CD REVIEW: THE GOLDEN COMPASS

Grade: A
Composer: Alexandre Desplat
Label: New Line
Suggested Retail Price: $13.99

Though he’s one of the best composers of the international “art” scene with such inventively melodic soundtracks as Lust / Caution, Birth and The Painted Veil, Alexandre Desplat isn’t a musician you’d normally associate with effects-driven Hollywood blockbusters. That will soon change with his smashingly enjoyable, gourmet popcorn score for The Golden Compass. With its gigantic bursts of orchestral magic and adventure, Desplat enters a score spectacle arena that’s usually the domain of such overlords as John Williams, James Newton Howard, Harry-Gregson Williams and Howard Shore. However, a new competitor doesn’t mean that we’ll be seeing an equivalent of Compass’ battle to the polar bear death being played out by A-ticket film composers. For Desplat’s music manages its own sorcerous voice – one that now shows it can please the ears of the multiplex masses as effectively as those of the art cinema intelligentsia.

If a composer is embarking on a quest to score a serialized fantasy, a la
Lord Of The Rings, Harry Potter and Narnia, then there are certain rules he’ll need to follow to get to the final chapter. And those past films have written that thou shalt have an orchestra of over 100, employ “ethnic” music and use a female chorus. Disobey them, and your score will end up like one of those film’s unfortunate, Renaissance-fair extras with an arrow in their chest. But even if Alexandre Desplat hasn’t remotely done something on the musical scale of The Golden Compass before, he’s enough of a seasoned traveler to know how to play by the rules. And in that way, The Golden Compass gloriously comes across as Desplat’s most “normal” score.

Starting off on a lighter note than how this soundtrack will ultimately end, The Golden Compass immediately enchants with a gossamer-chiming sound – the kind of music that promises childhood enchantment. And check off the Eskimo-like throatsongs to represent the polar setting that most of Compass takes place in. And when Desplat’s epic orchestra appears, it’s lively, almost playful stuff, his buoyant rhythms illustrating the film’s ingenious Edwardian sci-fi design. Even the religioso villains are given a surprisingly fun, descending brass motif – making them as menacing as some decrepit ogre. It’s like Desplat has taken his darkly child-like score for Birth and tuned all of the menace out of it.

But the beautifully buoyant start of Desplat’s score turns into a clever, almost deceptive hat trick, as the film and score take on far more menace when the going gets tough for its pubescent heroine. Yet Compass never really hits the truly dark crescendos of a score like Lord Of The Rings. Desplat always knows that Compass should be scary – but not that scary. For as dangerously brassy the goings get, the theme-filled score always manages a cliffhanging sense of fun and wonder that’s far more akin to David Arnold’s Stargate than anything you’d find while approaching Mordor. Better yet, there’s a true emotional arch to Desplat’s score, one that is always sympathetic to the innocent spirit of the “Church”-snatched children that its plucky heroine is out to rescue. And as she rides out to save them on the back of a talking polar bear, Desplat plays the dream-come-true moment for all of its magical, galloping worth. Yet that still doesn’t stop Desplat from pulling out all of scary, rampaging orchestral paws for his terrific polar bear fight cue, or the film’s climactic battle with ersatz Cossacks.

Beyond Desplat’s fine symphonic writing, there are many neat touches to be found in Compass’ subtler moments. Among them are the exotic percussion of the heroic “Gyptians,” his Middle-Eastern rhythms getting across the character’s barely-masked identities as “heathen” Gypsies, Jews and Muslims. Melodies stop just short of going into a Ravel-like Bolero. Evil incarnate gets played with a few piano notes, while other diabolical doings are conveyed with swooning, neo-classical music. A faint chorus of witch voices echoes through the polar night with a sound that could be straight out of The Wizard Of Oz. And if you thought that Desplat wasn’t going to employ his hypnotic penchant for the barely-heard low tones that filled Birth and Syriana, then think again.

Indeed, the success of The Golden Compass’ score is just how much of Desplat’s unique voice has been infused into the noble fantasy realm. You might expect vanilla from anybody else who’s been given so much music to write, with a score that’s expected to add millions of production value. And here, Desplat pours out musical gold in 31 flavors, all while giving us the heroic beats we want, and deserve for a gigantic fantasy like this. With The Golden Compass, Desplat proves he’s ready to set sail into Hollywood’s most commercial realms with style. And hopefully, he’ll be aboard future Compass chapters to come.

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