Home > Reviews > BRIGHT ANGEL – Christopher Young

BRIGHT ANGEL – Christopher Young

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

A thoughtful, contemplative road movie with a neo-western vibe, Bright Angel was directed by Michael Field, with a screenplay adapted from an acclaimed short story by novelist Richard Ford. The film stars Dermot Mulroney as George, a disaffected teenager from Montana whose mental health and grip on sanity is deteriorating due to the constant fights between his parents. Running away from home and hitting the road, he meets a quirky fellow runaway from Wyoming named Lucy (Lili Taylor), who is hitchhiking south to Arizona and intends to help her brother get out of jail. George agrees to help her, and soon the unlikely pair are traversing the American west, and attempting to find meaning in the darkness of their lives. The film co-stars Sam Shepard, Valerie Perrine, and Bill Pullman, and has a terrific, underrated score by Christopher Young.

Bright Angel is one of those Christopher Young scores that often gets lost in the shuffle amid the Hellraisers and Murder in the Firsts and Drag Me to Hells that tend to dominate people’s ‘favorites’ lists, but I find the score utterly compelling. I can’t adequately describe how it makes me feel, but the best word I can come up with is the German word fernweh – a longing for a place you’ve never even been. To me, Bright Angel is one of the most evocative depictions of the contemporary American west I have ever heard. It’s lonely, but not alone; it’s bittersweet, but not sad; it’s romantic, but it’s not about love.

Forgive me for waxing poetic for a moment, but to me it’s the music you would hear in your head as you wander out of your rustic cabin at sunset. You stroll out towards a fence, put your foot on the bottom rail, and gaze at the horizon, as the sky turns from blue to gold to an endless cascade of pinks and purples, the day’s last rays rippling off the underside of the clouds. Buttes and mesas in the distance become silhouettes, stars appear overhead, and the gentle hum of crickets starts to fill the air. And this music… this music sounds like that. I have no idea whether any of that is in the film. I’ve never seen it. But that sense of peacefulness, that acknowledgement of your own insignificance against the magnificence of all nature… that’s how Bright Angel makes me feel.

The score is written for a small ensemble of instruments, comprising mostly of keyboards and synths, acoustic guitar, slide guitar, pennywhistle, pan flute, and percussion, plus an occasional voice. Young worked with fellow composers Mark Zimoski and the late, great Daniel Licht to realize the score, and between them they wrote an intimate epic. Every cue follows a similar tone – quiet, meditative, small-scale – but it has a sound and texture I adore. The opening cue “Bright Angel,” picks out a gorgeous guitar melody backed by pennywhistle and a simple drone from a what sounds like a hurdy-gurdy, a melancholy foreshadowing of the sort of music Young would later write for The Shipping News, or a more instrumentally developed version of the music he wrote for Haunted Summer in 1988.

Many subsequent cues stand out. “Wasteland White Light” is full of abstract textures – thrumming guitars, faraway fiddles, lilting flutes, what sounds like an anachronistic Indian raga – overlaid with a cascade of shimmering chimes. “Sweetgrass Hills” has a warm, summery tone, with lovely combination writing for fiddle, guitar, and piano, underneath a pretty dancing pennywhistle. “Milk River Runaway” revisits the guitar melody from the first cue, but with a determined and forthright percussion beat that gives it an anticipatory feeling, like the beginning of a great adventure.

“Lost Lullaby” also revisits the guitar melody from the first cue, but in a deconstructed way, such that it has a sort of broken and lightly despairing tone, with whispery textures from voices and woodwinds creeping up from the background to alter the mood. “Nothing Worth Hiding” uses an array of flutes in a way that seems reflective of Native American culture, backed by overlapping guitars, one of which is performing an almost subliminal statement of the main theme. “Fish Feel Pain” again features the whispery whistling woodwind ideas, but the guitars they layer against have a dark, almost threatening edge, creating a mood of uncertain and hidden dangers; this is enhanced further by the dissonant collisions of rattling percussion and low piano clusters in the cue’s second half.

“Sunburst” has an ancient, tribalistic sound, with steady and relentless percussion underpinning a florid flute texture and evocative guitar flutters that fade in and out of the piece. The main theme returns again in “Things Pass Too Fast,” once again adopting a wistful tone, before moving into a fascinating sequence for a solo female vocalist intoning softly over an array of primal musique concréte sound effects that range from water drops to breathy flutes, tinkling rocks, strummed guitar licks, and more. This style of writing continues on into the equally understated and moody “Red Rover, Red Rover,” and then into the nervous and ghostly “Just Another Casper Night,” the longest track on the album.

“Too Morose” is the cue in this score where Young hides the name of a composer he admires (in this case, Jerome Moross), but the cue sounds nothing like The Big Country or The Jayhawkers, instead returning to the intricate textures and female vocal stylings of the previous few cues. “Wheatstraw Blind” focuses on piano more here than in any other cue, its lightly jazzy sound blending superbly with a forlorn, pensive statement of the main theme on guitar, before eventually emerging into an unusual, fascinating overlapping waterfall of guitar textures.

“Gateway” uses the female voices like a luring siren, calling you closer, while the shimmering chimes from the “Wasteland White Light” return to give the whole thing a magical sheen. The conclusive “Trails End Where They Should” is perhaps an acknowledgement of the famous Bright Angel trail that drops more than 1,000 feet from the south rim of the Grand Canyon down to the Colorado River, snaking like a silver ribbon far below. Young ends the score here with a superb final statement of the main theme for a solo guitar, filled with expressive emotion.

I really don’t know where my love for this score comes from. As I said, I’ve never seen the movie, so I have no narrative context to judge it against. It’s vastly different from Hellraiser and Murder in the First and The Shipping News and all my other favorite Christopher Young scores. Although it does feature a prominent recurring main theme, long stretches of it are quite ambient and textural, eerie and mysterious. There is no orchestra whatsoever. Based on all this, one might predict that this would be a score that completely passes me by, that I dismiss as a bore – but it isn’t. I adore this score. Its soundscape is completely captivating to me, and the mental imagery it inspires in me is romantic and mesmerizing in a way that very few other scores are.

The score for Bright Angel was released by Intrada Records when the film came out, but it has been out of print for many years, although physical copies are available for fairly reasonable prices on the secondary market, and it is also available as a digital download. It comes with an unhesitating recommendation from me – but, as I have repeatedly said, be aware that this is NOT a typical Christopher Young score, nor is it the type of score I would usually praise. However, for anyone who wants to delve into the delicate romance and haunting mysticism of the contemporary American west, this score is a poignant, entrancing masterpiece.

Buy the Bright Angel soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Bright Angel (3:30)
  • Wasteland White Light (3:39)
  • Sweetgrass Hills (2:41)
  • Milk River Runaway (2:24)
  • Lost Lullaby (2:44)
  • Nothing Worth Hiding (2:12)
  • Fish Feel Pain (3:58)
  • Sunburst (3:23)
  • Things Pass Too Fast (3:45)
  • Red Rover, Red Rover (3:49)
  • Just Another Casper Night (6:20)
  • Too Morose? (2:00)
  • Wheatstraw Blind (4:29)
  • Gateway (5:23)
  • Trails End Where They Should (2:34)

Running Time: 52 minutes 51 seconds

Intrada MAF-7014D (1991)

Music composed by Christopher Young. Orchestrations by Christopher Young. Recorded and mixed by Jeff Vaughn. Edited by John La Salandra and Virginia Ellsworth. Album produced by Christopher Young and Douglass Fake.

  1. Michael Thiermann
    June 26, 2021 at 2:31 pm

    I adore this music, too. It’s haunting with great moments of melancholy. To me one of the most beautiful scores ever written. It’s a pity that so few people share the love for this one…

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