Forget the trailers: The best way to figure out if a movie’s worth your time is to listen to the album. In the multiplatinum wake of James Horner’s Titanic score, studios are increasingly releasing film soundtracks — pop compilations and orchestral pomp alike — before the films open. I, for one, welcome the trend: The music chosen or scored for a movie often delivers a more accurate picture of its aims, intelligence, and spark — or lack thereof — than any coming attraction. Here’s what I mean: Having sampled the soundtrack CDs, I can now say with impunity that I’ll pass on Notting Hill, am less than enthused about Tarzan, and am dying to see Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace.
You’re doubtless saying ”Well…duh” about that last one. But as someone who has always merely enjoyed the Star Wars films — as opposed to finding them a life-altering peak experience — I’ve been casting a wary eye on all the hype (yep, EW included). And even if composer John Williams made the modern world safe for orchestral scores with the original Star Wars (and topped himself with The Empire Strikes Back), his recent work for Steven Spielberg on Amistad and Saving Private Ryan strikes these ears as intrusive, overbearing schmaltz. So it was with trepidation that I put on the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack: Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace CD…and became a believer again.
Perhaps it’s his age, but Williams’ new score is shot through with a beguiling maturity. The chorale-heavy ”Duel of the Fates” channels Orff’s Carmina Burana, but finds a doomy propulsive groove of its own. ”Anakin’s Theme” is a lovely leitmotiv that drifts toward hints of the infamous ”Imperial March,” a.k.a. Darth Vader’s theme — the music effortlessly conveying nostalgia for an innocence that we know will be corrupted. There’s also a ”Passage Through the Planet Core” that’s like a movie unto itself, a spectral wolf-howl theme for Darth Maul, and the ghastly whispers of ”Qui-Gon’s Noble End.” I haven’t the foggiest idea who Qui-Gon is; the point is that now I want to know.
Whereas the smeary buffet of mid-tempo R&B cheese that is Music From the Motion Picture Notting Hill makes me deeply uncurious about this Julia Roberts-Hugh Grant romance. Cuts from cute-guy groups like 98° and Boyzone leave no cliche unturned; when Another Level sing ”I know you’ve heard these words a hundred other times before,” the only response is a snoozy nod. The highlights are a pleasant-enough remix of Shania Twain’s ”You’ve Got a Way” and Al Green’s snaky 1972 version of the Bee Gees’ ”How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.” Save yourself some money: Buy Al Green: Greatest Hits (volume 1) and, uh, make your own score.
Then there’s Tarzan, a soundtrack stranded uneasily between underscore and pop compilation by dint of the fact that its musical numbers are all composed and sung by Phil Collins. The results can’t compare to tunes from Disney’s Alan Menken-Howard Ashman heyday (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast), but this would still be an above-average Collins record if the darn thing weren’t so padded. Do we really need four versions of ”Two Worlds”? Or an alternate version of ”You’ll Be in My Heart,” when the first one will doubtless be a staple at weddings for years to come? The four cuts of Mark Mancina’s orchestral score further muddy the waters, shamelessly aping The Lion King’s slamming-door crescendo and, at one point, veering bizarrely into Star Wars battle mode. That makes a weird kind of sense, actually: When it comes to film scores, it’s John Williams who’s king of this jungle.
Notting Hill: D+