Home > Reviews > JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO – Georges Delerue

JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO – Georges Delerue

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

After receiving his first Oscar nomination for Big in 1988, but before he became an established box office draw with titles like Sleepless in Seattle and Philadelphia, Tom Hanks spent a couple of years trying to find his niche. One of the projects he tried which never took off was Joe Versus the Volcano, a highly peculiar comedy written and directed by John Patrick Shanley. Hanks plays Joe Banks, a luckless everyman who works a terrible dead-end job and is chronically sick. One day Joe is told he is dying of a mysterious and incurable rare disease, and accepts a financial offer from billionaire Samuel Graynamore (Lloyd Bridges) – he can live like a king for a short period, but then has to travel to a South Pacific island and throw himself into a volcano to appease the superstitious natives. With nothing to lose, Joe agrees, but when he meets and falls in love with Patricia (Meg Ryan), Graynamore’s daughter, who is captaining the yacht taking him to the island, he realizes he may have something to live for after all. The film was a critical and commercial flop when it was first released, but has become something of a cult film in the intervening years, receiving praise for its offbeat tone and sweet nature, and for the fact that this was the first on-screen pairing of Hanks and Ryan, who would go on to be Hollywood’s romantic comedy golden couple.

The score for Joe Versus the Volcano is by the late great Georges Delerue, who should never in a million years have been scoring a film like this, but such was Hollywood’s complete lack of awareness and foresight about what he was capable of bringing to the table in musical terms, he scored many films like this in the 1980s and early 90s. Even on this film Delerue was treated badly, seeing several of his cues replaced in the final cut (especially in the shopping spree and fishing scenes), and generally playing second fiddle to the more prominent placement of pop songs. Despite this, Delerue responded to the film in an extraordinary way, and ended up writing what is, for me, one of the greatest scores of his entire career. While Jules et Jim may have been more influential, while Agnes of God and Platoon may have been more serious and profound, and while A Little Romance may have won him an Oscar, time and again I find myself coming back to Joe Versus the Volcano and it’s overwhelmingly beautiful themes.

Delerue weaves several specific themes through the score, all of which are absolutely superb. To capture the fairytale, slightly dream-like nature of the project as a whole, Delerue created a gentle music box theme for glockenspiel and harp that first appears in the opening cue, “Once Upon A Time…,” before quickly segueing into a more morose string-based piece in the subsequent “Brain Cloud”. This theme, a mass of layered strings phrased with a touch of religioso intensity, tends to illustrate the despair of Joe’s life, and appears at his lowest moments to deepen the strength of his emotions: the drudgery of his job, the depression of his diagnosis, and so on. Tonally, it reminds me very much of the dark, serious string elegies he wrote for films like Platoon and True Confessions, and later Tours Du Monde Tours Du Ciel and Diên Biên Phu, but obviously the dramatic intent is not the same; this is a different kind of tragedy altogether.

However, the anchor of the entire score is the love theme, which even amongst Delerue’s wildly over-achieving high standards, is one of his absolute best. It’s a lush, sweeping, utterly magnificent piece of music that is by turns joyous, romantic, and spellbindingly beautiful. The strings cascade like an enormous musical waterfall, and the woodwinds provide elegant support, while the light staccato horns give it a bit of weight and depth. The theme is split into two parts, and has an A-phrase and a B-phrase. The A-phrase tends to be a more rapturous celebration of love, while the B-phrase is a little more bittersweet and melancholy, illustrating Joe’s desire for love and a fulfilling relationship, but is still achingly lovely.

This theme quickly becomes the cornerstone of most of the rest of the score: after a brief introduction for classical guitars in the pretty “Dinner with Dee Dee,” the B-phrase receives its first fully orchestral performance in the “Love Theme,” which is just sublime, a blissful ballad. There’s a more restrained version of the B-phrase for flutes in “Joe Alone,” before the noble and slightly regal-sounding introduction of the A-phrase in “I’ll Do It,” which accompanies Joe’s brave decision to accept Graynamore’s pitch and throw himself into the volcano on Waponi Woo.

“Shopping Spree” offers a version of the A-phrase with an arrangement for jazzy pianos and light pop saxophones (this may be one of the few tracks people skip, lest they revisit long-dormant memories of Kenny G); “To the Ship” underscores Joe’s first meeting with Patricia with fluttering woodwinds (to match the butterflies in Joe’s stomach), before emerging into a superb, open, buoyant statement of the B-phrase as the yacht Tweedledee sets sail and the adventure begins in earnest. “Pat Tells Joe” is a soft, meandering, string based version of the B-phrase, and “Fishing” is a second pop-jazz arrangement of the theme, again with saxophones and 80s drum kit percussion.

For me, however, by far the most impressive cue in the score is “The Storm and The Rescue,” which is one of Delerue’s career best action cues. Delerue is not known for his powerful action – he has written it from time to time, of course, with scores like L’Africain and parts of his rejected score for Something Wicked This Way Comes springing to mind. The action here, though, is just immense. The cue underscores the scene where the yacht is sunk by a massive hurricane, and in response Delerue’s music rolls and churns and swirls like the ocean. There are enormous vivid brass phrases that reference the A-phrase of the love theme, sensational string runs doubled with shrill woodwinds, and intense percussion patterns and timpani rolls – and then, just when the music reaches its peak, at exactly 3:12, Delerue lets loose with a staggering, immense statement of the love theme B-phrase for the entire orchestra, underscoring the moment when Joe leaps into the churning surf to save Patricia from drowning. The sudden switch from the action to the most sweeping romantic music imaginable is jarring, but the juxtaposition is brilliant. Then he does it all again, returning to the action music for another go-around!

The finale of the cue (the “Rescue” part) begins around the 5:30 mark and underscores the film’s most visually iconic scene, where Joe – half delirious and dying of thirst after drifting on the ocean for days – suddenly witnesses the moon apparently rising from out of the water. Silhouetted against this immense celestial body, and feeling his own insignificance in the face of it, Joe has a near-religious epiphany, and expresses gratitude for the life he has lived, and the brief love he shared with Patricia. Brilliantly, Delerue underscores this not with the love theme, but with a solo oboe statement of the Despair/Brain Cloud Theme, and a hauntingly beautiful reprise of the Fairytale theme, all underpinned with a bank of tremolo strings. It almost brings me to tears every time I hear it.

Thankfully, Joe and Patricia are rescued by the Waponi natives, and are finally taken to the island of Waponi Woo. “Hava Nagila and When Johnny Comes Marching Home” are amusingly tropical and tribal versions of the famous Jewish wedding dance and Civil War march- you need to see it in context to understand. “I’ve Got to Go” and “Explosion and In the Water” underscore the final scenes of Joe and his impending volcanic sacrifice with a nervous, uncertain statement of the Love Theme B-phrase for flutes and tremolo strings, a quick burst of Mendelssohn’s wedding march, a reprise of the regal version of the A-phrase, and a charming second statement of the B-phrase as Joe says goodbye to the love of his life. Will Joe jump into the volcano or not?

After a final statement of the Fairytale Theme in “They Sail Away,” the score concludes with the “End Credits,” which was a staple of Delerue compilation albums throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, and offers a final run-through of all the score’s main themes for the full orchestra. This also includes the song version of the love theme B-phrase, entitled “Marooned Without You,” which was co-written by Delerue with screenwriter John Patrick Shanley. The lyrics are appropriately whimsical, and are performed with a breathy, enticing quality by the uncredited female vocalists; the whole thing comes across almost like a combination between a South Pacific hula-luau dance, a Henry Mancini-style romantic ballad, and a mermaid’s siren song. It’s just divine.

As a result of the fact that Joe Versus the Volcano was such a massive box office flop when it was first released, Delerue’s score was not released as a soundtrack album at the time. This, combined with the composer’s tragic death just two years later, resulted in the score being one of the most sought-after titles for more than a decade. A poor-quality bootleg of the score existed for much of the 1990s, but in 2002 producer Robert Townson – a personal friend of Delerue’s and a long-time champion of his work – finally released the score properly as part of Varese Sarabande’s Masters Film Music series, a limited edition of 3,000 copies. The title was released again in 2014, with a couple of bonus tracks, as the ‘Big Woo Edition,’ but since then has fallen out of print and is once again a rare collectible – as I write this copies of it are selling for between $60 and $140 on Amazon.

Despite its scarcity these days, and despite the mixed reputation of the film itself, anyone who has the chance to hear Joe Versus the Volcano should do so immediately. This score contains everything I adore about Georges Delerue’s music: the rapturous love themes, the gorgeous harmonies, the unexpectedly powerful and intense action music, and the overall sense of beauty and elegance and effortless charm. Georges Delerue was one of a kind; no-one else sounded like him, and no-one ever will. And Joe Versus the Volcano, despite all expectations to the contrary, is one of the best things he ever did.

Buy the Joe Versus the Volcano soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Once Upon A Time… (0:20)
  • Brain Cloud (3:04)
  • Dinner with Dee Dee (2:03)
  • Love Theme (1:12)
  • Joe Alone (0:26)
  • Graynamore’s Pitch (1:53)
  • I’ll Do It (1:18)
  • New York (0:28)
  • Shopping Spree (2:14)
  • Alone in New York (1:30)
  • To the Hotel (0:48)
  • To the Ship (2:41)
  • History of the Waponis (0:38)
  • Pat Tells Joe (2:26)
  • Fishing (3:25)
  • The Storm and The Rescue (9:10)
  • Hava Nagila and When Johnny Comes Marching Home (1:32)
  • I’ve Got to Go (3:28)
  • Explosion and In the Water (2:03)
  • They Sail Away (1:08)
  • End Credits (Marooned Without You) (written by Georges Delerue and John Patrick Shanley) (6:14)

Running Time: 48 minutes 02 seconds

Varese Sarabande Masters Film Music SRS-2014 (1990/2002)

Music composed and conducted by Georges Delerue. Orchestrations by Georges Delerue. Recorded and mixed by Robert Fernandez. Edited by Ken Wannberg. Score produced by Georges Delerue. Expanded album produced by Robert Townson.

  1. vertigelt
    July 21, 2020 at 10:30 am

    I have the Big Woo edition and finally gave the score some proper attention this past weekend, and even managed to watch the film, which was on my list of most insufferable films ever made after having tried and failed to watch it once on an airplane trip.

    After having read Robert Townson’s liner notes, I was in a better frame of mind for the fairytale aspect of the fable and rather managed to enjoy the film as have many others celebrating its cult status in the intervening years (I especially was taken by the visual cue of the lightning/split road iconography in company logo for Joe’s dead-end job, the drudgery of the path taken into the office, the lightning that split Tweedle Dee in two, and the lit path up to the volcano).

    The film is… enjoyable in the right frame of mind. The score is absolutely lovely and worth seeking out. Despite how rare the physical media might be, I wanted to point out that the original 2002 Varèse Sarabande content is available on streaming platforms.

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