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AN AMERICAN TAIL: FIEVEL GOES WEST – James Horner

November 18, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

A fun, undemanding sequel to the 1986 original, An American Tail: Fievel Goes West continues the animated adventures of the immigrant mouse Fievel Mousekewitz and his family. Having successfully reunited at the end of the first film and settled in New York, this new film sees the Mousekewitzes making the decision to head west to start a new life, prompted by the fact that their neighborhood is being terrorized by a new gang of felines led by a British aristocratic cat named Cat R. Waul. Desperate for safety and security the family boards a train bound for Utah; Fievel has aspirations of meeting the famed lawman Wylie Burp, while his sister Tanya wants to be a singer in a burlesque show. However, the Mousekewitzes are unaware that they are falling into a trap set by the unscrupulous Waul, and must find a way to defeat him before his nefarious plan comes to fruition. The film is directed by Phil Nibbelink and Simon Wells, taking over from Don Bluth; it features the voices of Philip Glasser, Cathy Cavadini, Dom DeLuise, John Cleese, and James Stewart in his final film role, and has a score by James Horner.

Fievel Goes West was the third animated film scored by Horner in his career, after the original American Tail, and The Land Before Time in 1988, and was also his first ‘traditional’ western; although one could argue that movies like The Pursuit of D. B. Cooper, The Journey of Natty Gann, and My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys had western elements to them, Fievel Goes West marked the first time Horner was given the opportunity to really embrace the classic feel and sound of the genre as popularized by composers like Aaron Copland, Jerome Moross, and Elmer Bernstein. I have long been of the opinion that all film composers should score a ‘classic western’ at some point in their careers, just to see how they approach it, and if this score is anything to go by, then Horner’s approach was emotional, theme filled, exciting, and steeped in the traditions of the genre.

The song “Somewhere Out There” from the original American Tail was a massive success, earning Horner his first Oscar nomination, and winning the Grammy for Song of the Year in 1988, so understandably the producers of Fievel Goes West wanted to recapture that lightning in a bottle. As such, Horner re-teamed with lyricist Will Jennings, and created three new songs for the project, all of which also form the cornerstones of the thematic ideas in the score. The main song is “Dreams to Dream,” which for my money is the most beautiful song of Horner’s career. There are two versions – the ‘Finale Version’ is again performed by Linda Ronstadt with a soft rock arrangement by David Foster, while ‘Tanya’s Version’ is heard in film context performed by actress Cathy Cavadini. It’s a gorgeous, longing song filled with innocence, unfulfilled potential, and hope for the future, and Horner’s orchestrations in Cavadini’s version are spellbinding, overflowing with his personal stylistics. Ronstadt’s version was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Original Song, but lost to the all-conquering Beauty and the Beast.

Interestingly, the pop version of the song was originally supposed to be performed by Anita Baker, but for various reasons Ronstadt came into replace her. After Ronstadt recorded it, legal shenanigans resulted in her not giving permission for her voice to be used, and a young 23-year old French Canadian singer called Céline Dion, who had won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1988 and had recently had a minor chart hit with the song “Where Does My Heart Beat Now,” was drafted in at the last minute to scramble a new vocal. Eventually, Ronstadt’s legal team relented and asked for her vocals to be re-inserted, but Horner and Dion became friends during the process, and vowed to work together again… and we all know how that turned out!

The first of the other songs is “Way Out West,” a clever and witty ensemble piece which can be seen as a companion to “There Are No Cats in America” from the first score – whereas the old world mice wanted to move to America, these new world mice want to explore the wild frontier. The whispering voices in the song’s first moments sound like the huff and puff of an old steam train, and it eventually builds into a rousing hoe-down. Finally, “The Girl You Left Behind” is a saucy saloon knee-slapper performed again by Cathy Cavadini, with a style and tone like a classic Western-set Broadway musical – Annie Get Your Gun, or Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, or Oklahoma. The lyrics are fast and complicated, and the musical accompaniment makes terrific use of honkytonk pianos, frantic string runs, and all manner of folk instruments.

The score is based on the melodies of these songs, plus returning motifs from the first score, and some rich and rousing action music, all of which is enhanced by the instruments and orchestrations of a classic western. The 7-minute “American Tail Overture (Main Title)” is a superb encapsulation of the score overall; it begins with a reprise of the Russian flavored Mousekewitz family theme from the first film, moves on to a new statement of the “Somewhere Out There” song, and then alternates between a rich orchestral version of “Dreams to Dream” and some rollicking western music which makes flamboyant use of harmonicas, Coplandesque clip-clop rhythms, and various stereotypical cowboy textures, while foreshadowing the melodies of the “Way Out West” and “Girl You Left Behind” songs. One or two moments seem to intentionally reference Ennio Morricone’s western music (listen for the almost subliminal burst of The Good the Bad and the Ugly at 1:21), while elsewhere some of the colors and chords recall the music Horner wrote for scores like Another 48 HRS. There’s even a brief recall of the Dom DeLuise comedy song “A Duo,” representing the friendship Fievel maintains with the fluffy cat Tiger.

The “Cat Rumble” underscores the scene where Fievel, his family, and other mouse families in his neighborhood, are attacked by a feline gang led by the duplicitous Cat R. Waul, who is attempting to drive them out of their homes and then trick them into heading out west – and into a trap. The track begins with a terrific piece of Leonard Bernstein-style swing jazz, which comes across as sort of a combination of the jazz pieces from Cocoon and the main theme from Honey I Shrunk the Kids, before the whole thing turns into a terrific, roaring orchestral action piece. The writing is rich and dense and complicated, and finds ways to interpolate various versions of at least four of five different themes, as well as echoes of scores as diverse as Star Trek II and Willow (listen especially to the rhythmic passage beginning around 4:20). It’s raucous and anarchic and at times verges on mickey mousing, but it’s all done with a great deal of dexterity and attention to detail.

Once the focus of the action leaves New York and starts its journey out to the wild frontier, Horner does the same, abandoning Leonard Bernstein and instead bringing the classical cowboy music of Aaron Copland to the fore. “Headin’ Out West” runs quickly through the Mousekewitz family theme, Tiger’s theme, before offering a sweeping version of the “Girl You Left Behind” theme accompanied by traditional western orchestrations – harmonicas, banjos, fiddles, and so on. “Green River/Trek Through the Desert” is a little starker and more emotionally wrought; the solo violin statement of the Mousekewitz family theme represents Papa’s anguish when he thinks he has lost Fievel in a fall accident – again! – before the music shifts and presents distinctly Elmer Bernstein-esque versions of the “Girl You Left Behind” theme and the “Way Out West” theme, both representing different aspects of the Utah town that is to be their new home. Meanwhile Fievel is out wandering in the desert, dehydrated and alone, and Horner scores his plight with some rather impressionistic textures which use the western instruments in a variety of unusual and at times quite dissonant ways, often in combination with distorted statements of the main themes.

“Building A New Town” introduces a new theme – one of the few not based on a song – for Wylie Burp, the legendary canine Wild West sheriff who is a hero to Fievel. Burp’s theme is a lazy, nonchalant theme for harmonica and a whistler, and is a perfect representation of the friendly, laconic personality Jimmy Stewart brings to the role; it quickly gives way to some more classic western music, broad and optimistic, again built around the melodies from “Way Out West,” “The Girl You Left Behind,” the Mousekewitz family theme, and “Somewhere Out There”. The subsequent “Sacred Mountain” underscores Tiger’s adventures in the desert – he has also made the trek out west, but somehow fallen in with a tribe of Native American mice, who think he is a god. This cue includes some writing for a majestic choir, and gradually develops into rather dramatic fully orchestral music, some of which contains some frantic outbursts of classic Horner action.

“Reminiscing” is a sensitive arrangement of the “Dreams to Dream” melody for the full orchestra, while “In Training” sees Horner engaging in some clear and obvious Aaron Copland homage that takes direct inspiration from the ‘Hoe-Down’ sequence of his 1942 ballet Rodeo – it’s brilliant, but its origins are unmistakable. The finale of the score comes in “The Shoot-Out,” which occurs after Fievel and Tiger have convinced the washed-up Wylie Burp to help them make a stand against Cat R. Waul and thwart his plans to turn everyone into ‘mouse burgers’. This action music is actually quite dark and serious at times, and sees Horner cleverly blending the “Cat Rumble” jazz with a whole host of stereotypical western textures arranged like the fusion-action from scores like Red Heat, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, and Another 48 HRS. There are several quite stark arrangements of the different song melodies, as well as dramatic versions of Burp’s theme, and one especially notable arrangement of Mousekewitz family theme at the 3:00 mark which is similar to the flamboyant action Horner would write for The Mask of Zorro seven years later; I especially love the use of tubular bells in this sequence. The whole thing ends chaotically with an anarchic reprise of the hoe-down, a raucous statement of the “Girl You Left Behind” theme, and finally some comedy mickey-mousing as Cat R. Waul and his minions are sent off into the sunset on a mail train.

“A New Land – The Future” is the score’s optimistic finale, as Fievel and his family – having vanquished Cat R. Waul – join with Tiger, Wylie Burp, and the others, and look to a hopeful future in their new western home. Much like the opening suite, this 8-minute cue runs through several statements of different themes, beginning with some Field of Dreams-style nostalgic textures, a warm choral version of “Way Out West” that sounds like a sunset, a wonderfully rousing instrumental version of “The Girl You Left Behind,” and a final presentation of “Dreams to Dream” that is just gorgeous.

It’s always been very impressive to me that James Horner took as much care, and put as much thought and detail as he did, into animation scores like the two American Tail films, The Land Before Time, and subsequent works like Balto and We’re Back, even though his target audiences were 8-year-old children who would never notice 90% of the clever things he was doing. Fievel Goes West is a score which massively over-achieves; with its multiplicity of themes, fun and enjoyable songs, appropriate homages to Aaron Copland and Elmer Bernstein, and bold and wonderfully tumultuous action music, it’s a score which delivers on all frontiers.

Buy the An American Tail: Fievel Goes West soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Dreams to Dream – Finale Version (written by James Horner and Will Jennings, performed by Linda Ronstadt) (4:42)
  • American Tail Overture (Main Title) (7:09)
  • Cat Rumble (7:28)
  • Headin’ Out West (1:47)
  • Way Out West (written by James Horner and Will Jennings, performed by Ensemble) (1:47)
  • Green River/Trek Through the Desert (5:43)
  • Dreams to Dream – Tanya’s Version (written by James Horner and Will Jennings, performed by Cathy Cavadini) (2:34)
  • Building A New Town (2:43)
  • Sacred Mountain (2:22)
  • Reminiscing (2:12)
  • The Girl You Left Behind (written by James Horner and Will Jennings, performed by Cathy Cavadini) (1:42)
  • In Training (1:49)
  • The Shoot-Out (5:29)
  • A New Land – The Future (8:16)

Running Time: 55 minutes 43 seconds

MCA Records MCAD-10416 (1991)

Music composed and conducted by James Horner. Performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and London Voices. Orchestrations by Grieg McRitchie and John Neufeld. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphyand Eric Tomlinson. . Edited by Jim Henrikson. Album produced by James Horner.

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