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THE LAST FULL MEASURE – Philip Klein

January 31, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Last Full Measure is a military-themed drama film written and directed by Todd Robinson. It tells the true story of William H. Pitsenbarger, a sergeant in the US Air Force, who flew rescue missions to save downed soldiers and pilots during the Vietnam War. Pitsenbarger was killed during the Battle of Xa Cam My in April 1966, and the film tells the story of the 34-year struggle to have him awarded the Medal of Honor. The film stars Sebastian Stan as Scott Huffman, the Pentagon official charged with investigating the Medal of Honor request, and has an astonishing supporting cast that includes Christopher Plummer, William Hurt, Ed Harris, Samuel L. Jackson, Diane Ladd, Amy Madigan, Bradley Whitford, John Savage, and the late Peter Fonda, in what turned out to be his final screen role. Conceptually the film is very much in the vein of those earnest military dramas like Men of Honor, and especially Courage Under Fire, and those comparisons continue into its music too.

The score for The Last Full Measure is by the 34-year old New York-born composer Philip Klein, whose name will likely be unfamiliar to most people reading this, but who has actually been around for quite some time. Klein has been orchestrating and writing additional music for several of Hollywood’s top composers for many years; his most regular collaborator of late has been James Newton Howard, but he has also worked with and for composers as diverse as Carter Burwell (writing action music for The Finest Hours and Twilight: Breaking Dawn), David Buckley, Jon Brion, Geoff Zanelli, Harry Gregson-Williams, and Steve Jablonsky. The Last Full Measure is Klein’s first significant solo score where he is credited as lead composer, although Klein himself is quick to credit Alan Silvestri for this, as it was he who convinced the producers of the film to take a chance on this young, relatively unknown musician. I can only assume that they are delighted they did, because from my point of view this is one of the most impressive mainstream ‘debuts’ in many years.

As a frame of reference, The Last Full Measure comes across like a combination of 1990s Thomas Newman and 1990s James Horner, with all the positive connotations that brings. Clearly, it’s not as good as the majestic masterpieces those composers wrote during that golden period – what scores are? – but what this score does do is carry a similar sense of solemnity and respect, a sense of emotional resonance, and a dedication to strong thematic beauty, before coming together during its final 20 minutes, where it absolutely soars. The whole score is anchored around a strong and memorable main theme, which is first introduced in the opening cue, “A1C PJ Pitsenbarger (Main Theme)”. It’s a lovely, warm piece for soft strings and alluring horns that speaks to the inherent goodness of the main character, and the noble sacrifice offered by him in service to his country and his comrades. The soft chorus that joints the refrain after the 1:20 mark is just sublime; it’s one of the loveliest and most engaging pieces of militaristic Americana I’ve heard in quite some time.

To what I’m sure will be the dismay of many, large-scale performances of this wonderful theme disappear for most of the score proper, but personally I think this was the right creative choice. Statements of the theme need to make an impact, and if all you hear are constant refrains of it in cue after cue, it will naturally lose some of its potency. There has to be some darkness to counterbalance the light, and so in many of the mid-album cues Klein engages in some more contemporary-sounding scoring that blends the string-and-horn orchestra with electronic atmospherics, and more prominent percussive ideas. Sometimes they are intended to illustrate the immediate horrors of war, and sometimes they are intended to capture the more fleeting and disturbing memories that crop up years later. Cues like “April 11th, 1966,” “Refugee,” “Takoda’s Recurring Dream,” “He Never Says Anything,” the grimly heartbreaking “I Killed My Own Men,” “To Vietnam,” and others, adopt this style strongly, but even here Klein’s excellent orchestrations shine through.

There are a quintet of solo instruments that play throughout most of the body of the score, constantly adding moments of color and, when they combine in different variations, interesting textural voices. Pianos by Kelly Anderson, cellos by Eru Masumoto, French horns by Anne-Marie Cherry, electric guitars by Seth Stachowski, and fiddles by Chad Cannon, all make frequent guest appearances in numerous cues, to excellent effect. Stachowski’s guitars often bring a touch of steadfastness and blue-collar grit, and the cello provides deep and resonant emotion, while Cannon’s fiddle sounds like home. And, yes, this is the same Chad Cannon who wrote the scores for feature documentaries like Paper Lanterns, American Factory, and Cyber Work and the American Dream – he and Klein have been friends for years.

Some of the electronic sound design and some of the woodwind writing has more than a hint of Thomas Newman to it – the little zings and zooms that give a touch of flavor to cues like “Huffman” are reminiscent of some of his more abstract and inventive scores. The Thomas Newman influences continue elsewhere in things like the gorgeous “I Knew What He Was Thinking,” the lovely “Thanksgiving,” the heartrending “Jenny’s Letter,” and the powerfully poignant ‘Tully at the Wall,” all of which have a sense of peacefulness and wistful reflection that is quite enchanting. These cues remind me very much of Newman’s understated and charming writing on scores like Fried Green Tomatoes, or perhaps parts of How To Make An American Quilt, or the softer moments of Meet Joe Black. The combination writing for oboe, piano, layered strings, and soft choir in some of these is worth mentioning as being particularly captivating.

All this is not to say that the theme is entirely absent. Klein continually hints at it in many of the aforementioned cues, keeping Pitsenbarger intentionally at the forefront of the story. Once or twice the theme comes back in a more prominent fashion too, in things like the ethereal-sounding “Pits Waves Them Off,” and the haunting and moving “Avalon,” in which Klein makes outstanding use of the solo cello, the solo piano, and the chorus to really enhance the emotional content. Everything finally comes to a head in the last two cues, “The Last Full Measure” and “These Things We Do, That Others May Live (End Credits),” which together make up more than 20 minutes of absolutely tremendous music, some of the best of this type that I have heard in years.

In these two magnificent cues Klein brings his main theme back at its fullest, and provides statement after statement of enormous, moving, thematic grandeur. The self-control Klein showed in keeping the theme a little restrained in all the previous cues really plays off here, because when he takes the shackles off and unleashes the full power of the orchestra, the impact is wonderful. He moves his theme around from strings to brass to woodwinds to piano, often spotlighting a solo cello, a solo oboe, or a crystal clear solo trumpet. He allows the orchestral accompaniment to rise to stirring heights, and ushers in melodic statements with timpani rolls and cymbal clashes, tubular bells and gongs. Best of all, he allows the choir to accompany it all with rousing, full-throated passion. There are echoes here of the most glorious parts of Meet Joe Black, to continue with the Thomas Newman connection, but the genuine sincerity and unblinking adoption of pure melodramatic emotion actually puts me more in mind of 1990s James Horner and those scores of his that reveled in patriotic triumph and noble sacrifice: Glory, In Country, Courage Under Fire, perhaps even Apollo 13. Anyone who knows me and my taste will know what a resounding recommendation this is.

I really cannot speak of The Last Full Measure highly enough. With this score Philip Klein has managed to somehow pull off the impossible – he has written a fully orchestral, thematically strong, emotionally resonant score for a drama film in the year 2020, and somehow managed to convince the producers of the film to keep it all intact. No, this sort of stuff is not mawkish or overly-manipulative; it’s actually the best possible way to bridge the gap between the film and the audience, allow them to feel all the intended emotions, and celebrate the life and legacy of this American hero in the right way. The fact that he has done this with his debut score is all the more remarkable, and the fact that he has done it all at the age of 34… well. All I can say is to keep your focus on whatever Philip Klein does next because, if this score is any indication of his talents, he’s got one hell of a career ahead of him.

Buy the Last Full Measure soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • A1C PJ Pitsenbarger (Main Theme) (2:20)
  • April 11th, 1966 (2:28)
  • Huffman (1:07)
  • Refugee (2:01)
  • I Knew What He Was Thinking (4:33)
  • Takoda’s Recurring Dream (2:06)
  • He Never Says Anything (2:12)
  • Thanksgiving (1:30)
  • I Killed My Own Men (2:05)
  • To Vietnam (2:48)
  • Pits Waves Them Off (1:38)
  • Avalon (4:30)
  • He Was There To Save Lives (1:40)
  • Jenny’s Letter (1:30)
  • Tully At The Wall (6:22)
  • You’re Supposed To Be Afraid (1:45)
  • The Last Full Measure (13:07)
  • These Things We Do, That Others May Live (End Credits) (8:35)

Running Time: 62 minutes 16 seconds

Filmtrax (2020)

Music composed and conducted by Philip Klein. Orchestrations by Philip Klein and Michael Bahnmiller. Performed by the Czech Symphony Orchestra and the Salt Lake Children’s Choir. Featured musical soloists Kelly Anderson, Eru Matsumoto, Chad Cannon, Anne-Marie Cherry, John Klein and Seth Stachowski. Recorded and mixed by Michal Pekarek and Michael Greene. Edited by Scott Johnson. Album produced by Philip Klein.

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