Home > Reviews > A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT – Mark Isham


October 20, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

One of the most critically acclaimed films of 1992 was A River Runs Through It, directed by Robert Redford, adapted from the 1976 semi-autobiographical novella by Norman Maclean. The film is set in Montana in the 1920s and stars Craig Sheffer and Brad Pitt as brothers Norman and Paul Maclean, the sons of presbyterian minister John (Tom Skerritt). Norman is serious, studious, and ambitious, where Paul is reckless, habitually drunk, but creative and an excellent journalist. Despite their differences in personality, they bond over their shared love of fly fishing, which they learned from their father fishing in the Blackfoot River as children, and which they often see as a metaphor for life itself. The film follows the brothers through the Prohibition Era up to the beginnings of the Great Depression, their various romances, and society as a whole in that era. The film was praised for its direction, performances, and cinematography, the latter of which won an Oscar for the great Philippe Rousselot; it also received an Oscar nomination for Best Score, the career first for composer Mark Isham.

The original composer attached to A River Runs Through It was Elmer Bernstein, but disagreements between him and director Redford over the tone of the music led to his score being rejected; Isham was brought in as a replacement and completed the score within four weeks. It was the first of several collaborations between Redford and Isham, and to this day it remains one of his most acclaimed works. The film came out within a couple of weeks of his other major score from 1992, Of Mice and Men, and it was likely the success of that film at the Cannes Film Festival earlier in the year that led to Isham being eventually asked to score A River Runs Through It, as the two have a similar sound and emotional intelligence. A River Runs Through It also allowed Isham to build on his new-found aptitude for delicate, pastoral orchestral scores, something that he would later perfect through several subsequent works.

A River Runs Through It is really quite exceptionally beautiful. The score is written mostly for strings, woodwinds, and pianos, with only occasional brief use of brass, harp, and Uilleann pipes, when a more fulsome sound is required. Its tone is such that it evokes the beautiful nature of the Montana landscape where the film is set – sylvan forests backed by snow-capped mountains, lush glades filled with wild flowers, and gently meandering rivers filled with trout, where the sun sparkles and dazzles off the surface of the water. It’s all just idyllic, and this gently evocative sound of beauty and nature is something that would come to define almost all the early major ‘serious’ works of Isham’s career.

There are three recurring themes weaving through the score. The main theme, as introduced in the opening cue “A River Runs Through It,” is the theme for the Maclean family and the brothers whose lives the film follows. The theme is often carried by woodwinds backed by gentle strings, and it has a sort of vague Gaelic/Celtic lilt to it, as if acknowledging the family’s ‘old country’ Scots-Irish heritage, and is just lovely. It’s quite subtle, not very demonstrative, and uses quiet shifts in instrumentation rather than volume to convey dramatic ideas, but it’s one of Isham’s prettiest melodies. Subsequent statements in cues like “Early Departure” are just as enchanting, while the lively prancing variation in “The High Road” feels a little like the origin of the sound Thomas Newman was asked to give to Redford’s film The Horse Whisperer in 1998.

The second recurring main theme is probably best described as the ‘Fly Fishing Theme,’ as it tends to occur in scenes with the brothers on the river, bonding as they discuss their lives and loves. Cues like “A Land Filled With Wonder,” “A Four-Count Rhythm,” and the slightly more dramatically intense “A Fine Fisherman and the Big Blackfoot River” feature the fishing theme prominently, and are just superb. Isham seemed to take musical inspiration from the river itself in terms of this theme’s sound; it has a meandering, undulating, eddying quality that seems to mimic the flow of water, and in the latter cue especially the little cymbal rings and moments of brighter percussion feel like the spray of the water as it hits a rock, sends up a splash, and then disappears again into its own endless current.

Finally a romantic theme for Norman’s relationship with the lovely Jessie Burns (Emily Lloyd), a flapper whose father runs the town’s general store, begins to emerge in “Je Ne Sais Quois,” and goes on to form the core of later cues like “Jessie and Norman”. Like the rest of the score, their theme is subtle but expressive, a perfect depiction of the quiet and unassuming love they grow.

The score has some moments of more intense drama – “Shooting the Chutes,” “A Remark was Passed,” “The Wild Ride,” “Lolo’s” – but then reaches its emotional apex in the final three cues, beginning with “Without Complete Understanding,” which features a statement of the main theme on a solo fiddle backed by a prominent harp that is appropriately morose considering the circumstances of the scene is accompanies. This is followed by the warmer and more sentimental “In the Half-Light of the Canyon,” before the conclusive “Haunted by Waters” reprises much of the score’s main thematic content with appropriate romanticism and a lush orchestral sweep.

The soundtrack album also includes several tracks of period jazz and other source music, as heard in the scenes set in Lolo’s, a local speakeasy. The tracks – which include “Down the Alley (With You),” “The Sheik of Araby,” “Swing Me High, Swing Me Low,” “Muskrat Ramble,” and Prudence Johnson’s performance of the classic “Bye Bye Blackbird” – are wonderfully authentic, but unfortunately are placed right in the middle of the album, and do tend to break the evocative spell created by Isham’s score.

Despite this little programming misstep, which is easily-rectified, A River Runs Through It remains an essential album for anyone interested in Mark Isham’s beautiful pastoral works of orchestral Americana. Together with Of Mice and Men, this score initiated what I believe to be the most rewarding and satisfying period of Isham’s film music career, where he used subtle orchestral textures and intimate emotional content to paint a beautiful portrait of rural American life. These two, along with later works like Nell, Fly Away Home, The Education of Little Tree, and October Sky, remain my favorites from what is now an extensive multi-decade filmography, and those who have forgotten (or never knew) what a gorgeous composer Mark Isham could be should certainly revisit them now.

Buy the A River Runs Through It soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • A River Runs Through It (2:22)
  • Casting Presbyterian Style (1:29)
  • A Land Filled With Wonder (1:32)
  • Down the Alley (With You) (2:20)
  • A Summer of Lumber and Fishing (1:44)
  • Shooting the Chutes (1:52)
  • Three Fishermen (1:55)
  • A Trip to the Unknown (2:28)
  • A Four-Count Rhythm (2:27)
  • The Sheik of Araby (written by Harry B. Smith, Ted Snyder, and Francis Wheeler) (1:56)
  • Bye Bye Blackbird (written by Mort Dixon and Ray Henderson, performed by Prudence Johnson) (1:57)
  • Je Ne Said Quois (0:56)
  • Swing Me High, Swing Me Low (2:29)
  • A Place Remembered (0:54)
  • A Remark was Passed (2:23)
  • Rugged Cross (traditional) (2:50)
  • Muskrat Ramble (written by Ray Gilbert and Edward ‘Kid’ Ory) (1:58)
  • Rawhide (0:58)
  • The Wild Ride (2:27)
  • Early Departure (0:50)
  • The Splendor in the Grass (1:10)
  • Jessie and Norman (2:59)
  • Lolo’s (1:15)
  • The High Road (1:01)
  • Yes, Quite a Day (1:05)
  • A Fine Fisherman and the Big Blackfoot River (1:41)
  • The Moment that Could Not Last (1:23)
  • Too Deep for Tears (0:46)
  • Without Complete Understanding (1:21)
  • In the Half-Light of the Canyon (2:46)
  • Haunted by Waters (4:18)

Running Time: 58 minutes 28 seconds

Milan 7313835631 (1992)

Music composed by Mark Isham. Conducted by Ken Kugler. Orchestrations by Ken Kugler, Kim Scharnberg and Dell Hake. Recorded and mixed by Stephen Krause. Edited by Allan Rosen. Album produced by Mark Isham and Stephan R. Goldman.

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