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LONESOME DOVE – Basil Poledouris

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Lonesome Dove, an epic western mini-series based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Larry McMurtry, was one of the television successes of the year after it premiered on CBS in the spring of 1989. Directed by Simon Wincer and starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones, and set in the closing years of the Old West, the story focused on the relationship between Gus (Duvall) and Call (Jones), two retired Texas Rangers who decide to leave their quiet town on the Mexican border and drive a herd of cattle north to Montana. McMurtry’s original novel – which explores themes of old age, death, unrequited love, and friendship – was based on a screenplay that he had co-written with Peter Bogdanovich for a movie that was intended to star John Wayne, James Stewart, and Henry Fonda, but the project collapsed when John Ford advised Wayne to reject the script. Prior to its airing, the ‘classic western’ was considered to be a virtually dead genre, but Lonesome Dove almost singlehandedly re-vitalized it. The series drew staggering viewership numbers of more than 20 million homes, went on to win 7 Emmys from 18 nominations (including Best Director and a slew of technical awards), and paved the way for the cinematic resurrection of the genre with Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves in 1990 and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven in 1992.

One of the technical Emmys won by Lonesome Dove was for its score, written by the late great Basil Poledouris. Despite writing numerous sensational scores in his career – titles like Conan the Barbarian, Robocop, Starship Troopers, Les Misèrables, and others spring to mind – the Lonesome Dove Emmy was the only ‘major’ award Poledouris received during his lifetime, which with the benefit of time and experience now appears to be a heinous oversight. However, at least we can say that the Emmy people got their decision absolutely right. Lonesome Dove is wonderful, a massive canvas of thematic beauty that takes the classic Hollywood western sound of composers like Elmer Bernstein and Jerome Moross, and merges it with the compositional stylistics that Poledouris showcased on all his most popular scores. Imagine Big Wednesday, The Blue Lagoon, Farewell to the King, Free Willy, or The Jungle Book, relocated to the vast expanses of the American west. There are sweeping themes that match the enormous landscape vistas and are interspersed with moments of character-based poignancy and intimacy, and enlivened with a dash of period folk music charm, and even a moment or two of barnstorming action. It is mostly written for orchestra, but occasionally it dips into the musical traditions of the period, making use of an ensemble of solo instruments including fiddles, guitars, banjos, hammered dulcimers, and an accordion. It’s all superb.

Everything is anchored around the “Theme from Lonesome Dove,” which for my money is one of the greatest pieces Poledouris ever wrote. It’s actually four themes played sequentially; it emerges slowly from out of the first one, an elegiac trumpet solo with a hint of militaristic melancholy, before moving into the second one at 1:11, a folksy piece for the full orchestra, and then the third (and best) one at 2:00, a broad and majestic melody that speaks to everything the series stands for: the nobility of the protagonists, the grandeur of the landscape, the scope and epic nature of their journey. The harmonies and orchestrations are simply gorgeous, flowing effortlessly from brass to strings and back again. The fourth theme begins at 2:55 and is a more romantic, gentle piece for woodwinds backed with harp glissandi and soft strings.

These four themes form the backbone of the score, with the majority of each of the subsequent tracks being a variation of one of them in some form or another. “Jake’s Fate” presents some darker material, a sad little theme for guitar ensemble and orchestra which laments for the untimely death of one of the rangers’ former comrades, who falls in with a gang of would-be bank robbers and effectively signs his own death warrant. There is more romance in the lovely “Arkansas Pilgrim,” a trio of themes for two of the women – Diane Lane and Anjelica Huston – who eventually grow to be the emotional center of the rangers’ worlds, and for the dogged Sheriff played by Chris Cooper whose pursuit of one of the rangers is a major plot point in the story. Clara’s theme is gentle, romantic, thoughtful, but a little downbeat, and features a clarinet backed by strings. Sherriff July’s theme is a classic knee-slapping hoedown filled with raucous fiddles, banjos, and a hammered dulcimer. Lorena’s theme is quieter, filled with soft flutes and strings, and has a slightly withdrawn attitude that suits the personality of Diane Lane’s shy hooker with a heart of gold.

“The Leaving” offers a striking variation on the second theme for soft strings which comes across as being introverted, and a little reticent, before switching to a lovely oboe solo full of heartfelt longing. The second half of this cue then presents a jaunty little march that foreshadows the music Poledouris would write for the film Quigley Down Under less than a year later, and is sure to delight fans of that score. Similarly, the sensational “On the Trail” offers a sumptuous statement of the third theme that is basically the musical embodiment of the American west and its sweeping panoramas; later in the cue there is a reprise of Clara’s pretty romance theme that moves between assorted woodwinds, a dangerous-sounding sequence that emphasizes guitars and banjo, and finally a folk-music like piece for guitars that sounds like an adaptation of an old protestant hymn.

There are also some tremendous action sequences, a Poledouris specialty, the best of which is “Night Mares,” which underscores the scene where two of the other cowboys (Danny Glover and Ricky Schroder) rustle a couple of hundred head of horses and cattle from the Mexicans just across the Rio Grande, to provide the animals for the drive north. The cue is outstanding – an array of flashing strings, bold brass calls, and robust action percussion rhythms replete with cymbal clashes – and is so full of life. The surprising interlude for mariachi trumpets and castanets is clearly a little nod to the Mexicans who have their livelihoods whisked from right under their noses! Later, “Murdering Horse Thieves” offers action in a little more introspective fashion, a collision of strummed guitars, rattling percussion, and solo fiddle.

The conclusion of the score begins with “Gus & P-Eye/The Search,” which begins with an intimate variation on the second theme for the folk ensemble, but eventually becomes much more urgent in its second half, full of determined percussion rumbling and turbulent orchestral textures. “Captain Call’s Journey” is epic, dramatic, and emotional, and features all four of the main themes playing against each other, sometimes contrapuntally. Poledouris’s writing for strings, solo oboe, and solo trumpet is gorgeous, and the swells in the orchestra coincide with moments of high drama, giving the cue both a sense of catharsis and some real emotional weight. A massive statement of the main theme ushers in the conclusive cue, “Farewell Ladies/Finale,” which again intertwines several of the main themes accompanied by warm harmonies. It all builds to an exciting finale, anchored by a final reprise of the horse-rustling action material.

Despite the success of the show itself, the score for Lonesome Dove was not released at the time, and fans of the music had to wait until 1993 when the obscure record label Cabin Fever produced a CD containing just over 45 minutes of the score’s highlights. Considering that Poledouris wrote more than four hours of music for the show, this presentation could be considered somewhat paltry, but this was apparently Poledouris’s personally-curated playlist of what he considered to be the score’s highlights; the music is indeed superb, but does leave you wanting more.

Five years later the fledgling record label Sonic Images released an expanded version, with four additional cues totaling just over 10 minutes of new music. “Cowboys Down The Street” begins with a honky-tonk piano version of the fourth theme before switching to a banjo duet performing a folk melody that sounds like a cross between ‘Glory Glory Hallelujah (The Battle Hymn of the Republic)’ and ‘She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain’. “Statue/Deets Dies” – spoiler alert! – is an extended exploration of sorrow and regret for strings and flutes. “Sunny Slopes of Yesterday” is a pastoral folk melody for woodwinds and guitar. “Gus Dies” – spoiler alert again! – is similar in tone to “Deets Dies,” and is anchored by a solemn, bittersweet rendition of the second theme for oboe and strings. This release remains the recommended version of the score, although a significantly expanded version down the line would be welcome.

Anyone who has a fondness for the sound of the classic Western, and who wants to hear that sound blended with the wonderfully broad and thematic style that Basil Poledouris often employed in his scores, would do very well to add Lonesome Dove to their collection. It compares well with the most rewarding efforts of this most musically rich genres, and in terms of Poledouris himself, whose career was filled with storied scores, Lonesome Dove is right up there with the very best.

Buy the Lonesome Dove soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Theme from Lonesome Dove (5:14)
  • Jake’s Fate (2:16)
  • Night Mares (Deets, Newt) (3:57)
  • Cowboys Down The Street (2:17) – Sonic Images exclusive
  • Statue/Deets Dies (3:05) – Sonic Images exclusive
  • Arkansas Pilgrim (Clara, July, Lorena) (4:31)
  • Sunny Slopes of Yesterday (1:59) – Sonic Images exclusive
  • The Leaving (3:31)
  • On The Trail (6:47)
  • Murdering Horse Thieves (1:17)
  • Gus & P-Eye/The Search (5:28)
  • Gus Dies (2:35) – Sonic Images exclusive
  • Captain Call’s Journey (7:19)
  • Farewell Ladies/Finale (5:43)

Running Time: 45 minutes 51 seconds (Cabin Fever)
Running Time: 55 minutes 59 seconds (Sonic Images)

Cabin Fever CFM-972-2 (1989/1993)
Sonic Images SID-8816 (1989/1998)

Music composed and conducted by Basil Poledouris. Orchestrations by Greig McRitchie and Scott Smalley. Recorded and mixed by Dan Wallin, Shawn Murphy and Bobby Fernandez. Edited by Tom Villano. Score produced by Basil Poledouris. Cabin Fever album produced by Basil Poledouris, Tim Boyle and Tony Jones. Sonic Images album produced by Basil Poledouris and Ford A. Thaxton.

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