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GODMOTHERED – Rachel Portman

December 15, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Disney’s recent trend of slightly subverting their own storybook tropes continues in Godmothered, their latest family film. Directed by Sharon Maguire, who previously helmed Bridget Jones’s Diary, it stars Jillian Bell as Eleanor, a trainee fairy godmother who feels that the traditional roles they play are becoming outdated as nobody makes wishes any more. Seeking to change things for the better – and save the godmother school from closure – Eleanor travels to the ‘real world’ to grant the wishes of a 10-year-old girl named Mackenzie; however, upon arriving in contemporary Boston, Eleanor discoveres that Mackenzie is now a jaded and miserable 40-year-old single mother of two, with a job she hates and seemingly no romantic prospects. Despite this apparent setback, Eleanor decides to help Mackenzie anyway, and starts to insert herself into her life – with predictably hilarious and terrible results. The film co-stars Isla Fisher, Santiago Cabrera, Jane Curtin, and June Squibb, and was supposed to be one of Disney’s main Christmas releases for 2020 but – like so many others – it fell victim to the COVID-19 pandemic, and was sent straight-to-streaming on Disney+ in early December.

The score for Godmothered is by Rachel Portman, and is the most high-profile score from the English composer in quite some time. It’s interesting to note how Portman’s lyrical, sentimental music has fallen slightly out-of-fashion over the years. In the 1990s she was everywhere, scoring two or three major studio features a year, and of course famously becoming the first female composer to win an Oscar for Emma in 1996. However, over the past decade or so, her penchant for rich and theme-filled scores has seemingly become too trite and manipulative for modern filmmakers, which is why a new soundtrack from her is a rare treat indeed. Godmothered is a quintessential Rachel Portman score, filled to the brim with recognizable melodies, pretty orchestrations, and whimsical prancing rhythmic ideas, all with a warm and inviting festive sheen that makes it perfect for winter listening.

Anyone who has ever heard a Rachel Portman score will have a basic idea of what Godmothered sounds like. With the best will in the world, Portman is not the most diverse of composers. She defined her signature sound somewhere around 1988 or 1989 and has essentially stuck to it throughout her career, with just a few derivations here and there. Fortunately, I have always found her style wholly appealing and enjoyable, and that absolutely extends to this score too. It’s built around a couple of interlocking themes, including one for Eleanor which sort of seems to relate to the general concept of ‘magic,’ and then a more romantic theme which gradually emerges more and more as Eleanor manipulates circumstances so that Mackenzie and her ‘prince charming’ Hugh can fall in love. These themes tend to be quite tonally similar, featuring differences in melody but mostly identical orchestrations, so they are difficult to isolate, but one thing they have in common is that they are all adorable in a way that only Rachel Portman’s themes are. These themes then combine with a series of lightly comic interludes that accompany Eleanor’s wide-eyed misadventures in Massachusetts, and the various pratfalls and lovable disasters she creates, before it eventually all comes together in a magical, romantic, big-hearted finale.

The opening cue, “Good Morning Motherland,” sets the scene perfectly, being full of elegant prancing strings, twittering woodwinds, light chimes, and a softly cooing choir – a perfect depiction of the magical fairytale land where Eleanor is learning her craft. There’s a more strident, determined edge to Eleanor’s theme in “To the Portal,” which features prominent warm brass, while the conclusion of “The Assignment” sees her theme played with an earnest, sweeping conviction that is really lovely. Perhaps the best statement of her theme comes in the delightful “Eleanor Sledges,” which is filled with more Christmas cheer than you can shake a candy cane at.

The romantic/magic theme starts to emerge in “Your Dearest Wish,” a truly gorgeous melody which will likely remind some people of Alan Silvestri’s main theme from The Polar Express, or of Buddy’s theme from John Debney’s Elf, as it has a similar enchanting tone of light fantasy. Further statements of this theme crop up in cues like “House Poof,” often in conjunction with Eleanor’s theme and sequences of ‘general frivolity,’ and then with a slightly more serious attitude in cues like “The Problem with Fairytales”.

Elsewhere, cues like “Three Steps to Happily Ever After,” “First Spells”, “Magical Concoctions,” and “Agnes Facetime,” have a slightly mickey-mousey edge, each prancing and cavorting on dainty strings and woodwinds, shimmering and twinkling in a way that some may find a little overly saccharine. I have a feeling that this music in particular will drive some listeners crazy, setting their teeth on edge with too much cloying sweetness, but I personally find it all charming. There are hints of many other Rachel Portman scores here – things like Chocolat, The Road to Wellville, and Benny & Joon spring to mind – which gives you an idea of the general sound.

Other moments of note include the finale of “Exploding Pumpkins,” a vibrant 30-second scherzo that blitzes past you in a flash; and the oddly calypso-flavored pair “Gary the Raccoon” and “Gary and the Fairy Lights,” which somehow feels like Christmas in the Caribbean, and then re-occurs to underscore the traditional make-over shopping montage sequence in “Mackenzie’s Big Day Out,” which unexpectedly emerges into a refrain of “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music!

The finale of the score begins with a truly gorgeous statement of the magical theme in “Ballgown,” and then slowly builds through the more sadly dramatic “Mackenzie Asks Eleanor to Leave” and the determinedly upbeat and electronically-enhanced “Time for Change,” to the apex of the whole thing in the stunningly beautiful pair “Carriage Transformation” and “Carriage Flight”. Here, Portman reaches into her bag of tricks and wrings every last drop of emotion from the theme, employing cascading strings, bright trumpets, cymbal rings, shimmering chimes, and choral accents in support of her elegant melody. The percussive rumble under “Carriage Flight” adds a sense of movement and forward motion, the guitars in “Jane Takes the Stage” are endearingly intimate, and then after more magical twinkles in “I Am a Fairy Godmother” everything resolves in “Who’s Your True Love,” a lush and sweeping final statement of the magic theme featuring especially poignant cello lines and a pretty piano accompaniment.

The album also features two original songs, “Rise Up (Joy to the World)” and “Hero,” both performed by 18-year-old singer-actress Jillian Shea Spaeder, who plays Jane, Mackenzie’s older daughter, in the movie. Her voice sounds much older than her actual age, and she has a refreshingly different soul-style timbre to her voice that differentiates her from the usual annoying ‘Disney kid’ voices that drive me up the wall. I doubt they will be in the running for Oscar nods (although they are eligible), but they are decent enough for what they are.

Godmothered is a lovely score from start to finish. It’s awash in all the mannerisms and orchestral stylistics that have endeared people to Rachel Portman’s music for almost thirty years, it has a lovely vein of seasonal sentimentality running through it, and it is completely sincere in its musical depictions of romance and magic. Anyone with an aversion to this sort of music, especially anyone who has never really connected with Portman, may find the whole thing to be unbearably corny and overly sappy, but personally I found it to be wholly endearing from start to finish. After the year that 2020 has been, I think we all need some positive, wholesome reinforcement, and to be reminded that – at least in Disney world – dreams and wishes can come true.

Buy the Godmothered soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Good Morning Motherland (1:43)
  • To the Portal (1:48)
  • The Assignment (1:58)
  • Three Steps to Happily Ever After (1:19)
  • Exploding Pumpkins (1:03)
  • First Spells (1:29)
  • Your Dearest Wish (3:08)
  • Gary the Raccoon (1:06)
  • House Poof (2:24)
  • Magical Concoctions (1:14)
  • Agnes Facetime (2:26)
  • Mackenzie’s Big Day Out (1:51)
  • Mia and Eleanor Talk (0:58)
  • Gary and the Fairy Lights (1:09)
  • The Problem with Fairytales (1:39)
  • Eleanor Sledges (1:32)
  • Celebrations (1:38)
  • Hugh Prince Charming (1:50)
  • Ballgown (1:05)
  • Mackenzie Asks Eleanor to Leave (2:48)
  • Time for Change (3:30)
  • Carriage Transformation (3:12)
  • Carriage Flight (0:52)
  • Jane Takes the Stage (1:40)
  • I Am a Fairy Godmother (1:14)
  • Who’s Your True Love? (3:59)
  • Motherland Epilogue (0:48)
  • Rise Up (Joy to the World) (written by Cassandra Batie and Jennifer Decilveo, performed by Jillian Shea Spaeder) (2:37)
  • Hero (written by Tina Parol, Madeline Poppe, and David Spencer, performed by Jillian Shea Spaeder) (3:15)

Running Time: 55 minutes 29 seconds

Walt Disney Records (2020)

Music composed by Rachel Portman. Conducted by Alastair King. Performed by The Chamber Orchestra of London and the RSVP Voices Choir. Orchestrations by Alastair King. Recorded and mixed by Nick Wollage and Jake Jackson. Edited by Yann McCullough. Album produced by Rachel Portman.

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