Home > Reviews > YEAR OF THE COMET – Hummie Mann

YEAR OF THE COMET – Hummie Mann

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

One of the more little-known ‘mainstream’ films of 1992 is Year of the Comet, directed by Peter Yates and written by William Goldman, who was inspired to write it because of a desire to combine two of his personal loves: red wine and traveling. His script first hit Hollywood in 1978, and originally Goldman wanted Robert Redford and Glenda Jackson to star as the leads in what he envisioned as a ‘romantic adventure comedy thriller’ in the vein of Charade, wherein the protagonists embark on a chase from London to the Scottish Highlands to the French Riviera, in search of the most valuable bottle of wine in history. The title of the project relates to the year the McGuffin wine was bottled, 1811, which was known for the Great Comet of 1811, and also as one of the best years in history for European viticulture. The film sat un-made for almost 15 years, until eventually Goldman was able to leverage his success off the back of writing The Princess Bride and Misery and put it into production; Timothy Daly and Penelope Ann Miller were eventually cast as the leading pair, but despite some handsome production values and lovely location shooting, the film was a box office disaster, a critical flop, and almost immediately sank into obscurity.

Today the film is best known – amongst soundtrack fans at least – for its absolutely delightful score, written by the Montreal-born composer Hummie Mann. Mann had been active in Hollywood for a decade or so previously, writing TV scores for shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and conducting and orchestrating for composers like Michael Gore, Lee Holdridge, and especially Marc Shaiman – he conducted Misery, City Slickers, and The Addams Family, among others. However, Mann was not the original composer attached to this film – John Barry, who had previously scored the film The Deep for director Yates back in 1977, wrote and recorded an entire score before it was rejected for reasons which remain unclear to this day. There have been rumors for years about a possible release of Barry’s score by one of the specialist record labels, and the niche DVD company Twilight Time were apparently all ready to include it as an isolated track on their 2017 release of the film, but as of the time of writing nothing has come out; as such, the only place anyone can hear even the shortest snippet of Barry’s score is in the last 30 seconds or so of the film’s trailer, and it sounds like Dances With Wolves.

Whatever the case may be, a fast replacement for Barry’s score was needed, and it is likely that it was the William Goldman/Marc Shaiman/Misery connection that gave Hummie Mann the opportunity to write what would eventually become his mainstream debut theatrical score. It’s a shame that the film was not more of a hit because, had it been more popular, it would likely have led to Mann having a composing career similar to that of Shaiman, David Newman, John Debney, and people of that nature – the music is that good. It’s rich, fully orchestral, tuneful, and idyllically romantic, and often brings in ethnic flavors from Scotland to add an even deeper lyrical tone to the music. It’s a score that massively over-achieves in relation to the film it accompanies; it’s clear that Mann’s music was intended to paper over the cracks and cover the myriad of flaws in the narrative, and it does so to such an extent that you could say it’s perhaps a little too manipulative, reaching for emotional highs that the film never attains – but that also means that, as a listening experience, the score pushes every positive emotional button at once, and as such appeals to me greatly.

There are several themes that weave in and out of the score, the first of which is introduced in the opening cue “Maggie Goes to Scotland,” and is a recurring marker for that country and culture. It builds out from some pretty and sentimental tones for soft strings and gentle woodwinds, and eventually erupts into a rousing, raucous Scottish-inflected piece filled with dancing pennywhistles, Celtic tapped percussion, and a gorgeous, sweeping, swooning theme for elegant strings backed by a warm horn countermelody. It’s just fantastic, a complete delight, and when it re-appears later in “Driving Through Scotland” the whole score bursts into life. I also really like the lugubrious variation on the Scottish theme Mann works into “In Pursuit of Jamie.”

A gentle romantic theme for Daly and Miller’s characters, Oliver and Margaret, plays throughout “The Seduction,” before reprising the Scottish theme with a sense of warm, elegant sentimentality that is just superb. Mann’s music drives the chemistry between the characters entirely, giving their relationship a romantic core that the actors don’t really convey, and it makes for outstanding listening. It comes back later in the equally lovely “It’s Gotta Be Love,” which also reprises the Scottish theme, but this time with a touch of broad comedy that gives it a different dimension.

The caper aspect of the story, in which Oliver and Margaret find themselves gallivanting all over Europe in search of the priceless bottle of wine, is scored with some fun and energetic action material that makes unusual use of a bank of pennywhistles as the lead instrument, adding a mischievous tone to the driving strings, light tapped percussion, and occasionally quite fulsome brass. Cues like “Helicopter Chase” and “Chasing the Greek” are like flighty dances, and come across as more whimsical and cheerful than threatening or in any way menacing. It’s an interesting way of forcing a specific tone onto the film, adding energy and a little bit of tension, but keeping everything mostly light and playful. Only “Fight on the Lake” offers anything in the way of thrilling excitement, and it’s a showcase for Mann’s talent in this regard, a festival of flashing string runs and rhythmic brass clusters.

Most of the rest of the score – cues like “Finding the Bottle,” the beautiful “Nico Comes On Strong,” among others – is made up mostly of appealing orchestral mood music, pretty and inviting textures that blend in well with the rest of the score and maintain the overarching mood of subtle romance. One or two cues – “MacPherson Castle,” “The Injection,” “Philippe Flips Out” – are a little more sinister and moody, minor key chord progressions in the strings adding a subtle sense of mystery and intrigue. “Philippe Flips Out” even has some sort of twisted circus-like rhythms to represent Louis Jourdan’s mad scientist character who also crosses paths with Oliver and Margaret while searching for the wine, but these dalliances in darker colors are rare.

The five-minute “End Credits” is a scintillating recap of all the score’s main themes, anchored by several sparkling renditions of the Scottish theme, a rich reprise of the Caper theme with its superb string countermelody, and which ends with an absolutely gorgeous romantic variant on the Scottish theme combined with Oliver and Margaret’s love theme, which stands as one of the most beautiful moments of Mann’s entire career.

Following his work on Year of the Comet Hummie Mann went on too write music for two popular Mel Brooks comedies, Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Dracula: Dead and Loving It, and he won an Emmy for his score for the TV series Picture Windows in 1996, but his mainstream Hollywood career began to tail off after the turn of the millennium, to the extent that he now hasn’t scored a major film in almost 20 years. He subsequently re-located to the Seattle, Washington area, where he established the Pacific Northwest Film Scoring Program, and is now regarded as one of the leading film music educators in the United States. Academia’s gain is most certainly Hollywood’s loss, though, as Year of the Comet clearly shows what a terrific composer Mann could be when given the right project. This one is an underrated, undiscovered gem.

Buy the Year of the Comet soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Maggie Goes to Scotland (2:08)
  • The Seduction (1:46)
  • Finding the Bottle (3:37)
  • Helicopter Chase (3:31)
  • MacPherson Castle (2:23)
  • In Pursuit of Jamie (3:32)
  • Fight on the Lake (1:29)
  • Nico Comes On Strong (1:02)
  • Driving Through Scotland (0:43)
  • Formula on the Box (0:57)
  • Maggie’s Dive (0:44)
  • Chasing the Greeks (0:49)
  • It’s Gotta Be Love (2:20)
  • The Injection (3:20)
  • Philippe Flips Out (1:23)
  • End Credits (5:13)

Running Time: 44 minutes 57 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-5365 (1992)

Music composed and conducted by Hummie Mann. Orchestrations by Brad Dechter. Recorded and mixed by Rick Riccio. Edited by Scott Grusin. Album produced by Hummie Mann.

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