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SWING KIDS – James Horner


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Swing Kids is an interesting exploration of a sub-culture that existed in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s. These so-called ‘swingjugend’ were groups of 14- to 21-year-old Germans, mostly middle or upper-class students, who admired the “American way of life” and rebelled against the government by gathering in underground nightclubs in Hamburg and Berlin, and listening to and dancing to swing music – an activity that the Hitler Youth of the National Socialist Party hated, and tried to suppress. The film follows the fortunes of one such group of youths, who grow up surrounded by intolerance and violence, and find the ‘swingjugend’ movement to be a welcome distraction, until the ramifications of their action begins to impact their daily lives. The film is directed by Thomas Carter, stars Robert Sean Leonard, Christian Bale, Frank Whaley, and Barbara Hershey, with an uncredited Kenneth Branagh in especially fine as an unexpectedly sympathetic Nazi SS-Sturmbannführer.

As one would expect, swing music plays a massive part in the film’s soundtrack, and the album contains several outstanding pieces by legendary jazz and swing artists like Benny Goodman, Django Reinhardt, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Louis Prima, and more. Some are original archival recordings from the 1930s, while others are new performances arranged with skill and panache by composers Chris Boardman and Robert Kraft. It’s brilliant if you like swing music – rousing, upbeat, toe-tappingly cool – and it’s easy to see why this raucous celebration of American culture, especially black culture, would be seen as so morally reprehensible by the Nazis, and why so many young men and women would be drawn to it as an act of youthful rebellion.

The score for Swing Kids was by James Horner, and was the first of an astonishing TEN scores by him that would be released in 1993. While the swing music naturally takes center stage underscoring the numerous dance and party sequences, Horner’s remit was to score the drama: the relationships between the friends, the dangers of growing up under Nazi rule, and the sometimes tragic consequences of their defiance. As such, Horner’s contribution to the score is just over 20 minutes of solemn, serious dramatic music in his familiar style.

The score is built around two recurring themes but, interestingly, neither of them appear in the first cue “Nothing to Report” which is instead a pleasant piece of low key drama that takes a lot of inspiration from the mode sinister parts of Sneakers, especially its icily elegant strings, and then blends them with light choral textures underpinned with snare drum riffs that enhance the overall militaristic vibe of the setting and time period. The first appearances of the two main themes actually come in the second cue, “The Letter.” The first of these appears at the beginning of the cue and is a pretty, bittersweet melody for woodwinds and high, elegant violins backed by low, churning figures for the rest of the string section; interestingly, this motif would later appear in another film set in wartime Germany, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas from 2008, and as such appears to be Horner’s ‘career symphony’ idea relating to ‘good Nazis,’ or at least ones who are more sympathetic and thoughtful and offer resistance to the atrocities going on around them,

The second half of the cue, beginning at the 1:40 mark, introduces the score’s second recurring theme, a searching, lightly emotional piece for strings and prominent oboes backed by the warm, rolling piano chords that often accompanied Horner themes of this type. It’s a lovely piece, and as the score progresses it establishes itself as the primary thematic identity of the work, especially during the emotional and moving climax.

The rest of the score essentially offers variations on these two main themes, with some moments of distinctiveness worth highlighting. “Arvid Beaten” is a more intense and dramatic exploration of the main theme, and is filled with militaristic snare rhythms and shrill string figures, as well as some guest appearance of the classic Horner four-note danger motif, which in this instance relates to the terrible circumstances that eventually lead to the character’s suicide. “Training for Utopia” introduces a sense of elegant period classicism to the score, but in an oddly unsettling way; Horner’s spirited string lines and subdued performances of the main theme are spoiled further by darks chords and insistent snare drum rhythms. Towards the end of the track the music changes entirely and becomes a shrill classical piece for a vaguely Slavic choir, reminiscent of the Prokofiev pieces that bookend the score for Red Heat.

“Ashes” returns to the ‘good Nazi’ theme but surrounds with dark tonalities, tolling bells, anguished chords, soulful choral vocals, and a yearning, searching sound that is almost funereal, and even appears to have some faint allusions to Jewish folk music that is appropriate in context. “The Bismarck” – which is the name of the jazz club where the swing kids dance – is serious and weighty, as it underscores the final sequence where the club is raided by raided by members of the Hitlerjugend and the friendships that defined these characters lives are ended permanently. Horner dresses up his main theme with many of his familiar compositional and instrumental ideas, including the use of clattering tubular bells, more instances od the 4-note danger motif, and a series of stark and anguished crescendos.

The final cue, “Swing Heil,” is the score’s emotional highlight and sees Horner returning to the main theme for the final time, in its lushest and most dramatic statement. There is a significant sweep to the lyricism in the strings, the timpani rolls give each refrain dramatic depth and weight, and the whole thing offers a serious profundity to the fate of one of the main characters as he is spirited away by the Nazi secret police, to an uncertain fate. The piece ends with a more thoughtful and reserved variation on the ‘good nazi’ theme for tender woodwinds that ends the score on a solemn, reflective note.

Perhaps the one missed opportunity in the score for Swing Kids is the fact that there’s no crossover between the jazz and the score, and that Horner wasn’t given the opportunity to write any original swing music of his own. His contributions to scores like Cocoon and Batteries Not Included clearly show that Horner had a superb knack for that sound, and it might have been fun to hear him to go toe-to-toe with Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington on an album full of swing classics. Instead, there is a clear delineation between the two musical styles, and despite this Horner’s music remains appropriate and enjoyable.

In the overall scale of things Swing Kids is a minor work in the James Horner canon – it would be overshadowed by his output later in 1993, let alone other works in other years – but fans of his work will still find plenty to enjoy in its short running time. Others who are less attuned to his style may find the slow pace, the constant seriousness, and the slight anonymity of the thematic ideas to be less appealing, but as someone who appreciates almost everything Horner every wrote, there was enough for me to make the effort worthwhile.

Buy the Swing Kids soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Sing, Sing, Sing With A Swing (written by Louis Prima) (4:57)
  • Nothing to Report (1:36)
  • Shout and Feel It (written by William ‘Count’ Basie) (2:27)
  • It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing (written by Edward ‘Duke’ Ellington and Irving Mills, performed by Billy Banks) (2:48)
  • The Letter (4:09)
  • Flat Foot Floogee (written by Slim Gaillard, Bud Green, and Slam Stewart, performed by Benny Goodman feat. Harry James and Bud Freeman) (3:17)
  • Arvid Beaten (2:10)
  • Swingtime in the Rockies (written by Benny Goodman and James R. Mundy) (3:08)
  • Daphne (written by Django Reinhardt, performed by Dean Parks and Sid Page) (1:50)
  • Training for Utopia (3:43)
  • Life Goes to a Party/Jumpin’ at The Woodside (written by Benny Goodman, Harry James and Count Basie) (2:17)
  • Goodnight, My Love (written by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel, performed by Benny Goodman and Ella Fitzgerald feat. Art Rollini and Jess Stacy) (3:06)
  • Ashes (4:20)
  • Bei Mir Bist Du Schon (written by Sammy Cahn, Saul Chaplin, Jacob Jacobs, and Sholom Secunda, performed by Janis Siegel) (4:09)
  • The Bismarck (3:04)
  • Swing Heil (5:26)

Running Time: 52 minutes 27 seconds

Hollywood Records HR-61357-2 (1993)

Music composed and conducted by James Horner. Orchestrations by Joel Rosenbaum. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Jim Henrikson and Joe E. Rand. Album produced by James Horner and Robert Kraft.

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