John Williams,
Catch Me If You Can
(DreamWorks, 2002)

In the style of High Fidelity, let's review the top five reasons to buy a soundtrack disc.
1. Has rare songs by a favorite artist, unreleased elsewhere.
2. Film score sounds good enough to stand on it's own as an album, or was composed or performed by a favorite artist.
3. It's just a really good collection of songs.
4. You are such a fan of the film that you want the soundtrack as a memento.
5. You are into film music and you collect soundtrack albums.

In the case of Catch Me If You Can, we can immediately eliminate reason No. 1, and if reasons Nos. 4 and 5 apply, you will likely purchase this disc in any case, so let's give a hard look at reasons Nos. 2 and 3.

Catch Me If You Canis composed of roughly two-thirds film score music composed by John Williams, with the rest made up of five "top-40" songs from the early '60s, handpicked by director Steven Spielberg, according to the supplemental interviews on the film's DVD, "for their melody and mood rather than lyrical relevance." The songs are Frank Sinatra's "Come Fly With Me" (complete with lyrical relevance, Spielberg's comment notwithstanding), "The Girl from Impanema" by Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto featuring Antonio Carlos Jobim, Judy Garland's "Embraceable You," Dusty Springfield's "The Look of Love" and "The Christmas Song" by Nat King Cole. These songs are well sequenced, appearing every third track on the disc, giving a nice respite from the original score.

One of my pet movie peeves is the overuse of scenes taking place at Christmas, which in most cases serve only to elicit an extra measure of emotion from the audience that should have been accomplished by the script; I don't want to get off on a Dennis Miller rant here about the sad state of screenwriting, but Christmas scenes usually mean lazy writers. Nat King Cole's song ("Chestnuts roasting on an open fire...") is arguably the greatest Christmas record of all time, and while its use in the film is unassailable on that basis, I think that some more adventurous, maybe less obvious song choices would have made for a more interesting soundtrack. As it is, these five songs are all greats, but they are widely available and it's hard to imagine anyone purchasing the disc just for these five songs, so we can safely eliminate reason No. 3.

In the DVD interview, Spielberg calls Williams' score "progressive jazz popular in the fifties and sixties." In the same interview, Williams calls Catch Me If You Can "a bon-bon of a film, whimsical, playful, and jazzy." The original score music falls into three categories: a classic John Williams-style melodic theme that shows up on five tracks sounding happy but not really; a nervous sounding theme that shows up on three tracks; and five tracks worth of nondescript background music, one of which features a seemingly improvised sax part that might be considered "progressive jazz," but musically it goes nowhere.

The final track is an orchestral suite that nicely brings together all the themes heard elsewhere on the disc, and really is all the film score music that the disc really needs. Considering John Williams' hugely illustrious career as a composer and conductor, and considering that Catch Me If You Can represents Williams' 20th collaboration with Spielberg, a history that includes Jaws, Close Encounters and E.T. to name but three, it would probably be grossly unfair to say that he's coasting here, but the original score music is neither interesting nor memorable. As a longtime fan of Williams' work, I was somewhat troubled to arrive at this conclusion after a few listens to the disc, so I thought perhaps it might help to see the movie to experience the music in its proper context.

I won't attempt to review the film here, but I certainly didn't pick up whimsical, playful, or jazzy -- the amazing and highly interesting story of Frank Abagnale Jr. seemed more desperate and grim than light and happy. The Williams score serves the film well, but my initial impression of the original music being unremarkable was only reinforced by the screening. The movie actually includes a far greater proportion of popular music from the period than is represented on the disc; at least 12 additional songs were used in the film, including artists such as the Lettermen, Erroll Garner, Bing Crosby, the Chiffons, the Kinks and Mitch Miller. More of these songs and less original score would have made for a much better disc. So forget reason No. 2 unless you are a John Williams completist but then reason No. 5 would probably apply. Which leaves reasons Nos. 4 and 5 as the only logical justification for acquiring the soundtrack to Catch Me If You Can.

- Rambles
written by William Kates
published 6 September 2003

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