Home > Reviews > DOC HOLLYWOOD – Carter Burwell

DOC HOLLYWOOD – Carter Burwell

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

A fun romantic comedy intended to cash in on Michael J. Fox’s post-Back to the Future popularity, Doc Hollywood sees Fox playing Ben Stone, an aspiring surgeon on his way from Washington DC to Beverly Hills for a job interview with a prestigious clinic. While driving through a small town in rural South Carolina, Ben accidentally crashes his Porsche; the local judge sentences Ben to perform community service at the town’s medical clinic, which he does while waiting for his car to be repaired. Almost against his will, Ben begins to integrate into small-town life, successfully helping several of the locals with medical problems, and beginning a hesitant relationship with Lou (Julie Warner), a pretty ambulance driver. When the community service is up and Ben is free to head off to California, he finds himself torn between the lucrative career he always wanted, and the unexpected affection he develops for the small town he never intended to visit. The film is directed by Scottish filmmaker Michael Caton-Jones, has a fun supporting cast that includes Barnard Hughes, Woody Harrelson, David Ogden Stiers, and Bridget Fonda, and has a score from an unexpected composer – Carter Burwell.

Doc Hollywood was one of the first mainstream Hollywood films scored by Carter Burwell that was *not* made by the Coen Brothers, and was certainly the first major romantic comedy score by a composer who had previously been much more well known for the darker shades of scores like Blood Simple, Psycho III, Raising Arizona, and Miller’s Crossing. It was also the first of four films Burwell would do with director Caton-Jones, the others being This Boy’s Life in 1993, Rob Roy in 1995, and The Jackal in 1997. Burwell says that intention when writing the score was “to not only take you out of urban America, but to take you out of time. The score doesn’t attempt to sound like country music as we know it, but instead reaches back to the roots from which that music came.” To do this, Burwell crossed rhythmic elements from South Africa with melodic and harmonic concepts from the British Isles and Europe, which were intended to keep music from falling into a saccharine Hollywood cliche.

The first few cues in the score introduce most of the score’s main recurring ideas. “The Lady in the Lake” is the first appearance of the mystical music that represents the sort of imperceptible pull of small town American life, and the spell is casts on Ben once he arrives and is forced to stay in North Carolina; Burwell uses a magical, pretty, elegant woodwind theme underpinned with harps and plucked bass to capture this enigmatic allure, and reprises the ideas later in “Down Ten Dollars” and others. The other aspect that Burwell explores – using the aforementioned rhythmic elements from South Africa – is sort of a variation on American country music, a mishmash of conventions and musical approaches which somehow still seems to convey the same ideas: the quirky people in Grady, but also the sense of community and family that permeates the place. In cues like “Stones Rounds” and “Meat is Murder” Burwell takes these rhythmic, upbeat African folk music ideas and blends them with a whole host of unusual orchestration featuring lots of percussion, squeezeboxes, a solo fiddle, a pennywhistle, and more, all in unexpected harmony.

The third recurring idea is what I’m calling the South Carolina Love Theme, which captures both the developing relationship between Ben and Lou, but also the relationship between Ben and the town itself; cues like “Slow Squash Love” feature a bank of pretty strings, and some of the most conventionally romantic textures Burwell has ever written. This South Carolina Love Theme then often combines with a vocal variation on the Mystical theme, soothing and welcoming, in cues like “Chant,” “Voices Across a Lake,” and especially “Stone Walks Alone,” which showcases an especially prominent performance of the South Carolina Love Theme.

Inserted into all this recurring thematic density are a number of standalone pieces of rock and regional folk music. “Speedster” is a groovy rock theme, representative of Ben’s big city arrogance, but infused with some country elements, including growling electric guitars, and a fun beat. “Kijé’s Wedding” is an excerpt from Sergei Prokofiev’s 1934 film score Lieutenant Kijé, which is then arranged for an oompah band and solo fiddle in “Jasmine Strut”. “Pee Zydeco” is an upbeat Cajun-inspired rhythm, a flurry of vibrant accordions and fiddles. “The Millwood Stomp” is carefree and energetic, and makes interesting use of what sounds like ‘found percussion’ along with the fiddles and drums, while “Fireflies and Nightshade” is a wonderful piece of laid back blues, lazy and laid-back, with a clip-clop rhythm in the piano, and an accordion accompaniment.

The one moment of serious drama – as Ben tries to skip town in the middle of the night but then turns back to help a woman in labor in danger of losing her baby – is underscored by the sequence comprising “Escape From Grady” and “Breech Birth”. Burwell injects a sense of urgency and gravity into his strings and low brasses, and builds to an imposing crescendo for brooding brass and shaken percussion. Finally having realized his affection for the city of Grady and its people, Ben’s change of heart and decision to stay sees Burwell engaging in some lovely, low-key, but emotionally poignant orchestral writing, which blends ideas from both the Mystical theme and the South Carolina Love Theme into one all-encompassing idea. In “Remembrance of Things Past” Burwell adds a squeezebox, a pennywhistle, and a strummed guitar to the sweeping strings from the love theme, and these continue into the subsequent “A Shooting Star”.

“Back to the Interstate, Ben Stone” builds to a lovely finale for strings and warm brasses, although even here they still contain Burwell’s trademark heavy harmonies that somehow seem to add a little level of uncertainty to the most romantic of moments. Listen out also for the shaken tambourine in the percussion section, which he would use to similar effect in his score for Fargo four years later. The conclusive cue, “Life Sentence,” returns to the vibrant African inspired rhythms for one final time, resounding celebration of Ben’s new life as the Grady town doctor, and the full acknowledgement of his relationship with Lou. Burwell blends steel drums, marimbas, triangles, and harps into reggae-esque African tribal rhythms in a fascinating musical combination, even finds time for one final reprise of the theme from Lieutenant Kijé in this unique style. I’m not sure whether old Sergei himself would have approved, but it certainly makes the climax of the film musically unique.

The soundtrack from Varese Sarabande contains just under half an hour of Burwell’s score, alongside the classic Willie Nelson/Patsy Cline country song “Crazy,” and a choral version of traditional Bulgarian folk song “Polegnala e Todor”. Sadly – or not, depending on your point of view – the album does not include the smash hit pop song “The One and Only” by the legendary Chesney Hawkes, and which was originally written for the 1991 British film Buddy’s Song, but was introduced to American audiences here.

Doc Hollywood is an interesting score from the point of view of a Carter Burwell aficionado, as it represents the first time he brought his idiosyncratic and highly personal sound into the film music mainstream, away from the influence of the Coen Brothers, and actually made it work. It’s an undemanding score, an easy listen, and certainly a million miles away from his more challenging and respected scores, but it’s still very identifiably a Carter Burwell score, and will likely appeal most to anyone who wanted him to bring his touch to something lighter, more fun, and more conventionally romantic.

Buy the Doc Hollywood soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Lady in the Lake (0:42)
  • Speedster (3:35)
  • Stones Rounds (2:22)
  • Kijé’s Wedding from “Lieutenant Kijé” (written by Sergei Prokofiev) (1:27)
  • Meat is Murder (0:35)
  • Down Ten Dollars (0:21)
  • Jasmine Strut (0:54)
  • Chant (2:22)
  • Slow Squash Love (0:36)
  • Pee Zydeco (0:24)
  • Voices Across a Lake (2:10)
  • The Millwood Stomp (0:58)
  • Crazy (written by Willie Nelson, performed by Patsy Cline) (2:43)
  • Polegnala e Todora (written by Phillip Koutev) (2:48)
  • Fireflies and Nightshade (2:30)
  • Stone Walks Alone (0:49)
  • Escape From Grady (1:11)
  • Breech Birth (0:37)
  • Remembrance of Things Past (0:57)
  • A Shooting Star (0:51)
  • Back to the Interstate, Ben Stone (2:52)
  • Life Sentence (4:24)

Running Time: 36 minutes 08 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-5332 (1991)

Music composed by Carter Burwell. Conducted by Sonny Kompanek. Orchestrations by Sonny Kompanek. Recorded and mixed by Mike Farrow. Edited by Adam Smalley. Album produced by Carter Burwell.

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