Home > Reviews > DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY – Randy Edelman



Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Certain film stars, especially those who die young, often attain a mythical status in popular culture after their death. James Dean is one of these figures. Marilyn Monroe is another. More recently, people like Chadwick Boseman are likely to maintain a significant profile for many years to come. For Asian Americans, their iconic star who died too soon is Bruce Lee, the San Francisco-born actor whose passion for martial arts – and his combining of those two things on film – made him a star. Lee died from a cerebral edema in July 1973 at the age of 32 with just a handful of released films – including The Big Boss and Fist of Fury – to his name; Enter the Dragon, his most famous film, and Game of Death, would be released posthumously. Despite his brief period of stardom, Lee’s movies revolutionized martial arts cinema, with their blend of realistic fight scenes and philosophical overtones. Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story is a biopic based on his life; it stars Jason Scott Lee (no relation) in the title role, co-stars Lauren Holly as his wife Linda, and features Nancy Kwan, Robert Wagner, and Michael Learned in supporting roles. The film is directed by Rob Cohen, and has an original score by Randy Edelman.

In 1993 Randy Edelman was riding a wave of hit movies, including scores for films such as Ghostbusters II and Kindergarten Cop, and had received a BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations for co-scoring The Last of the Mohicans with Trevor Jones in 1992. Edelman’s upbeat, major key, harmonically positive music was proving to be very popular with both filmmakers and audiences, and Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story marked the beginning of what many consider to be the high point of his career, a four year period during which he penned such notable works as Gettysburg, Dragonheart, and Daylight, among others.

For Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Edelman combined a 90-piece orchestra and his usual array of keyboard sweeteners with traditional Chinese instruments, resulting in a slightly more authentic variation on his familiar synths-and-strings hybrid sound. Interestingly, some of Edelman’s music also seems to take inspiration from several of the scores from Lee’s movies themselves; the poppy, jazzy, proto-disco stuff written by Wang Fu-Ling for The Big Boss, Joseph Koo for Fist of Fury, and then Lalo Schifrin and John Barry for Enter the Dragon and Game of Death.

Edelman mostly aims his music at the more heroic and dramatic side of Lee’s life, scoring it with a series of triumphant Americana-esque themes that offer simple, happy musical thrills. There are also some pleasant romantic moments for strings and piano that speak to the love story between Bruce and Linda, as well as some more spiritual-sounding pieces for traditional Asian instruments for the scenes that deal with Lee’s interest in Chinese philosophy. The darker and more tragic parts of Lee’s life are less well-served, however, resulting in an album that is superficially enjoyable but perhaps lacking a little depth and complexity, both in terms of emotional variance, and in terms of compositional nuance.

The main theme of the score is the “Dragon Theme,” which is introduced in the opening moments of the eponymous first cue, and which follows Bruce throughout his life. It’s a striking, rousing theme, and it receives several memorable statements as the score progresses; in that opening cue it is eventually joined by a bed of synth percussion that gives it a slick, jazzy beat, while its statements in later cues like “Fists of Fury” and “Fighting Demons” are more intensely dramatic. A stark, slightly unnerving motif appears during the “Father’s Nightmare” sequence – a sort of music box theme defaced by large, bombastic, clattering percussive ideas and shrill electronics – which comes to establish itself as an idea for the ‘demon’ that Lee’s father believes is haunting his family, but unfortunately it is under-used, both in the film and on album

“Yip Man’s Kwoon” is an elegant, airy piece for traditional Asian instruments, including a koto, an erhu, and a shakuhachi, that represents Lee’s first tentative steps into the world of kung fu and martial arts spiritualism. The action music that kicks in during the cue’s second half is dominated by rat-a-tat electronic percussion loops and pulses that, again, seem to have their roots in the music from Chinese and Hong Kong action films of the 1970s. These ethnic Chinese elements feature strongly in later cues such as “Fists of Fury,” and are generally well handled. However, some of the other action music sequences, such as “The Challenge Fight Warm-Up,” “Chopsaki,” and parts of “Fighting Demons,” are heavily rhythmic and perhaps are a little over-reliant on synthetic elements; although they are clearly intended to be homages to the Lalo Schifrin sound, they instead come across as rather simplistic and dated. This has always been something of a sticking point with me for Edelman; as much as I enjoy the straightforwardness of his work, I often find myself being disappointed at how clumsy some of it sounds too. Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story has some of that.

The pretty love theme for Bruce and Linda first appears in “Lee Hoi Chuen’s Love” as a warm melody for strings, piano, and oboe; it clearly is modeled after the similar-sounding themes Edelman wrote for scores like Twins and Kindergarten Cop. A more intensely passionate variation on the theme then appears in the subsequent “Bruce and Linda,” a gorgeous and sweeping melody that swells to rapturous heights. Further statements of one or more of these themes can be heard in the rousing and optimistic “Sailing on the South China Sea,” the intimate “The Tao of Jeet Kune Do,” and the majestic “Victory at Ed Parker’s”. There’s also a third variant on the family theme for “Brandon,” Bruce’s infant son who would go on to suffer a tragic death of his own in 1993.

In some of the lower-key moments Edelman’s former life as a songwriter and arranger for artists like Barry Manilow and The Carpenters is clearly evident – that ultra-lush 1970s vibe comes shining through – and while I have always had an affinity for that sound myself, anyone who balks at its combination of saccharine and cheese may have a hard time taking it seriously.

“The Premiere of The Big Boss” underscores Bruce’s triumphant night at the opening of his first major film, the event that made him a global movie star. For this pivotal scene Edelman concentrates mostly on the love theme for Bruce and Linda, making his music more and more epic with each thematic statement, until it becomes almost impossibly grandiose – a festival of rolling timpani, cymbal clashes, and harp glissandi, each propelling the enormous orchestral statements of the theme to their highest points. The emotional impact of this piece was such that it became a trailer music staple throughout the rest of the 1990s, notably in the original trailer for Forrest Gump; only Edelman’s own “Fire in a Brooklyn Theater” from Come See the Paradise rivaled it for ubiquitousness.

This same sound continues on into the beautiful finale, “The Dragon’s Heartbeat,” which is elegant and moving, but also powerfully emotional, and at times has a simple spirituality to it that I find really compelling; for me, it’s by far the emotional high point of the score. This cue sees Edelman blending both the Dragon Theme and the love theme for Bruce and Linda to excellent effect, switching back and forth between the pair. One sequence that returns the Dragon Theme to its opening title arrangement, complete with Lalo Schifrin-style funky electronic percussion, and it finishes with an absolutely enormous statement of the love theme that brings the house down.

The album concludes with two source music pieces; “First Date” is a languid piece of soft shuffle jazz that has a hint of Frank Sinatra’s “The Way You Look Tonight” about it, while the “Hong Kong Cha-Cha” is a piece of Chinese-language fluff co-written by director Rob Cohen and Edelman’s music editor Robert Randles.

Anyone who has ever appreciated a Randy Edelman score will recognize Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story as one of his career best works. It contains a trio of simple, but rousing and crowd-pleasing themes that offer direct emotional access to the story, and culminate in a superb celebration of everything that Bruce Lee brought to the cinema. I enjoy them immensely but, as there always are with Edelman scores, there are caveats. His ensemble, while technically large, again suffers from that bizarre effect whereby the synth elements make the orchestra at times sound small and tinny – this is a thing that plagued Edelman’s entire career, and in the end it’s something you simply have to acknowledge as being a stylistic choice, and look past. Some may also find the lack of emotional depth frustrating, considering how much broader Lee’s actual life was in terms of darker and more tragic elements, while others may consider Edelman’s attempts to emulate the action-jazz style of Lalo Schifrin to be a little clumsy. If you can move past all this, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story still contains some outstanding highlights, and has the capacity to make for a satisfying – if slight – 40 minute diversion.

Buy the Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Dragon Theme/Father’s Nightmare (3:33)
  • Yip Man’s Kwoon (2:26)
  • Lee Hoi Chuen’s Love (2:09)
  • Bruce and Linda (2:43)
  • The Challenge Fight Warm-Up (2:13)
  • Sailing on the South China Sea (2:12)
  • Fists of Fury (1:16)
  • The Tao of Jeet Kune Do (2:15)
  • Victory at Ed Parker’s (1:32)
  • Chopsaki (1:11)
  • Brandon (2:04)
  • The Mountain of Gold (0:44)
  • The Premiere of The Big Boss (1:44)
  • Fighting Demons (2:36)
  • The Dragon’s Heartbeat (5:08)
  • First Date (2:15)
  • The Hong Kong Cha-Cha (written by Rob Cohen and Robert Randles, performed by Lynn Ray and Xiao Fen Min) (3:43)

Running Time: 39 minutes 16 seconds

MCA Records MCAD-10827 (1993)

Music composed and conducted by Randy Edelman. Orchestrations by Randy Edelman, Grieg McRitchie and Stuart Balcomb. Recorded and mixed by Dennis Sands. Edited by Robert Randles. Album produced by Randy Edelman.

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