic, the inter-weaving character themes give the score intellectual depth, and the action writing is some of the best of Silvestri’s early career, especially when it combines his trademark orchestral flamboyance with the jazzy period riffs.

Buy the Who Framed Roger Rabbit soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Maroon Logo (0:19)
  • Maroon Cartoon (3:25)
  • Valiant & Valiant (4:22)
  • The Weasels (2:08)
  • Hungarian Rhapsody (Dueling Pianos) (written by Franz Liszt, arranged by Alan Silvestri, performed by Tony Anselmo and Mel Blanc) (1:53)
  • Judge Doom (3:47)
  • Why Don’t You Do Right? (written by Joseph McCoy, performed by Amy Irving) (3:07)
  • No Justice for Toons (2:45)
  • The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down (Roger’s Song) (written by Dave Franklin and Cliff Friend, performed by Charles Fleischer) (0:47)
  • Jessica’s Theme (2:03)
  • Toontown (1:57)
  • Eddie’s Theme (5:22)
  • The Gag Factory (3:48)
  • The Will (1:10)
  • Smile, Darn Ya, Smile! (written by Jack Meskill, Charles O’Flynn, and Max Rich, performed by the Toon Chorus) (1:17)
  • End Title (Who Framed Roger Rabbit) (4:56)
  • Main Title (0:30)
  • Maroon Toon Logo (0:18)
  • Cartoon (4:01)
  • Hitch-Hike (2:17)
  • Cloverleaf (1:05)
  • Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (written by Franz Liszt, arranged by Alan Silvestri) (2:57)
  • Why Don’t You Do Right? (written by Joseph McCoy, performed by Amy Irving) (3:07)
  • Eddie Breaks In (1:28)
  • Patty Cake (0:53)
  • The Eye (0:13)
  • I Needed That/Work Here Finished (1:20)
  • Valiant & Valiant (2:07)
  • Fire in the Hatch/Scene of the Crime (1:06)
  • Shoes on the Loose (0:33)
  • Judge Doom/Looking For a Murder (4:05)
  • The Weasels (2:20)
  • The Glass (1:07)
  • Strange Bedfellows (2:44)
  • Toon Patrol/Search the Place (3:23)
  • I’m A Pawn (2:00)
  • The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down (Roger’s Song) (written by Dave Franklin and Cliff Friend, performed by Charles Fleischer) (0:47)
  • But I’m A Toon/Looking for Murderer (4:38)
  • Execution (1:46)
  • Got Ya, Kid (2:59)
  • Toon Killed My Brother (1:16)
  • Have a Good Man (0:17)
  • R.K. Maroon (4:03)
  • The Getaway (2:49)
  • Toontown (6:07)
  • Acme Factory/Roger Fanfare/Ton O’ Bricks (5:16)
  • Start the Dip (2:09)
  • Eddie’s Theme (5:17)
  • The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down (Instrumental) (written by Dave Franklin and Cliff Friend) (2:09)
  • The Kick/The Climbing (2:02)
  • Toon Magnet (0:25)
  • Steamroller (5:43)
  • Hole in the Wall (0:46)
  • Saved (2:56)
  • Big Kiss/Smile, Darn Ya, Smile (written by Jack Meskill, Charles O’Flynn, and Max Rich, performed by the Toon Chorus) (2:03)
  • End Credits – Roger Rabbit Medley (Film Version) (6:32)
  • Maroon Toon Logo (Without Logo Slide) (0:17) BONUS
    Hollywood 1947 (1:00) BONUS
  • I’m A Pawn (Alternate) (2:00) BONUS
  • Toon Killed My Brother (Alternate #1) (1:18) BONUS
  • Toon Killed My Brother (Alternate #2) (0:54) BONUS
  • Trumpet Fanfare (0:04) BONUS
  • Hole In The Wall (Alternate) (0:19) BONUS
  • Saved (Alternate) (2:41) BONUS
  • Rollercoaster Rabbit (score from the animated short film by Bruce Broughton) (6:37) BONUS
  • Trail Mix-Up (score from the animated short film by Bruce Broughton) (8:21) BONUS
  • Tummy Trouble (score from the animated short film by James Horner) (6:47) BONUS

Running Time: 45 minutes 57 seconds (Original)
Running Time: 129 minutes 06 seconds (Expanded)

Buena Vista/Touchstone CD013 (1988)
Intrada ISC-397 (1988/2018)

Music composed and conducted by Alan Silvestri. Performed by The London Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations James Campbell. Recorded and mixed by Dennis Sands. Edited by Kenneth Karman. Score produced by Alan Silvsstri. Expanded album produced by Douglass Fake

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