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SPIRIT UNTAMED – Amie Doherty

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The 2002 animated film Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron has enjoyed a surprising and popular longevity on the small screen in the years since its release – it spinoffs have included an 8-season computer-animated television series, Spirit Riding Free, which premiered on Netflix in 2017 (shout out to my friend, Robert Taylor, who wrote a great deal of it), plus a short-form series called Pony Tales, a spin-off series titled Riding Academy, and two television specials, including a Christmas-themed one released in 2019. Spirit Riding Free introduced a new protagonist to the story, a young girl named Lucky Prescott, who moves from the city to a frontier town, and meets and bonds with a new horse, also named ‘Spirit,’ an apparent descendent of the horse from the original film. In the series Lucky embarks on a series of adventures with Spirit and her new horse-girl friends, Pru and Abigail; this new movie, entitled Spirit Untamed, re-tells the story of how Lucky and Spirit meet on the big-screen, and specifically how Lucky and her friends save Spirit from the clutches of an evil horse wrangler, while simultaneously exploring Lucky’s family history. The film is directed by Elaine Bogan, and has a voice cast featuring Isabela Merced, Marsai Martin, McKenna Grace, Eiza González, Walton Goggins, Julianne Moore, and Jake Gyllenhaal.

The score for Spirit Untamed is by Irish composer Amie Doherty, and who in doing so is stepping into the not inconsiderable shoes of Hans Zimmer, who scored the first Spirit film. Doherty is one of a trio of excellent Irish women composers – the others being Eímear Noone and Emer Kinsella – who making a great deal of positive noise in film music circles right now. She previously scored the Amazon animated TV series Undone, the musical comedy The High Note, and the LGBTQ-friendly comedy Happiest Season, while also working with composer Jeff Russo on several of his successful TV projects, including Fargo, The Night Of, The Umbrella Academy, and Star Trek: Discovery. Spirit Untamed is by far the most high-profile solo assignment of Doherty’s career to date, and I hope it leads to many more projects, because by and large it is very good indeed.

The score is written for a full orchestra, conducted by regular Hans Zimmer collaborator Gavin Greenaway, and is based around a main theme that originates from the score’s primary original song, “Fearless,” for which Doherty wrote both music and lyrics. In an interview with Nadia Neophytou for Billboard, Doherty explains: “They had this lullaby that they wanted to open the movie with that [the mother in the film] Milagro sings to Lucky [her daughter], and the idea was to use the melody from the lullaby throughout the film and weave it into the themes of the score. Every time Lucky’s afraid or she’s feeling a bit down, we want her to feel like her mother is there with her. So I wrote some placeholder lyrics based on what the filmmakers told me. I didn’t overthink it, because I assumed they would replace them. We got on a call, and it was only a very rough sketch at this stage – it was like one verse and a chorus, not the full song – and I played it. And when we all turned our videos back on everyone was crying. And then they were like, “We’re keeping the lyrics. We love it.” I was like, “I guess I’m a songwriter now — who knew?”

The song is performed several times in the film, initially in English by Isabela Merced, sometimes in Spanish by Eiza González, and usually featuring wordless vocal harmonies performed by Robin Pecknold of the indie pop group Fleet Foxes. The performance in the opening cue, “Be Fearless, Fortuna,” is really lovely, with a lilt from a Spanish guitar and a resounding mariachi trumpet that complements González’s voice, while the orchestra makes it sound warmly expansive. The Fearless theme appears in many cues thereafter – usually, as Doherty says, in scenes relating to Lucky’s memories of her mother. There’s an emotional version for soft strings, Spanish guitar, and Pecknold’s voice in “You Look Just Like Your Mom,” while later in “Fireflies” Doherty arranges the theme in a way that is a little mystical, with strings and woodwinds phrased like the breathy movement of the wind. Perhaps the most memorable statement comes in “Spirit’s Herd,” which opens with an elegant and emotional oboe solo, but then undergoes a spine-tingling emergence where Pecknold’s voice is enhanced by cymbal rings and chimes.

Much of the score’s opening moments are given over to comedy. The first score cue, “Squirrel Chase,” is a fun, zany, fully orchestral scherzo that has the manic energy of some of James Horner’s work in the animation genre; this leads into “Meeting Spirit & Main Title,” which highlights trilling guitars, strumming banjos, and Pecknold’s voice within a range of driving country-flavored orchestral action textures, some of which have the pop music sensibility of a band like Mumford and Sons. Doherty’s action writing is dense, complicated, and excellently orchestrated, but does occasionally become a tiny bit mickey-mousey, but that’s to be expected when it comes to music aimed at children in this film’s demographic age range.

The comedy continues for the scenes where Lucky arrives in her new hometown, and meets the eccentric townsfolk who make up much of its population. “Welcome to Miradero” is a quirky and mischievous variation on western film music tropes, friendly and inviting, but a little on the idiosyncratic side, and there is also a brief statement of an ominous brass motif at the 1:02 mark that will become more important as the score develops. The last minute or so of the cue is what can only be described as a ‘mariachi hoe-down festival,’ that is as funny and authentic as it is potentially irritating. The subsequent “Everybody Knew Milagro” starts out sentimentally, with warm strings, woodwinds, and a guitar backed by chimes, but quickly moves into a broad parody of traditional Mexican fiesta music, complete with ay-ay-ay calls and whooping vocal ululations.

Other light, whimsical cues include “Snips & Abigail” and “Takes Two To Tango,” both of which are a blend of orchestral comedy hi-jinks enlivened by instrumental flourishes for woodwinds, acoustic guitars, pizzicato strings, and tambourines, plus some broad Elmer Bernstein-esque western textures. I especially enjoyed the stop-start hesitancy of “Getting Familiar,” which underscores the first meeting between Lucky and Spirit, and reminds me of the similarly inquisitive courtship scene between Hiccup and Toothless in John Powell’s How to Train Your Dragon.

However, for me, the best parts of the score by far are the ones involving action, all of which are truly excellent. Doherty brings a wonderful, vibrant sense of joy and enthusiasm to her action music, which reminds me very much of 1990s efforts by composers like Horner, Alan Silvestri, James Newton Howard, David Newman, and people like that. Modern Hollywood is such that this type of effervescent writing is really only acceptable in children’s animated films, and Doherty grasps the opportunity to write it with both hands. “Hendricks Tries to Break Spirit” brings back the ominous brass motif from “Welcome to Miradero” and fully establishes it as a recurring motif for Hendricks, the evil horse wrangler who becomes the story’s primary antagonist; in this cue Doherty turns it into an exciting, if somewhat dark action sequence for bold horns, and somehow manages to make traditional Western fiddles and trumpets seem imposing, which is no mean feat. The subsequent “Wild Ride” sounds just like you would expect – an intense, powerful piece for the full orchestra, featuring especially excellent swirling string writing that drives the momentum forward with real force.

Doherty really goes for broke during the final seven cues, writing what is essentially a 16-minute unbroken sequence of some of the most enjoyable and engaging orchestral action music I have heard in some time. It all begins in “Wranglers,” which again returns to the imposing Hendricks theme and layers it within yet more driving action, featuring heavy horns and turbulent string figures. Doherty also uses Robin Pecknold’s voice in a different context during the cue’s final moments, pitching it as a sort of heroic outburst of defiance. Everything that follows – “Ridge of Regret,” “I Am The Train,” “The Two-Hand Pickup,” “Rescue Mission,” “Leap of Faith,” “Hero Dads” – is just terrific, and sees Doherty inserting the Fearless theme and the Hendricks theme into a series of outstanding action set pieces. “I Am The Train” is especially noteworthy; it begins with a set of Silvestri-esque chugging string and percussion lines, rousing and heroic, but then quickly turns into a wonderful Ennio Morricone homage, making use of bright trumpets, a subtle Jew’s harp, gruff chanting voices, and even an Edda dell’Orso soprano soundalike.

“Rescue Mission” showcases an especially excellent interpolation of the Fearless theme as an action motif, while “Leap of Faith” is rousing and powerful, with a notable richness in the orchestration, and some super hero-style brass writing in the second half that clearly shows that Doherty would be a perfect choice to follow in Pinar Toprak’s footsteps and score a future Marvel movie. The conclusive “Stay Wild, Brave One” offers the score a sentimental finale, with some lovely poignant writing for oboe, strings and guitar accents, and a final appearance from Pecknold, whose voice is warm and appealing.

The album also includes several additional songs, including a Spanish-language version of “Fearless” called the “Valiente Duet” performed by Isabela Merced and Eiza González; a hilarious camp-fire singalong called “Join Up” performed by the three lead voice actresses McKenna Grace, Marsai Martin, and Isabela Merced; and two versions of a pop song, “You Belong,” performed in both English and Spanish by Latin singer Becky G. Truthfully, I don’t like the song very much – Becky G has that grating Disney Channel tone to her voice that drives me up the wall – but it’s easy enough to skip.

Despite what the marketing companies might tell you, the clear musical star of Spirit Untamed is Amie Doherty. This is a confident, intelligent, exciting orchestral score of the highest order, which is built around a clear and engaging main theme, and has some appropriate acknowledgements of both Mexican folk music and the musical tropes of the western genre, both traditional and spaghetti. For me, however, it’s the action music that shines the strongest, and those last 15 minutes or so are a non-stop delight. For all intents and purposes, this is Amie Doherty’s mainstream film music debut, and if this score is an indication of the kind of stuff she is capable of writing on a regular basis, I really hope she continues to land assignments that give her the opportunity to do so.

Buy the Spirit Untamed soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • You Belong (written by Zach Skelton, Michael Pollack, Jake Torrey, and Casey Smith, performed by Becky G) (3:16)
  • Fearless (written by Amie Doherty, performed by Isabela Merced) (4:15)
  • Better With You (written by Amie Doherty, performed by Isabela Merced) (2:57)
  • Be Fearless, Fortuna! (1:52)
  • Squirrel Chase (1:01)
  • Meeting Spirit & Main Title (2:46)
  • Welcome to Miradero (2:02)
  • Everybody Knew Milagro (1:27)
  • Snips & Abigail (1:46)
  • You Look Just Like Your Mom (3:04)
  • Hendricks Tries to Break Spirit (2:10)
  • Getting Familiar (2:09)
  • Takes Two To Tango (2:36)
  • Wild Ride (3:16)
  • Fireflies (2:50)
  • Spirit’s Herd (2:45)
  • Wranglers (2:40)
  • Ridge of Regret (1:14)
  • I Am The Train (1:48)
  • The Two-Hand Pickup (1:53)
  • Rescue Mission (2:10)
  • Leap of Faith (3:40)
  • Hero Dads (2:34)
  • Stay Wild, Brave One (3:20)
  • Fearless – Valiente Duet (written by Amie Doherty, performed by Isabela Merced and Eiza González) (4:14)
  • You Belong [Tu Lugar] (written by Zach Skelton, Michael Pollack, Jake Torrey, and Casey Smith, performed by Becky G) (3:16)
  • Join Up (written by Amie Doherty, performed by McKenna Grace, Marsai Martin, and Isabela Merced) (1:05)

Running Time: 68 minutes 19 seconds

Back Lot Music (2021)

Music composed by Amie Doherty. Conducted by Gavin Greenaway. Orchestrations by Gavin Greenaway, Tommy Laurence, Geoff Lawson, John Ashton Thomas and Sam Thompson. Recorded and mixed by Brad Haehnel. Edited by Leah Dennis. Album produced by Amie Doherty.

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