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OLD GRINGO – Lee Holdridge

September 12, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Old Gringo was intended to be a lavish Mexican epic film marking the English-language debut of Argentine filmmaker Luis Puenzo, whose film La Historia Oficial had won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1985. It was based on an acclaimed novel by Carlos Fuentes and starred Gregory Peck as Ambrose Bierce, an ageing acclaimed writer who moves to Mexico just prior to the outbreak of the Revolution in 1910. Bierce is dying of a terminal illness, but keeps it secret as he wants to end his days on his own terms. He befriends a revolutionary named Arroyo (Jimmy Smits), and also crosses paths with an American schoolteacher named Harriet (Jane Fonda), and as the violence escalates so does his friendship with Arroyo, something which is complicated by the romantic feelings they both have for Harriet. Old Gringo tries to tackle numerous weighty subjects simultaneously – the politics of the Mexican Revolution, the regrets of old age, the concept of legacy and fame, a love triangle – but the consensus was that it tried to take on a little bit too much; Roger Ebert, in his review, wrote that ‘there is a potentially wonderful story at the heart of Old Gringo, but the movie never finds it. The screenplay blasts away in every direction except the bulls-eye. It’s heavy on disconnected episodes, light on drama and storytelling.’ The whole thing was a critical and commercial failure, and Puenzo never made another film in English.

The score for Old Gringo was by Lee Holdridge, and represents what many people consider to be his career high in film music. Its not entirely clear how Holdridge became attached to score Old Gringo; he had never worked with the director or any of the producers before, and although he had some personal connection to Central America, having been born in Haiti and having lived and worked in Costa Rica for many years, it doesn’t seem likely that that would have any real impact on the decision to hire him. In fact, by 1989, Holdridge was mostly scoring big-budget TV movies and mini-series, with his only major theatrical features during the previous five years being comedies like Splash, Micki & Maude, and Big Business. Whatever the circumstances, the fact that Lee Holdridge found himself scoring Old Gringo was fortuitous for everyone, as it inspired him to write one of his best-ever scores.

Lee Holdridge is an old school composer who favors big orchestras, big themes, and lots of drama and emotion within his lush arrangements, and Old Gringo has all that in spades. It’s a score which combines a multitude of thematic ideas with several broad action cues to capture the epic scope of the drama. It has a great deal in common with many classic western scores, but also has a number of specific instrumental textures intended to give the score a south-of-the-border flavor, specifically from the excellent guitar work by Dennis Budimir, George Doering, and Marcos Loya, as well as the robust solo trumpet performances of Malcolm McNab.

The three main themes represent the three main characters – Ambrose, Harriet, and Arroyo – and are musically tailored to their personality. Ambrose’s theme has a touch of bitterness and melancholy to it, perhaps a little world-weariness, but also with a hint of nobility and steadfastness. Arroyo’s theme is the most stereotypically Mexican of the three, in terms of its usual instrumental makeup, and is a delicious combination of warm nostalgia for home and hearth, spiced with a fiery sense of rebellion and determination. Harriet’s theme, my favorite of the three, is pure romance, often gentle and traditionally beautiful, but sometimes intimate and sometimes passionate.

These three themes inter-weave throughout the score, as the characters lives intersect and the relationships develop. Ambrose’s theme is the first one to appear, thirty seconds into the “Prologue (Main Title),” amid a set of beautiful textures for guitars and sighing strings backed by the full orchestra. There are some unusual harmonies between the strings and brass which sound a little disjointed but add to the slight sense of uncertainty, and are quite fascinating. Harriet’s Theme is introduced at the 1:56 mark on lovely strings, allowing the purity and decency of her character to emerge. “Ride to the Hacienda” is the introduction to Arroyo’s theme, sunny and open, with florid guitar textures gorgeously rendered with strings in warm counterpoint. Some listeners will find similarities between this theme and Alex North’s 1952 score for Viva Zapata, which of course makes sense as Zapata was a Mexican revolutionary fighting the same war as the protagonists of this time. The cue ends with a hint of darkness from the woodwinds, and a moment of large brassy drama, the first brief glimpse of Holdridge’s action music.

Several other cues feature notable statements of these main themes. “Harriet’s Theme” is a concert version of her melody, a slow, warm, emotional rendition for cellos, cascading violin harmonics, and gorgeous woodwind performances, especially from the oboes. The whole cue is completely spellbinding, and easily stands as one of the most beautiful pieces of Holdridge’s entire career. Both “Bitter’s Last Ride” and “Bitter’s Destiny” offer melancholy renditions of Ambrose’s theme for more darkly-hued strings, each with a hint of danger, and more than a little anguish in the cello writing; occasionally, the theme rises to embrace some big dark crescendos that are dramatic and effective.

“Nighttime” and “The Sigh” are two romantic duets pitting Harriet’s theme against one of the other two themes, illustrating the increasingly romantic and eventually intimate relationships she has with both men. The former is the theme for Harriet and Arroyo, and slowly emerges from some slightly dissonant strings to gradually become warmer, bringing Arroyo’s guitar motif into the fold of Harriet’s oboe. The latter is the theme for Harriet and Ambrose and offers some classic swooning romance, including a truly stunning duet for cello and harp that is immensely beautiful.

Standing in opposition to all this romance are a few moments of more bold and dramatic action, notably the two “Battle” cues and “The Bell Tower”. The first Battle cue, subtitled “Conflict,” is built around broad strokes from the orchestra, with especially prominent brass pulses, swirling strings, heavy and tumultuous percussion, and flamboyant fanfare-like explosions. Lee Holdridge is not a composer well-known for his rousing action and battle music, but he can certainly deliver when called upon, and anyone who is familiar with his work in the battle sequences of scores like The Beastmaster will be happy to hear similar chord progressions and stylistics here. It’s also fun to hear Holdridge offering variations on both Arroyo’s Theme and Ambrose’s Theme in an action setting. “The Bell Tower” builds from a quiet version of Arroyo’s theme to a huge, sweeping finale replete with tolling bells, while the “Resolution” of the battle features rousing and heroic fanfares, although the finale has a touch of tragedy in the string phrasing, and makes unusual use of woodwinds, harps, and guitars to add some doubt and uncertainty.

One unique cue is “The Mirrors,” which features a lively repeated rhythmic idea that is passed between brass and flutes and strings, growing grander as it develops. There are also subtle allusions to both Arroyo’s theme and Harriet’s theme, as well as a not-at-all-subtle interpolation of part of the melody from ‘Las Tres Pelonas’, a classic mariachi revolutionary song from the period, which Holdridge re-orchestrated away from the classic guitar and trumpet mariachi sound and expanded for the full orchestra.

Eventually everything builds to the “Finale,” which offers renditions of all the main themes at their most beautiful and wide-ranging, played with passion and enormous emotional content. The cue is simply sublime from start to finish, with every section of the orchestra playing at the most magnificent and lush tone possible. A beautifully warm statement of Arroyo’s Theme for trumpet and guitars begins at 1:15, and is just spectacular. The melody switches to Ambrose’s Theme at 2:20, and builds through several performances full of huge crescendos and cymbal clashes. It all concludes with the most sweeping, majestic version of Harriet’s Theme beginning at 3:50, ending the score on the biggest high imaginable. They don’t write ‘em like this any more.

Physical copies of the score for Old Gringo are pretty rare nowadays – the original pressing on the GNP Crescendo label is long out of print, although it does pop up on the secondary market from time to time. Thankfully, the score is widely available as a digital download from most online retailers, because otherwise Lee Holdridge’s masterpiece may have been quietly forgotten. I love a great number of Lee Holdridge scores; The Beastmaster, East of Eden, Buffalo Girls, Call of the Wild, Into the Arms of Strangers, The Giant of Thunder Mountain, The Mists of Avalon, and many others. However, there is a clear and compelling case to be made for Old Gringo being the best score of his career; the multitude of interlocking themes, the vivid battle music, the enormous sweep of the orchestra, and the unashamed and unrestrained emotion, are all worthy of immense praise.

Having not scored a film any real significance for well over a decade, Lee Holdridge is in danger of being overlooked by contemporary film music fans, and to do so would be a disservice to him and his immense talent. Anyone who appreciates the classic film music sound, with the thematic beauty and orchestral scope all that implies, needs to familiarize themselves with this outstanding composer, and Old Gringo would be a terrific place to start.

Buy the Old Gringo soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Prologue (Main Title) (2:35)
  • Ride to the Hacienda (4:11)
  • The Battle (Conflict) (3:17)
  • Harriet’s Theme (5:50)
  • Bitter’s Last Ride (2:55)
  • The Mirrors (3:05)
  • Nighttime (2:53)
  • The Bell Tower (1:22)
  • The Sigh (5:46)
  • The Battle (Resolution) (2:08)
  • Bitter’s Destiny (3:21)
  • Finale (5:00)

Running Time: 41 minutes 44 seconds

GNP Crescendo Records GNPD-8017 (1989)

Music composed and conducted by Lee Holdridge. Orchestrations by Ira Hearshen. Recorded and mixed by Robert Fernandez. Edited by Tom Carlson. Album produced by Lee Holdridge and Ford A. Thaxton.

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