Friday, March 20, 2015
Film Score of the Week: Cliffhanger, by Trevor Jones (1993)
What better way to celebrate the first day of March Madness--and several games that came down to the final possession--than with a movie called Cliffhanger?
I've always had a (very) soft spot for Alpha Male-style action flicks, and that's largely because I grew up in the prime era for movies like this. Because Cliffhanger never spawned any sequels, it tends to be forgotten in comparison to many of its contemporaries, but it's actually one of the very best there is--a movie that combines a good high concept plot, phenomenal set pieces and stunts, a great villain (John Lithgow at his most sadistic), and a stunning score that has still stayed with me more than twenty years later.
Because Cliffhanger had a much higher concept than even most high concepts, it needed a score that evoked not just the action and drama, but also the grandeur of the visuals. Because the location and landscapes play such a huge role in this movie (which is slightly unusual for the genre), the score to Cliffhanger is thematically closer to classic Hollywood epics than it is to the other Reagan-era action films, of which this is one of the last great gasps before CGI fully took over action films and changed them forever.
The score was written by Trevor Jones, who's probably most well known for his score to The Last of the Mohicans the year before, and for which this uses many of the same elements. Overall, Jones has had an underwhelming career, but that could be due to the films he's worked on. His IMDb resume is mostly a depressing list of B & C movies with titles like Bad Influence, Chains of Gold, Blame it on the Bellboy, and Kiss of Death, none of which were probably likely to summon his peak creative inspiration.
It's unclear why that became his career path. You'd think after the gorgeous score to Mohicans and then this in back to back years, offers for prestige films would have been flowing in. But if they did, Jones must have turned them down. Or maybe directors thought he's hard to work with. It's hard to say why some careers never reach their potential.
But none of that diminishes what Jones did here, which is make a good little action movie feel as enormous and breathtaking as the Rocky Mountains that he was sonically capturing.
(Side note: Check out the 7:55 mark of the embedded video for one of the all-time great acting WTF's, as the actor playing Frank seems to wildly misunderstand what emotion the scene was calling for, and looks upon the imminent death with what appears to be a cross between manic excitement and wild glee. It's like the director told him, "Okay, now give me 'Pedophile at crowded elementary school playground with no teachers in sight.'")