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HIGH SPIRITS – George Fenton

November 15, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

There are some movies where, when you see their plot summary written down, you wonder how they ever got made. One of those is the 1988 movie High Spirits, a bizarre comedy-adventure-romance about Irish ghosts. The film stars Peter O’Toole as Plunkett, the owner of a dilapidated castle in Ireland who comes up with a money-making scheme whereby he will convert the castle into a hotel, pretend that it is ‘the most haunted castle in Europe,’ and sell the idea to gullible American tourists. The scam is a success and the first group of unsuspecting vacationers – Steve Guttenberg, Beverly d’Angelo, Peter Gallagher, Jennifer Tilly – arrives, beguiled by the tales of Gaelic ghosties. However, to everyone’s utter shock, two real ghosts (played by Liam Neeson and Daryl Hannah) actually appear, and start becoming romantically attracted to two of the holidaymakers. The film was written and directed by Neil Jordan, the man behind such serious works as The Company of Wolves and Mona Lisa, and who would later go on to direct The Crying Game, Interview With the Vampire, and Michael Collins.

The score for High Spirits is by the great English composer George Fenton, and was written during that time period where he was beginning to transition from being a composer known only for BBC projects and costume dramas, and was being discovered by the Hollywood mainstream. It was his second collaboration with director Jordan, after The Company of Wolves in 1985. He would be nominated for his fourth Oscar this year, for Dangerous Liaisons, building on his work for Richard Attenborough on Gandhi and Cry Freedom, and within a couple of years would be scoring major box office fare like Memphis Belle and Groundhog Day. While Fenton has never been a composer who would shy away from writing a memorable theme, High Spirits is perhaps unique within his canon because the score is just so much fun – it’s a broad, expansive, engaging exploration of all the best Irish music clichés. It’s full of jigs and dances, pipes and fiddles, but also contains several wonderfully enthusiastic action sequences, a gorgeous choral romantic theme, and even some suspense and light horror music for the spooky goings on within Castle Plunkett.

The score was recorded in Munich with the Graunke Symphony Orchestra, who were fairly regular contributors to the film music scene at the time, augmented by several Irish soloists, including Paul Brennan on uilleann pipes and Dermot Crehan on fiddle, as well as vocalist Catherine Bott. Crehan, of course, would famously go on to perform the Irish fiddle solos for Howard Shore on the Lord of the Rings scores. Fenton built the score around five – yes, five – main themes, the majority of which are introduced in the opening cue, the “High Spirits Overture”. It begins with the Jig theme, a lively and spirited piece of merriment, which sounds fiercely Irish, is wonderfully energetic, and makes tremendous use of fiddles, uilleann pipes, pennywhistles, and a bodhrán drum. At 2:40 the piece segues into a second theme, the main action idea, which consists of a slightly militaristic A-phrase full of rousing brass and percussion writing, and a more fulsome B-phrase which begins at 3:03 and has a whooping, swashbuckling tone.

The final part of the Overture is the theme for Castle Plunkett itself, a more lyrical, elegant, but still playful motif for harps, strings, and a lead pennywhistle that conjures up potent imagery of emerald green fields and rolling hills. The final thematic ideas – and these are the ones which are not in the Overture – are the themes for Mary, the ghost played by Daryl Hannah whose supernatural romance forms the key emotional cornerstone of the story, and for Peter O’Toole’s character Plunkett, whose dreams of recapturing the former glory of his ancestral home are what initiate the entire story. Mary’s Theme is wistful, longing, and quite beautiful, especially when it features Catherine Bott’s superb, crystalline vocal performance. Meanwhile, Plunkett’s Theme is a gentle, refined waltz with sweeping strings and guitars, that comes across as being nostalgic for grander times past. As a frame of reference, Plunkett’s Theme has much in common with later works such as Dangerous Beauty and In Love and War, which possibly explains why I like it so much.

As I said, these themes form the cornerstone of the score, and they appear regularly throughout the body of the work. The “Prologue & Main Title/Castle Plunkett” opens with Bott’s gorgeous solo vocals, ethereal and enticing; the cue slowly segues into a statement of the Jig theme, manipulated to sound slightly distant and faraway, before smash cutting to the Action Theme – although the fact that it is overlaid by whooshing sound effects mars it a touch. “Plunkett’s Lament/Prayers For Freedom” is a lovely sequential combination of Plunkett’s Theme and Mary’s Theme, linking the two characters together through the history of the castle. “Ghost Bus Tours” – ha ha, clever – features some distant, lonely sounding writing for uilleann pipes which may remind some people of the more romantic parts of Braveheart, as well as a pretty statement of the Castle Theme, and a refrain of the Jig theme extrapolated for the full orchestra.

“She is Far from the Land” features a second statement of Plunkett’s theme, elegant and romantic, while “Bumps in the Knight” begins with some sneaky suspense music and light orchestral mickey mousing, but gradually grows into a clever combination of the Action themes and the Jig, jumping between brass fanfares and snippets of raucous Celtic ebullience. “I Could Love You, Sir Jack/Shower Surprise” is intimate and tender, and features some lovely romantic scoring for flutes, harpsichord, and hints of Mary’s theme, before ending with a slightly twisted waltz for saxophones which feels French, but isn’t.

“Knight Time at Castle Plunkett” is a major action sequence which begins, somewhat unexpectedly, with a tango, but gradually picks up various different elements of the Action motif. It’s sly, and mischievous, but achieves grandiosity and forward momentum through increased percussion rhythmic ideas, references to the Jig, and numerous flamboyant orchestral flourishes, including some terrific explosions of brass power.

Where these main themes are not present, Fenton has a great deal of fun exploring different parts of his orchestra in order to create some spooky ambiances. Cues like “Ghostly Reflections” and the first part of “Mary Appears” feature some shimmery, glassy synth ideas accompanied by harpsichord, harp, whistles, and other unusual orchestral effects, which make the music feel ancient and medieval. These eerie electronic ideas often appear in scenes where Mary takes on a corporeal form, and are sometimes accompanied by icy statements of her vocal theme that make her seem a little scary, but as the score progresses and Mary’s personality emerges these statements become warmer as the lead instruments transition to woodwinds or strings.

There are also a couple of additional action sequences, some of which are quite vivid. “Windstorm” uses a church organ, high swirling woodwinds, and a choir to represent the inclement weather, while the bold chanting and heightened percussion rhythms give it a sense of scale and bombast. Similarly, “The Wedding Night/Jack Saves Mary” has a superb sequence of percussive brass writing offset by Mary’s theme, while “Restless Spirits/The Seastorm” transitions from unsettling tonalities offset by harpsichord and pennywhistle to a more aggressive sequence full of undulating orchestral ideas and hints of the main Action theme.

The finale of the film is called “Madness on All Hallows Eve,” and it has a dark opening, full of menace and portent. It gradually builds into several consecutive statements of the Action theme and the Jig, bold and full throated. The arrangements of the themes here are rich and tempestuous, full of energy and panache, with lots of bold percussion, and marvelous brass accents. Although Fenton has written some tremendous action music in his career – some of my favorites are scores like Memphis Belle, Valiant, Fool’s Gold, and parts of things like The Blue Planet – he has never really been known for this type of writing, but I have to say that the stuff in High Spirits is terrific. The final two cues are more low key; “Falling in Love” combines romance with ghostly unease, Mary’s theme, and a pretty variation on the Jig featuring bittersweet violins that have a clear sense of loss and regret. “The Lovers Dance (Finale)” revisits the Castle Plunkett theme one last time, underpinned with snare drums, and a pretty fiddle solo in waltz-time.

Thirty years on, High Spirits is pretty much a forgotten movie these days. I mean, honestly, how many people out there knew that Peter O’Toole, Steve Guttenberg, Liam Neeson, and Daryl Hannah made a fantasy-action-comedy about Irish ghosts together? But, despite the relative obscurity of the film itself, George Fenton’s score should not be overlooked. The wonderful thematic interplay, the rich and fulsome Irish orchestrations, and the pervading sense of fun and good humor makes it one of the most rewarding scores of his entire career – it’s certainly one of my favorites. The score was released by GNP Crescendo Records on LP and CD shortly after the film was released, and physical copies of it are as rare as hen’s teeth these days, but it’s available to download and stream on most major platforms. It comes with an unequivocal and unhesitating recommendation.

Buy the High Spirits soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • High Spirits Overture (4:37)
  • Prologue & Main Title/Castle Plunkett (5:00)
  • Plunkett’s Lament/Prayers For Freedom (2:16)
  • Ghost Bus Tours (3:36)
  • Ghostly Reflections (1:04)
  • She is Far from the Land (1:39)
  • Bumps in the Knight (3:42)
  • Mary Appears/Windstorm/A Night for Lovers (5:27)
  • I Could Love You, Sir Jack/Shower Surprise (2:37)
  • Knight Time at Castle Plunkett (3:27)
  • The Wedding Night/Jack Saves Mary (2:34)
  • Restless Spirits/The Seastorm (6:12)
  • Madness on All Hallows Eve (4:41)
  • Falling in Love (4:22)
  • The Lovers Dance (Finale) (1:32)

Running Time: 52 minutes 49 seconds

GNP Crescendo Records GNPD-8016 (1988)

Music composed and conducted by George Fenton. Performed by The Graunke Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by George Fenton and Christopher Palmer. Featured musical soloists Paul Brennan and Dermot Crehan. Special vocal performances by Catherine Bott. Recorded and mixed by Keith Grant. Album produced by George Fenton and Ford A. Thaxton.

  1. November 14, 2018 at 10:09 am

    It’s been quite some time since I’ve seen that movie.

    Good looks don’t last forever BUT if you *really* love someone (and not just the looks) strange things can (and will) happen.

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