Home > Reviews > THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN – Michael Kamen

THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN – Michael Kamen

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The fictional German aristocrat Baron Hieronymus Karl Friedrich Freiherr von Munchausen was created in 1785 as a conduit for author Rudolf-Erich Raspe’s fanciful tales of absurdity and social and political satire. Munchausen had been a familiar name in literary circles for more than 200 years before writer-director and former Monty Python member Terry Gilliam embarked on making a film based on the ‘life’ of the Baron. A lavish and almost cartoonishly flamboyant adventure, the film stars John Neville as the elderly Baron, who interrupts a play based on his own life in order to correct the details. Munchausen regales the rapt audience with recollections of his astonishing life, during which he fought in a war against the Turks, traveled to the moon in a hot air balloon, was swallowed by an enormous sea creature, and much more besides – but by the end of the story many of the audience members are questioning whether the far-fetched tales really have any basis in reality. The film co-starred Eric Idle, Sarah Polley, Oliver Reed, Uma Thurman, Jonathan Pryce, and Robin Williams, and was the third of Gilliam’s Imagination trilogy of films that also included Time Bandits and Brazil, and which were intended to explore the ‘battle between fantasy and what people perceive as reality’. Unfortunately the film was a commercial disaster, grossing less than $10 million at the box office, although its visual elements were praised and received Academy Award nominations for Art Direction, Costume Design, Visual Effects, and Makeup.

The score for The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was by the UK-based American composer Michael Kamen, who had worked with Gilliam before on Brazil, but was now very much in demand as a Hollywood action composer following the success of scores such as Highlander, Lethal Weapon, and Die Hard. Interestingly – and possibly uniquely – Kamen was incredibly critical of his own work on this film. In an interview that James Southall and I did with Kamen in 1998, he revealed “I probably should have been fired from The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, because I was determined to make as convoluted and complex and baroque a score – it was actually the age of reason, not the age of baroque – and my score was so encrusted, it was so busy, and Terry Gilliam was so busy, that every frame was weighted down by the music, not enhanced by it, and that’s my own self-critique.” It’s quite extraordinary for a composer to be so hard on himself in that way, especially when the score is in no way as bad as he would have you believe. Yes, it’s very busy and complicated and ornate, but it’s also wonderfully detailed and interesting, full of fascinating orchestral passages and instrumental combinations, stylistic ideas, and moments of boundless creativity.

The soundtrack album comprises eleven suites of music, each of which is made up of between two and six separate cues spliced together to make a seamless, flowing whole. Some people will hate this approach to soundtrack album production, especially those who like to clearly identify specific pieces of music and the scenes they relate to, but I actually find myself quite enjoying the approach here. It helps, too, that Kamen’s music is superbly entertaining, with a new theme, new texture, or new rhythmic pattern around every corner. One drawback to this, though, is that some may find the music hopelessly unfocused. This is actually a quite valid criticism – Kamen jumps from style to style endlessly, layers densely-packed group of instruments on top of each other in almost every cue, and never writes one note in a cadence when ten would do. There are two main themes associated with Baron Munchausen himself – a vibrant trumpet voluntary fanfare and a more elegant waltz – plus sub-themes and instrumental ideas related to numerous characters, including the Sultan of Turkey, the goddess Venus, and the King of the Moon. Each of these motifs swirl about in an endlessly churning soup of elaborate orchestral ornamentation, which some (like me) will find thoroughly engaging, whereas others will be driven insane by its almost complete lack of narrative focus.

The first cue, “In the Town (In the Theatre),” comprises three sub-cues – ‘The Statue in the Square,’ ‘The Land of Cheese,’ and ‘Beautiful Ladies’ – and introduces many of the score’s recurring ideas, including the regal heraldic fanfares that follow Munchausen around the film, and the ever-present baroque harpsichords, which speak to the film’s period setting. It’s all very fanciful, whimsical, and gently comedic. The second cue, “The Sultan,” actually begins with a trio of comic songs, ‘The Torturer’s Apprentice,’ ‘A Eunuch’s Life is Hard,’ and ‘Play Up and Win the Game,’ each of which were co-written and are performed with gay abandon by Eric Idle in hilarious falsetto, Gilbert & Sullivan by way of Monty Python. The burping sounds in the final song really need to be heard to be believed. The conclusive score part of the cue introduces the first iteration of the faux-middle eastern textures for the Sultan of Turkey, a mass of violins, pizzicato ideas, and exotic percussion rhythms.

Action music dominates much of the middle section of the album, notably through the cues “The War Begins,” “Wednesday,” and “Balloon”. Each of the cues returns regularly to the bold and noble Munchausen fanfare, as it is the Baron who continually dominates the story, but throughout each of the cues Kamen continually finds ways to bring new and interesting instrumental and rhythmic ideas to the table. The ‘Sally Runs’ portion of “The War Begins” is very much rooted in the action style that fans will recognize from subsequent scores like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and The Three Musketeers; the writing is bold and dramatic, full of booming chords, choppy strings, and some very familiar Kamen chord progressions. Likewise, there is so much going on in “Wednesday” that it’s hard to know what to pinpoint – the florid woodwind writing in ‘Cannonball Ride’ is just superb, while in ‘Twinkling of an Eye’ Kamen offsets his flashy and effervescent orchestral stylings with resounding brass calls and low, imposing woodwinds.

“Balloon” may actually be my favorite cue in the score. The opening ‘Escape in the Balloon’ sequence pits throaty brass against a mass of chaotic percussion and harpsichord accents, amid regular statements of Munchausen’s theme on rich trumpets. There is a sense of freedom and openness in the soaring strings that perfectly encapsulates the euphoria of the Baron’s impending journey up into the stratosphere. The music briefly becomes a flighty baroque dance in ‘Tattletale’ before returning to the thrilling action style in ‘Ascending on Bloomers’ – more bright brass fanfares, more trilling snare drums, and more stylistic similarities to Robin Hood and Three Musketeers, all given a sense of optimism and a slightly quirky sound with the use of chimes, triangles, pizzicato textures, and the ubiquitous harpsichord. Once the Baron is ‘On the Way to the Moon’ the music becomes magical, mystical, almost romantic, full of warm strings and harp glissandi, but the conclusive ‘Storm’ is dangerous-sounding, with agitated overlapping string figures and intrusive synth sounds which give it an unearthly feel. The whole cue is a master class in orchestration and arranging,

Then we come to what is possibly the weirdest cue of Michael Kamen’s entire career – “On the Moon,” which is made up of the sub-cues ‘The Sea of Tranquility,’ ‘Moon King Chase,’ and ‘Leaving the Moon’. This sequence underscores the scene in which the Baron has an encounter with the King of the Moon (a totally madcap Robin Williams), and Kamen goes all-out in the peculiarity stakes to capture this truly bizarre meeting. The whole thing is unusual and eerie, and makes use of sampled sounds like a ticking clock and water drops, alongside odd distorted synth textures and sound effects. The ‘Moon King Chase’ is a completely wacky march played with what sounds like toy instruments, augmented with a circus calliope, kazoos, and swannee whistles, which genuinely has to be heard to be believed. The finale of the cue intentionally references Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, because of course it does.

“Vulcan and Venus” returns from the brief diversion into musical insanity and provides prominent performances of two of the score’s major sub-themes. ‘Venus Rising’ features a beautiful theme for the embodiment of the Roman goddess of fertility, an elegant and pretty piece full of magical strings, harps, chimes, and fluttering woodwinds; the melody again clearly informs several of Kamen’s love themes, notably Maid Marian’s theme from Robin Hood and the main romantic theme from What Dreams May Come. The subsequent ‘Munchausen Waltz’ is highly classical, and a little pompous, but is full of rich orchestrations, fluid string runs, twittering woodwinds, and resounding brass which gets very full and flamboyant as it develops. “In the Belly of the Whale (The Gang Together Again)” is one of the score’s more serious pieces, in which Kamen uses religioso choral textures, liturgical and lamenting, and develops them to incorporate numerous dramatic instrumental ideas, as well as wind effects, cymbal rings, and howling strings. Towards the end of the cue the Munchausen fanfare erupts and celebrates their Jonah-like escape from the whale, and it’s off to the final battle to save the city from the Sultan.

“The Final Battle” is an extravaganza of full-on orchestral action, in which the musical ideas for the Sultan collide with the Munchausen fanfare and the Munchausen waltz, and gradually build into a rampaging and dynamic action sequence filled with blaring horns, swirling strings, and harpsichords, which Kamen uses as part of the percussion section underneath the action. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone use a harpsichord in the way Kamen uses it here, as an integral part of an action sequence, and it’s quite brilliant. Several moments within the cue feature aggressive clusters of brass intensity, raging percussion, and cymbal rings, and it’s often quite unexpectedly brutal. The endless crescendos build through the final two sub-cues, ‘Berthold Chases the Bullet’ and ‘Albrecht and the Boats,’ until everything changes in the penultimate cue, “The Baron Dies and Lives Again”. Here, Kamen uses dark, rasping combination writing for cellos and bassoons to illustrate what appears to be Munchausen’s demise at the hands of the nefarious Horatio Jackson – the owner of the theater putting on the play about Munchausen’s life. The finale of the cue features some very solemn liturgical choral writing, with lyrics courtesy of Kamen’s wife Sandra Keenan Kamen.

Thankfully, the film has a happy ending in “Victory,” which is celebratory and extravagant. There are a few subtle references to the Moon music that come via the unusual electronic sounds and toy instruments, but this barely interrupts the glorious and rousing nature of the cue. As ‘The Baron Rides Off Into the Sunset’ Kamen revisits the main Munchausen theme, glorious and optimistic, while the harpsichord adds a little sense of whimsy and magic. The brass fanfares that conclude the score will, as I mentioned before, please fans of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, The Three Musketeers, and Mr. Holland’s Opus enormously.

The score album for The Adventures of Baron Munchausen has been a rare collectible ever since it was first released, and physical copies of it still sell for ridiculous prices on the secondary market to this day; add this to the list of scores which are in dire need of rescuing, re-mastering, and re-releasing for modern audiences. Anyone who is fortunate enough to find themselves in possession of this will find a score that showcases Michael Kamen at his most vibrant. Yes, it’s true that in the context of the film Kamen likely over-egged the pudding and contributed a little to the film’s failure, but the music itself is something else. As I said earlier, some will find its lack of focus and tendency to do every single thing it can do simultaneously to be hopelessly overwhelming, but speaking personally I have always found myself drawn to the relentless energy, passion, and effort that Kamen showed in making this score everything it could be.

Since his death in 2003 at the ridiculously young age of 55, an entire generation of young film music fans have grown up not knowing what it was like to have this masterful composer around writing new music, which is a great shame. While other scores may be thematically stronger, more emotionally direct, or more dynamically bombastic, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen saw Kamen at his most ostentatious and creative, and that’s something sadly missing from too much film music today.

Buy the The Adventures of Baron Munchausen soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • In the Town (In the Theatre) (3:31)
  • The Sultan (4:31)
  • The War Begins (5:58)
  • Wednesday (2:39)
  • The Balloon (7:37)
  • On the Moon (7:36)
  • Vulcan and Venus (7:59)
  • In the Belly of the Whale (The Gang Together Again) (3:42)
  • The Final Battle (4:29)
  • The Baron Dies and Lives Again (3:20)
  • Victory (2:55)

Running Time: 54 minutes 22 seconds

Warner Brothers Records 9-25826-2 (1989)

Music composed and conducted by Michael Kamen. Orchestrations by Michael Kamen, John Fiddy, Edward Shearmur, Fiachra Trench and Rick Wentworth. Featured musical soloists Alan Arnold and Michael Kamen. Recorded and mixed by Eric Tomlinson and Stephen McLaughlin. Edited by Chris Brooks. Album produced by Michael Kamen.

  1. mike
    April 25, 2019 at 5:46 pm

    This is my favorite Kamen score. The waltz is enchanting, and I love the main hero theme for the Baron. I hope someday they release a new version of this score.

    The recent rerecorded suite on the Kamen compilation totally missed the mark, imho

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