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CITY SLICKERS – Marc Shaiman


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

City Slickers is a hilarious fish-out-of-water comedy directed by Ron Underwood, written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. The film stars Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern, and Bruno Kirby as Mitch, Phil, and Ed, three friends who constantly seek out new and increasingly dangerous ‘weekend experiences’ as a distraction from their boring jobs, unsatisfactory marriages, and impending midlife crises. After a trip to Spain to take part in the ‘running of the bulls’ turns into a disaster, the trio attempt something closer to home: a two-week cattle drive vacation, riding horses and being “dude cowboys” across the American west. After meeting up with the other members of the group and heading out into the big country, the trio quickly find themselves very much out of their depth, raising the ire and disdain of the grizzled trail boss Curly (Jack Palance). However, an unexpected tragedy forces the three of them to put aside their fears and neuroses and work together to save themselves, the cattle, and their fellow ‘city slickers’. The film co-starred Patricia Wettig, Helen Slater, and Noble Willingham, and was a popular success both with critics and audiences, culminating in an unexpected Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Palance at the age of 73 – who celebrated by doing one-armed push-ups on the Academy stage!

The score for City Slickers was by Marc Shaiman, and was essentially his sophomore mainstream score following his debut work, Misery, the year before. It was the first of three collaborations with director Underwood, with the others being Heart and Souls in 1993 and Speechless in 1994; it also saw Shaiman teaming up again with his old friend and colleague Billy Crystal, following on from 1989’s When Harry Met Sally, and their extensive work together on the New York stage. City Slickers couldn’t be more different from Misery in terms of tone and approach; whereas Misery was a dark, serious, Herrmannesque drama and thriller score, City Slickers is a bright, optimistic, tuneful western that combines the orchestrations of Aaron Copland with the lyrical melodiousness of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the cinematic scope of Elmer Bernstein, and a touch of Carl Stalling-style comedy mayhem.

Everything emanates from the anarchic “Main Title,” an animated sequence that introduces all of the score’s main thematic ideas in rapid fire succession, surrounded by a variety of homages to different aspects of the western genre, ranging from comedy sound effects to Warner Brothers cartoon music, and even Ennio Morricone spaghetti western gunfire sounds. The tone is frivolous and almost irritatingly upbeat, but the orchestrations are magnificent and creative – there are guitars and clattering xylophones and harmonicas and clarinets and whirling strings and honky-tonk pianos galore, alongside the orchestra. The big flourish at 1:44 accompanies the appearance of Shaiman’s name on screen – ta-dah! – while the rousing initial statement of the main theme at 2:07 imprints it on the listener’s subconscious for the rest of the score.

A secondary theme representing Mitch’s disappointment at the way his life is going is introduced in the second cue, “Career End,” and is initially based around a contemporary saxophone line with a despondent tone, before careening into a drunken, sad-sack trumpet idea backed with modern keyboard percussion and tinkling mandolins, the epitome of music for a mid-life crisis.

“Find Your Smile” initially showcases Shaiman’s lovely low-key orchestral writing, underlining the relationship between Mitch and his wife Barbara as she encourages him to go on the cattle drive and re-discover himself; the soft strings and electronic keyboard tones have the same sort of sound that people like Lee Holdridge specialized in during the 1980s, but it perhaps may come across as a little dated after so many decades. After around 90 seconds the music emerges into a rousing celebration of the Old West and the cinematic Western musical genre, an homage to Elmer Bernstein and Jerome Moross that is terrifically entertaining, and has just the right amount of loving genre nostalgia. The warm, sentimental versions of the main theme that begin around the 3:00 mark are lovely, especially through Shaiman’s use of guitars and harmonicas, which conjure up images of golden sunsets over the prairie.

Both “Walking Funny” and “Cowabunga” revisit the anarchic comedy stylings first heard in the main title; in the former, Shaiman’s harmonica sounds like a train whistle, the piano is straight out of a honky-tonk bar, and the orchestral lines dance with spirited frivolity. The latter includes wordless Gospel vocals and a Hammond organ, as well as a vibrant percussive hand-clap beat that picks up an unstoppable head of steam as it develops – glory hallelujah and praise the lord!

Both the secondary theme and the ‘relationship theme’ resolve with pleasing emotional depth in “Birth of Norman,” which underscores the scene of Mitch witnessing the natural magic of a cow giving birth to a cute little baby calf, only for the mother cow to die in labor. Shaiman’s writing is gorgeous, tender, with delicate orchestrations, a lovely sequence for solo oboe, bittersweet harmonicas, and some chord progressions that foreshadow some of the beautifully moving music Shaiman would later write for films such as Patch Adams.

In “The River” Shaiman’s main theme receives the fully symphonic dramatic treatment, as it underscores the scene where Mitch and Norman the Cow are swept away by an unexpected storm flood, and are eventually saved by Phil and Ed. Shaiman’s music here is powerful and serious, and layers statements of the main theme amid an urgent and intense orchestral action sequence that is genuinely compelling and exciting. Shaiman has always been great at action music, but far too often his excellence here is overlooked in favor of his sweeping love themes and his comedy textures; this cue proves why this should not be the case. I especially like the dark keyboard rhythm that underpins much of the second half of the track, as it reminds me of things like Presumed Innocent and other scores by John Williams, as well as his punchy use of brass.

The conclusive “Mitchy the Kid” revisits all the score’s main thematic ideas with a rich and full sound, including a sweeping and elegant version of the main theme, an emotional variation of the relationship theme, and some of the main title comedy hi-jinks, before ending with several successive massive statements of the main theme in all its western glory. The album is rounded out by two songs; “Where Did My Heart Go,” performed by James Ingram, is a light rock song based on the score’s secondary theme, while “Young at Heart” is a cover of a 1940s Frank Sinatra standard, performed by the legendary Jimmy Durante.

City Slickers is a short album – a hair over 30 minutes if you take out the songs – but Shaiman packs so much into that limited period that you never feel short changed. The rousing western anthem main theme remains one of his career highlights, and in its serious version can stand with some of the western genre’s all-time best. The clever interpolation of several secondary themes, the bold orchestrations, the flamboyant comedy, and the one sequence of genuinely superb action only strengthen the album more. It might be nice for a specialty label to release an expanded edition – there is certainly a ton more music in the film, even if it is mostly variations on these core ideas – but until that happens City Slickers gets a warm and strong recommendation. The only thing left to do is to tell you this one thing… One thing. Just one thing.

Buy the City Slickers soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (2:42)
  • Career End (2:11)
  • Find Your Smile (6:07)
  • Walking Funny (1:25)
  • Cowabunga (2:29)
  • Young at Heart (written by Johnny Richards and Carolyn Leigh, performed by Jimmy Durante) (2:48)
  • Birth of Norman (5:23)
  • The River (5:48)
  • Mitchy the Kid (4:19)
  • Where Did My Heart Go? (written by Marc Shaiman, performed by James Ingram) (3:52)

Running Time: 37 minutes 04 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-5321 (1991)

Music composed by Marc Shaiman. Conducted by Hummie Mann and Mark McKenzie. Orchestrations by Marc Shaiman, Hummie Mann, Mark McKenzie, Frank Bennett, Brad Dechter and Thom Sharp. Recorded and mixed by Joel Moss. Edited by Scott Stambler and Sherry Whitfield. Album produced by Marc Shaiman.

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