CD: Grand Canyon (1991)

May 14, 2013 | By

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Rating: Excellent

Label: La-La Land Records / Released: April 9, 2013

Tracks & Album Length: 28 tracks / (67:44)


Special Notes: 24-page colour booklet with liner notes by Daniel Schweiger / Limited to 2000 copies.


Composer: James Newton Howard




The early 1990s were James Newton Howard’s busiest period, largely because he brought to film his own unique hybrid of electronic, rock, and symphonic writing that seemed to fit any genre he would tackle. 1991 alone yielded seven feature and TV films spanning period jazz, treacly romantic schmaltz, comedy, and action, and Grand Canyon was sort of an amalgam of the ideas Howard was applying in his scores.

Unlike Hans Zimmer, Howard’s scores often begin with bass pulses and deepening rhythms that eventually crest to set up the main theme, and GC’s title theme follows that design: a rock beat, a pulsing rhythm, and a sudden smash cut to a gliding melodic line which, during its progression, makes use of the isolated intro elements.

RCA’s original CD (still available from online merchants like iTunes) featured the main score cues plus a Warren Zevon tune (“Searching for a Heart”), and LLL’s expanded CD rescues from the vault a wealth of alternate, unreleased and unedited cues (some of the tracks were extensively cut down for the album), and those who’ve wanted longer, if not exclusive versions of Howard’s pensive, brooding bass lines will find long examples here. The new cues don’t necessary add more to the score’s tension, but part of the composer’s style for GC was maintaining an electronic ‘heart pulse’, and cuts like “Mack Gets Lost” prolong the tension with rhythm until the score’s choral section slowly seeps in.

They also set up fatter cues like the next track, “My Sister Lives Around Here / Those Rocks,” where Howard gathers his synth-rock combo, with diverse percussion, a bass groove, and wordless chorals. Rhythm and synth chorals are also central to “The Baby,” a cue where Howard plays with and slowly adds more instrumental colours which, in subsequent bars, will dominate and lighten the mood from danger-prone to almost mystical.

The rock underpinnings in GC make it an easy score to give short-shrift, but it’s probably one of Howard’s most meticulously constructed works of the nineties because of the way themes and motifs are reconfigured to give continuity to a fairly uneven film. Lawrence Kasdan’s drama is also partly a satire and fantasy about strangers whose lives converge through unlikely events, and the finale at the Grand Canyon (where else?) is supposed to be the quasi-religious finale that caps the characters’ now-altered lives and their new relationships.

Howard’s score is rooted in the characters’ quasi-religious awakenings because his 7 -note theme sounds like a liturgical chant. The first significant choral version is heard briefly about a quarter into the lengthy “Don’t Want Out.” Amid rock rhythms and later bluesy sax and keyboards, Howard uses the chorals as a portent of his closing “Grand Canyon Fanfare,” in terms of its eventual tenor, and the ethereal notes that are restated with regality in the finale. The cue ends with another recap of the guitar-heavy intro with pulsing bass line, plus an assortment of syncopated rhythms which are found in many of Howard’s thriller scores, especially in what could be regarded as his ‘holy thriller trinity’ – Flatliners (1990), Falling Down (1993), and The Trigger Effect (1996) – each of which deserve a proper expanded commercial release.

When Howard finally delivers his closing fanfare, its big and bold and bombastic, and harmonically it’s not dissimilar to a Miklos Rozsa declaration of Roman grandeur. (The CD’s bonus cue – “Film Thriller” – is a very overt homage to Rozsa’s noir style.) Howard’s surging chorals are a little thick, and there’s a sense he labored hard to find the feeling Kasdan was aiming to convey to audiences with his uneven film, but it’s a suitable closing for a score that makes use of classical and contemporary styles in a fusion that’s no longer shocking or unique; what should still impress, however, is the score’s organized construction, and the now-vintage electronics which feel very warm and fat in LLL’s beautifully mastered CD..


© 2013 Mark R. Hasan


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