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THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN – Craig Armstrong

September 2, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The One and Only Ivan is an adventure-drama for children, directed by Thea Sharrock, and based on the successful and popular 2012 novel by Katherine Applegate. It is the story of a silverback gorilla, the eponymous Ivan (voiced by Sam Rockwell), who lives in a mall as a sideshow attraction, alongside an aged elephant named Stella (voiced by Angelina Jolie) and a friendly dog named Bob (voiced by Danny DeVito). Ivan is generally happy, as he does not remember his life before the mall, and he entertains guests by creating finger-paint artwork. However, the arrival of a baby elephant named Ruby kickstarts a desire in Ivan to be free – especially when he witnesses Ruby being mistreated by the mall’s owner, Mack (Bryan Cranston). Eventually, with the help of a young girl named Julia, Ivan hatches a plan to escape, not only for himself, but for all his friends. The film has been praised for its positive environmentalist tone, good teaching lessons for kids, and warm-hearted family values, and was a modest success when it premiered on Disney+ in August 2020, having been pushed there away from cinemas due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The One and Only Ivan marks the return to (comparatively) mainstream film music of composer Craig Armstrong. Although the Scotsman has been working consistently throughout the last decade, it feels like a very long time since his prominent heyday of Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge, Love Actually, The Incredible Hulk, and others. The last score of his that caused any real ripples within the film music world was probably Far from the Madding Crowd in 2015, and his scores since then – Victor Frankenstein, Me Before You, Snowden, Bridget Jones’s Baby, The Burnt Orange Heresy, among others – were either commercial failures, art-house movies that virtually no-one saw, or were just not very interesting from a musical point of view. Thankfully, it appears that The One and Only Ivan might be the score to redress that balance. While the score contains none of the brash dynamism and bravado of his early work, and while some may consider it a little too saccharine in tone, it is for me the most satisfying Armstrong work since Far from the Madding Crowd. It has heart, emotion, thematic beauty, and no small amount of Disney magic.

The score is built around two main themes – one for Ivan the gorilla, and one for Julia, the young girl who inspires his quest for freedom – and Armstrong gets a ton of mileage out of both of them. Ivan’s theme is introduced in the first cue, “Through the Mall,” and is a sprightly and enthusiastic scherzo for playful strings, full of life and with an upbeat, good-natured attitude, mirroring the gorilla’s desire to please his ‘crowd’ at the sideshow. Some light rhythmic elements for pianos and soft shaken percussion gives him a little brush of the exotic, but more on that later.

Julia’s Theme is introduced in the second cue, “Julia,” a sweet melody for woodwinds and strings surrounding a core 5-note motif of great delicacy and prettiness. This motif is everywhere, and is arguably the heart of the score; it counterbalances the energy and rambunctiousness of Ivan’s theme with calm, thoughtfulness, and a genuine wholesome goodness, and a desire to do what’s right.

Both these themes dominate much of the score. Ivan’s Theme gets significant airplay in “Ivan Puts on a Good Show,” the wonderfully joyous “Arriving at the Forest,” and “Life Returns to Normal,” while Julia’s Theme recurs with beautiful and welcome frequency in “Ivan Remembers,” the inquisitive “Are You a Monkey,” and the gorgeous “Ivan’s Story,” which features a striking harp element. In between all these are numerous passages for light strings, pizzicato effects, dancing pianos, magical chimes, effortlessly elegant woodwinds, and some classical touches that seem to contain waltz rhythms; it’s all very lovely, but as I said earlier may come across as perhaps a little too twee and cute for listeners more attuned to Armstrong’s darker, more serious writing. Having said that, some of the textures in these parts of the score have more than a hint of James Horner to them; at different times I was reminded of scores like Cocoon, House of Cards, The Journey of Natty Gann, and The Spitfire Grill, none of which have anything to do with the actual narrative themes of this score, but have a similar sense of welcoming warmth. This probably explains why I am drawn to them so much.

A sprightly, wonderfully optimistic string motif for Ruby the Baby Elephant is introduced in “Ruby’s Arrival” and revisited in subsequent cues such as “Ruby’s First Show,” and the nimble and charming “Ruby Performs”. Her presence is the catalyst for change in the story, and it is perhaps appropriate that her music is a somewhat bombastic intrusion that shakes up the order of things with a new sense of vigorous and upbeat transformation. Elsewhere, the choral writing in “Stella Leaves” is just gorgeous, a moment of heartfelt emotion that is keenly felt. There’s also some striking tension and drama in cues like “Mack and Ruby” and “Mack Trains Ruby,” which use string tremolos to capture the antagonistic relationship that develops between the pair.

However, where the score really shines for me are in the moments where Armstrong references Ivan’s African heritage and breaks out his jungle drums. In the last few moments of the aforementioned “Ivan Puts on a Good Show,” and in later cues such as “Ivan’s Memories” and the intense and dramatic “Ivan’s Capture,” Armstrong channels scores like Jerry Goldsmith’s The Ghost and the Darkness and Congo by turning to light tribal rhythms, chanted vocals, and a more open and wide-ranging sound in the orchestra. This is a call from Ivan’s home, his longing to return, and his memories of his life before the mall, unlocked by Julia’s love and Ruby’s youthful exuberance.

The true emotional high points of the score come towards the end of the album, and include such super cues as “Ivan’s Painting Revealed,” “Ivan Discusses His Plan,” and “Reflections of Ivan,” where the strings and voices simply soar. The stunning statements of Ivan’s Theme in “Ivan Is Set Free” are bittersweet and laced with longing, but also proud and majestic, and feature some of the most prominent brass writing in the entire score. The conclusive “Ivan Orchestral Suite” is a wonderful summation of the most important ideas, and ends Armstrong’s part on a high.

The final element of the One and Only Ivan is an original song, “Free,” written by Diane Warren, and performed by the young singer-songwriter and producer Charlie Puth. Of the song, Warren says: “I’ve written a lot of songs for movies, but this movie, because it is such a beautiful story about animals, touched my heart and soul like no other, and inspired me to write what might be my favorite song ever. It came from my heart and soul and I hope it touches yours and makes you feel a little more free.” The song is certainly very good – an early contender for Academy Award consideration – but for me it’s nowhere near her best. When you have a filmography that includes songs like “Because You Loved Me” and “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing,” plus multiple collaborations with Toni Braxton, Mariah Carey, Cher, Joe Cocker, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Meat Loaf, and LeAnn Rimes – let alone Lady Gaga’s “Til It Happens to You” from The Hunting Ground which should have won her an Oscar – calling this song a career best is a stretch, but you can make up your own mind. The song is not included with the digital purchase of the soundtrack, but is available separately as a single on streaming services.

Ultimately, The One and Only Ivan is a delightful and emotionally powerful score that should appeal to a wide range of people. The intelligent application of several excellent recurring themes, the charming and effervescent orchestrations, the boisterous African tribal elements, and the stunningly beautiful finale, are all major plusses. As such, anyone who has missed Craig Armstrong while he has been away monkeying around on indie movies and small-time dramas for the past five years will surely welcome him back with open arms.

Buy the One and Only Ivan soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Through the Mall (2:02)
  • Julia (1:06)
  • Julia Gives Ivan Crayons (0:59)
  • Ivan’s Beetle (0:53)
  • Ivan Puts on a Good Show (1:28)
  • Ivan Remembers (1:15)
  • Ivan and Stella (0:42)
  • Julia’s Theme (0:52)
  • Ruby’s Arrival (1:15)
  • Meet Ruby (2:14)
  • Ruby Asleep (0:34)
  • Are You a Monkey (0:59)
  • Ruby’s First Show (0:59)
  • Ruby Performs (1:05)
  • Stella’s Story (0:51)
  • Brave Ruby (2:09)
  • Ivan’s Story (0:52)
  • Stella Leaves (2:08)
  • Mack and Ruby (1:29)
  • Mack Trains Ruby (1:17)
  • Ivan and Ruby (2:01)
  • Ivan Refuses to Paint (1:44)
  • Arriving at the Forest (2:19)
  • You Can’t Be Out Here (1:23)
  • Ivan’s Memories (1:38)
  • Ivan’s Capture (0:50)
  • Life Returns to Normal (1:11)
  • Ivan’s New Plan (1:42)
  • Ivan’s Painting Revealed (1:22)
  • Julia Wants Ivan to Be Free (0:50)
  • Ivan Discusses His Plan (2:22)
  • Ivan’s Farewell (1:41)
  • Ivan Is Set Free (3:20)
  • Reflections of Ivan (3:36)
  • The Reunion (1:42)
  • Ivan Orchestral Suite (2:29)
  • Free (written by Diane Warren, performed by Charlie Puth) (3:48) BONUS

Running Time: 59 minutes 26 seconds

Walt Disney Records (2020)

Music composed and conducted by Craig Armstrong. Orchestrations by Dave Foster and Ryan Humphrey. Recorded and mixed by Rupert Coulson and Andy Bradfield. Edited by Andrew Glen. Album produced by Craig Armstrong.

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