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POINT BREAK – Mark Isham


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

One of the most iconic action films of the 1990s, Point Break was a groundbreaking film in that it was one of the first major Hollywood movies to be directed by a woman, Kathryn Bigelow. The film stars Keanu Reeves as FBI agent Johnny Utah, who is tasked with investigating a gang of bank robbers who wear rubber masks of former US presidents while committing their crimes. Utah’s investigations eventually lead him to Bohdi (Patrick Swayze), a charismatic surfer, and Utah goes undercover to infiltrate the surf gang and find evidence that they are the robbers. However, Utah quickly develops a complex friendship with Bohdi, and begins a romantic relationship with Tyler (Lori Petty), another member of Bohdi’s surfing community, all of which threatens to derail the investigation. The film co-stars Gary Busey and John C. McGinley, and in the years following its release has become a cult favorite.

Point Break was the first major Hollywood action score in the career of composer Mark Isham. In the decade leading up to it Isham had successfully cultivated a dual career. On the one hand, he was a world renowned jazz trumpeter and musician, with several successful jazz albums released on the Windham Hill label, especially his 1983 work Vapor Drawings. On the other hand he was the composer of music for several acclaimed films – the Oscar winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk in 1985, the cult serial killer thriller The Hitcher in 1986, and several high-pedigree dramas for director Alan Rudolph. The commercial and critical success of his film Reversal of Fortune in 1990 finally established Isham as an in-demand composer for mainstream movies, and Point Break was the first one following that film that proved to be a genuine box office success.

Although his primary instrument was the trumpet, Isham was also very comfortable writing for synths and keyboards; his score for the 1988 film The Beast of War was written in that idiom, and is what originally attracted Bigelow to hire him. However, as Point Break developed, Isham and Bigelow began to move away from their original rock band/synth score idea, and embraced instead a hybrid idea, which combined those original flavors with a larger and more expansive orchestral sound. As Isham was inexperienced at working with orchestras, he brought in orchestrator and conductor Ken Kugler, who quickly became Isham’s go-to orchestra guy for decades afterwards. Together, Isham and Kugler created a deep, enveloping sound which he describes as “almost like white noise … the soundscape of a surging wave”. In many ways, the two styles represent the two protagonists: Utah’s music is rock and electronics, urgent, and very much rooted in the modern world, while the orchestra resonates as a textural representation of Bohdi’s worldview and personal philosophy – his creed of trying to live freely on the edges of civilization. Although his methods may be criminal, his ethos certainly had merit.

The score is not very strong from a thematic point of view, with little to no recurring melodic content related to specific characters or ideas, but it is very strong texturally. The “Opening” is exactly what Isham was talking about with his ‘soundscape of a surging wave’ concept, with its big booming orchestral chords capturing the might and power of the ocean, while the accompanying electronics give the same footage a magical, mystical quality.

Several cues are little more than mood music, filled with extended synth chords and slow string sustains – “Both Parents Deceased,” “The Tackle,” “Utah, Tyler/Four Horsemen” – while others embrace the rock band style with more vigor, including “Pappas’ Theory,” and the fascinating “Campfire,” which blends the electro-rock sound with some world music textures that give it an unexpected sense of menace. The main problem for me is that, for quite a lot of the score’s running time, the electronics sound really quite badly dated. Isham apparently had very little money to work with, which resulted in him having to cut corners, using synths to double the strings and brass when a larger sound was required, and replacing his woodwind section with electronics entirely. While some composers excelled at this hybrid sound, Isham’s work on Point Break often feels a little underpowered and, at times, a little clumsily rendered, which is a shame because the compositional ideas behind them are usually very good.

Despite this, several cues do stand out. “Bohdi and Utah” underscores the pivotal moment where the two men bond, and the score starts to lose its heavily electronic elements in favor of a warmer orchestral sound. The subsequent “Night Surfing,” which underscores the film’s first skydiving sequence, is similarly effective, successfully conveying Bigelow’s instructions to Isham that he create a ‘sound that keeps falling’. The brass is prominent and imposing, the orchestral tones are at times euphoric, and Isham also makes use of an excellent recurring texture which sounds like an electronic approximation of a didgeridoo – something which can be heard several times throughout the score, embedded deep within the sound palette.

Elsewhere, for the romantic relationship between Utah and Lori Petty’s character Tyler, Isham created a moody and intimate love theme for strings and slowly pulsating synth textures, which can be heard at its most prominent in “Love On The Beach,” the tender “Tyler Misunderstands,” and the score’s penultimate cue “Love In The Desert”. Some of the action music is interesting too, with early cues like “Fight With Razorheads” and “Razorhead Raid” featuring a cacophony of sampled and live percussion ideas, string stingers, and an aggressive attitude. However, towards the latter half of the score, the action music develops and becomes really quite impressive. “Car/Foot Chase” is highly intense, percussive, and at times quite funky, a rock-based chase sequence that often allows groovy bass guitar rhythms to shine through. Similarly, the superb “Skydive” revisits the ideas introduced earlier in “Night Surfing” with significantly more orchestral intensity.

Finally, the 16-minute stretch that comprises “Bank Robbery,” “Shootout At Airport,” and “No Parachute” is the film’s conclusive action sequence, in which Johnny is forced to reveal his true identity to Bohdi, pursue him, fight him while skydiving, and then make the gut-wrenching decision whether to capture/kill the man who has become his great friend, or let him go and jeopardize the career he has worked for his entire life. This sequence is probably the high point of the score, and Isham captures the changing moods with music that is by turns intense and percussively rhythmic, exciting and dynamic, and filled with moments of high stakes drama. The electronic pulses are mostly replaced here with layered string ostinatos, the brass is punchier and more vigorous, the solo trumpet lines are etched with anguish and pathos, and much of it is accompanied by relentless snare drum licks and light cymbal clashes.

The conclusive cue, “Freedom,” sees Johnny and Bohdi re-uniting several months later on a beach in Australia. Johnny and the FBI intends to arrest Bohdi, but Bohdi begs to be allowed to surf a wave from a ‘50-Year Storm,’ knowing that doing so will probably kill him. Isham scores this final moment much like the “Opening” cue, capturing the majesty and natural scope of the wave with music that is both orchestrally powerful and electronically transcendent.

The original 1991 soundtrack album for Point Break was massively popular and commercially successful, featuring tracks by a number of iconic Los Angeles pop and rock artists ranging from Ratt to L.A. Guns, Concrete Blonde, and a very young Sheryl Crow. Unfortunately – and much to the dismay of both Bigelow and Isham – there was no score included on this album, which meant that for more than 15 years Isham’s work was unheard by the majority of film music fans. Finally, in 2008, La-La Records and producer Ford A. Thaxton worked with Isham to release a 2,000-unit limited edition score album, much to the delight of the film’s many admirers.

Point Break is not without its flaws. The orchestra is at times significantly under-powered, and some of the early-album electronic tones seem to be a little too abstract and avant-garde to leave any kind of positive impression. However, Isham’s musical depiction of the primordial appeal of the ocean is tonally perfect, and his action music in the skydiving scenes and during the finale is impressive and exciting, especially considering that at this point in his career Isham had never worked with an orchestra before. You can hear the origin of the sound that would propel Isham to his first Oscar nomination for A River Runs Through It two years later, and which would carry him through dozens of popular scores in the latter half of the 1990s and into the 2000s, and for that reason alone Point Break is worth exploring.

Buy the Point Break soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Opening (2:14)
  • Pappas’ Theory (2:26)
  • Both Parents Deceased (2:23)
  • The Tackle (1:13)
  • Fight With Razorheads (2:16)
  • Bohdi and Utah (1:05)
  • Night Surfing (2:58)
  • Love on the Beach (2:21)
  • Razorhead Raid (1:30)
  • Utah, Tyler/Four Horsemen (2:25)
  • Outside Pappas (1:27)
  • Car/Foot Chase (3:26)
  • Tyler Misunderstands (1:27)
  • Campfire (1:30)
  • The Shadow Gun/Found Out (1:46)
  • Skydive (4:59)
  • Post Parachute/TV (1:25)
  • Bank Robbery (5:26)
  • Shootout at Airport (4:19)
  • No Parachute (6:35)
  • Love in the Desert (2:37)
  • Freedom (8:35)
  • Nobody Rides for Free (written by Steve Caton, performed by Ratt) (4:44)
  • Over the Edge (written by Tracii Guns, Mick Cripps, Phil Lewis, Kelly Nickels, and Steve Riley, performed by L.A. Guns) (5:34)
  • I Will Not Fall (written by Kevin Hunter, Brian McLeod, Anders Rundblad, and Jeff Trott, performed by Wire Train) (5:10)
  • I Want You (written by Johnette Napolitano, performed by Concrete Blonde) (3:26)
  • 7 and 7 Is (written by Arthur Lee, performed by Liquid Jesus) (3:17)
  • Smoke on the Water (written by Ian Gillan, Roger Glover, Ritchie Blackmore, Jon Lord, and Ian Paice, performed by Loudhouse) (3:58)
  • My City (written by Spencer Sercombe and Greg Ellis, performed by Shark Island) (3:44)
  • Criminal (written by John Lydon, John McGeoch, and Allan Dias, performed by Public Image Limited) (4:29)
  • So Long Cowboy (written by Bob Andrews, Elizabeth Westwood, Gary Young, Tracey O’Conner, and Nick Burton, performed by Westworld) (3:34)
  • Hundreds of Tears (written by Sheryl Crow and Bob Marlette, performed by Sheryl Crow) (6:47)

Running Time: 64 minutes 23 seconds (Score)
Running Time: 44 minutes 43 seconds (Soundtrack)

La-La Land Records LLLCD-1065 (1991/2008) – Score
MCA Records MCAD-10202 (1991) – Soundtrack

Music composed by Mark Isham. Conducted by Ken Kugler. Orchestrations by Ken Kugler. Recorded and mixed by Stephen Krause. Edited by Jim Weidman. Score produced by Mark Isham. Expanded album produced by Mark Isham, Ford A. Thaxton, MV Gerhard and Matt Verboys.

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