John Barry,
Dances With Wolves
(Epic/Sony, 2004)

Although I have made it something of a habit to review soundtracks for Rambles.NET of films I haven't seen, I've decided to break with tradition and use Sony's release of the expanded full score for John Barry's Dances With Wolves as my first review of both a score and a film with which I am well familiar. Sony has released this expanded title (along with Barry's score from the film The Chase, one of his earlier scores from 1966) from the 1990 Kevin Costner film, marking the first appearance of the full film score, in celebration of Barry's 70th birthday in 2004.

Dances With Wolves marked Barry's return to film scoring after two years of health-related absence. It earned Barry his fifth score Oscar and has entered the language of American film music so thoroughly that it has become identified in places with iconic images well-removed from the original film context. (The best example of this is the use of the main theme from the "Fort Sedgewick Suite" in a promotional spot for PBS, which still enjoys widespread use and has introduced Barry's masterful use of brasses to a wholly new audience.)

Those who own the original soundtrack disc will find a nuumber of old friends present in the new disc, albeit substantially reworked in some cases and digitally remastered (to excellent effect) throughout. The original "Main Title" overture has been expanded, as has the aforementioned "Fort Sedgewick Suite" (though the original version of the latter is presented as a separate offering for purposes of comparison, something that likewise occurs with the "John Dunbar Theme" and "Buffalo Hunt."

Barry has been especially successful in capturing the sweep of the American prairie and high plains, and his traveling music that transports Dunbar from Fort Hayes to Sedgewick is as masterful a job of evoking time and place as has ever been accomplished in American film. Barry consciously chose to go the orchestral route rather than taking a more nearly period European and Native music path, and the wisdom of his choice is underscored again and again, from the suspenseful and evocative "Spotting the Herd" to the jarring, jagged dissonance of the "Pawnee Attack Suite," both perfectly capturing the majesty and despair bound up in this chronicle of a people standing at the edge of their past, and with no future to be seen to allow their collective survival.

The new score includes "Falling in Love," which works better musically than the offering for which it serves as prelude, the (to my taste, anyway) slightly cloying "Love Theme." New offerings "Victory" and "Death of Cisco" complete the musical context, but bring no new essentials to the compilation.

This fuller treatment preserves the muscularity of the original soundtrack release (Barry worked with an orchestra of 95 and a 12-voice chorus) and retains the more intimate and nuanced moments in the film and score as well, occasionally letting light strings, harp and woodwinds carry the moments of softer and more intimate interaction. The thing that first grabs the attention of the listener, and compels continued respect, however, is the sweep of both the setting of the film, and the music that is helping Costner tell this epic tale. As such, Dances With Wolves is a score more than worthy of this defining piece of American filmmaking, while never overpowering the story being told. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine the film without the music, which is the goal of every composer who writes for film. In Barry's canon of work, Dances With Wolves should be considered the pre-eminent Crown Jewel.

- Rambles
written by Gilbert Head
published 17 October 2004

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