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MISERY – Marc Shaiman

November 25, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

One of the most talked-about movies of 1990 was Misery, a thriller directed by Rob Reiner, based on the 1987 novel of the same name by Stephen King. It’s a tale of psychological horror, obsession, and violence, and was one of the first films to address ‘celebrity stalker’ culture. James Caan stars as Paul Sheldon, an author famous for his series of romance books featuring the lead character Misery Chastain. One day Paul crashes his car in a snowstorm just outside a small Colorado town; seriously injured, he is rescued by Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), a former nurse who lives nearby. As Paul recuperates it quickly becomes apparent that Annie – who describes herself as Paul’s ‘number one fan’ – is quite deranged, and plans on keeping him prisoner in her home so that he can write more Misery novels… by any means necessary. The most talked-about moment in the film is, of course, the scene where Annie breaks both Paul’s ankles with a sledgehammer to keep him from escaping, which still retains its visceral power today; Bates went on to win the Oscar for Best Actress for her career-making performance.

The score for Misery was by the unlikeliest of composers: Marc Shaiman. In 1990 the then 31-year old Shaiman was best known as a musical director for numerous New York theater and cabaret shows, and later as the music director for Bette Midler on many of her successful late 1980s albums. However, it was through his friendship with comedian and actor Billy Crystal – whose concerts and stage shows he also arranged – that Shaiman came into Rob Reiner’s world. Reiner directed Crystal in When Harry Met Sally in 1989, and Crystal recommended Shaiman to Reiner as someone who could write the big band arrangements for Harry Connick Jr. for the soundtrack; this in turn led to Shaiman being offered Misery, Reiner’s next film. Bearing all this in mind – the big band arrangements, the cabaret and stage shows, Bette Midler and Billy Crystal – Shaiman would seem to be the last person one would choose to score a psychological horror thriller, but the end result was excellent, and it essentially launched Shaiman’s Hollywood career.

Misery is a serious work for the full orchestra, which blends plentiful Herrmann-esque tense atmospherics with some excellent action material for the film’s conclusive showdown. Light piano textures introduce Annie’s lullaby-esque theme at the beginning of the opening cue, “Number One Fan”. It’s an interesting combination of the creepy and the pretty, and most of the cue is textural rather than strongly thematic, with orchestral tones that move around the ensemble incorporating fragments of the main theme rather than bold outright statements. Shaiman cleverly captures the essence of Annie in this one 6½ minute piece; it has the quasi-romantic tone of someone who clearly wants to be loved, but whose love exists in a fantasy world of Hollywood lovers, so it sounds broken and unrequited. Then, towards the end of the cue, a series of buzzing, agitated string ideas emerge, clearly insinuating that things are not right in Annie’s head.

The subsequent two cues, “She Can’t Be Dead” and “Open House,” are much darker, commenting on the strained symbiotic relationship that develops between Annie and Paul. In the former Shaiman uses imposing string chords and threatening timpani rumbles to describe Annie’s growing control over Paul’s life, and occasionally rises to present dramatic rushes of orchestral power to increase the tension levels, but Shaiman never fully realizes them, always coming back to the eerie string and sinister woodwind writing before things spill over. Annie’s theme remains a constant presence, lurking around every melodic corner. In the latter cue Shaiman uses a number of typically Bernard Herrmann-style tension-building techniques to accompany Paul as he searches Annie’s house looking for a way to escape. Strident strings, shrill woodwinds, brass clusters, ascending scales, and tremolo effects, all ratchet up the nervousness, right up until the last minute or so wherein Shaiman begins to introduce the action ostinato that will dominate the finale of the score.

“Go To Your Room” contains the first explosion of real, sustained action. Shaiman uses frantic string runs, pounding percussion, and a bevy of brass and woodwind hits to hammer home (no pun intended) Annie’s terrible deeds and the torture she inflicts on Paul. One thing to note here is how beautifully orchestrated it all is – the work by Dennis Dreith, Bruce Fowler, and Hummie Mann is so clear and crisp you can hear what every instrument is doing throughout the entire cue. It’s also worth mentioning the frequent use of jazzy, elaborate piano lines under the main ostinato, which are just terrific.

“Buster’s Last Stand” contains the score’s only statement of the pseudo-comedic theme for Buster (Richard Farnsworth), the crotchety local sheriff who investigates Paul’s disappearance and eventually fingers Annie as a suspect. Buster’s Theme is a light, bouncy scherzo for strings and woodwinds with a definite John Williams vibe, and which is counterbalanced by warm horns to illustrate his steadfastness and dedication to duty. There are several sequences of clever interplay between Buster’s Theme and Annie’s Theme as the cue progresses, and the use of chimes and glockenspiel towards the end of the piece adds a wintry flavor to Buster’s journey through the snow to Annie’s house – where a dramatic finale seals his fate.

“Misery’s Return” is the grand guignol finale of the score, as Annie and Paul literally fight to the death. The whole thing starts with a lyrical and romantic version of Annie’s theme; this is all to lull Annie into a false sense of security before Paul unleashes his plan. The solo violin plays to Annie’s soon-to-be-shattered romantic notions of life with Paul and his Misery novels – there is a hint of tragedy which encourages the listener to perhaps empathize with her loneliness and bitterness – but it becomes larger and more intense, before eventually exploding into shocking violence. Shaiman goes for broke in the fight scene with massive orchestral strokes, bold dissonance, and the score’s most intense version of the recurring action ostinato as Paul and Annie batter each other with everything from typewriters to household furniture and ornaments. Shaiman’s action writing is wonderfully chaotic, combining crashing pianos and off-kilter woodwinds with darting string figures and growling brass, often all at the same time. This type of orchestral chaos has the potential to be terribly messy, but Shaiman’s skill makes it tremendously effective instead. This is arguably the moment that secured his film music career – if he can score this, with this level of sophistication and intelligence and emotional depth, then clearly he can score anything. The final, despondent statement of Annie’s theme as the camera lingers on her unblinking eyes confirms that Paul is finally free of his biggest fan’s twisted version of love.

Misery was a terrific debut score for Marc Shaiman, and was so well-received that he quickly became one of the most in-demand composers in Hollywood – within two or three years of this he would score City Slickers, The Addams Family, A Few Good Men, and others, and his position on the A-List would be secured. Anyone who only thinks of light comedy or satirical stage musicals when thinking of Marc Shaiman would do well to give Misery a chance, because it proves that he is a superb dramatic composer in his own right, with a nifty line in creative action music to boot. The album, on the Bay Cities label, runs for less than half an hour, which means that it’s a neat snapshot of all the score has to offer – and also means it’s ripe for an expansion from one of the specialty labels. I heartily recommend you check it out – but just don’t go telling Shaiman that you’re his number one fan afterwards, or he might have to take a sledgehammer to you!

Buy the Misery soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Number One Fan (6:40)
  • She Can’t Be Dead (6:16)
  • Open House (4:17)
  • Go To Your Room (2:28)
  • Buster’s Last Stand (4:14)
  • Misery’s Return (6:04)

Running Time: 29 minutes 56 seconds

Bay Cities BCD-3011 (1990)

Music composed by Marc Shaiman. Conducted by Dennis Dreith. Orchestrations by Dennis Dreith, Bruce Fowler and Hummie Mann. Recorded and mixed by Armin Steiner. Edited by Scott Stambler. Album produced by Marc Shaiman and Bruce Kimmel.

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