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A FISH CALLED WANDA – John Du Prez

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

A Fish Called Wanda is one of the best comedies of the 1980s – one part romance, one part crime caper, one part English farce – which teams several members of the classic Monty Python comedy troupe with several popular American stars. Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline play Wanda and Otto, American jewel thieves in London who, along with stuttering getaway driver Ken (Michael Palin) and East End gangster George (Tom Georgeson), plan an elaborate diamond heist. However, in-fighting and double-crossing within the gang leads to George being arrested, which proves to be a problem for everyone else as he is the only one who knows where the loot has been stashed. In order to get information about the location of the diamonds, Wanda decides to seduce George’s barrister, Archie Leach (the irrepressible John Cleese), a repressed middle-class Englishman stuck in a loveless marriage. Archie, flattered by the attention, immediately falls for Wanda, but shockingly Wanda also finds herself genuinely attracted in return – which causes more friction within the gang, not least because Otto and Wanda are also secretly lovers themselves.

The film was directed by the then 77-year-old Charles Crichton, a veteran of Ealing comedies from the 1940s and 50s, and was co-written by Crichton and Cleese. The film was an enormous critical and popular success, and for good reason, starting with the cast led by Cleese, Curtis, Kline, and Palin. All four actors enjoy career highs here; Cleese is wonderfully relatable as the downtrodden everyman who finds a new lease of life through his relationship with the feisty and sexy Curtis, Kline is outstanding as the reactionary and unstable wannabe intellectual who is actually a dumb as a bag of rocks, and Palin is hilarious as the stuttering dogsbody who loves animals, but can’t seem to stop accidentally killing them. Some of the lines have gone down in cinematic history, especially Otto’s bizarre factual errors (“the London Underground is not a political movement”), while the actual fish-eating scene – involving a hungry Kline, a tasty-looking angel fish, and Palin with chips stuck up his nose – was apparently so hilarious that it made a man in Denmark die laughing. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, eight BAFTAs, and three Golden Globes – Kline won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, while both Cleese and Palin took home BAFTAs for their performances.

The score for A Fish Called Wanda was by English composer and virtuoso trumpeter John Du Prez – his real name is Trevor Jones, but he was obliged to change it to avoid confusion with the South African composer of the same name. Du Prez has had a varied career: he was a member of the popular 1980s pop group Modern Romance, and has been a long-time musical collaborator with the Monty Python gang alongside people like Eric Idle, John Altman, and Neil Innes. His Python-related films include work on The Life of Brian, The Meaning of Life, A Private Function (starring Palin), Personal Services (directed by Terry Jones), and Time Bandits (directed by Terry Gilliam), but internationally he is probably best known for his scores for the three popular 1990s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies, as well as for the stage musical Spamaot, for which he won a Grammy and was nominate for a Tony in 2005.

The score for A Fish Called Wanda is a fun and lively orchestral score inflected with touches of rock and pop, as was the way of romantic comedies in the 1980s, plus a few standalone one-timers which raise the roof with their comedic timing and clever lyrical undertones, and some especially notable performances by the acclaimed Australian virtuoso guitar player John Williams (yes, the other one).

The first cue on the original 1988 album is actually the “End Titles” piece, which may give unwary listeners a completely wrong idea of what the score is about. The piece is an extended variation on Wanda’s Theme, built around Williams’s gorgeous central performance, but which is enlivened – positively or negatively, depending on your point o view – by a host of stereotypical 1980s light rock arrangements including prominent saxophones, keyboards, light drums, and electric guitars. It’s a perfect snapshot of the period , but it sounds terribly dated thirty years later, coming across like a large-scale version of the theme from the 1980s British TV soap opera Eldorado.

Thankfully things change for the better very quickly with the “Main Title,” a bold and flamboyant piece which plays over the film’s opening montage. It begins with a rich and slightly pompous orchestral fanfare for the initial establishing shots of London, and Archie in court in his robes and wig, before moving into the a series of quick-fire statements of several of the score’s main elements: the main action theme at 0:29, a very brief introduction to the funk orchestrations of Otto’s theme at 0:45, the sparkling motif for the diamonds at the heart of the story at 0:51, a second statement of the English fanfare as Ken is introduced at 1:03, and the first performance of Wanda’s theme at 1:20 as Wanda the fish – not Wanda the human – appears, before the piece concludes with a funky piece bass guitars, which is heard over footage of more fish. The fact that Du Prez was able to cram so much thematic material into a cue less than three minutes in length is outstanding, and it sets the tone for the score to come, which is much more thematically complex than one might imagine.

Many people will be taken with the action and suspense music, which is unexpectedly great. “Robbery” is a finger-snapping cue built around a wonderful repeated action motif that is usually heard on throbbing strings; Du Prez surrounds it with a bank of brassy horn licks that have their roots in those wonderful jazz scores written for British TV in the 1970s and 80s – shows like The Sweeney, The Bill, Dempsey and Makepeace – which were full of groovy percussion licks and jazzy keyboard lines. Cleverly, this cue also incorporates frequent statements of the diamond motif juxtaposed against the rhythmic core, leaving the listener with no doubt as to what is at stake during the heist. The subsequent “George Arrested” introduces a second idea, a suspense motif, which is performed by nervous plucked harp ideas offset by layers of ominous strings and wailing electric guitars.

The other most prominent theme is, of course, for Wanda herself, and is most often used to underscore the relationship she initiates with Archie, which begins with duplicity and underhanded motivations, but gradually transforms into real affection. The melody is usually carried by John Williams’s gorgeously expressive guitar, flanked by a bed of strings and occasionally a piano, and ironically it reminds me very much of the music from the 1997 film For Roseanna, which was scored by the *other* Trevor Jones. However, this is not a one-and-done piece, and to his credit Du Prez is clever enough to subtly change the emotional weight of the theme depending on the scene in question. In “Wanda Meets Archie,” for example, the theme is hesitant, a little coy, perhaps a little dreamy. Later, in “Wanda Visits Archie at Home,” the theme becomes more conventionally romantic, while in “Wanda Meets Archie at Flat, Part 1” the theme is happy, sunny, and full of life.

“Archie’s Sadness” appears after his relationship with Wanda is revealed to his wife, thereby wrecking his marriage, and conveys the characters emotions with a stunningly beautiful variation of the theme for cello and harp. The subsequent “Wanda Meets Archie at Flat, Part 2” is more than a little bittersweet, with the strings sounding a little strained and the guitar melody coming across as more than a little downcast. The fact that Du Prez gets so much emotional mileage out of such a simple theme with no more than key changes and imperceptible tweaks to the orchestration is very impressive indeed.

Otto has his own theme too, a funky electric bass and guitar combo with an urban groove that speaks to the character’s own view of himself – that of a physical and intellectual badass not to be trifled with. Cues like “First Encounter With Otto” and Empty Safe” feature his theme prominently, while later cues cleverly blend his theme with another one. In “Otto Jealousy,” for example, his theme is blended with a re-orchestrated version of Wanda’s theme for piano and harp to underline their relationship, while in “Archie’s Robbery” Otto’s theme is cleverly blended with the Suspense motif, which is performed using Otto’s orchestrations.

One of the funniest aspects of the story is the recurring joke involving Michael Palin’s character Ken, who is tasked by George to assassinate a little old lady named Mrs. Coady, as she is the only witness to his crime. Unfortunately Ken, who is an animal lover, only succeeds in accidentally killing her beloved little Yorkshire terriers, one by one, in a variety of alarming ways. Ken’s three attacks on Mrs. Coady are underscored with the three “Assassination” cues; the first one is underscored with the basic Action Motif, the second one is scored with an even more forceful version of the Action Motif full of tremolo strings and resounding brass accents, while the third is built around the Suspense Motif, and has a slightly James Bond-ish tone that builds to dramatic climax. Interspersed between these action sequences are several statements of a theme for “Ken’s Sadness,” a tender, longing piece for oboe and harp that is unexpectedly lovely, and tries to convey just how distraught Ken is at accidentally ending the lives of these hapless canines. Best of all is the “Choir Boys” piece, a reworking of the Ken’s Sadness theme for solo choirboys which is performed at each dog’s funeral, and has Latin lyrics which read ‘miserere dominum, canis mortus est’ – lord have mercy, the dog died.

Two further standalone pieces showcase Du Prez’s largely unheralded knack for full-scale orchestral grandeur. “Sword Ballet” is a wonderful Korngold-esque piece of swash and buckle that speaks to Otto’s overly-aggrandized opinion of himself, while the subsequent “Humping” is a hilarious exercise in comedic overstatement. Here, Du Prez’s gloriously over the top orchestral writing accompanies the hilarious sequence in which Otto’s vigorous sexual engagement with Wanda in all its boot-sniffing, self-flagellating, opera-singing excess, is juxtaposed against Archie’s dreary home bedroom life of old socks, toenail clippings, and flannelette nightgowns. Du Prez’s music rises and falls with Otto’s majestic thrusting, and climaxes when he does, in all his cross-eyed orgasmic glory.

The score – and film – concludes with an extended chase sequence around Heathrow Airport, in which Archie and Wanda (the human) eventually jet off on a plane to South America together, while Ken squashes Otto into wet cement with a steamroller in glorious revenge for the demise of Wanda (the fish). “Chase, Part 1” sees the action motif being performed with the guitar orchestrations from Wanda’s theme, which gives it a slightly exotic flavor and possibly foreshadows Archie and Wanda’s preferred getaway destination. “Chase, Part 2,” on the other hand, sees the action motif arranged with a stronger rock element, being performed contrapuntally again the suspense motif (for Ken) and with Otto’s orchestrations via a wailing guitar. Yet again, Du Prez shows an unexpectedly sophisticated touch in how he combines different thematic and instrumental ideas, depending on who is in the scene and what the scene is about. Not many comedy scores go this extra mile, and it makes A Fish Called Wanda all the more impressive as a result.

The score for A Fish Called Wanda was originally released on vinyl LP, cassette, and CD at the time the film was released but – bizarrely – only in France on the Milan label, under its French title Un Poisson Nomme Wanda. Because of this the score was a rare collectible for most of the 1990s and early 2000s, and this may be the reason why the score is so infrequently mentioned in lists of great 1980s comedy scores. The French soundtrack label Music Box Records released an expanded version of the score in 2017 featuring additional soundtrack cues, a more logical album presentation, and various bonus cues, presented in a smart package. As the original album is still rare, this album is likely to be the only one collectors will find, but it’s more than worth the investment.

While some may find A Fish Called Wanda’s overall sound too steeped in the musical clichés of the 1980s, I think that dismissing it on that basis alone would be a mistake. John Du Prez’s score shows a surprising amount of intelligence and complexity in how the different instrumental and thematic ideas combine, the action music is fun and exciting, and the main love theme for Wanda and Archie is lovely. Overall, I think that this score is one of most entertaining comedy scores of the decade, and I recommend it heartily.

Buy the Fish Called Wanda soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • REGULAR RELEASE
  • End Titles (3:16)
  • Main Title (2:34)
  • First Encounter With Otto (0:30)
  • Robbery (2:27)
  • George Arrested (1:15)
  • Empty Safe (0:46)
  • Wanda Meets Archie (0:38)
  • Otto Jealousy (0:42)
  • Sword Ballet (0:53)
  • Humping (2:09)
  • Wanda Visits Archie at Home (2:16)
  • Assassination, Part 1 (0:22)
  • Choir Boys (0:25)
  • Wanda Meets Archie at Flat, Part 1 (1:14)
  • Assassination, Part 2 (0:41)
  • Wanda Meets Archie at Flat, Part 2 (1:42)
  • Assassination, Part 3 (0:55)
  • Ken’s Sadness (0:46)
  • Chase, Part 1 (1:35)
  • Chase, Part 2 (2:37)
  • A Fish Called Wanda Suite (14:57)
  • COMPLETE EXPANDED SCORE
  • Front Titles (2:43)
  • Hatton Garden Robbery (2:26)
  • George Returns (0:28)
  • George Arrested (1:20)
  • Archie’s Briefcase (0:21)
  • Treasure (0:51)
  • Archie’s Chambers (0:40)
  • Wanda Leaves / Sword Practice (1:04)
  • Humping Montage (2:08)
  • The Note (0:25)
  • Mrs Cody’s Knickers (0:51)
  • Wanda Visits Archie (2:17)
  • Dog Attack I (0:24)
  • Choir Boys Requiem I (0:25)
  • Wanda Meets Archie at Apartment I (1:15)
  • Dog Attack II (0:45)
  • Choir Boys Requiem II (0:25)
  • Archie’s Burglary (1:12)
  • Wanda Meets Archie at Apartment II (1:41)
  • Archie’s Sadness (0:41)
  • Otto’s Apology (0:35)
  • Dog Attack III (0:55)
  • Ken’s Sadness (0:46)
  • Chase from the Courthouse (1:36)
  • Heathrow Airport (2:29)
  • Humiliation (1:00)
  • Limey Cement (0:21)
  • Buongiorno Signorina (1:15)
  • End Titles (3:22)
  • A Fish Called Wanda Suite (15:06)
  • Front Titles (Early Stage) (2:43) – Bonus Outtake
  • This is Otto (0:30) – Bonus Outtake
  • Empty Safe (0:48) – Bonus Outtake
  • Archie’s Briefcase / Otto is Suspicious (0:39) – Bonus Outtake
  • Something Funny Going On (0:12) – Bonus Outtake
  • Identity Parade (0:29) – Bonus Outtake
  • Sword Practice (Early Version) (0:53) – Bonus Outtake
  • The Note (with Drums) (0:25) – Bonus Outtake
  • Wanda Visits Archie (with Piano) (2:17) – Bonus Outtake
  • Otto Blunders in (0:31) – Bonus Outtake
  • Otto at the Window (0:47) – Bonus Outtake
  • Otto Goes to Apologise (0:38) – Bonus Outtake
  • Chase from the Courthouse (Unplugged) (1:35) – Bonus Outtake
  • Otto Theme (1:20) – Demo
  • Love Theme (3:16) – Demo
  • Love Theme Song (performed by Rick Driscoll) (3:01)
  • Love Theme Song (performed by John Cleese) (1:26)

Running Time: 42 minutes 02 seconds (Original)
Running Time: 71 minutes 17 seconds (Expanded)

Milan CDCH-376 (1988)
Music Box Records MBR-122 (1988/2017)

Music composed and conducted by John Du Prez. Featured musical soloist John Williams. Recorded and mixed by Dick Lewzey. Edited by Peter Holt. Score produced by John Du Prez and André Jacquemin. Expanded album produced by Cyril Durand-Roger and Laurent Lafarge

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