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OF MICE AND MEN – Mark Isham

September 22, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

John Steinbeck’s 1937 novel Of Mice and Men is a classic of 20th century American literature, a searing and poignant look at the plight of American farm workers during the Great Depression – which was still ongoing when the novel was originally published. Specifically, it follows the lives of Lenny and George, two California farm hands who move from town to town looking for work to escape from their crippling poverty, and who dream of earning enough money to buy their own plot of land. George is physically small but quick-witted and intelligent, while Lenny is a mentally disabled gentle giant who is kind but does not know his own strength; this latter aspect of Lenny’s character is a constant hazard, as he often accidentally kills small animals while trying to pet them. Eventually Lenny and George find work on a farm owned by the aggressive and confrontational Curley; as events unfold, their relationship eventually leads to tragedy – the ultimate example of Robert Burns’s famous quote about how ‘the best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry’’.

Of Mice and Men has been turned into films several times, notably in a classic Oscar-nominated film in 1939 starring Lon Chaney and Burgess Meredith, and which was scored by the great Aaron Copland. This version of the story was originally produced as a stage play in 1980 by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, and its two leads – Gary Sinise and John Malkovich – reprise their roles here. The film, which Sinise also directed, was adapted by playwright Horton Foote, and co-stars Ray Walston, Casey Siemaszko, and Sherilyn Fenn; it was a reasonable critical success at the time, with special praise being reserved for the two lead actors, and for Sinise’s direction, which led to him being nominated for the Palme d’Or at that year’s Cannes Film Festival.

The score for Of Mice and Men is by Mark Isham, and was something of an important turning point in his film music career. Prior to 1992 Isham was well known as an accomplished jazz trumpeter, and had written scores for several acclaimed and popular films, including The Hitcher in 1986, Reversal of Fortune in 1990, and Point Break in 1991, as well as several films for veteran director Alan Rudolph. What most of those scores had in common, though, was the fact that they were either jazz scores or electronic scores; Isham had never really worked with a large symphony orchestra at any point prior to scoring Point Break.

Therefore, Of Mice and Men can be considered the first proper ‘fully orchestral’ score of Mark Isham’s career, and it’s success launched a highly fruitful period in which he became very well known for writing delicately evocative scores that evoked the beauty of nature and the lushness of the American landscape – he would follow it later in 1992 with A River Runs Through It (for which he received his first Oscar nomination), and then go on to write such popular works as Nell, Fly Away Home, The Education of Little Tree, and others, while also of course continuing to have success in the jazz, drama, and action worlds.

In many ways, Isham took an approach to scoring Of Mice and Men similar to the one that Aaron Copland took in 1939, and embraces lyrical Americana imbued with emotional drama, as well as some prominent allusions to some of the folk music of the period. The score is built around two main themes – one which seems to represent the concept of loss and loneliness that runs through much of the film’s narrative, and one which represents the relationship between Lenny and George, and their hopes and dreams of a better life.

The first cue, “The Train,” is mostly an exploration of the Loneliness theme, and sees the melody being carried by Rich Ruttenburg’s gorgeous piano textures, backed by soft, solemn, rhythmic strings. It accompanies the film’s opening scene where an older George looks back on the key events in his life, and you can feel the emotional depth and sense of regret that permeates George’s character through this music. The Loneliness theme is actually absent for a large part of the score, recurring briefly in “The Puppy,” and only really coming back to the fore in the bittersweet and sentimental “Comfort,” although it does play a larger part in the film’s finale – more on that later.

Instead, the theme that dominates much of the score is Lenny and George’s Hope theme, which has a level of romanticism and quiet optimism, accompanying the two friends as they make their way through the dustbowl of the American west, searching for a better life. It first appears in “Guys Like Us” as a three-note theme for piano and strings, backed by a wash of beguiling woodwinds. The theme is lovely, delicately textured and emotionally poignant, and upon hearing it some people will find themselves reminded of Thomas Newman’s writing for similar films, as well as of the Americana scores Isham would go on to write in subsequent years. Further performances of the Hope theme appear in the gorgeous “The Dream,” and then in “The Hope,” in which the melody is arranged to sound a little more urgent, and is underpinned with more prominent percussion and some rolling, important-sounding crescendos.

Other cues of note include “Red Dress,” which underscores an early scene where the socially-awkward and clumsy Lenny is falsely accused of sexual assault by a woman wearing the aforementioned garment; Isham initially underscores the danger of the scene with a sense of unease attained through more prominent use of dancing woodwinds and low bassoon chords, but then significantly increases the sound as it builds to its conclusion through his use of a fuller orchestral ensemble, including loud brass and more prominent percussion riffs. Later, “The Fight” between Lenny and Curley is another action piece, making excellent use of jazzy pianos, brooding woodwinds, and metallic percussion, alongside references to the main theme in a more urgent setting. It’s clever that Isham chose to use the main Loss/Loneliness theme here, as it foreshadows the fact that Curly losing this fight is the catalyst for the film’s devastating conclusion, which of course eventually leads to Lenny’s death.

Elsewhere, cues like “Soledad,” “After Supper,” and “Candy’s Loss” are lovely pieces of poignant Americana, filled with warm strings, gentle woodwinds, and undulating pianos, although all of it is tinged with a slight sense of melancholy, reflecting the hardships that the people endured at that time. There are also several cues of authentic-sounding folk music that combines Ruttenburg’s livelier piano playing with guitar performances by Peter Manau; cues like “The Bunkhouse,” “Buckin’ Barley,” and “The Ranch” have a light country-rock vibe that is very enjoyable, while “Sundown” takes the same arrangements but allows it to develop a slight sense of trepidation that is interesting, and perhaps intentionally foreshadows some of the tragedy to come.

The story’s tragic conclusion begins with “Curly’s Wife,” which underscores the scene where the character bonds with Lenny for the first time; Isham uses gorgeous woodwind writing alongside more of those Thomas Newman-esque romantic string swells to capture not only her warmth but also her loneliness and bitterness at having missed out on a more glamorous Hollywood life. Thankfully Isham doesn’t score the scene where Lenny then accidentally kills her during a moment of intimacy – that would have been much too melodramatic – but “Discovery” does enhance the darkness of the moment her body is found by the other farmers.

“River Run” uses undulating pianos, strumming guitars, and vivid string passages to accompany Lenny as he tries to escape from the farm in the aftermath of Curly’s Wife’s death; Isham really allows the gravity of the moment to take hold with his music, and although he briefly makes you think that there might be a happy ending, this is John Steinbeck, and no-one gets out without suffering yet more tragedy. “George and Lennie” underscores the film’s final scene where an emotionally distraught George shockingly kills his best friend to spare him the horror being murdered by Curly’s lynch mob – an act which devastates him, and finally ends his dreams of a better life. Thankfully, Isham never over-plays the intensity of the moment, scoring the whole thing as a deeply personal tragedy rather than focusing on the dramatic bigger-world consequences; as such, the performance of the Loneliness theme here is pitch-perfect, anchored by a melodic piano, and backed by poignant strings and plucked guitars.

The final cue, “Of Mice and Men (End Titles),” is a lovely suite offering excellent reprises of both main themes with tender intimacy and a little more of a larger-scale orchestral sweep that is very satisfying. Overall, this is an excellent score; at a touch over 30 minutes it offers an enjoyable sample of everything the work has to offer, from the two main themes to the folksy Americana, and the powerful emotional content in the finale. As I mentioned earlier it’s also important in terms of Mark Isham’s broader career, as it was the first score where he really embraced the fully orchestral sound that would define so many of his subsequent best works, and as such fans of his will want to seek this out to see where the sound essentially began.

Buy the Of Mice and Men soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Train (1:38)
  • Red Dress (2:59)
  • Soledad (1:15)
  • Guys Like Us (2:01)
  • The Bunkhouse (0:56)
  • After Supper (0:44)
  • The Puppy (0:46)
  • Buckin’ Barley (2:20)
  • Candy’s Loss (0:57)
  • Flight (0:06)
  • The Dream (1:29)
  • The Hope (1:11)
  • The Fight (2:19)
  • Comfort (0:55)
  • The Ranch (0:50)
  • Sundown (0:38)
  • Curly’s Wife (1:19)
  • Pigeons (0:40)
  • Discovery (1:22)
  • River Run (3:15)
  • George and Lennie (2:03)
  • Of Mice and Men (End Titles) (3:33)

Running Time: 33 minutes 16 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-5371 (1992)

Music composed by Mark Isham. Conducted by Ken Kugler. Orchestrations by Ken Kugler. Featured musical soloists Rich Ruttenburg and Peter Manau. Recorded and mixed by Stephen Krause. Edited by Tom Carlson. Album produced by Mark Isham and Robert Townson.

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