Home > Reviews > MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON – Michael Small



Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Mountains of the Moon is an adventure-drama directed by Bob Rafelson, based on the novel Burton and Speke by William Harrison. A passion project for the director, it starred Patrick Bergin and Iain Glen as the real-life explorers Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke, and is a dramatic chronicle of their expedition to Central Africa in 1857 which culminated in Speke’s discovery of the source of the River Nile. Although it was well received when it originally opened in February 1990 – it was described as ‘an epic of sweep and intimacy’ by Peter Travers in Rolling Stone – it is virtually unknown today, which is a shame because it is a film of genuine visual grandeur (it boasts cinematography by Roger Deakins), and has a terrific supporting cast including Richard E. Grant, Fiona Shaw, Omar Sharif, and Delroy Lindo in a very early role.

The score for Mountains of the Moon was by the great Michael Small, who is another composer who is almost entirely forgotten today. Small scored many of those great 1970s and early 80s thrillers like Klute, The Parallax View, Marathon Man, The China Syndrome, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and The Star Chamber, and was an expert at neo-noir and contemporary symphonic jazz, but he died in 2003 at the age of 64 of prostate cancer, with very few of his scores having been released on CD. There has been a mini-renaissance of his music recently thanks to the sterling efforts of labels like Intrada and FSM, but for the most part his music remains relatively unknown by contemporary film music fans. Mountains of the Moon was one of the few Small scores which received an album release concurrent with the film playing in cinemas, and was also one of the few traditional ‘big symphonic’ scores he wrote in his entire career.

For the score, Small incorporated genuine traditional African music into a large and sweeping traditional orchestral palette. The score is built around two major themes – one specifically relating to Burton, and one for the continent of Africa itself – as well as a love theme representing Burton’s relationship with his wife Isabelle. In approach it has quite a lot in common with several of the great ‘African adventure’ scores that followed it later in the 1990s – things like Jerry Goldsmith’s Congo and The Ghost and the Darkness, or Hans Zimmer’s The Power of One, spring to mind – but obviously with different melodic ideas upon which the score is based. For Burton’s theme Small intentionally tried to emulate the English sound of Elgar and Vaughan-Williams, whereas the African theme is very much rooted in the traditions of east African tribal music, a myriad of percussion and woodwind ideas offset by the orchestra.

Statements of Burton’s theme are plentiful, beginning with the one in the “Main Title,” which is epic and sweeping, and features soaring strings and trumpets accompanied by important-sounding percussion rumbles and cymbal clashes. The subsequent statements in cues like “Escape to England,” the second half of “Return to Africa,” and “It’s the Lake,” are appropriately adventurous and triumphant. Later, in “Speke and the Great Lake,” the theme is fittingly refined, noble, and majestic, considering that it underscores the pivotal scene where the source of the Nile is discovered. It all ends with a cacophony of tribal ideas and layers of orchestral suspense which speak a little to the increasing rivalry between the two great men at the heart of the story.

The African tribal music is wonderfully authentic. Small actually recorded all the percussion rhythms with a small band of African musicians in New York, separately from the rest of the orchestra, which resulted in a sound that is steeped in the musical traditions of the region. Cues like “Journey” and “Return to Africa” are wonderful combinations of tribal drums and shakers, and mysterious and exotic woodwinds, often blended with a more subdued orchestral accompaniment. Later, “The Long Walk” uses voices to add yet another layer of regional faithfulness, while pieces like “Desert Trek,” “Dark Caravan,” and “Ngola’s Court” are a little more dark and moody, capturing the geographical and environmental difficulty of exploring Africa at that time, and the dangers and hardships they faced. “Ngola’s Court” is especially notable for its guttural vocal ideas, and increased use of clattering percussion.

There is also a variation on the African theme, a lighter, friendlier, more welcoming motif for the Mabruki character who acts as Burton & Speke’s guide, which appears in “Mabruki and the Lion Shoot” and “Farewell to Mabruki”. This is counterbalanced by some more restrained action and suspense music for stark, anguished strings, and low horns. The pick of these cues is probably “Ambush,” which manages to pack a ton of bold tribal percussion underneath some striking action writing featuring brass calls and tortured-sounding string figures into just 49 seconds.

The love theme for Isabelle Burton features in just two cues, “Isabelle” and “The Wedding,” but it leaves a hugely positive mark. This is Small at his romantic best; the cues are filled with pretty, light flutes and harps backed by elegant strings, and both rise to stunningly gorgeous finales. Fans of Danny Elfman’s Sommersby may find themselves especially enamored with Isabelle’s theme, as they have so much in common that I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t feature in the temp score.

The finale of the score contains two lovely recapitulations of Burton’s theme; poignant and reflective in “The Decision,” majestic and soaring in the concert arrangement of “Burton’s Theme”. The conclusive cue, “Journey Finale,” is a superb reprise of the earlier same-named cue, albeit expanded with more extensive orchestral accompaniment to end the score on a high. It’s also worth noting the two pieces of source music on the album: “The Market” is a traditional African tribal chant newly-arranged and re-recorded by Small, while “Burton Sings (The Lone Rock)” is a vocal version of the traditional song Irish ‘Carraig Aonair’ with pipes and whistle performed in-character by Patrick Bergin.

The score for Mountains of the Moon has been out-of-print for a long time, but copies of the soundtrack still sell for reasonable prices on the secondary market, and much of it is available to sample on Youtube too. Whatever way you choose to listen, I cannot recommend Mountains of the Moon highly enough. Anyone who has an affinity for those African adventure scores by Jerry Goldsmith or Hans Zimmer that I mentioned earlier will surely find much to admire, and for anyone whose exposure to Michael Small’s music is limited, Mountains of the Moon is as good a place as any to start familiarizing yourself with the work of this tremendous and much-missed composer.

Buy the Mountains of the Moon soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (1:41)
  • Journey (1:15)
  • Sandy Camp (1:36)
  • The Market (traditional, arranged by Michael Small) (2:03)
  • Escape to England (2:31)
  • Isabelle (2:38)
  • Return to Africa (2:14)
  • Mabruki and the Lion Shoot (3:54)
  • The Long Walk (1:37)
  • Burton Sings (The Lone Rock) (traditional, arranged by Michael Small) (1:51)
  • Desert Trek (4:12)
  • It’s the Lake (0:50)
  • Poison Water (1:41)
  • Dark Caravan (3:12)
  • Ambush (0:45)
  • Ngola’s Court (1:44)
  • Speke and the Great Lake (4:03)
  • Farewell to Mabruki (1:42)
  • Journey Home (2:06)
  • The Wedding (Isabelle’s Theme) (1:26)
  • The Decision (2:11)
  • Burton’s Theme (2:02)
  • Journey Finale (2:22)

Running Time: 51 minutes 05 seconds

Polydor 843-013-2 (1990)

Music composed by Michael Small. Conducted by Allan Wilson. Orchestrations by Christopher Dedrick. Recorded and mixed by Alan Snelling. Edited by Curtis Roush. Album produced by Michael Small.

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