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GORILLAS IN THE MIST – Maurice Jarre

November 21, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Dian Fossey was a conservationist and animal expert whose special focus was to study and protect African mountain gorillas. Having been inspired by another famous anthropologist, Louis Leakey, Fossey left her job in San Francisco and relocated to the remote jungles of Congo and Rwanda, where she established a research center in order to study these endangered creatures. As the years passed Fossey made several important breakthroughs and became world famous for her work, but also made many enemies, including poachers who hunted for gorilla artifacts, and members of the Rwandan government who opposed her increasingly violent responses to the poaching. Eventually, after more than twenty years working in Africa, Fossey was found dead in her cabin, apparently having been murdered; her assailants still have never been positively identified or tried. The film Gorillas in the Mist tells the true story of Fossey’s life and death; it stars Sigourney Weaver in the lead role, features Bryan Brown and Julie Harris in supporting roles, and is directed by Michael Apted.

The score for Gorillas in the Mist is by French composer Maurice Jarre, and represents the only time he and Apted worked together. Jarre went through an interesting phase in the 1980s where he wholeheartedly embraced electronic music and synthesizers, most likely as a result of the success of his son Jean-Michel as a recording artist in the same medium. As a result Jarre wrote a series of unusual mostly-electronic scores for films you would not expect – Witness, Fatal Attraction, The Year of Living Dangerously, and Dead Poets Society among them. Gorillas in the Mist is another one that can be included in that list, but where it differs from the others is in its simultaneous use of live orchestra and African tribal elements.

To put it bluntly, I never thought Jarre’s electronic writing was very good. Usually you can tell where a composer’s true strength lies. Some composers are superb at writing for orchestras, bringing out the nuances in the different instruments, coaxing delicate performances out of the musicians. Other composers are excellent at synth programming, meticulously placing layers of sound over each other to create a cohesive whole, making it sound seamless and organic. Some rare composers excel at both these techniques but, unfortunately, Jarre was not one of them. He was an old school orchestral romanticist at heart, as scores like Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago attest; to me, his electronics always sounded clunky, and badly-arranged. You could tell that his music was written for violins, or horns, and then transplanted to keyboards, instead of being written for keyboards in the first place. This difference is subtle, but detectable, because no matter how hard you try you can’t make a 1980s synthesizer sound like an actual violin or an actual oboe. The phrasing is off, somehow. The people who excelled at this sort of thing – Harold Faltermeyer, Brad Fiedel, Giorgio Moroder, eventually Hans Zimmer – wrote for keyboards first and understood what they can and cannot do.

This is why Gorillas in the Mist is such a mixed bag. On the one hand, when Jarre is noodling around with his keyboards, the music feels under-stated, under-composed, almost amateurish. On the other hand, when he brings out and fully embraces his orchestra, the music soars. The soundtrack album, on MCA Records, comprises six long suites lasting anywhere between three and fourteen minutes in length, and each of them offer a wide array of styles and approaches within them. Each cue is a mix of electronic and acoustic music, African tribal rhythms, cello solos, action music and moments of emotional pathos and celebration, fully orchestral outbursts, and long sequences of electronica performed by an all-star group of keyboardists including Mike Boddicker, pianist Ralph Grierson, composer and arranger Rick Marvin, and virtuoso percussionist Emil Richards.

The opening cue is “African Wonderment,” which begins with tribal drums that segue into a stirring performance of the score’s main theme, full of heraldic brass fanfares, swirling strings, and dancing woodwind accents. This is Jarre’s love letter to the visual majesty of the setting – the lush jungles, majestic mountains, and epic valleys that the gorillas call home. As the cue progresses there are more evocations of traditional African music – claps, chants, percussion items, ethnic flutes – which combine with more traditional Western orchestral phrases and extended interjections from the electronics. Some of the electronic textures get a bit abstract and grating as the cue enters its sixth minute, and just before the 8 minute mark there is an explosion of synth brass as part of an action sequence that is truly awful. Thankfully, the warmer tones of his orchestra are never far away, and it ends on a mostly pleasant and pastoral note for sampled woodwinds, although there remains a hint of danger from the percussion underneath it all, most likely as an auditory representation of the poachers. However, what’s frustrating about the cue is that, other than in those opening moments, Jarre never seems to settle on a theme: the music just sort of wanders around, hinting at the beginnings of themes or recurring motifs, but it never really develops any of them fully. This is a problem for me across the score as a whole.

“Black Magic” is a cue with which some people will fail to connect. Its three minutes of ambient electronic drones overlaid with percussion thumping and fluttering woodwind textures; no themes, all atmosphere. As a frame of reference, it reminds me of the music James Horner was writing for scores like Vibes and Where the River Runs Black, but without the upbeat rhythmic core, or the subtle thematic references. Things pick up again in “Making Contact,” in which Jarre returns to the main theme, and allows his electronics to adopt a sparkling tone full of wonderment and magic. However, the actual samples themselves still sound dreadfully amateurish to my ears; there’s a jaunty trumpet interlude around the 2:00 mark, the effect of which is ruined by the utterly god-awful electronic action sequence that follows it – I could charitably call it a jumbled mess, but that would be almost too mild a description. In essence, it sounds like all the players brought cats into the studio, let them all walk on their keyboards simultaneously, and then they recorded what happened.

“Tenderness and Turmoil” begins with a performance of the main theme on cello accompanied by shimmering electronic textures that is actually quite lovely. It is all surrounded by watery and dream-like textures for woodwinds, harp, and synths that seek to illustrate the warm, loving relationship that Fossey developed over the years with her gorillas – specifically Digit, the male silverback which led the group she studied most closely. Playful, dance-like flute lines and warmer electronic tones reinforce this relationship; a short sequence for what sounds like a didgeridoo introduces a hint of menace; and the cue ends on a solemn note where solo cello lines combine with an eerie synth statement of the main theme. This segues into what is the most unsettling music on the album, “The Death of Digit,” which revisits the guttural, appallingly chaotic action music first heard in “Making Contact,” but this time somehow works in sounds which appear to be sampled ape cries and yelps, and 1980s video game sound effects. Of course, this scene was devastating in the film – the poachers successfully killing Fossey’s most beloved gorilla friend – but the music is all manner of haphazard, and fails to do justice to the gravity and seriousness of the moment. There are a few brief moments of more organized-sounding music, including one where the main theme is underpinned by a battering ram of powerful jungle drums, and a few moments of reflection and sadness, but mostly it’s noisy and overly-aggressive and dreadfully unfocused.

Thankfully the final cue, “Gorillas in the Mist,” is where Jarre finally throws off his self-imposed electronic shackles and allows his music to reach some truly majestic orchestral heights. This is the Jarre I loved, the Jarre of Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, who allowed his main theme to be carried by majestic brass, sweeping strings, rhapsodic pianos, harp glissandi and tubular bells – the full might of emotion that the orchestra could muster. In fact, this one cue is so superb that it almost – almost – saves the score entirely. The curious would do well to download or somehow acquire this one piece and allow it to be representative of the entire score, because it’s so much better than everything else it could be from a different film altogether.

Gorillas in the Mist secured Maurice Jarre his eighth Academy Award nomination (although he lost on the night to Dave Grusin and The Milagro Beanfield War), and actually won the Golden Globe. The Academy was prone to making inexplicable Best Score decisions in the 1980s, both in terms of nominees and winners, and the fact that these two were nominated over significantly superior scores like James Horner’s Willow, Christopher Young’s Hellraiser II, Horner’s The Land Before Time, Alan Silvestri’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Danny Elfman’s Beetlejuice, and half a dozen others, almost defies belief. Gorillas in the Mist was a good film – a great film, perhaps – and it’s clear that Jarre and his music was simply swept along with the critical acclaim it received for its acting, directing, and writing.

Scores like this frustrate me so much. Of course I understand that using electronics and keyboards to score a film is as perfectly valid an artistic choice as any other approach, but my problem with Maurice Jarre is that, with just a few exceptions, his electronics were just so badly realized, so poorly put together, that no amount of orchestral brilliance could overcome those failings. He was truly magnificent at writing for orchestra – one of the all time greats, as that final eponymous cue attests – but the fact that he spent so long in the 1980s trying to write electronic music that was clearly beyond his capabilities is one of the great mysteries in film music history.

Buy the Gorillas in the Mist soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • African Wonderment (14:23)
  • Black Magic (3:13)
  • Making Contact (5:53)
  • Tenderness and Turmoil (9:41)
  • The Death of Digit (5:49)
  • Gorillas in the Mist (5:06)

Running Time: 44 minutes 05 seconds

MCA Records MCAD-6255 (1988)

Music composed and conducted by Maurice Jarre. Orchestrations by Patrick Russ. Featured musical soloists Michael Boddicker, Ralph Grierson, Judd Miller, Mike Fisher, Dan Greco, Rick Marvin, Nyle Steiner, Emil Richards and Alex Acuna. Recorded and mixed by Joel Moss. Edited by Robin Clarke. Album produced by Maurice Jarre.

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