Comedian, actor, producer, singer-songwriter and all-round Renaissance man Seth MacFarlane is one of the most powerful forces in contemporary comedy thanks to his smash-hit animated series Family Guy and blockbusting directorial debut Ted. MacFarlane's snappy blend of sharp wit, surrealism, pop culture references and old-fashioned gross-out has secured him a huge international fanbase. Sadly, that very fanbase has expressed apathy towards his latest movie A Million Ways to Die in the West, a slapstick comic western in the style of Blazing Saddles in which MacFarlane not only directs but also take the starring role. He plays cowardly sheep-farmer Albert who, after losing his girlfriend when failing to go through with a gunfight, promptly falls for new-woman-in-town Anna (Charlize Theron). The problem is she's married to ruthless and deadly outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson) – and when he discovers Albert's affections for his spouse, he vows revenge.
Although undeniably something of an ego-trip for its filmmaker and nowhere near as gut-bustingly funny as Ted, A Million Ways… is nevertheless lifted into the realms of acceptable thanks to its top-notch production values and a delightfully free-spirited performance from Theron. And whatever people make of MacFarlane's brand of coarse humour, there's no denying the man's unabashed love of classic film music, or his ability to elicit an outstanding score from a composer. Ted had a delightfully whimsical soundtrack courtesy of Family Guy regular Walter Murphy; this time, MacFarlane turned to Joel McNeely (associated with the latter's sister show American Dad!) – and the end result is outstanding.
The film is McNeely's highest-profile project since 2003 family comedy Holes. The talented composer has spent much of his career labouring on awful films frankly undeserving of his talents (1998's The Avengers; Soldier; Virus) but has nevertheless established himself as a practitioner of the old-fashioned, robust orchestral sound in the John Williams mold. He's also got a hugely successful sideline as a conductor and orchestrator, having re-recorded numerous classic Bernard Herrmann scores including Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho. So whilst the quality of the films on which he's worked has been variable to say the least, there's no denying that McNeely is an inspired choice of composer for a movie such as this.
There were two ways in which McNeely and MacFarlane could have gone with the score for the film – Ennio Morricone Spaghetti Western or old-fashioned, rollicking Elmer Bernstein. Ultimately they decided on the latter approach – a refreshing decision that sensibly steers away from the twangy, over-exposed clichés of innumerable Morricone spin-offs. McNeely has said how, much like Bernstein's very own Airplane! score, he was instructed to make the music as straightforward and dramatic as possible, thereby amplifying the film's humour. Whether it does that or not is up for debate – but the sheer quality and infectious entertainment value of McNeely's music is never in doubt.
The score in fact begins with a wickedly mischievous song entitled "A Million Ways to Die" and performed by esteemed country singer Alan Jackson. MacFarlane's twisted blend of humour becomes immediately apparent from the enjoyably gruesome lyrics ("They'll cut your ankle off, to cure a nasty cough/'cos there's a million ways to die") and the song acts as the bedrock of melodic material for McNeely's score. The main theme gets its first airing in the thrilling "Main Titles" arrangement – fuelled by propulsive strings and bouncy brass, evocative of a wagon train making its way across the old west it's magnificent stuff, resurrecting not only the spirit of Bernstein and Jerome Moross but also their great influence – legendary American composer Aaron Copland.
Following this barnstorming opening, McNeely calms things down with "Missing Louise", the first of the score's many beautiful romantic pieces. Gentle, heartfelt strings mix with a nostalgic harmonica (calling to mind another pastiche western score – Alan Silvestri's Back to the Future Part III, which is itself cleverly referenced within McNeely's work) as Albert pines for his ex (played by Amanda Seyfried). The gentle tone continues in "Old Stump" as the main theme offers up a lovely slice of Americana before "Saloon Brawl" ushers in a terrifically energetic and frantic action piece, racing strings complementing a strumming banjo. Once again, the main theme is present to intelligently bind everything together.
The bustling and cheerful tone of "Rattlesnake Ridge" and "People Die at the Fair" bears similarities to Walter Murphy's work on Family Guy before one of the score's highlights emerges in "The Shooting Lesson". Unsurprisingly, this is where the Bernstein influence becomes particularly apparent, the richly optimistic brass calling to mind not just The Magnificent Seven but also many of his subsequent western scores including The Comancheros, The Sons of Katie Elder and The Shootist. Another impressively intricate piece of banjo-led fun follows in "The Barn Dance", followed by the amusingly odd traditional song "If You've Only Got a Moustache" performed by American tenor Amick Byram.
As the on-screen relationship between MacFarlane and Theron starts to build, McNeely introduces the beautiful love theme in "Anna and Albert". Despite the theme's superficial resemblance to James Horner's melody from Courage Under Fire, it's the sort of heartwarming and tender piece that's become all-too rare in this era of self-conscious scores, unashamedly placed centre stage during its respective scene in the film. After that it's all change in "Clinch Hunts Albert"; McNeely's darker orchestrations for Neeson's villain will no doubt remind listeners of Bernstein's bandito music from The Magnificent Seven. This leads into another exciting action track, "Racing the Train", McNeely building a palpable sense of urgency and tension in the manner of classic John Williams scores.
Towards the end of the score, there's dignified, noble cello work in "Captured by Cochise", representing the film's late-arriving Native American contingent. "Albert Takes a Trip" is, perhaps unsurprisingly given the track title, the wackiest piece of them all, McNeely favouring skipping, frivolous strings and woodwinds in the manner of Alan Silvestri to capture a particularly surreal series of drug-induced hallucinations. "The Showdown" is perhaps the score's lowest-key track, a subdued variation on the main theme leading into a pensive, Morricone-esque slice of dark strings and electric guitar as Albert finally squares up to the evil Clinch. But all's well that ends well – the final two tracks "Sheep to the Horizon" and "End Title Suite" end the score on a glorious high note, the main theme and the love theme receiving conclusive statements in a manner that's wonderfully bold and emotional. The depth and warmth to the orchestra makes for some of the most entertaining film music of 2014.
In fact, the same could be said for the score as a whole – it's a rip-roaring, hugely enjoyable throwback to the sort of scores that used to be commonplace in Hollywood, but have since become increasingly scarce (no doubt because the western itself has largely died out, taking the music with it). A great deal of film music nowadays is incredibly crass and simplistic, simply reflecting what's happening on-screen instead of intelligently enhancing the narrative (the very antithesis of what Jerry Goldsmith said film music should do). Joel McNeely's triumph with A Million Ways to Die in the West is proof positive that the so-called 'old-fashioned' approach is in fact the best approach, the music bolstering its respective film with memorable themes and a healthy awareness of its own Western heritage.
And for all his egotistical faults, Seth MacFarlane deserves just as much praise for bringing his intelligent understanding of film music to the project. He clearly respects what music can do for a film - that he was willing to encourage McNeely to come up with such a wonderful score confirms this. The combined effort of the two men has resulted in one of the greatest scores of the year. Fingers crossed that the score will enjoy a longer shelf-life than its respective, much-derided movie – it's far too good to be forgotten about in a hurry. The score is available on CD or via MP3 download at the following links: Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.