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GROUNDHOG DAY – George Fenton

February 24, 2023 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

One of the best – and, with the benefit of hindsight, most influential and enduring – comedies of the early 1990s was Groundhog Day. Written by Danny Rubin and directed by Harold Ramis, the film stars Bill Murray as cynical television weatherman Phil Connors. Phil is sent to the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover the local Groundhog Day festivities, along with his producer Rita Hanson (Andie MacDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott); however, after completing a perfunctory report, the crew is stranded in town by an unexpected blizzard, and is forced to spend the night in a local inn. The following morning, when Phil wakes up, he soon realizes that it is Groundhog Day again – he has somehow become trapped in a time loop, and is forced to relive the same day over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over…

In the thirty years since its release the film’s time loop conceit has become a part of the cinematic lexicon, and many of its scenes, lines, and concepts have entered public consciousness. Scholars have examined the film as a religious allegory, a meditation on life and death and existentialism, and as a philosophical discussion of karma; it’s weighty stuff, and marks Groundhog Day as an unusually thoughtful film that belies its romantic comedy undertones, which is something that star Bill Murray intentionally wanted to explore. The cast is uniformly excellent, and some of the cameos and supporting roles are brilliantly memorable too, not least Stephen Tobolowsky as Phil’s annoying former high school classmate turned insurance salesman Ned Ryerson, Needle-Nose Ned, Ned the Head. Unusually, despite being a hit with both audiences and critics, it didn’t fare well with awards bodies – it won the BAFTA for Best Original Screenplay, but got nothing from either the Oscars or the Golden Globes, which with hindsight is a shocking omission. It remains one of my personal favorite comedies.

The score for Groundhog Day is by George Fenton, who in the early 1990s was making headway into more mainstream studio fare. He spent most of the 1980s scoring prestigious British dramas like Gandhi, Cry Freedom, and Dangerous Liaisons, and was clearly seeking to consolidate that success in to a wide-ranging and versatile Hollywood career. For this score, Fenton was forced to play second fiddle somewhat to the prominent (and, intentionally, repetitive) song placement throughout the film, but despite this reduced prominence he was still able to impress with some fun and heartfelt material stretched over around 20 minutes of running time.

The heart of the score is the romantic theme for Phil and Rita, which is notably absent for the first part of the film, when the two are still butting heads and trading barbed insults, but comes to dominate its second half as the two slowly begin to appreciate each other. One of the central ideas in the film is the fact that, in order to escape his time loop, Phil has to better himself; shed his snarky exterior and his general disdain for others, and actually care for people, care for their well-being, put other people first. Fenton’s theme addresses this idea with a soft, gentle, magical orchestral motif that gradually becomes more sweepingly romantic as Phil discovers his own humanity, and his love for Rita.

It is first introduced on lyrical woodwinds and romantic pianos in “You Like Boats But Not the Ocean,” and is reprised with a bleak synthy solemnity in “Sometimes People Just Die,” a cue that relates to Phil’s devastating realization that, no matter what he does, he can’t prevent a particular character’s death. It reaches its romantic peak in the lovely “The Ice Sculpture,” although the presence of an oh-so-1990s soprano saxophone leading the melody may render the cue unpalatable to those with a lactose intolerance.

The rest of the score comprises a series of standalone vignettes underscoring one or more of Phil’s various shenanigans, and range in tone from pseudo-classical waltzes to jazz and blues, and even some action material for the film’s one or two kinetic scenes. The opening cue, “Clouds,” is a bubbly and breezy piece of comic fluff for a bank of jaunty clarinets and an oompah polka-style brass band. The “Quartet No.1 in D – The Groundhog” is an unexpectedly lovely piece of classical pastiche for a string quartet, anchored by a sparkling violin solo by Hollywood studio orchestra veteran Bruce Dukov. “Drunks” is a piece of vibrant jazz that pits Fenton’s vivacious piano lines against a rock electric guitar, raucous brass, and some almost Gershwin-style New York percussive licks that occasionally venture into Elmer Bernstein Ghostbusters territory.

“Phil Getz The Girl” is a piece of languidly seductive lounge jazz, again built around an intentionally dated and cheesy solo sax melody backed with ooh-aah vocal stylings. “Phil Steals The Money” is a fun piece of light comedy caper music, full of tinkling harpsichords and sneaky little rhythmic ideas. “The Kidnap and the Quarry,” which underscores the chase scene where Phil actually kidnaps the titular groundhog and tries to kill it and himself by driving into an open mine, is a frantic action sequence that combines classic orchestral sounds with a rock drum kit and idiosyncratic percussive ideas, and even some synths, but still plays it all mostly for laughs. The conclusive “A New Day” – where Phil wakes up and realizes that he has finally broken free from his time loop prison after what the screenwriters reckon could have been almost forty years – reprises the main romantic theme for Phil and Rita with a satisfyingly poignant sweep.

In addition to the score, Fenton also wrote two original songs; the soft rock anthem “Weatherman,” performed with good-time affability by Delbert McClinton, and the country-flavored romantic ballad “Take Me Round Again,” performed by Susie Stevens. Both of them are actually pretty good. The soundtrack album, on the Epic Soundtrax label, also features a handful of other songs, the most notable of which are “I Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher, which plays on Phil’s clock radio every single morning, and the “Pennsylvania Polka” performed by Frankie Yankovic, which provides the annoyingly upbeat backdrop to Phil’s daily journey through town to Gobbler’s Knob and the appearance of the titular rodent. There are also two excellent piano performances of Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” which are performed on-screen by Murray, but are actually the work of pianists Elizabeth Buccheri and Terry Fryer.

This is light, unassuming music, which just happens to accompany one of the best comedies of the entire decade. While “I Got You Babe” and the “Pennsylvania Polka” are likely to be the most familiar musical elements of the film amongst the general public, George Fenton’s score should not be overlooked. The main romantic theme for Phil and Rita is lovely in an early 1990s kind of way, and some of the jazz ideas that run through the rest of the score are a ton of fun. Overall, it’s an excellent souvenir that will especially appeal to fans of the film, those woodchuck-chuckers who can’t get enough of Phil’s antics, and whose eventual romantic and existential epiphany brings a smile to their lips… their chapped lips.

Buy the Groundhog Day soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Weatherman (written by George Fenton and Harold Ramis, performed by Delbert McClinton) (4:16)
  • Clouds (1:10)
  • I Got You Babe (written by Sonny Bono, performed by Sonny and Cher) (3:11)
  • Quartet No.1 in D – The Groundhog (2:07)
  • Take Me Round Again (written by George Fenton, performed by Susie Stevens) (3:04)
  • Drunks (2:17)
  • Pennsylvania Polka (written by Lester Lee and Zeke Manners, performed by Frankie Yankovic) (2:23)
  • You Like Boats But Not The Ocean (1:14)
  • Phil Getz The Girl (3:30)
  • Phil Steals The Money (1:20)
  • You Don’t Know Me (written by Eddy Arnold and Cindy Walker, performed by Ottmar Liebert and Luna Negra) (3:11)
  • The Kidnap and The Quarry (2:50)
  • Sometimes People Just Die (1:39)
  • Eighteenth Variation from Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (written by Sergei Rachmaninoff, performed by Elizabeth Buccheri) (3:33)
  • Medley: Phil’s Piano Solo/Eighteenth Variation from Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (written by Terry Fryer and Sergei Rachmaninoff, performed by Terry Fryer) (1:48)
  • The Ice Sculpture (2:05)
  • A New Day (1:26)
  • Almost Like Being In Love (written by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, performed by Nat King Cole) (1:52 )

Running Time: 44 minutes 27 seconds

Epic Soundtrax EK-53760 (1993)

Music composed and conducted by George Fenton. Orchestrations by Jeff Atmajian. Recorded and mixed by John Richards. Edited by Sally Boldt. Album produced by George Fenton.

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