Few film scores in 2011 are as personal or surprising as Christopher Young's The Rum Diary. It marks Young's first collaboration with director Bruce Robinson since 1992's Jennifer Eight, and affords him the opportunity to once again step outside the horror genre (arguably the genre for which he is best known) and return to his jazzy roots. The film is based on Hunter S Thompson's book: an autobiographical account of a young journalist finding his feet in 1960s Puerto Rico. As one would expect from the director of Withnail and I, it's sharp and very funny but also surprisingly affectionate. This is Thompson in his pre-Fear and Loathing days, and the film is, by and large, a straightforward account of a young man discovering his place in the world, albeit one that is streaked with lots of alcohol and surreal humour. A passion project for star Johnny Depp (who was instrumental in getting Robinson on-board), the film also stars Amber Heard, Michael Rispoli and Aaron Eckhart.
It's also a plum assignment for Young, the man famous for large-scale Gothic bombast. He's famous for it because he's so good at it; but there are many facets to Young's career, and he in fact began as a jazz drummer at North Texas State University. That should tell us something. There's a sense that Young didn't simply enjoy composing this score; it seems as if he relished it. After all, when do film composers get the opportunity to create a work that's truly close to their hearts? Young clearly wasn't going to pass up the chance and the end result is his most humorous, heartfelt work in quite some time.
The combination of Robinson's off-kilter wit and Thompson's story allows Young to conjure up a wonderfully quirky score. Things kick off with Dean Martin's classic Volare before Young introduces his wonderfully snappy main title track in The Rum Diary. Combining a lively acoustic guitar with an array of snares, warm strings and a sultry saxophone, it's easily one of the most enjoyable main title pieces of the year, and sets the scene wonderfully. The theme is reprised elsewhere, most notably in My Car the Cockroach where it gets a chilled out rendition. It also gets a wonderfully sexy rendition on marimbas and the omnipresent sax in Neon Popsicles, and in slightly more rhythmic fashion complete with tropical percussion in Hefti-Tefti. For the most part though, Young's score is mainly about texture and atmosphere. He wrings a massive amount of variety and twisted humour from his musical set-up, and the comedy element also allows him to indulge in his trademark surreal track titles.
Case in point: Suckfish and Snake, which brings in a Hammond organ and scat jazz vocals to lend a woozy feel to the score. Pink Jelly Remains is one of the score's high points, a wonderfully funky, sax-led piece, while Chenault brings in a more conventionally romantic piano theme for Heard's love interest character. At first it sounds cracked and muffled, akin to an old gramophone record (perhaps in deference to the era in which the film is set) but when we get to Sweat Bee, it builds to surprisingly tender proportions in what is likely the album's most conventionally attractive moment. This is another side to Young that's often overlooked: his ability to craft affecting, melodic, moving music.
Young also brings in a plethora of vocal and instrumental effects to match the slightly surreal outlook of the film. He contributes his own growly vocals to Black Note Blues (complete with what appears to be a reference to his birthplace of Red Bank, New Jersey); adds Rolf Harris-style breathing effects to Puerto-Rican Piss Off (candidate for the best track title of the year); and flirts with darker material in The Biggest Crook in New Jersey, where the instrumentals carry a more fragmented, dissonant feel. And there's more to come. Young's The Mermaid Song is performed by none other than Depp himself, and a marvellous piece it is too, the star demonstrating surprising sensitivity on the piano. Depp's very own JD Band adds its own bluegrass-flavoured contribution to What About El Monstruo? and Roll Out the Roosters, before Patti Smith concludes the album with her own take on the Mermaid Song. It all adds up to a wonderfully varied and multifaceted album; Young clearly encouraged spontaneity and interactivity behind the scenes and the results are plain to see.
The Rum Diary really is a wonderful surprise. It's always refreshing when a composer returns to their roots, and there's a strong sense that Young felt a close personal connection with this assignment. Although he has dabbled in this arena before (notably in scores such as Rounders), it's important to once again be reminded of his versatility, creativity and sense of humour. Fingers crossed The Rum Diary won't pass by as an unheralded gem – because it's a vital score for showcasing the breezy, fun loving side to one of the best composers in the business.