Home > Reviews > DEFENDING YOUR LIFE – Michael Gore



Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Defending Your Life is a high concept comedy-drama written, directed by, and starring Albert Brooks. He plays Los Angeles advertising exec Daniel Miller, who is hit by a bus and killed within minutes of the film starting. He awakens in the ‘waiting zone’ between Earth and the afterlife, which is an interconnected complex of luxury resort hotels featuring every imaginable convenience. The catch is that, in order to successfully transition to heaven, the newly-deceased Daniel must ‘defend his life’ with the help of an assigned lawyer, and argue a case before a panel of judges, who will determine whether he lived his life on Earth well. If he is unsuccessful his soul will be reincarnated to live another life on Earth, where he will have another attempt at moving past his fears. While undergoing this process Daniel meets and falls in love with Julia (Meryl Streep), a recently deceased woman, who is taking the same tests. The film, which co-stars Rip Torn and Lee Grant, is an unusual mix of whimsical comedy, light romance, and existential philosophy, but was very well-received when it was first released, with Roger Ebert calling it “funny in a warm, fuzzy way” and a film with a “splendidly satisfactory ending”.

The score for Defending Your Life is by the Oscar-winning composer Michael Gore, in one of his few cinematic outings after the overwhelming success of Fame in 1980. Gore had a peculiar career; he followed Fame with two more enormous smash hit movies – Terms of Endearment in 1983, and Pretty in Pink in 1984 – and picked up another Oscar nomination for the former, but then essentially disappeared. Defending Your Life was his last score of any real significance, and his last feature score period was the 1999 SNL spinoff comedy Superstar. Looking back with thirty years of hindsight, Michael Gore’s music is clearly better suited to Broadway than it is to Hollywood; there’s an upbeat, infectious, bright tunefulness running through it that begs to be set to lyrics, and to some people this type of prominent melodiousness is synonymous with ‘cheese,’ which I have always felt was unfair and a shame.

Defending Your Life is one of those scores. It’s a pretty and upbeat light orchestral-pop score, with a main theme based around a recurring central melody that permeates the entire project, and warmly appealing orchestrations that make the whole thing a pleasant delight. The score’s relentlessly chipper tone casts Albert Brooks’s adventures in the afterlife with the feeling of a screwball caper, but Gore is also sensitive enough to address the film’s more serious themes with restrained woodwind writing that is quite lovely, while simultaneously building to a majestic finale.

The main theme is presented in full in the “Main Title,” and if you don’t care for what you hear here, then you might as well stop at this point, because the theme is essentially everywhere in the rest of the score. It’s actually several melodic ideas wrapped up in one, ranging from the bouncy and frothy theme for Daniel that opens the piece – I love those trilling oboes and trumpets – to the first performance of the love theme for Daniel and Julia that kicks in at the 1:22 mark with a trademark Hollywood shimmer in the strings. Shirley Walker’s luscious orchestrations are a massive plus here, again underlining just how important she was to the sound of film music in the late 1980s and early 90s.

Cues like “On to The Continental,” “Back to the Hotel,” “Arrival at Defender’s Circle,” and the sweet “Past Live Pavilion” are essentially deconstructed versions of Daniel’s theme, performed with a curious inquisitiveness coupled with wryly amused sarcasm, as Daniel explores the many amenities in the afterlife’s luxury resort hotels, including the calorie-free all-you-can-eat buffets, the bowling alleys where you always get a strike, and the comedy clubs where the jokes are always funny. “Here Comes Mr. Diamond” features a busy, florid, but brief motif for Rip Torn’s character, the defense attorney assigned to help Daniel move on to ‘the next phase of existence’.

“First Kiss” is a pretty exploration of the Love Theme for strings, woodwinds, and harp glissandi, which is really delightful. “First Night in Judgment City” is more jazzy and carefree, with instrumental flavors for pianos, saxophones, and clarinets, alongside more forthright string figures – a night on the town with all the trimmings. “Miniature Golf (Tiny Baubles)” is a fun and playful orchestral arrangement of the classic Don Ho easy listening song “Tiny Bubbles”. “Do You Want to Spend the Night?” could not be more steeped in the 1980s if it tried, and offers another reprise of the romantic theme with a prominent synthesizer and gentle, lyrical woodwinds. “Pasta Serenade” is a fun piece of mock Italian pastiche replete with tinkling mandolins and a spicy flourish in the strings.

“You’re Going Back/Finale” is the score’s emotional and heartfelt high point. It begins with some especially lovely writing for soft strings and gentle woodwinds, but then changes into a more serious sequence for dramatic piano chords and a strident, bombastic arrangement of the main theme which underscores the scene where Daniel breaks the rules and decides to leap from his assigned ‘destination tram’ to be with Julia. The sweep of the main theme in the final few minutes is truly outstanding, and the final flurry, replete with cymbal crashes and resounding brass, might be the best thing Gore ever wrote for film. The “End Credits” then reprises all of the score’s main thematic ideas, and performs them with gusto, ending things on a high note.

The album is rounded out by an ironic and weirdly dated electronic performance of “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story by Barbra Streisand, which is the song Daniel is listening to in the film’s opening moments, literally seconds before he crashes into a bus. The lyrics are perhaps a little on-the-nose, but are hilarious in context.

It’s a shame that Michael Gore’s career in film music never really continued much past these three or four scores. He was a megastar in the aftermath of Fame, almost as famous as his singer-songwriter-actress sister Lesley Gore, and he could easily have translated the success of that, Terms of Endearment, and this score, into a career that paralleled the likes of Marc Shaiman, or Randy Edelman, or many of the other pop and Broadway tunesmiths who carved out a career scoring major Hollywood movies. Alas, for reasons that remain unclear to me, Michael Gore is now mostly a piece of Oscar trivia, and Defending Your Life is almost entirely forgotten, film and score both. It doesn’t help that the soundtrack album has been out of print for years – although it is available reasonably cheaply on the secondary market – but if you do happen to find yourself in the mood for some upbeat, positive, beautifully bittersweet classic Hollywood comedy scoring from the early 1990s, you could do much worse than this.

Buy the Defending Your Life soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (2:31)
  • On to The Continental (1:07)
  • Here Comes Mr. Diamond (1:17)
  • Back to The Hotel (1:02)
  • Arrival at Defender’s Circle (1:59)
  • First Kiss (1:59)
  • First Night in Judgment City (1:19)
  • Something’s Coming from ‘West Side Story’ (written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, performed by Barbra Streisand) (2:56)
  • Past Live Pavilion (1:38)
  • Miniature Golf (“Tiny Baubles”) (1:31)
  • The Next Morning (1:15)
  • Do You Want to Spend the Night? (3:14)
  • Pasta Serenade (2:17)
  • You’re Going Back/Finale (6:08)
  • End Credits (3:33)

Running Time: 33 minutes 46 seconds

Columbia Records CK-47836 (1991)

Music composed by Michael Gore. Conducted by Shirley Walker. Orchestrations by Shirley Walker and Bruce Fowler. Recorded and mixed by Joel Moss. Edited by Curtis Roush. Album produced by Michael Gore.

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