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MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN – Shirley Walker

February 24, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

A comedy thriller with a science fiction twist, Memoirs of an Invisible Man is interesting for a number of reasons. First, it is one of the few films directed by John Carpenter where he was essentially a ‘director for hire’ as opposed to being an integral part of its production; the film was originally supposed to be an Ivan Reitman project until he clashed with star Chevy Chase. The whole thing was a Chase vanity project intended to usher him into more serious leading man roles; he plays mild-mannered stockbroker Nick Halloway, who is rendered invisible following an accident at a hi tech laboratory, and spends the rest of the movie evading a corrupt CIA operative who wants to either recruit him to be a spy, or kill him to stop Nick from exposing his corruption. The film co-stars Daryl Hannah and Sam Neill, but unfortunately was something of a critical and commercial flop.

Second, and most important from a film music point of view, is the fact that the film was scored by the late great Shirley Walker. Memoirs of an Invisible Man was one of the few John Carpenter films that Carpenter did not score himself – others include The Thing by Ennio Morricone and Starman by Jack Nitzsche – but the fact that he chose Walker to score it was groundbreaking as it represented one of the first, if not the first, times that a female composer had scored a major Hollywood studio film. Walker was a fairly late replacement on the film after Jack Nitzsche left the project, but she was well-known and well-respected in film music circles having written additional music, conducted, and done orchestrations for Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, Brad Fiedel, Carmine Coppola, and Richard Band, and performed synths on the score for Apocalypse Now as early as 1979. Both Zimmer and Elfman cite her as being a major influence on their style and sound at that point in their careers.

The fact that it basically took until 1992 for a female composer to be hired for a major Hollywood studio film is, quite frankly, shocking. Of course there had been other women writing film music before this; people like Doreen Carwithen and Elizabeth Lutyens and Delia Derbyshire were working in the British film and television industry, Ann Ronell was the first woman to receive a Best Score Oscar nomination in 1945, Wendy Carlos was a pioneering electronic musician who scored A Clockwork Orange in 1971, and Angela Morley was a multiple Oscar and Emmy Award nominee in the 1970s and 80s. Furthermore, people like Rachel Portman and Debbie Wiseman and Anne Dudley were beginning their careers at around the same time. But for a woman to be writing film music was still exceptionally rare, and it was rarer still for the film to be an action film, from a studio like Warner Brothers, and for the woman to get solo top billing. As such Memoirs of an Invisible Man should be seen as a landmark in film score history.

It helps as well that the score for Memoirs of an Invisible Man is really good. It’s a multi-themed orchestral score that successfully balances the action, sci-fi, romance, and light comedy elements inherent in the film, creating a tonal consistency that the somewhat haphazard film badly needed. Everything builds out of the opening “Theme Medley,” which introduces most of the score’s recurring elements, including the main theme for Nick, the gorgeous love theme for Nick and Alice, some bold and exciting action music, and some more sinister thriller elements relating to Sam Neill’s nefarious CIA agent Jenkins. One thing that is immediately noticeable is how terrifically orchestrated it all is; the depth and variety of the instrumental textures, the prominence of the brass at the front of the mix, the sweep of the strings, the flourishes and touches in the percussion – Walker was a genius at this sort of thing, and it’s no wonder that she was in such high demand to bring her talents to the scores of other composers throughout her career.

The first score cue proper, “In a State of Molecular Flux,” underscores the scene where Nick is the victim of the unfortunate industrial accident that renders him invisible, and features menacing electronic sounds under a bed of sinister strings and undulating woodwinds, all surrounding a dark Herrmannesque three-note motif that represents the ‘science project gone wrong’ at the heart of the story. Lighter touches, including harp glissandi and tinkling pianos, add a sense of magic and mystery; the finale of the cue is exciting and urgent, a mass of throbbing strings underpinning Nick’s brass theme.

Thereafter the score mostly alternates between romance and action. “Fear Creeps In,” underscores Nick’s initial escape from the CIA when he realizes that he will be spending the rest of his life as a medical test subject. Here, Nick’s theme is layered against various anxious-sounding orchestral textures, which eventually explode into the first of the score’s major action sequences, full of brooding brass clusters, unusually-phrased strings, and pounding percussion. “Nick Escapes the Apartment Siege” is explosive and dark, with more bulbous brass and powerful percussion ideas accompanying scampering, edgy strings; the throbbing brass triplets in the final minute or so of the cue are just tremendous. “The Final Chase” is similarly thrilling and intense, and has a great heroic version of Nick’s theme for roaring horns towards the end of the track.

Meanwhile, “Love in the Rain” is a lovely sentimental performance of Nick and Alice’s love theme, which is given a magical sheen of electronic textures under the orchestra to accompany the then-groundbreaking VFX moment where Nick’s invisibility is revealed to Alice when the outline of his shape becomes visible via a cascade of raindrops. The subsequent “Nick and Alice in Love” is similarly pretty and endearing, with an especially lovely sequence where the love theme is carried by flutes.

The opening moments of “Jenkins Closes In” underscores the first part of the film’s finale as the CIA chases Nick to an abandoned building in San Francisco in a desperate attempt to acquire the set of ‘memoir’ tapes that Nick has recorded, which incriminates Agent Jenkins, but which Nick is willing to exchange for the safety of the kidnapped Alice. The cue offsets Nick’s theme on solo trumpet against the buzzing, incessant motif for Jenkins; I really like the film noir vibe Walker brings to the performance of Nick’s theme here, especially her use of muted brass, and the way the music slowly builds in intensity over the course of almost five minutes is impressive, and brings a real sense of drama and urgency to the finale. “The Invisible Man Reveals Himself” has a sense of wonderment and an especially rousing statement of Nick’s theme; this then segues into the conclusive “You’re Not Alone Anymore,” which features one final moment of explosive action, but also contains large-scale and emotional performances of both Nick’s theme and Nick and Alice’s love theme that end the score on a cathartic and satisfying note.

Memoirs of an Invisible Man is a really fun and entertaining score which acts as a terrific showcase for what Shirley Walker could do when given the opportunity. The soundtrack album is a prime candidate for an expanded release, considering that the film is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and the original album is only 33 minutes long, which means that there is likely a ton of outstanding unreleased music waiting to be discovered.

Walker’s reputation within film music circles continued to grow over the next decade, with scores like Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, Escape from LA, several instalments in the Final Destination series, and especially the Batman and Superman animated television shows, but despite this I still feel that Walker doesn’t get the acclaim and respect she deserves outside of the film music bubble of those who knew her and worked with her. Her death from a stroke in 2006, at the age of just 61, robbed us of a potential late career resurgence, which would surely have come as a result of the current increased focus on women film composers. Had she lived she would only have been 76 years old today; plenty of men are writing terrific film music at that age now, so there is no reason to believe that Shirley Walker would not be doing the same.

Buy the Memoirs of an Invisible Man soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Theme Medley (3:22)
  • In a State of Molecular Flux (4:00)
  • Fear Creeps In (3:09)
  • Love in the Rain (1:38)
  • Nick Escapes the Apartment Siege (3:31)
  • The Final Chase (3:14)
  • Nick and Alice in Love (2:28)
  • Jenkins Closes In (4:37)
  • The Invisible Man Reveals Himself (1:40)
  • You’re Not Alone Anymore (2:11)

Running Time: 33 minutes 35 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-5355 (1992)

Music composed and conducted by Shirley Walker. Performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by Shirley Walker, Lisa Bloom, Bruce Fowler and Larry Rench. Recorded and mixed by Robert Fernandez. Edited by Thomas Milano. Album produced by Shirley Walker.

  1. February 25, 2022 at 12:57 am

    Thank you for supporting this fantastic score with your intelligent review!

    And yes, it definitely merits an expanded and remastered release.

  2. Brendon Kelly
    March 4, 2022 at 10:00 pm

    Great review! I will revisit this score today.
    Wasn’t aware the music was performed by the LSO though?

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