Home > Reviews > REVERSAL OF FORTUNE – Mark Isham


September 10, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

For quite a lot of the summer of 1990, the movie Reversal of Fortune was a hot topic of conversation. It tells the true story of European aristocrat Claus von Bülow, who in 1982 was arrested, tried, and convicted for the attempted murder of his wife, Sunny von Bülow, who went into a coma after an apparent insulin overdose and subsequently fell into a persistent vegetative state. Claus – who had a haughty and arrogant demeanor, and was estranged from Sunny – maintained his innocence, and launched an appeal, hiring Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz to prepare his defense. Despite being initially convinced of Claus’s guilt, Dershowitz begins to find evidence that points to inconsistencies in the prosecution’s case, which could actually prove his client’s innocence. The popularity of the film led to a great deal of new media focus on the case, as well as a number of ‘did-he-or-didn’t-he’ articles in the press, and water cooler talk about Claus and his life. The film was written by Nicholas Kazan, adapting Dershowitz’s own book about the case, and was directed by Barbet Schroeder. It starred Jeremy Irons as Claus, Glenn Close as Sunny, and Ron Silver as Dershowitz, and was nominated for three Academy Awards, with Irons taking home the Oscar for Best Actor.

Reversal of Fortune was the mainstream breakthrough score for composer Mark Isham. Although he had dabbled in film here and there in the 1980s, writing scores for films such as the Oscar winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk in 1985, the cult serial killer thriller The Hitcher in 1986, and several high-pedigree dramas for director Alan Rudolph, Isham was much better known as a jazz trumpeter and musician, especially for his 1983 album ‘Vapor Drawings’. However, the commercial and critical success of Reversal of Fortune quickly established Isham as an in-demand composer for the movies, and within a few years he had written scores for films like Point Break, Little Man Tate, and Of Mice and Men, and had been nominated for an Oscar for A River Runs Through It.

The whole score for Reversal of Fortune is a musical depiction of the personality of Claus von Bülow: coolly indifferent, with an aura of upper-class nonchalance and a slight detachment from reality that only true wealth and privilege brings. However, beneath this sheen of sophistication, a dark underbelly is lurking, full of mystery, perhaps a little warped, perhaps a little twisted. To capture all this Isham uses a small ensemble comprising a string orchestra and electronic keyboards, which he augments with light jazzy textures (but very little actual jazz) that come mostly from percussion, glassy tones from gongs and bowls, and a recurring electric guitar motif performed by renowned soloist David Torn.

The main theme is introduced in the first cue, “A Reversal of Fortune,” and is a melancholy piece for aloof electronics and subdued percussion, which eventually unravels into the actual main melody, performed by Torn’s electric guitar. The whole thing has a slightly menacing tone, whereas some of the electronic sounds feel distant, detached, and intentionally muted, which as I mentioned is Isham’s way of reflecting Claus’s arrogant and standoffish personality. Mysterious glassy tones (gongs, glass harmonicas, bowls) eventually combine with moody strings to pick up the melody of the main theme, before it all reaches a more energetic finale with string and chugging electric guitar textures underpinned by dramatic percussion.

Much of the rest of the score unfolds with a similar set of tones, textures, and instrumental combinations, but one or two cues do stand out for being different enough to be notable. “Coma,” for example, uses lighter electronic and string tones which come across as a little dreamy, a little sad, perhaps as a comment on the terrible fate of Sunny von Bülow, forever locked inside her own body, a prisoner unable to move or communicate. “Ice Cream, Bullion, and a Scotch and Soda” opens with a slow, meditative performance of the main theme, but switches just before the 4:00 mark and introduces a new idea for more enigmatic-sounding strings, underpinned with light gongs, which provide a funereal atmosphere.

“The Letters” has a much stronger classical sound, with heavier emphasis on banks of layered strings, and a rich performance of the main theme. “Sunny, Claus and a Tiger” reaches for some deep, sonorous cello chords, and continues with the sound of elegance and classicism in the strings, but there is a hint of regret in the religioso chord progressions, and some actual warmth and harmonic beauty towards the end of the cue, reflecting happier times in the Von Bülow family history.

“A Possible Explanation” is the most observably Isham-esque cue of the score, wherein the composer adds trumpet solos to the electronic tones and eerie, high string writing, to add a touch of wistfulness to the proceedings. “Claus, The Bad Guy” is a cleverly underhanded representation of how the world sees Von Bülow from the outside; there are slow, meandering strings and electronic tones accompanied by tapped and brushed cymbals, and what sounds like some subtle industrial sound design, giving the whole thing a slightly unsettling edge. The conclusive “This Is All You Can Know” is essentially a recapitulation of the first cue, with a brooding statement of the main theme, more jazzy percussion, and more of those ominous synth tones. Did Claus von Bülow really try to kill his wife? Or did he get away with attempted murder by challenging a jury – and his lawyer – to look deeper within the soul of an unpleasant man, and then manipulate what they saw there? Isham’s music never tells.

Reversal of Fortune is an interesting score; it’s a low-key slow burn for much of its running time, and its lack of any real warmth or energy may make some listeners dismiss it as a little dull. Personally, though, I find Isham’s instrumental combinations and blended textures to be quite alluring in a dark and detached sort of way, and the subtle changes in tone and texture that Isham employs throughout the score ensures that the mystery surrounding Claus von Bülow’s guilt or innocence is never clearly revealed. The main theme is judged well considering the nature of the film and, although many of his subsequent works would be much more crowd-pleasing, Reversal of Fortune should not be overlooked as an important part of Mark Isham’s film music history.

The soundtrack was released on CD by Milan in both Europe and North America, and has been out of print for some time, although used copies are not difficult to come by on the secondary market. In addition, the entire score is available to stream via Mark Isham’s personal Soundcloud page at https://soundcloud.com/markisham/sets/reversal-of-fortune-original-movie-soundtrack.

Buy the Reversal of Fortune soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • A Reversal of Fortune (4:42)
  • The Mystery Unfolds (1:38)
  • Coma (1:26)
  • A Search Reveals (3:19)
  • Ice Cream, Bullion, and a Scotch and Soda (7:06)
  • The Letters (1:35)
  • What Sunny Wants, Sunny Gets! (0:36)
  • Sunny, Claus and a Tiger (3:51)
  • A Possible Explanation (2:32)
  • Another Possible Explanation (3:40)
  • Claus, The Bad Guy (2:16)
  • This Is All You Can Know (3:37)

Running Time: 36 minutes 18 seconds

Milan CDCH-528 (1990)

Music composed and conducted by Mark Isham. Recorded and mixed by Steve Krause. Edited by Susan Buchman. Album produced by Mark Isham.

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