Haunting and warm in both measures, Paul Giovanni's rustic folk soundtrack for The Wicker Man (dir. Robin Hardy, 1973) is the perfect compliment to a dark fairytale. Music provides the majority of clues to an understanding of the Island's characters and their intentions. His enchanting score and its thorough integration within the film's narrative mean that The Wicker Man oscillates between folk musical and horror. Sadly, this summer will be the 21st anniversary of the Composer and Director's untimely death. Sir Christopher Lee still enthuses about this film in interviews thirty-eight years later, despite the amount of commercially successful films he's been involved in, he's still got a soft spot for Summerisle, and who can blame him? The sight of a prudish God-fearing Police Sergeant spluttering in sheer bafflement at a community of Islanders practising pagan fertility rituals is definitely something to behold!
For the uninitiated, here's the synopsis: When word reaches mainland Scotland about a child's disappearance, Sergeant Howie draws the short straw and our intrepid investigator makes his way to remote Summerisle. He soon finds the Island's men, women and children are far more interested in the approaching May Day festivities than assisting the course of justice. In fact, according to everyone including her supposed mother, the missing girl, Rowan Morrison never existed. As if these bizarre villagers weren't infuriating enough, the celibate Sergeant's frustrations reach boiling point when the promiscuous Landlord's daughter (Britt Ekland) attempts to seduce him through his bedroom wall. You'll understand how that's possible when you watch it! Along his increasingly creepy travels, Howie unearths new and progressively more eerie clues to Rowan's mysterious disappearance eventually concluding that the community has captured her in readiness for a sacrifice. But maybe the Gods are looking for a virgin a little closer to home...
The diegetic sound of Howie's aircraft approaching Summerisle melds with the untitled opening music's drone of bagpipes. They play a sombre slow paced tune, which dims to a sustained low-pitched minor chord. Female vocals sing sorrowfully of being poor when moving to new lands. The reverberation gives the impression that the woman is singing up at Howie from the depths of a cave, perhaps this should warn us of his impending doom.
As the Island draws nearer this track fades into the second. We are welcomed to Summerisle with Howie by the intricate acoustic guitar of "Corn Rigs". The composer's own soft mid range vocals dance across the instrumental enthusiastically precluding the cast's infectious jigs. The track swells to a crescendo of woodwind instruments, which perform the cunning function of a sonic archway into the community for Howie. "Gently Johnny" is a poem by Robert Burns and on the soundtrack this is sung by Paul Giovanni himself.
"Corn Rigs" plays intermittently throughout the Sergeant's first walk past villagers to his lodgings at the local Inn. Here, he catches one of his earliest glimpses into the highly sexualised viewpoints of the people when they burst into a hearty collaborative effort in the form of "The Landlord's Daughter". Jamming on folk instruments and tapping their knees they take it in turns to sing smutty verses about Summerisle's own Aphrodite. One of the film's most memorable scenes occurs when the Sergeant's will power and beliefs are tested at the Inn. He's engaged to marry a woman on the main land and believes in staying celibate before marriage. He settles into bed for his first night's sleep away from home when the band downstairs strikes up again, playing a sweet melody, which Willow sings over from the room next door. Though he manages to avoid her advances, her potent magnetism draws him to the door behind which she dances naked beating her fists frantically in time to the string instruments and rhythm. The dreamy hook to "Willow's Song" is enough to bring the entire film to mind after viewing.
Song is at the heart of the community as evidenced by the importance of Giovanni's soundtrack to the Sergeant's experience of Summerisle. May Day celebrations are kicked off by a rehearsal in the school field where Howie visits Rowan Morrison's class in the hope of gaining information from her teacher and friends. The reincarnation symbolism of the Hare is central to the narrative. This image is again evoked musically by a metallic bouncing sound effect. The lead part is sung by a man with children providing high-pitched backing vocals and joining him during the chorus to sing about the circle of life, which is presented as one of their core beliefs.
When Sergeant Howie meets with Lord Summerisle requesting his permission to exhume a grave in his search for the girl, he is shocked at his overall tone of disinterest in the case. On his way to the meeting and as he looks back out the window, Howie witnesses a ritualistic song and dance by local girls in the garden. "Fire Leap" begins with two harmonising recorders playing a basic melody behind the female vocals. They sing about Immaculate Conception from flames, partially chanting the lyrics.
Howie later finds Lord Summerisle singing in the same room with the School Teacher, accompanying their merry lyrics to "The Tinker of Rye" about a promiscuous woman on grand piano. "Fair Maid, says he, your kettle's cracked, the cause is plainly told. There hath so many nails been drove, that mine own could not take hold." Howie interrupts their song angrily throwing the dead Hare which occupied the grave at the floor. Supporting the bizarre confusion caused to Howie and the audience alike by the peculiar duet, Summerisle calmly announces "little Rowan loved the March Hares." The Lord and school teacher suggest that the corpse is in fact the girl's transmutation or true physical remains. Howie summarises the confusion and concludes that Rowan's death was –or is to be- the result of a savage murder enacted by the Island's community and tells of his intention to return to the mainland with his suspicions. As he leaves, teacher and Lord merrily return to their song.
No music is used in the following scene whilst Howie draws the conclusion that Rowan was killed to appease the gods for the previous year's poor harvest. The silence seems to act as a moment of clarity for both Howie and the audience as we come to the same decision about the girl's fate without the distraction and bafflement of music, which develops increasingly stranger qualities throughout the film, in terms of both lyrics and instrumental. In time with, or "mickey mousing" the appearance of villagers in various animal masks above the harbour wall, the intense conflicting marriage of heavy plucked high-pitched notes against a backdrop of descending light staccato strings in the track "Masks" asserts the Sergean's entrapment. He desperately attempts to manually start the Seaplane but to no avail. Sustained folk string instruments and recorders frantically dance above the sound of menacing bass woodwind as the apt hollow snap of the Hobby Horse's mouth punctures the start of the next scene. Howie has resigned to staying on the Island and hunting Rowan down unaided, since he is unable to return home. He chases the Hobby Horse, which ducks and hides behind buildings and at the back of alley ways beyond his grasp, an easy metaphor for the Sergeant's situation as he blindly attempts to find the key to a child's disappearance. This track melds into a traditional Ceilidh tune accompanying the Islanders' rehearsal led by the Lord.
The montage of Howie's house searching is completed by the use of a maddening musical cocktail including strings playing a droned folk jig, a single guitar loudly asserting its authority over the strings and finally a child singing an a capella rendition of "Baa Baa Black Sheep". This last section is made all the more sinister by the two principal images it ties together; a child's toy clown and the nude librarian seductively draped in her bath tub, a thumb coyly bitten between her smile. At this sight the child's song abruptly ends, replaced by a recorder resuming the same tune in a minor key, the folk song from the rehearsal, the accordion phrase from earlier in the montage and a panicked heavy string section. The musical signalling of a catastrophe at the scene's finale and this image returns our thoughts to the film's strong focus on Howie's deeply repressed sexuality.
Back at the Inn, the Sergeant manages to knock the landlord out and disguise himself in his fool costume for the day's rituals. The parade's start is signalled by a sombre bass drum, over which proud horns connote the merriment of the Island's festivities. As the crowd nears their meeting point the melody disappears in favour of the original lone drum, which increases in pace as we imagine Howie's heart beat does, unsure about what lies ahead.
The Sergeant could be forgiven for being weary, because unbeknownst to him all villagers must pass through a set of knives in the shape of a pentagram, a game of chance which could result in decapitation. As he joins the line a jolly Bagpipes version of "The Bells of St. Clements" urges him forwards.
At the cliff's edge, he is alerted to Rowan's presence and the impending sacrifice by a Hunting Horn. As he runs with her through a cave attempting to escape the usual folk style is partially interrupted by the use of an electric guitar playing a generic chase connoting melody with a woodwind bass line loyal to the rest of the soundtrack.
The composer himself watches on as part of the crowd in the final scenes whilst Howie learns the truth about his mission on Summerisle. The film's ending musically culminates in the intense group hum, which sounds innocent enough but in the circumstances is evocative of a drone of bees, appropriate given the Wicker Man's rustic hive like appearance. Also included is more tribal drumming, folk strings, woodwind and religious song, which is both Pagan and Christian as the two battle in volume to dominate, an occurrence which is arguably a key theme of the film literally.
The original (1998) release of the soundtrack is available at: Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com, and the re-release (in 2002 with a substantial booklet) is available at: Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. The recommended DVD is "The Director's Cut" which restores scenes previously cut for the film's theatrical release, or one of the 2-disc Special Editions with additional features - check these links: Amazon.co.uk (Region 2) and Amazon.com (Region 1).