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THE FISHER KING – George Fenton

September 9, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Fisher King is a redemption drama with a fantasy edge, written by Richard La Gravenese and directed by Terry Gilliam. Jeff Bridges stars as Jack Lucas, a New York radio shock jock who inadvertently provokes a listener to commit a mass murder in a restaurant. Years later, his career in tatters, Jack is about to commit suicide by jumping into the Hudson River when he is saved by Parry (Robin Williams), a mentally ill homeless man whose life was destroyed when his wife was killed in that very murder spree years previously. Parry is obsessed with the the Arthurian legend of the Fisher King, and he convinces Jack to help him find ‘the holy grail’; Jack sees this as a chance for personal redemption, and hopes that – by helping Parry get his life back – he will be able to bury his own demons, just as the fisher king of legend was able to have his injuries healed by helping others. The film co-stars Amanda Plummer, Mercedes Ruehl, and Michael Jeter, and was a critical success, ultimately receiving five Oscar nominations, with Ruehl winning for Best Supporting Actress.

One of the other Oscar nominations The Fisher King received was for Best Score, which was written by George Fenton. This was the first collaboration between Fenton and Gilliam, and the score is a somewhat peculiar entry into Fenton’s filmography. At that point in his career Fenton was well embedded into his transatlantic composing life, having written scores for acclaimed films such as Gandhi, Cry Freedom, Dangerous Liaisons, and Memphis Belle, as well as several mainstream Hollywood studio features. As such, audiences were used to generally straightforward musical approaches from Fenton, but The Fisher King is different because it’s not just one thing. It’s an oddball collision of styles and ideas that intentionally gives the film a confused, unfocused sound, and can be seen as a representation of all the chaos inside Parry’s head.

There are so many layers and facets to Parry’s character, and each of them has a musical style striving to get out. There’s Parry the husband and partner, whose life is shattered by a tragedy that Jack facilitates. There’s Parry the bum, Parry the clown, the disheveled man who exists on the fringes of Manhattan, down alley ways and behind trash cans, mere feet away from millionaires, and who can still hear the rock and the jazz from the clubs and bars and restaurants he used to visit with his wife. And then there’s Parry the savior, Parry the bold, the knight on a quest from God to find the holy grail, whose delusions are underscored with an odd and twisted take on Arthurian fantasy music.

As such, in an effort to capture all this, Fenton blends rich orchestral classicism with jazz, blues, rock, and some early explorations in the world of ambient electronica, and when I say he blends them what I really mean is that he takes all this, puts it in a bag, shakes it, and then lets it all fall out haphazardly. The five Fenton score cues on the album from MCA Records run for a touch under 20 minutes, and in order to really appreciate what Fenton is doing you have to remember that this is a musical exploration of grief, depression, crippling anxiety, and paranoia, expressed through wildly anarchic and disparate styles that emerge with no real structure. It’s like a Robin Williams monologue brought to life as music – nutty, free-wheeling, kind of all over the place, but with genuine pain and barely-masked sadness bubbling just beneath the surface of the mania.

Perhaps the most conventional piece of score is “The Grand Central Waltz,” a pretty, opulent, classically romantic waltz for the full orchestra, but which has a hint of the circus to it with its swirling string figures and hooting woodwinds in the final minute. On the other hand, “The Story of the Fisher King” is a strange mix of darkly aggressive synth keyboard tones and moody string lines, combined with electronic woodwinds, sampled whispers, and downbeat oboe writing, but which then incorporates jazzy saxophones, atmospheric electric guitar textures, and even what sounds like a pastiche of Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

“Jack Meets Parry” is the cue that underscores the scene where a dejected Jack – who is about to commit suicide – instead gets beaten up by a gang of drunk yuppies, and is saved by Parry, who emerges from the shadows like an avenging angel. Jack’s initial despair is scored with aggressive electronic dissonance and a muted harmonica, but when Parry shows up to save the day Fenton enters into several passages of oddly-textured electro-acoustic hero music, which is full of staccato hits and brassy fantasy flourishes, but is intentionally under-developed and un-sophisticated, and at times seems almost childish and comedic. Fenton treads that fine line between depicting who Parry thinks he is – a valiant knight on a quest – and who he actually is – a bearded and bedraggled hobo whose visage couldn’t be any less noble, heroic, or imposing. The end result feels like a cross between Trevor Jones’s Labyrinth and Mark Knopfler’s The Princess Bride, crossed with the mickey-mousing of a Tom & Jerry cartoon. It’s peculiar, but somehow captures the elements of who Parry is, and the friendship that develops between himself and the shock jock who inadvertently ruined his life.

“Quest for the Grail” takes these ideas about the nature of Parry and explores them in more depth; Fenton takes the basic conventions of extroverted orchestral fantasy – brass-led fanfares, heroic string flourishes – but removes them from objective reality by surrounding them with loud dissonances, odd sound effects, electronic distortions, and other random ideas that seem to have nothing to do with what’s actually happening, and are instead a musical depiction of the chaos inside Parry’s head.

Finally, the “Red Knight Suite” blends everything that has come before it into a fantasy of trauma: the lyrical strings and soothing jazzy saxophones are initially backed with piano and an EWI electronic wind instrument, and sound again like a 1980s Trevor Jones score, perhaps along the lines of Sea of Love. This all quickly descends into more dissonant chaos, revisiting the offbeat fantasy action music from the previous cues, but augmenting it with electric guitar riffs and broken-sounding orchestral and choral textures. This music is Parry’s delusion and depression brought starkly to life; the Red Knight is the anthropomorphic personification of the trauma Parry feels whenever he relives the memory of his wife’s murder – red literally being her blood being spilled in front of him – and the music that accompanies him is a combination of romance, confusion, terror, and the protection the Fisher King persona and the Grail Quest gives him so that he doesn’t have to constantly feel the things that drove him insane in the first place. Like I said, it’s complicated stuff.

The upshot, however, is that as a result of all this The Fisher King is a difficult score to connect with. Fenton’s ideas and musical approaches are so closely tied to the film that it’s difficult to appreciate them without that context, and as such it may come across as annoyingly haphazard and unfocused to those who don’t know the film. There’s no standout main theme, no real elongated sequences of unbroken harmony, and no central idea to grasp on to. The waltz is lovely, some of the jazz is nice, and some of the Arthurian fantasy moments hint at something with a bigger scope and a larger sound, but they never go further than this because the needs of the film require them not to. Parry’s internal fantasy world has to remain in the abstract, has to remain slightly untethered from reality, and so the music depicting it has to have that same quality. It’s that old dichotomy of serving the film versus making an album of music; Fenton does what every good film composer does by serving the needs of the film, and the story, and the reality within it first, even if by doing so he sacrifices some of the listenability of the soundtrack.

In addition to Fenton’s 20 minutes of score the soundtrack also features several songs, including a rock groove called “Chill Out Jack” performed by Trip, the classic crooned ballad “I’m Sorry” by Brenda Lee, the 80s hip-hop dance track “The Power” by Chill Ross G, the jazz instrumental “I Wish I Knew” performed by John Coltrane, and two performances of Freed & Lane’s standard “How About You” – one performed by Harry Nilsson, and then in a new swing arrangement by Tommy Dorset, conducted by Fenton. There are also several dialogue snippets interspersed between the music tracks, which are supposed to be call-ins to Jack’s radio show.

The Fisher King is not a soundtrack that will immediately appeal to people who came to George Fenton through his lush and elegant romance scores – Dangerous Beauty, Ever After, Anna and the King – or his nature scores full of sweeping orchestral grandeur. As I am one of those people, it took me quite some time to fully appreciate what he was doing with this score, and what he was trying to say with its apparently haphazard and bizarrely idiosyncratic nature. However, once you realize that Fenton is trying to give some semblance of organization to the madness inside the man who has been literally broken by the worst trauma imaginable, the intelligence in the writing, and the sympathy for his subject, becomes clear. I’m still not convinced that it deserved its Oscar nomination, especially when you consider how many outstanding scores were overlooked in its favor, but even with that you can’t deny that Fenton and Gilliam’s musical depiction of a man teetering on the wrong side of madness is enormously effective in context.

Buy the Fisher King soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Intro: The Jack Lucas Radio Show (dialogue) (0:11)
  • Chill Out Jack (written by Cave Samrai, Richard Williams, Peter Harvey, and Jonny Templeton, performed by Trip) (2:45)
  • Pet Peeves (dialogue) (0:31)
  • I’m Sorry (written by Ronnie Self and Dub Allbritten, performed by Brenda Lee) (2:24)
  • Sunrise Confession (dialogue) (1:24)
  • The Power/Sign Off (The Power written by Michael Münzing, Luca Anzilotti, Toni C., Robert Frazier, and Francis Zambon, performed by Chill Ross G/dialogue) (5:53)
  • I Wish I Knew (written by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon, performed by John Coltrane) (4:55)
  • How About You (written by Ralph Freed and Burton Lane, performed by Harry Nilsson) (4:18)
  • The Grand Central Waltz (2:15)
  • The Story of the Fisher King (2:49)
  • Jack Meets Parry (4:19)
  • Everything’s Coming Up Videos (dialogue) (1:21)
  • An Evening Out including Lydia the Tattooed Lady (dialogue/ Lydia the Tattooed Lady written by E. Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen, performed by Robin Williams) (4:52)
  • Quest for the Grail (3:02)
  • The Red Knight Suite (6:45)
  • How About You – Swing Version (written by Ralph Freed and Burton Lane, arranged by Tommy Dorset, conducted by George Fenton) (2:47)

Running Time: 50 minutes 31 seconds

MCA Records MCAD-10249 (1991)

Music composed and conducted by George Fenton. Orchestrations by George Fenton and Jeff Atmajian. Recorded and mixed by Keith Grant, Gerry O’Riordan and Simon Smart. Edited by Kevin Lane. Album produced by George Fenton and Ray Cooper.

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