Home > Reviews > THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST – John Williams


February 22, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Accidental Tourist is a romantic drama film directed by Lawrence Kasdan, adapted from the acclaimed novel by Anne Tyler. It stars William Hurt as Macon Leary, an introverted travel writer whose relationship with his wife Sarah (Kathleen Turner) begins to break down after the death of their son. Sarah eventually leaves him and moves out, pending a divorce, and when Macon breaks his leg after tripping over his disobedient dog and falling down the stairs, he moves back into his childhood home with his eccentric siblings to recuperate. After a while, Macon hires the quirky Muriel Pritchett (Geena Davis) as a dog obedience trainer; despite the enormous differences in their personalities, a spark of attraction develops between the two, and they begin a relationship. However, Macon’s new life is thrown into turmoil when Sarah returns, wanting to re-kindle their marriage, forcing Macon to make some difficult decisions. The film was an enormous critical success, earning Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, and winning Geena Davis an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

The score for The Accidental Tourist is by John Williams, who also earned an Academy Award nomination for his work, although he ultimately lost the prize to Dave Grusin and The Milagro Beanfield War. The score was the first in a series of smaller-scale scores which, at the time, many people saw as Williams making a conscious effort to move away from the large-scale action adventures with which he had become synonymous, and write something a little smaller, subtler, and more intimate; he would explore similar ideas often over the next few years in scores like Stanley & Iris and Always. The Accidental Tourist is certainly a very different work from things like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Witches of Eastwick, and Empire of the Sun, which he had written in the years immediately preceding this. It’s a mono-thematic work built around a small core of instrumental ideas that generally avoids grand theatrics and bold emotional gestures, concentrating instead on the quieter emotions that the protagonist feels when confronted with the affections of these two vastly different women.

The single theme is split into three parts – an A phrase, a B phrase, and a C phrase – each of which can be played independently of the other two, or can combine to make one of six or seven patterns, depending on how Williams structures his cues. The A phrase is the main theme for Macon, and it’s tone and demeanor perfectly depicts the character of a man whose emotions are detached from the world; introverted, hesitant, perhaps even a little dour. The B phrase is a syncopated countermelody that often plays underneath the A phrase, especially whenever Williams wants to make us remember the spark of energy that used to exist between Macon and Sarah, and which starts to re-emerge thanks to Muriel’s influence. The C phrase is a 4-note motif derived from the opening part of the A phrase, which tends to emerge when Macon’s mood is at its darkest. The instrumental palette is limited, comprising mostly strings, solo piano, soft French horns, a few other textures including woodwinds, and some electronics… and, basically, that’s your score. The whole thing is essentially a series of variations on these three thematic ideas, arranged for that small complement of instruments.

But that’s not to say that there are not several highlights. The “Main Title” is an appropriate opening, offering an introduction to the score’s thematic core ideas, albeit with a slightly downbeat attitude. The performance of the main theme in “Macon Alone” is lovely, moving seamlessly between solo piano and solo flute, and with a whimsical edge; some of the harp textures in this cue also remind me of the more intimate bonding moments between boy and alien in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.

“Trip to London” has a slightly more upbeat and enchanting undercurrent optimism, with little pulsating brass figures underneath the main melody that remind me a little of Empire of the Sun. “Fixing the Plumbing on a Rainy Afternoon” offers more lightness and charm, foreshadowing the music from the film’s finale with pizzicato textures, harp glissandi, and cheery woodwind accents. “Wedding Scene” has a pretty sheen of elegant romance, but ends with some very slightly discordant piano textures that speak a little towards Macon’s broken relationships.

“Back With Sarah” revisits some of the harp and piano textures heard earlier in the score, and combines them with very subtle electronics, which add yet another touch of quiet depression and isolation to Macon’s emotional state. The increased use of woodwinds, especially oboes, in “Bedroom Conversation” adds a seriousness and weighted drama to the proceedings, while the jazzier woodwind writing in “Rose and Julian” occasionally comes across as a prototype version of the scores he would create for things like The Terminal and Catch Me If You Can. Eventually, “A New Beginning” uses more urgent and insistent string runs underneath the main thematic ideas to allow the music to develop a deeper and more effective emotional resonance.

However, for me, by far the best cues on the album are “A Second Chance” and its verbatim reprise in the “End Credits”. It is here, when William Hurt’s character finally chooses to follow his heart and make the decision about which woman he wants to spend his life with, that Williams offers an emotional musical catharsis. The explosion of happiness – although still remarkably restrained when compared to his soaring love themes in other scores – feels like a glorious celebration of the rapture of love when compared to the music in the rest of the score. The thematic content is absolutely identical, but Williams adds in more prominent chimes, pizzicato strings, harp textures, and effervescent woodwind trills, allowing the score to end on a significant high.

The score for The Accidental Tourist was one of the first Williams soundtracks ever to appear on CD, on the Warner Brothers label, but it went out of print very quickly and the CD became a high-priced collector’s item throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, commanding often extortionate prices on the secondary market. The score was re-issued in 2008 by Film Score Monthly as part of their Silver Age Classics series, with re-mastered sound and new liner notes by Williams expert Jeff Eldridge, but no additional music; as of the time of writing, it appears to be still in print.

As much as I personally enjoy the score, and appreciate what Williams does with the core themes in terms of arrangement and approach, I can certainly understand how listeners more attuned to Williams’s more bombastic and flamboyant showstoppers would find The Accidental Tourist to be something of a letdown. The emotions on display are very understated, very subtle, with no real overt explosions of catharsis to be found until the very end of the score, and although the instrumental textures are undeniably lovely, they do tend to get a little ‘samey’ as the work progresses.

In terms of its Oscar nomination, I think that the combination of it being an acclaimed film, plus the fact that it was John Williams, is what pushed it into the final five in 1988 – personally, there are a number of scores I would have ranked ahead of it, not least of which are things like Willow, Hellbound: Hellraiser II, The Land Before Time, Big, Beetlejuice, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and several others. Despite this, The Accidental Tourist still comes with a recommendation, especially for anyone wanting to experience a much different side to John Williams’s musical personality.

Buy the Accidental Tourist soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (2:33)
  • Macon Alone (4:42)
  • Trip to London (1:55)
  • The Healing Process (5:10)
  • Fixing the Plumbing on a Rainy Afternoon (3:14)
  • A Second Chance (3:12)
  • Wedding Scene (2:51)
  • Back With Sarah (4:04)
  • Bedroom Conversation (4:33)
  • Rose and Julian (2:08)
  • A New Beginning (3:27)
  • End Credits (A Second Chance) (3:13)

Running Time: 41 minutes 31 seconds

Warner Brothers 9-25846-2 (1988)
Film Score Monthly FSMCD-11-6 (1988/2008)

Music composed and conducted by John Williams. Orchestrations by Herbert W. Spencer. Recorded and mixed by Dan Wallin. Edited by Ken Wannberg. Score produced by John Williams. 2008 re-issue produced by Lukas Kendall.

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