Home > Reviews > DEAD POETS SOCIETY – Maurice Jarre



Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

There have been a lot of great movies about inspirational teachers over the years, from Goodbye Mr. Chips in 1939 (and its musical remake in 1969), to Dangerous Minds and Mr. Holland’s Opus in the 1990s, but for my money the best of them all is Dead Poets Society. Directed by Peter Weir and written by Tom Schulman, the film is set at an elite all-male New England prep school in 1959, a stuffy establishment whose school motto – tradition, honor, discipline, excellence – tells you everything you need to know about the faculty. Everything changes when a new English teacher, John Keating, joins the school, bringing with him a brash and innovative philosophy that teaches students to think for themselves. Keating has a particular influence on a group of seven young men who, having been inspired by Keating’s love of classic poetry, form the eponymous society and begin to embrace their lives, loves, and ambitions more than they had ever done before. The film is anchored by an utterly astonishing lead performance by Robin Williams as Keating, who brings depth and emotion and sincerity and manic energy to what is, to my mind, the greatest role of his entire career. The young men of the society are also superb, notably Robert Sean Leonard as a boy whose passion for acting is constantly crushed by his overbearing father, and Ethan Hawke, who overcomes his crippling shyness as a result of Keating’s encouragement.

One aspect of the film which does not often receive much notice is the score, written by the great French composer Maurice Jarre. This was the fourth score that Jarre wrote for Peter Weir, following The Year of Living Dangerously in 1982, Witness in 1985, and The Mosquito Coast in 1986. As I have noted in several previous reviews of his work, the 1980s saw Jarre moving away from the sweeping orchestral scores he wrote for directors like David Lean and embracing instead a more progressive, electronic sound palette, no doubt partly inspired by the success of his son Jean-Michel as a solo artist in that arena. His work in this style was, for me, never entirely successful. Jarre was an old-school classical composer, much more at ease with an orchestra, and I often found his attempts at writing for synths to be somewhat clumsy, occasionally bordering on the amateurish. Dead Poets Society marked a bit of a turning point for Jarre; as one of his last scores of the decade it was also one of the last to be predominantly electronic as opposed to predominantly orchestral, and as he moved into the 1990s his classic symphonic sound began to return.

Interestingly, Dead Poets Society was for me also one of the rare instances where a Jarre hybrid score worked perfectly. Despite the period setting and overarching themes regarding poetry, literature, romance, and inspiration, Jarre’s judicious use of electronics in the palette actually suits the tone of the film. The whole point was that the members of the Society were rebelling against the conformist traditions of Welton College and embracing the kernels of what would eventually become the cornerstones of 1960s counter-culture: love, self-expression, rock and roll, and the beat poetry of people like Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. The emergence of electronic instruments to both complement and, in some cases, supplant traditional orchestral tones was new and exciting in the late 1950s, and Jarre uses that idea of electronica being revolutionary to illustrate the Society’s viewpoint. So, conceptually, the score works, but it’s musically interesting and emotionally strong too, which is something that Jarre never struggled with.

The complete score for Dead Poets Society has never been released, and instead fans of the music have had to settle for a scant four cues, running for a total of just over 16 minutes. The score is built entirely around a single recurring theme, a 9-note melody with various assorted embellishments to ensure it remains interesting in its various guises. The musical palette Jarre uses is quite restrained, comprising mainly a hammered dulcimer, a pair of harps, a flute, and various synthesizers which more often than not are programmed to mimic the sounds of the aforementioned instruments. Jarre uses the full orchestral ensemble sparingly, keeping it only for the most important emotional moments so that its impact is most effective.

The main theme is first introduced 10 seconds into the opening cue, “Carpe Diem,” and is initially heard on an EWI electronic woodwind accompanied by dulcimers, and thereafter moves backwards and forwards between real harps, real flutes, the dulcimer, and the synths, each taking turns at carrying the melody. The theme itself is unexpectedly delicate, and almost feels like it might break; the gossamer strands of the melody pick away at the core idea behind the cue title – carpe diem, seize the day, make your lives extraordinary – as Keating tries, little by little, to add the alien concepts of confidence, curiosity, and the fulfillment that comes with a rich and rewarding life, to the mindset of his students. These boys are unsure of themselves, often browbeaten and dominated by their parents, and the music speaks to their fragile egos. It’s fascinating to juxtapose this arrangement of the theme to the one in the in the film’s finale; but we’ll come to that later.

This arrangement of the theme also pulls double duty as a theme for Welton Academy itself, often accompanying establishing shots of the school’s grounds, sun-kissed in the summer, bathed in brilliant golds and reds in the autumn, the grass dusted with snow and the lake covered in ice in the winter. As much as it speaks to the emotional state of the boys, the theme also represents the state of the traditionalist values of the place itself, and how easily they would break under the weight of Keating’s optimism and boundless encouragement.

“Neal” is not a specific theme for Robert Sean Leonard’s character Neal Perry, but is an application of the main theme to represent him. Neal is the catalyst of the entire story – a brilliant student, sensitive and deep-thinking, prone to emotional extremes of both melancholy and euphoria. Jarre arranges the main theme for a series of beautiful, impressionistic flute and harp textures that illustrate the central issue of Neal’s story: how his own personal desires, specifically his love and passion for acting, conflict directly with those of his father, who has planned Neal’s entire life for him without actually consulting with the subject himself. They are poignant, longing, and more than a little sad, a perfect depiction of the turmoil hidden just beneath the character’s agreeable, charming surface.

Interestingly, these flute and harp textures are heard prominently in an un-released cue that accompanies Neal’s fateful performance as Puck in a community theater staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Jarre clearly intended this combination of instruments to relate to Neal specifically. Later, though, Jarre abandons them entirely in favor of ice-cold and abrasive electronics for the scene where Neal (spoiler alert) commits suicide, having been entirely unable to reconcile with his father. This cue is also, sadly, unreleased.

“To the Cave” is an interesting cue, entirely electronic, which accompanies the scene where the seven boys escape from their school dormitories in the dead of night and head for ‘the old Indian cave’ in the woods nearby, where the meetings of the Dead Poets Society take place. Jarre uses multiple layers of eerie, moody, pulsating synths to accompany the boys on their journey; the evocative scenes of flashlight beams cutting through the midnight gloom as the boys run across the fields are given a hint of ominousness and danger that is quite palpable. This excursion is forbidden – possible grounds for expulsion – and they are risking everything to live by the DPS creed: quoting Henry David Thoreau, they say “I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life. To put to rout all that was not life and not, when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived.” The music knows this, and acts accordingly.

The final cue, “Keating’s Triumph,” is the music for the film’s finale, where Keating – having been fired from Welton in the aftermath of Neal’s death – returns to his classroom to collect his things, and is confronted by his students, Neal’s friends, being taught English by the school headmaster. Jarre’s music nails the emotion of this scene perfectly. He begins by stating the main theme as it has always been – frail, reserved, conveyed by harps and flutes – but as it develops it slowly builds and becomes more forthright, as the confidence instilled in the students by Keating finally comes to fruition. This is the tonal juxtaposition I alluded to earlier. Now, with each successive refrain of the main melody, the orchestra slowly begins to come in to replace the electronics. Deep, booming chords and rumbling percussion hits accompany the footsteps of each of Keating’s students as, one after the other, they climb atop their desks to salute him, exclaiming ‘O Captain My Captain’ like a barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world. The unexpected skirl of bagpipes accompanies the final shot of respect and acknowledgement between Keating and Ethan Hawke’s character, Todd, as the film melts into the end credits. The rest of the cue is a stunning set of further recapitulations of the main theme – bagpipes, fifes and drums, an elegant English-sounding bridge for strings, and then successive performances of the main theme arranged, finally, for the full orchestra. It’s just magnificent, one of the most moving cinematic finales of the decade, and Jarre’s music is a massive part of its impact.

There have been several releases of the Dead Poets Society score, all of which include those four cues. The Milan album also includes a performance of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Fritz Reiner, which was used in a montage sequence where Keating supervises a poetry-themed football (soccer) training session; it is then paired with half an hour or so of music from Jarre’s score from The Year of Living Dangerously. The Varese Sarabande album does not include ‘Ode to Joy’, but instead features suites from the three other scores Jarre wrote for Weir: The Mosquito Coast, Witness, and The Year of Living Dangerously.

However, despite the excellence of the music as it exists, Dead Poets Society is a score in desperate need of an expansion. There are so many superb unreleased cues: not only the ones I already mentioned earlier for Neal’s suicide, and the Midsummer Night’s Dream performance, but for several other key scenes too, including the scene where Neal and Todd discuss the ‘desk set’ birthday present, and Todd’s emotional reaction to Neal’s death. Until that day, though, I cannot recommend this score highly enough. Although I’m sure my view of the score has been given a positive kick by my deep love of the film itself, no-one can deny that Maurice Jarre’s music contributes so much to the whole thing, or that the finale cue remains – for me – the most glorious contribution to film music Jarre made in the entire 1980s. As Keating himself says in one of his most passionate speeches; “medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life… but poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” I would add great music to that list too.

Buy the Dead Poets Society soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Carpe Diem (4:44)
  • Neal (3:16)
  • To the Cave (2:33)
  • Keating’s Triumph (5:52)

Running Time: 16 minutes 36 seconds

Milan CDCH-558 (1989/1990)
Varese Sarabande VSD-5270 (1989/1990)

Music composed and conducted by Maurice Jarre. Orchestrations by Patrick Russ. Recorded and mixed by Shaun Murphy and Joel Moss. Edited by Dan Carlin. Score produced by Maurice Jarre. Milan album produced by Emmanuel Chamboredon. Varese album produced by Robert Townson and Tom Null.

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