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GHOST – Maurice Jarre

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The unexpected box office smash hit of 1990, Ghost is a supernatural romantic drama-thriller about the power of love transcending death, which had millions of people weeping in cinemas across the world. Patrick Swayze stars as Sam Wheat, a successful banker in New York City, who has just moved into a new apartment with his beautiful girlfriend Molly (Demi Moore), and is renovating it with the help of his best friend and co-worker Carl (Tony Goldwyn). Life is perfect for Sam – until he is shot and killed on the street during a mugging gone wrong. Sam discovers he is now a ghost, invisible and unable to interact with the mortal world; after trying and failing multiple times to contact Molly from beyond the grave, Sam instead tries to solve his own murder – which leads him to a startling revelation, and renews his need to contact Molly. To this end, Sam begins to ‘haunt’ Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg), a fake psychic medium, who is shocked to discover that she can really hear Sam; eventually, Sam convinces Oda Mae to talk to Molly on his behalf, to warn her that she too is in danger. The film was written by Bruce Joel Rubin and was directed by Jerry Zucker, making his solo directing debut after a decade of comedy work as part of the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker trio. As I mentioned it was an enormous commercial success, grossing more than $500 million at the US box office; it was also critically successful, and went on to receive five Oscar nominations, winning for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress for Goldberg.

One of the other Oscar nominations Ghost received was for its score, which was written by French composer Maurice Jarre. However, by far the most famous musical part of the film has nothing to do with Maurice Jarre, and instead has everything to do with Alex North. For the film‘s famous scene of Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze getting hot ‘n heavy with each other during a late night pottery-making session (where the hunk of wet clay slithering between their fingers is a thinly veiled metaphor for… well… you know), director Zucker chose to use the classic love song “Unchained Melody” by The Righteous Brothers. The song is gorgeous – longing, romantic, a little sad – but a lot of people don’t know that it was originally written by film composer Alex North for the 1955 prison drama film Unchained, and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Song that year too.

The overt romance and erotic sexuality of the scene in question made it one of the most famous cinematic moments of the decade, and brought a new level of recognition to the already beloved song, cementing North’s melody as the standout musical element of the entire project. In fact – and this might be a controversial statement – I personally think that Jarre’s Oscar nomination for Best Score was actually due to the popularity and beauty of North’s song, because most of the rest of the score isn’t actually that great.

Ghost was written during the period where Jarre was still unhealthily obsessed with writing almost exclusively for synthesizers, and was the latest in a series of works that mostly ignored the large-scale orchestral writing that had become his trademark in previous decades, via scores like Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and others. I have always been of the opinion that, with the possible lone exception of Dead Poets Society, Jarre’s synth scores have been mostly pretty terrible. Titles like Witness, The Mosquito Coast, Fatal Attraction, Gorillas in the Mist, and others, all contained at least one knockout main melody, but were unfortunately surrounded by a whole mess of amateurish electronic noodling that dragged the rest of the score down and, in some cases, made the central theme seem worse too. I still have yet to understand what it was that made Jarre continue to determinedly write music in a style that he so clearly couldn’t master. He was a genuinely terrific orchestral composer, full of style and creativity, with colorful orchestrations and memorable themes, but his electronic writing was at times almost laughably clumsy. It’s like he never quite got the fact that a synthesizer, no matter how sophisticated it was, could never truly replicate the sound of an orchestra, but despite this he continued to write complicated orchestral music that just could never be rendered properly by the keyboards – so it ended up just sounding muddy and jumbled, a mess of notes and overlapping ideas that just sound wrong. Ghost is a score like that.

The one exception to the statement I just made is Sam and Molly’s love theme, a truly gorgeous lyrical melody that initially represents their passion and real-life love, and later represents Molly’s memory of Sam, and the love that Sam takes with him after his death. This melody is the first real theme that appears, around 80 seconds into the opening track, “Ghost,” on high wavering woodwinds backed by piano and strings, before eventually melting into a more romantic string-led version that is really lovely. This theme appears any time the relationship between Sam and Molly is at the forefront of the film; the second statement of the theme later in the first cue is pretty, shifting between solo piano, light woodwinds, and warm strings, while subsequent recapitulations at the beginning of “Ditto,” 90 seconds into “Carl,” and at the beginning of “Molly,” are genuinely beautiful.

As for the rest of the score… well, sometimes it’s OK, whereas elsewhere it is near-intolerable. The soundtrack album is arranged as five long suites, each of which contains a variety of moods and ideas that change as the piece develops. The rest of the opening cue, “Ghost,” contains some spooky synth atmospherics and stingers, creating a mood of appropriately eerie uncertainty; later, just after the 4:00 mark, the cue erupts into the first of the score’s several action sequences, almost all of which are quite dreadful. In these moments Jarre’s music devolves into little more than cacophony, with overlapping layers of electronic craziness and jumbled percussive beats that have no discernible internal tempo, and which sound more like random noise than actual structured music. Similar examples of this sort of action music can be heard later, in the middle of “Sam,” and for an extended period after the first thirty seconds of “Ditto.” Perhaps the only good action sequence is the one which begins 80 seconds into “Molly,” during which Jarre increases the brass quotient significantly, and performs numerous variations on a bold and thrusting ostinato featuring prominent timpani hits, a relentless string swirl, a tick-tock electronic pulse, and eventually a driving snare drum riff.

However, even worse than these action sequences are the moments where Jarre goes into thriller-horror mode, such as at the end of “Ghost,” in most of “Sam,” in the middle of “Ditto,” and throughout almost all of “Carl”. In these cues Jarre’s music is little more than extended sequences of hollow, droning synth ambiance, occasionally overlaid with sampled brass and electronic percussion that rumbles, bleeps, and whistles away endlessly. The solo brass line under the electronics at the end of “Ghost” is clearly intended to be a sort of mournful lament for the post-mugging death of Sam, and the occasional use of jazzy pianos is clearly intended evoke a sort of gritty urban cool, but it just doesn’t work at all. In fact, the extended sequence of screeching and clattering during the last minute or so of “Carl” will likely have many people reaching for the skip button.

Perhaps the most hopeless moment of all comes at 2:40 in “Ditto,” and is a sequence of faux heroism for the scene where Sam chases his murderer out on to the street, only to see him hit and killed by a car. Here, Jarre uses a synthesized trumpet fanfare that is so laughably cheesy, so below what should be the quality standards of an Oscar winning composer, that you can barely believe someone of his caliber thought something this inept sounded good.

Thankfully the score ends on a genuine high note, beginning with an orchestra-only arrangement of the Unchained theme played over the film’s heartbreaking, devastatingly romantic final scene, before segueing into a the final reprise of the love theme in the “End Credits”. It is during these two cues that Jarre finally unleashes the might of his full orchestra and performs the themes with the depth, scope, and emotional resonance that one associates with the composer’s best work. The almost impossibly lush arrangement of North’s theme is just stunning, and wrings every last drop of emotion from the listener and viewer, while the “End Credits” reminds us why Jarre was one of Hollywood’s premiere elite composers for almost two decades in the 1960s and 70s. The way he moves the melodic line around the orchestra, supports and enhances the strings with simple but effortlessly effective counterpoint for brass, and uses harp glissandi and timpani rolls and piano syncopations to add a sense of drama and magic, is just wonderful.

For many people, the two versions of “Unchained Melody” and the fully orchestral “End Credits” will be all the music from Ghost they will ever need. It is this music that fully conveys the heart of the story – the lasting love between Sam and Molly, and their emotional link that literally spans time and planes of existence – and it’s just superb. The rest of the score, which deals with the action and thriller and light horror aspects of the story, will be more difficult for passing fans of the film to swallow, and for film music fans will likely be supremely disappointing due to its overall lack of quality and coherence. Maurice Jarre’s stubborn insistence on continually writing music like this for project after project after project, when he was clearly completely out of his depth, was one of the most frustrating film music-related trends of the 1980s and 1990s, and Ghost does little to dispel it. Come for Unchained Melody and the sexy ceramics, and stay for Sam & Molly’s Love Theme, but most of the rest of it can be dragged to hell by shadow demons without it being missed.

Buy the Ghost soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Unchained Melody (written by Alex North and Hy Zaret, performed by The Righteous Brothers) (3:40)
  • Ghost (7:24)
  • Sam (5:33)
  • Ditto (3:20)
  • Carl (4:06)
  • Molly (6:17)
  • Unchained Melody – Orchestral (written by Alex North) (4:00)
  • End Credits (4:16)

Running Time: 38 minutes 36 seconds

Milan 883617 (1990)

Music composed and conducted by Maurice Jarre. Orchestrations by Maurice Jarre and Patrick Russ. Recorded and mixed by Robert Fernandez and Shawn Murphy. Album produced by Maurice Jarre.

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