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Mark Isham: Music for Film

Mark Isham: Music for Film - album cover Film Fest Gent is an annual film festival held in Belgium in October, with a strong emphasis on Film Music. Films including premières are screened, celebrities are interviewed, panel discussions are held and all the usual events you would expect at a Film Festival. And on the Music side, Film Fest Gent presents concerts to showcase the work of composers, and the World Soundtrack Awards are presented. There are guest composers including Guests of Honour and other Spotlight Composers whose music is presented both in concert and in album releases. Such Guest Composers during previous years have included Carter Burwell, Marco Beltrami, Angelo Badalamenti, Gabriel Yared, Mychael Danna, Shigeru Umebayashi, Terence Blanchard, Cliff Martinez, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Alan Silvestri. In 2022 the Special Guest was Mark Isham and the associated album is now released by Silva Screen Records. As always the recording has been played by the Brussels Philharmonic and conducted by Dirk Brossé.

Mark Isham's career stretches from the 1980s, and he has worked for directors such as Robert Altman, Brian de Palma, Paul Haggis, Werner Herzog, Kathryn Bigelow, Robert Redford, Gillian Anderson, Jodie Foster, William Friedkin, Sidney Lumet, Shaka King and Alan Rudolph. He is known as a trumpet player as well as a composer, and he generally plays his own trumpet solos when his film scores feature the instrument. The Music for Film album states "Trumpet Solos by Mark Isham & Thomas Hooten". Some of these trumpet-led scores have a jazz vibe, but Isham has covered a wide range of musical and film genres, as the following selection of well-known films demonstrates: "The Hitcher" (1986), "A River Runs Through It" (1992), "The Net" (1995), "The Cooler" (2003), "Crash" (2004), "Next" (2007) up to recent successes such as "Bill & Ted Face the Music" (2020), "Judas and the Black Messiah" (2021), and "The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent" (2022). He has also made a name for himself with Television Series including "Once Upon a Time", "The Cleaning Lady" and "Godfather of Harlem" starring Forest Whitaker.

With all this to choose from the album selects 12 film scores from across his diverse career. Some movies in the album are represented by individual score tracks, but the majority of the 12 movies featured are illustrated using Music Suites. So the music on the album is either "true to film" by virtue of featuring a track lifted straight from the movie, or it is "true to film" in the broader sense of providing a fully rounded summary of the film's music. And the album feels well-judged and nicely paced with these more substantial film suites intermixed with some shorter score tracks.

Mark Isham: A River Runs Through It - film score album cover "Bobby" is the Emilio Estevez movie of 2006 which tells the story of the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. Isham's "Prologue" is a thoughtful piece of Americana with patriotic trumpet building strength from a rising motif. It is a fitting introduction to the movie and also to this album. In contrast the Suite from "Eight Below" begins with the excitement of a dog sled team cutting through the Arctic snow, before the music turns dark and dramatic as the weather takes a turn for the worse. The men are rescued but have to abandon the dogs, and in true Disney fashion the dogs must fight for survival in the wilderness until their eventual rescue. Isham's music follows their ordeal through tragedy and salvation. "A River Runs Through It" brings another complete contrast with its Irish folk melodies on fiddle, segueing into a gentle pastoral mood mostly on piano and strings, and straight into a celtic flute melody. This is the score for which Isham was oscar-nominated back in 1992. Even if you've never contemplated fishing before, this calm relaxing music will persuade you to give it a try.

Mark Isham: The Black Dahlia - film score album cover The "Funeral" from 2021's "Judas and the Black Messiah" is suitably funereal with detached string chords, before a jazz trumpet enters with acoustic bass accompaniment. The trumpet runs lift it from being totally dark, leaving a melancholy bluesy feel. Jazz in movies has a long tradition, since the days of Alex North with "A Streetcar Named Desire" and Elmer Bernstein with "The Man with the Golden Arm". Those composers used jazz where appropriate, and Isham is equally versatile in this and many other genres. After the upbeat positivity of "Building a Family" from "Life as a House", we move to "On the Threshold of Liberty" from "Rules of Engagement". This also features Isham's signature trumpet, but here it helps to augment the military feel with snare drums over ambient string textures before turning quietly heroic. This is followed by the sustained bittersweet mood of "The Nevers" which was a pilot for a TV series. "The Black Dahlia" was directed by Brian de Palma, and follows a murder investigation in 1940s Los Angeles. Though introduced by a jazz trumpet, thumping drums and harsh orchestral gestures embroil the music into a complex mix of Stravinsky and West Side Story before the trumpet returns. Why this score didn't receive an oscar nomination I don't know, though there was some stiff competition back in 2006.

"American Crime" was a TV anthology series and this track is named "Suite - Movement III". It has a classical sound with a theme repeated several times on cello. There is a 3-note repeating figure in the strings, and the whole track develops variations on these and other ideas, with the orchestra helping to build the sense of urgency. I've not seen the series but assume this album suite is an amalgam of shorter cues used for dramatic tension building. Ironically "The Moderns" is a period track for the film's 1920s setting. It is a lovely piece with solo jazz trumpet introduced over some spooky chords. Its improvisational character feels open and free. The Suite from "The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent" initially suggests Morricone with its wordless soprano voice, then dramatic drums, brass and strings herald a major change which recedes to allow the voice to return which in turn gives way to some musings on harp. The Suite from "42" is a fitting conclusion to the album. The movie is about Jackie Robinson overcoming institutional racism and other barriers to become the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball, and the music is a big life-affirming slice of Americana with its unassuming heroism.

This is a great well-rounded album and a fitting tribute to a versatile composer. The soundtrack album is available from or check the Silva Screen Records website.

Mark Isham: Music for Film - Track listing:

  • 1. Bobby, Prologue (3:54)
  • 2. Eight Below, Suite (9:37)
  • 3. A River Runs Through It, Suite (6:25)
  • 4. Judas and the BLack Messiah, Funeral (3:05)
  • 5. Life as a House, Building a Family (1:52)
  • 6. Rules of Engagement, On the Threshold of Liberty (6:46)
  • 7. The Nevers, The Event Flashback (5:01)
  • 8. The Black Dahlia, Suite (8:40)
  • 9. American Crime, Suite - Movement III (5:23)
  • 10. The Moderns, Les Modernes Suite (6:57)
  • 11. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, Suite (5:45)
  • 12. 42, Suite (8:44)