Home > Reviews > THE CALL OF THE WILD – John Powell

THE CALL OF THE WILD – John Powell

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Jack London’s The Call of the Wild has come to be regarded as one of the seminal adventure novels in the years since its first publication in 1903, and there have been several cinematic retellings of the story over the subsequent century. This latest version is directed by Chris Sanders – the director of the original How to Train Your Dragon, making his live action debut here – and it plays out sort of like a canine version of Black Beauty. The story follows Buck, a powerful St. Bernard mix dog, who is uprooted from his privileged position as a family dog on a ranch in California, pooch-napped, and sold as a working dog in the Yukon and Alaska, where the Gold Rush is in full force. Eventually Buck finds himself owned by the kind-hearted Perrault (Omar Sy), working as part of a team of sled dogs delivering mail all over the Northwest. After many adventures with Perrault, Buck eventually comes to be owned by a grizzled gold prospector named Thornton (Harrison Ford), who has a mysterious past. As Buck and Thornton bond, Buck also begins to hear ‘the call of the wild,’ an instinct speaking to his past and his innate heritage, which draws him to a more primeval existence among the mountains and with the wolves.

As I mentioned, director Sanders was the man behind the original How to Train Your Dragon, so it stands to reason that the composer for The Call of the Wild would be John Powell. This is the sort of film at which Powell excels: films with glorious landscape vistas , intimate drama, and moments of both intense action and emotional pathos that require strong, bold, direct music that connects with its audience. To put it into some sort of one-sentence shorthand, The Call of the Wild is like a western version of How to Train Your Dragon. Whereas Dragons took its musical and instrumental inspiration from Norse and Scottish traditions, The Call of the Wild is a little bit more folksy, and draws it’s sound from the American West. As such, we get Native American flutes and penny whistles, banjos, accordions, mandolins, guitars, fiddles, and a harmonium, all augmented by a 90-piece orchestra and a 60-voice choir to give it a lush sound.

As is always the case with a Powell score, the thematic density of the work is impressive: he lists specific themes for both Buck and Thornton, themes for the dog team and the dog team leader (an aggressive husky named Spitz), a generic ‘working tune,’ a generic ‘heroic theme,’ and something he calls the ‘pious tune,’ as well as a recurring motif for the Black Wolf that acts as a visual representation of the ‘call of the wild’ itself. Each of these musical ideas weaves in and out of the work, creating a tapestry that perfectly captures the core elements of London’s novel: work, friendship, heroism, adventure, and the majestic scope of the location itself. What’s impressive about the score – and this is something that Powell does regularly – is how he uses multiple themes playing consecutively and in counterpoint to illustrate the narrative. When Buck joins Perrault’s dog sled team, we hear both ideas in cues that represent that relationship. When Buck and Thornton become a pair, we hear their themes together. When Buck has visions of the ‘black wolf’ that represents his heritage, we hear those two themes together, and so on. It’s an idea that’s so simple, and should be such an obvious part of musical storytelling, but so many composers seem to lack that clarity of narrative purpose. It’s one of the things that makes John Powell so great.

The entire score is just superb in every respect, but several moments stand out as being of special praise. The first statement of Buck’s Theme in the opening cue, “Wake the Girls,” is just delightful – playful, a little comedic and mischievous, but warm and friendly and boisterous, with hints of bluegrass and country music, and with an almost Irish lilt in some of the phrasing. Later, as Buck takes the “Train North,” the music initially has a harsh, slightly bitter edge via the woodwinds and the percussion, but later becomes more resolute and steadfast, with Buck’s theme on horns supported by a choir. Finally, once Buck arrives in “Skagway, Alaska,” there is a cautiously inquisitive nature to the orchestrations – fiddles and banjos and guitars and dulcimers – as he explores his new environment for the first time.

Once Buck joins Perrault’s dog sled team, the three themes associated with those ideas – the dog team theme, the ‘working tune,’ and the ‘heroic theme’ – start to assert themselves, combining with Buck’s theme as he adventures across the snowy landscape, delivering mail, learning to work as part of a pack, learning to be a leader. Cues like “Snowy Climb” and “Joining the Team” are just superb; the interplay between the banjos, the accordions, the mandolins, and the guitars, mean that the score has endlessly interesting textures which shift constantly. Then, when the orchestra comes in and rises to present a heroic explosion of joyful spirit and exuberance, the whole thing soars. “First Sledding Attempt” is gentle and emotional, and uses some almost religioso chord progressions in the woodwinds, before developing into an action-packed second half via a triumphant volley of percussion and banjo that is quite superb, and has some hints of How to Train Your Dragon in the chord progressions.

The first hint of Buck’s ‘wilder nature’ comes in the fascinating “The Ghost Wolf of Dreams,” which introduces the ‘black wolf motif’ via a set of chattering strings, ululating voices, and impressionistic woodwind textures. Here, the choir sings atmospheric phrases in the Inuit language of the indigenous peoples of northern Alaska and the northern Canadian provinces, clearly representing the link between the land, the native people, and Buck’s own past. This sets something alight in Buck, who then uses the ‘black wolf’ spirit to help save Perrault from an avalanche; in the resultant “Ice Rescue” cue, Powell goes heavily into action mode with a piece full of throbbing energy. There is flowing movement in the strings, rhythmic pulses coming from both woodwinds and brass, and emotional statements of both Buck’s Theme and the Hero Theme arranged for an epic choir. Unfortunately this also leads Buck to a confrontation with Spitz, the pack leader; their eerie, Aurora-lit nighttime altercation is underscored brilliantly in “Sometimes Nature’s Cruel and Gods Fight,” which features more rapid strings, brass triplets, and a fascinating choral element which is reminiscent of the Marauders theme from the score for Solo in the way the voices are pitched.

Buck’s victory over Spitz results in him becoming top dog, quite literally, and his new position is solidified in “Buck Takes the Lead,” which for my money is the best cue in the score. It begins with a duet for banjo and accordion, and initially is quite tentative, but it builds and builds, a little like the ‘courtship’ music between Hiccup and Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon. There is some lovely interplay between Buck’s theme and the Dog Team theme, and then it simply explodes into a fantastic statement of Buck’s theme as he formally assumes control over the pack: the music is full of vigor and energy, and is simply wonderful.

After some warm, intimate writing in “We Carry Love” and “Couldn’t Find the Words,” things change for Buck in “Overpacked Sled,” which is the cue that oversees his transition from being owned by Perrault to being owned by the stupid and cruel Hal, a woefully ill-equipped wannabe gold tycoon who has come to the northwest with his equally stupid brother and his vain, pampered wife. Hal’s character is typified by much darker material featuring anguished strings and a strained-sounding combination of fiddles and harmonium, accompanied by scraped metallic textures and low brasses that illustrate Hal’s brutal nature. The subsequent “Newfangled Telegram” is bittersweet, and features some lovely renditions of both the Dog Team theme and Buck’s theme that shift between strings and brass as the team is disbanded. Thankfully, Buck is not alone for long, and he soon finds himself in the company of Harrison Ford’s character, the grizzled, gruff, but kind-hearted Thornton.

Cues such as “In My Bed,” “Buck & Thornton’s Big Adventure,” “Finding Bears and Love in the Woods,” and “They’ve All Gone” bring Buck’s theme and Thornton’s theme together, as they form their bond, and then set off into the wilderness together, looking for peace. Thornton’s theme has a sense of sturdiness to it, but also an emotional core, and that combines wonderfully well with the eagerness of Buck’s theme. “Buck & Thornton’s Big Adventure” is especially notable for the underlying staccato rhythm that offers a sense of purpose and determination, as well as for the expansiveness it brings to the majestic vistas and the sense of freedom of being at large in the great outdoors. Later, “They’ve All Gone” offers a lilting, soothing duet for guitars that plays almost like a lullaby, as the heartbreak in Thornton’s past is revealed. It also features one of the score’s few moments of prominent piano.

Even though Thornton and Buck have settled down, the ‘call of the wild’ eventually becomes too much for Buck to ignore, and cues like “Rewilding” and “Animal Nature” accompany his increasingly frequent solo wilderness explorations – and especially his friendship with a female white wolf who lives in the area. Buck’s theme again begins to associate with the Black Wolf motif; the music is swift and florid, moving through different sections of the western ensemble, accompanied by ethnic woodwind blasts, dense string writing, brass triplets, the choir, and colorful percussion ideas which sound tribal, perhaps a little primal. Everything comes to a head in “Come Say Goodbye,” which offers beautiful, but sad performances of both Thornton’s theme and Buck’s theme for tender strings, piano, and woodwinds, before concluding with a moment of danger via the return of Hal’s motif.

“What An Adventure” is the epilogue, in which Powell cleverly offers a new arrangement of the Black Wolf motif for jangling guitars, and then blends it with melodic fragments and chord progressions from Buck’s theme, all of which clearly illustrates Buck’s final transition and response to the ‘call’. The hummed chorus that ends the cue is enigmatic and haunting, and leads into the conclusive “The Call of the Wild,” a superb final arrangement of Buck’s theme for the full orchestra and prominent guitars that overflows with epic grandeur.

Scores like The Call of the Wild are the reason I love film music the way I do. The music is a perfect example of aural storytelling: the orchestrations bring a sense of time and place that is unique to the film’s setting, and the different thematic ideas and the concepts they represent combine in intelligent ways that subtly convey the complexity of shifting relationships to the audience. The emotional pull of the score is irresistible – the action, the pathos, the drama, the sentiment, the adventure, all clear and abundant, allowing the audience to feel everything Buck is going through. And, from a musical enjoyment point of view, the warmth of the harmonies and the beauty of the thematic ideas are superb. Although anyone with an aversion to banjos and fiddles may find themselves squirming uncomfortably whenever those instruments are especially prominent, everything else in The Call of the Wild is exemplary and further proves that John Powell is one of the best composers working in film music today.

Buy the Call of the Wild soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Wake the Girls (2:37)
  • Train North (4:01)
  • Skagway, Alaska (2:30)
  • Snowy Climb (1:24)
  • First Sledding Attempt (2:27)
  • The Ghost Wolf of Dreams (1:05)
  • Joining the Team (2:58)
  • Ice Rescue (2:26)
  • Sometimes Nature’s Cruel and Gods Fight (4:57)
  • Buck Takes the Lead (4:54)
  • We Carry Love (3:01)
  • Couldn’t Find the Words (2:21)
  • Overpacked Sled (2:31)
  • Newfangled Telegram (2:23)
  • In My Bed? (2:53)
  • Buck & Thornton’s Big Adventure (4:35)
  • Finding Bears and Love in the Woods (2:56)
  • They’ve All Gone (2:51)
  • Rewilding (3:47)
  • Animal Nature (2:34)
  • Come Say Goodbye (2:08)
  • What An Adventure (3:01)
  • The Call of the Wild (2:51)

Running Time: 67 minutes 11 seconds

Hollywood Records (2020)

Music composed and conducted by John Powell. Additional music by Batu Sener and Paul Mounsey. Score orchestrations by John Ashton Thomas, Mark Graham, Andrew Kinney, Randy Kerber, Rick Giovinazzo, Pete Anthony, Jon Kull and Jeff Atmajian. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Amanda Goodpaster. Album produced by John Powell and Batu Sener.

  1. March 4, 2020 at 4:38 am

    “further proves that John Powell is one of the best composers working in film music today.”

    I don’t think the “one of” is quite necessary…especially now that Williams is clearly winding down his career.
    Just my opinion 😉

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