Home > Reviews > SEA OF LOVE – Trevor Jones

SEA OF LOVE – Trevor Jones

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review byJonathan Broxton

Sea of Love was a slightly sordid murder-mystery thriller directed by Harold Becker. Al Pacino stars as Frank Keller, a burned-out alcoholic New York City police detective who finds himself involved in the case of a serial killer, who finds victims through the singles column in a newspaper. As the bodies rack up and the investigation continues, Keller meets Helen (Ellen Barkin), the sexy manager of an upscale shoe store, who he meets on the job during a sting operation to identify potential suspects. Against his better judgment Keller embarks on a relationship with Helen – until the evidence begins to support the idea that Helen is the killer. The film co-starred John Goodman and Michael Rooker and was a box office success; critically, it was favorably compared with similar movies like Body Heat and Jagged Edge, and now fits comfortably into the ‘femme fatale’ genre that also includes movies like Basic Instinct. By the way, the title of the film is a reference to the 1959 song of the same name by Phil Phillips with the Twilights; the killer has a calling card where a 45RPM LP of the song is left playing in the victim’s home after the crime.

The score for Sea of Love is by South African composer Trevor Jones, who at that point in his career was making significant headway into Hollywood off the back of scores for popular and acclaimed films like Labyrinth, Angel Heart, and Mississippi Burning. However, Jones’s score is not the main musical focus of the film: it’s the titular song, “Sea of Love,” written in 1959 by George Khoury and Phillip Baptiste, and performed by Phil Phillips with the Twilights. The song is a good one – a laid back, classic pop/R&B ballad with poetic lyrics, doo-wop harmonies, and a languid melody – but it’s everywhere in the film, and is heard so frequently that it’s very easy to become sick of it. Not only that, the song often plays to accompany increasingly grisly crime scene visuals, creating a somewhat unsettling Pavlovian response in the listener whenever it pops up, which was probably the director’s point. It is heard three times in the soundtrack; two identical performances by Phillips at the beginning and end of the disk, and a gravelly, throaty cover version by Tom Waits that is heard over the movie’s end credits.

Jones’s score is very much of its time. It’s written mostly for synths and guitars, overlaid with a sultry, rain-slicked, dirty-sounding saxophone melody. The three performances of the theme – the “Main Title Theme” and the two “Theme Reprise” tracks – are essentially identical, and appear on the album as frequently as they do simply to pad out the album’s running time, and to ensure the theme remains prominent in the listener’s memory through sheer repetition. I actually like the theme quite a lot; the underlying bass line is funky, the use of bongos and tapped hi-hat cymbals in the percussion adds a little something to the sound palette, and the saxophone performance seems to perfectly capture the hangdog nature of Al Pacino’s character. There is something a little seedy about him, as if he is more than a little damaged, and the music speaks to this.

The rest of the score tends to be quite low key and understated. Like the underlying part of the main theme the score is all synth, performed and arranged by Jones with an eye on adding a layer of dangerous mystery to the relationship between Frank and Helen. The saxophone main theme appears in the score too, but it is not as prominent as one might expect, and when the theme is absent the score loses a lot of the pep in its step, and instead is relegated to playing a clear supporting role, all atmospherics with little of note to liven it up. “Poetic Killing” is the score’s longest cue, and it begins in low-key fashion, little more than a series of electronic drones and agitated rhythmic ideas. A saxophone duet kicks in after the first minute or so, playing a variation on the main theme that has some tonal echoes of David Sanborn’s contribution to Lethal Weapon. The final third of the cue underscores the first on-screen murder; Jones’s subtle synth strings give the music a little more emotion, even if it is on the more morose side, while the industrial pulses and throbbing percussion rhythms give the murder itself a palpable tension. It’s worth also noting how Jones uses the distant, muted saxophone wails from the Sea of Love song melody underneath the electronic drones, mirroring the murderer’s calling card.

The rest of the score is, basically, more of the same: electronic textures and synth drones occasionally enlivened by the main sax theme. In “Cocktails and Fingerprints,” which underscores the first meeting between Frank and Helen during the restaurant sting operation, the main theme is underpinned with high wavering synth strings which give it a sort of romantic vibe, but also clearly has a dangerous undercurrent. This cue also introduces a recurring 6-note action motif in the second half that carries through several other cues as the score progresses.

In “Fear & Passion” the main theme is performed in a slow, introspective variation for keyboards, with sax improvisations over the top, raspy and sultry. Once the ‘Passion’ part kicks in – for the moment where Frank and Helen do the horizontal mambo for the first time – the music initially sounds sexy, a rock/disco variant of the main theme underpinned with pop percussion beats and electric guitar chords. However, despite the best efforts of the aggressively sweaty Pacino and Barkin, the music quickly becomes almost unbearably cheesy, coming across like a parody of the boom-chicka sex music from a million porno movies. In fact, this music could almost be the inspiration for that entire sub-genre of soundtracks, so instead of making fun of it, perhaps I should be congratulating Jones for his prescience and influence.

“Helen’s 45’s” revisits the action motif from “Cocktails and Fingerprints,” and is intense and full of potential danger, capturing Frank’s increasing unease about Helen’s involvements in the murders; the version of the saxophone main theme heard here is underpinned by a bed of metallic industrial percussion to add a layer of antagonism to their relationship. “Is She or Isn’t She?” is little more than an extended suspense piece for synth drones, percussion, and wind ideas that sound like someone blowing over an open glass bottle; it has some tension and drama, but at more than three minutes in length it drags a bit. Things come to a head during the conclusive “The Attack,” wherein the identity of the killer is revealed and they are eventually brought to justice. The encounter is underscored with an intense set of throbbing, pulsating metallic rhythms which clatter and hammer furiously, but perhaps sound a little overly-chaotic. The 6-note action motif returns for one final flurry, before eventually ending on a low moody drone.

One thing that longtime fans of Trevor Jones’s music will notice is how unlike all his most popular scores Sea of Love is. Although he had already written some terrific orchestral scores at this point in his career – things like Excalibur and The Dark Crystal spring to mine – Jones wrote Sea of Love in that period when he was still embracing dark electronic soundscapes rather than the fully-orchestral action that would endear him to so many during the 1990s. Truthfully, this side of Jones’s personality has never been especially appealing to me, but Sea of Love is probably the most interesting of his 1980s synth efforts, and providing you can reconcile your expectations with the reality of Jones fully un-ironically embracing full-on sexy saxophone cheese, this would be the one I would recommend to anyone wanting to explore this part of his career. The soundtrack was released on Mercury Records at the time the film was released, and is readily available as a digital download from most online retailers, although physical copies of the original CD are quite rare these days.

Buy the Sea of Love soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Sea of Love (written by George Khoury and Phillip Baptiste, performed by Phil Phillips & The Twilights) (2:21)
  • Main Title Theme (3:03)
  • Poetic Killing (5:58)
  • Cocktails and Fingerprints (1:59)
  • Fear and Passion (3:32)
  • Theme Reprise (3:03)
  • Sea of Love (written by George Khoury and Phillip Baptiste, performed by Tom Waits) (3:45)
  • Helen’s 45’s (3:47)
  • Theme Reprise (3:03)
  • Is She or Isn’t She? (3:18)
  • The Attack (3:28)
  • Sea of Love (written by George Khoury and Phillip Baptiste, performed by Phil Phillips & The Twilights) (3:31)

Running Time: 39 minutes 43 seconds

Mercury Records 842-170-2 (1989)

Music composed and arranged by Trevor Jones. Recorded and mixed by John Richards. Edited by Dan Carlin. Album produced by Trevor Jones.

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