CD Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

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Composer: John Williams
Label: Concord Records
Suggested Retail Price: $9.99
Grade: B+

Harrison Ford might be pushing 66 as he dons Indy’s fedora for the fourth time in KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL. But the senior stamina the actor shows ain’t got nothing compared to the musical heroics of 76 year-old John Williams, the guy who really puts the oomph into Indy’s action – not to mention nearly all the films of Steven Spielberg. Though the trio’s newest archeological dig might not be as impressive as when they raided the Ark of the Covenant 27 years ago, SKULL’s slight lack of discovery doesn’t mean Williams’ talents have gotten flabby.

Sure this isn’t exactly like the jolt you got from hearing that Ark theme for the first time. You might not get the pure, inventive adrenalin of RAIDERS’ awesomely endless truck chase, or fawn over the lush romance of Marion Ravenwood’s theme. Yet in fact, all of those motifs are on deck in CRYSTAL SKULL, with a re-performed ring that makes them more memorable then ever. And that’s exactly the unintended problem with CRYSTAL SKULL, as the nostalgia value of Williams’ past Indy work is so instantly great that anything new is pretty much blow out of the water by the composer’s greatest hits- even if Williams’ gift for melodic, theme-driven action is as sure as ever. Compounding this is the film’s musical mix, which seems to punch up the past Indy themes more than anything else, making the soundtrack proper almost seem like a tracking job in parts (though not nearly to the extent that the composer’s work was mix-n’-matched into THE PHANTOM MENACE and ATTACK OF THE CLONES). Much like Michael Giacchino’s work on SPEED RACER, THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL works far better as a soundtrack than in the film itself.

With a much more restrained, and less gruesome body count than any of the previous Indys, CRYSTAL SKULL is easily the most family-friendly entry in the saga. And it’s an emphasis on enjoyable, lightweight thrills that Williams revels in, with nothing too terribly dark or nasty to distract from the mystical, melodic fun at hand. It’s a feeling that Williams knows how to deliver better than anyone in the business, which also shows in how adeptly he can re-shuffle his cues into an even cooler cd listening experience. He starts right off with a re-performed “Raiders March” which has lost none of its rollicking charm. Then after bringing fans home again, Williams segues to his new thematic material with “Call of the Crystal.” Belloq may have dubbed the Ark as “a radio for speaking to God,” but it’s the Crystal Skull’s music that really sounds like that transmitter. Three eerie notes are combined with electronics that comes across like a sonar “ping” into “the space between dimensions” where SKULL’s E.T’s dwell. This eerie effect is then taken over by six descending notes, which are more melodically fleshed out.

While not on the religioso scale of his “Well of Souls” theme, the CRYSTAL SKULL’s siren call is easily the album’s best new material, taking on a far greater presence here than in the movie. Its thematic power can be subtly employed before building into a majestic crescendo for “Return” and “Oxley’s Dilemma,” the take on a brooding quality for “Orellana’s Cradle.” In “Hidden Treasure and The City of Gold,” voices worthy of CE3K’s creepier moments develop into a richly ominous Skull theme, all before going into the kind of ominously lurching orchestral build that Williams last employed for the Martian killing machine in WAR OF THE WORLDS- but used here for the spectacular opening of the KINGDOM’s treasure temple instead. The equivalent of the Ark opening is “Temple Ruins and the Secret Revealed,” as the Marion Ravenwood theme segues into a bring-down-the-ruins statement of the Skull motif. Wildly impressionistic action writing and surging brass urge the good guys to get the hell out of the oncoming dimensional vortex, as crashing orchestrations make sure the baddies get their due. Williams masterfully pays off his Skull variations with “The Departure,” its gloriously cosmic music reminds us that this is the guy who got his start scoring tv’s LOST IN SPACE. A swirling orchestra has the Skull’s theme join with Indy’s, danger turning into mothership-like majesty as the E.T’s saucer returns to whence it came.

At a far less imposing level of evil is Russkies’ music, villain-lite strains that makes Indy’s besting of them as easy as shooting a swordsman. “Irina’s Theme” is a sneakily lush bit of electronic and orchestral business that plays this ersatz Natasha’s psychic abilities, all with a bit of Cimbalom thrown in for good Ukrainian measure. Irina’s theme takes on a bit more punch in “The Jungle Chase,” which comes off as Truck and Tank Chase lite as rollicking brass and strings play up the jeep swordplay between Mutt and Irina with Korngoldian swagger. Their romp gets even cuter with a trilling flute and pizzicato plucks for a bunch of quizzical monkeys. It’s a kinder-gentler infection that fills such other (but nonetheless effective) suspense-action cues as “The Adventures of Mutt,” “The Snake Pit” and “A Whirl Through Academe,” music that comes across like a cross between RAIDERS’ basket chase and “The Battle of Endor” from RETURN OF THE JEDI. Indeed, the Ewoks would feel right at home kicking ass in these playful cues, ones which will no doubt end up as concert favorites for Williams. For better or worse, stuff like “The Adventures of Mutt” is exactly the kind of sweetly memorable enjoyable stuff they always end up playing at The Hollywood Bowl instead of the more demanding Williams cues that fans really want to hear.

But that’s not to say that KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL lacks for challenging music, the kind of exotic, twittering stuff that would be right at home in The Temple of Doom or Jurassic Park. “Grave Robbers” has scampering, Latin percussion and flutes for a bunch of skull men, music that is soon joined by raging brass and strings. Skittering, ratcheting musical effects personify “Secret Doors and Scorpions,” a creepy-crawling sound which combines for a knock-down, drag-out brass fight in “Ants!” all before an insect-controlling Skull theme joins with Indy’s for a carnivorous coup de grace.

Old thematic friends from Indy’s musical universe abound here, especially in its opening cue “The Spell of the Skull,” as the Ark theme segues to Indy’s theme, whereupon Williams engages in some neat orchestral mysterioso writing before its trumpeting climax for the discovery of an alien corpse. Then in “The Journey To Akator,” we get the delightfully familiar Raiders march to accompany the map montage travel scene that’s as much a staple of Indiana Jones films as it was to the Saturday matinees that inspired them. But the capper of William’s Indy music recalls is naturally its “Finale,” which begins with a beautiful rendition of Marion’s theme for her long-deserved wedding to Indy. Then after a magically comical twist for Mutt’s near-grab of the trademarked Fedora, Williams launches into the Raiders March before giving his new themes a chance to strut their stuff.

Yet with the constant recalls of Indy’s past musical glory going through a good percentage of the music here, THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL never quite gets up on its own coattails to rise to the top of Williams latter-day work, let alone the music from Indiana Jones’ last three adventures. But despite what this film (and score’s) detractors might think, the point of this new adventure for Ford, Williams and Spielberg was probably never meant to scale the heights of their previous cinematic Everests. As a film, and soundtrack, INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL stands as a thoroughly enjoyable romp, delivering the kind of nostalgic fun and excitement that more forgiving Indy fans have found delightful, especially me. Williams might not be sporting the impressive senior build that Ford does here. But his ability to deliver consummate musicianship at his age remains as astonishing as ever. And every new entry at this point in a career where most composers have long since retired (or have been made to) remains an experience to be savored, even if this SKULL is a loving tap to the musical chin instead of the kind of knock-out Williams gave us nearly three decades ago. Let’s hope that many rounds remain for that T.K.O. with Indy.

John Williams whips it HERE with the CRYSTAL SKULL

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