Stephen Sommers' films are not artistic masterpieces of deep emotional meaning. Some of them are downright dumb. But in terms of pure, adventurous fun, there are few directors who can match him. With his 1999 film The Mummy, Sommers produced what is probably the closest one can get to watching an Indiana Jones movie without actually watching an Indiana Jones movie (though Brendan Fraser will never be the next Harrison Ford). The highly popular score for that movie was composed by the legendary Jerry Goldsmith, and it was just as fun as its film, showing off some of Goldsmith's best action and adventure writing. Goldsmith quit the franchise with a bitter taste in his mouth, though, having made some well-publicized remarks about The Mummy's general stupidity as a film and how he, Goldsmith, didn't want such films to sour his resumé. Personally, I am baffled at this complaint against a dumb, but generally harmless film, especially coming from the composer of Rambo, but there you are.
Anyway, Sommers had to find himself a new composer for his decidedly inferior – though still enjoyable – follow-up film in 2001, The Mummy Returns. Enter Alan “ Back to the Future ” Silvestri, the hiring of whom was a laudably bold choice. Silvestri's heyday had been the 80s, with his writing in the 90s mostly (with exceptions such as Forrest Gump) avoiding the absolute forefront of the mainstream, straying instead into the realms of romantic comedies and schlocky, forgettable action films (for which he still provided above-average music, e.g. Judge Dredd, Volcano ). Sommers' choice, though, paid off and then some, with Silvestri providing a bombastic and swashbuckling action-adventure score that rivaled even John Debney's acclaimed and awesome work for Cutthroat Island. So impressed was Sommers, apparently, that he began a fruitful collaboration with Silvestri that led to the epic, supremely enjoyable Van Helsing in 2004, and the bland, but solid G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra in 2009.
This score begins anything but bland, though, with a five-minute highlight known as 'Legend of the Scorpion King'. At the outset, bass strings play a driving ostinato in their ominous lowest registers, over which horn fanfares build into an outburst of a choral, Oriental-sounding theme right out of the grand old-fashioned books of Miklos Rosza and the likes of El Cid. This moves on into a glorious, over-the-top action set-piece, with Silvestri all but overwhelming the listener with big martial rhythms, horn fanfares and that staple of true adventure music, cymbal rolls. The piece isn’t all action though – it has a lovely, quieter middle section featuring an English horn solo at 2:52. The simple fact that there’s an English horn in there at all shows just how fully orchestral this score is. In the days of film music that rarely evolves beyond conservative combinations of strings, brass, piano and percussion (real or synthetic), this is an extremely refreshing and impressive touch. The fully symphonic, 100-player presence extends all the way throughout the entire score, all 70 minutes of it.
Unfortunately, this brings me to one of the score’s weaker points – its album presentation. “What are you complaining about?” you might ask. “Seventy minutes of the best Alan Silvestri money can buy!” Well, I’ve always been cautious of longer albums. Once in a rare while, a movie does contain more than enough excellent and satisfying material to fill out not just one, but several discs – Howard Shore’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy or the aforementioned Cutthroat Island by John Debney being two prime examples. The curse of the long album on the other hand often strikes James Horner the hardest, leading to hour-plus albums such as A Beautiful Mind that deserve half their length – unfortunate considering Jerry Goldsmith’s albums often suffered from the opposite, and far worse, problem. Well, in this case, the long-album curse struck Silvestri. Not that the film doesn’t contain over seventy minutes of excellent music – it does! – but the album presents it badly, with a fair amount of suspenseful underscore and filler music making it onto the album, especially in its first half (“Imhotep Unearthed”, which does contain a notable bit of male ethnic wailing at 1:18, thankfully far from Gladiator-style; parts of “Evy Kidnapped”; “Imhotep Reborn”; “A Gift and a Curse” etc.). Adding an extremely dire insult to an ultimately acceptable injury, the highly enjoyable choral theme from the beginning of the end credits, laid over an ethnic drum rhythm, is omitted completely in favor of a horrendous rock song. This theme, representing the setting in a sweeping Maurice Jarre-esque, Lawrence of Arabia-styled way, does make several appearances in “A Gift and a Curse”, “Medjai Commanders”, “Sandcastles” and “We’re in Trouble”, but the choir and ethnic rhythm never combine the way they do in the credits suite. A final complaint is the fact that the penultimate track, “The Mummy Returns”, is simply an eight-minute concert arrangement cobbled together entirely from bits of the rest of the album. With so much strong material unreleased, it seems a shame to waste CD space with this sort of repetition.
But back to the music itself. Thematically, Silvestri’s work in The Mummy Returns is actually quite dense, composing six readily identifiable themes, as well as a few lesser motifs. There is next to no reference to the Jerry Goldsmith material, which may seem a shame considering how excellent the veteran composer’s three prominent adventure, villain and love themes were. But it's no matter, as the music Silvestri composes to fill these gaps is no less enjoyable. The theme you’ll be madly humming after the first listen is, of course, the infuriatingly catchy main adventure theme, representing Rick O’Connell, especially during his action sequences. It sounds like a marriage of Silvestri’s own Back to the Future theme with the fanfares of David Arnold’s Independence Day and, of course, John Debney’s Cutthroat Island, an absolutely supreme mixture. All three of these sources – the first via John Williams – can be traced back in history to the father of this swashbuckling type of music: Erich Wolfgang Korngold. And though it makes its album début at a slower and rather less enjoyable tempo in “Evy Kidnapped”, nowhere does this adventurous spirit better shine than in the absolute highlight of the score, the blazing eight-minute action extravaganza known as “My First Bus Ride”. Silvestri drives the Sinfonia of London – especially the brass and percussion players – to the very limits of their skill, to the point of there being a rather noticeable, almost jazzy-sounding horn flub at 1:09. There’s heroic fanfares aplenty over a driving 6/8 bass string rhythm, accompanied by Williams- and Debneyesque cymbal rolls and crashes, not to mention an audacious - almost to the point of annoying, but still enjoyable - set of fluttering piccolo arpeggios mixed so close to the forefront as to be nearly deafening. Rick’s theme appears frequently, interchanging towards the end with a secondary, Arnold-and-ID4-styled adventure theme that had already been hinted at, more softly, at 0:37 into “Just an Oasis”. Both swashbuckling themes crop up a few more times throughout the album, noticeably for the short but enjoyable “We’re in Trouble”.
The villain’s theme, such as it is, first appears towards the end of the cue “Imhotep Unearthed”, with reprises in “Rick’s Tattoo”, “Imhotep Reborn”, “My First Bus Ride” and “A Gift and a Curse”. It can barely be considered a theme, unfortunately – more of a recurring motif. It’s a two-note descending idea played on menacing low brass over plodding bass string or percussive rhythms. This is where the score most closely resembles Goldsmith's original, reminiscent of some of Goldsmith's villain underscore, minus the actual theme itself. Unfortunately, though this is no criticism of Goldsmith, this is probably Silvestri's greatest weakness in The Mummy Returns – the lack of a proper villain’s theme. Sure, it’s sufficient and effective underscore, and becomes quite entertaining when joined by a menacing, chanting male choir in “Rick’s Tattoo” or else as an action motif in “My First Bus Ride”. Considering Goldsmith’s wonderful theme for Imhotep in The Mummy, though – the theme appearing in grand fashion at the very outset of the film – this seems a bit of a letdown.
Absolutely not down-letting, on the other hand, are Silvestri’s love themes, of which there are two. Goldsmith composed a single, sweeping love theme for The Mummy that represented both the relationships; that between the heroes Rick and Evy, as well as that between the villains Imhotep and Anakh-su-Namun (that spelling’s probably off…). As the latter character plays a far more important role in this film than the first, a separate theme was necessary for the villains’ love, and it’s cleverly composed, sad enough to delinate the fact that these characters never do end up together, but also devious enough to remind us that these are the villains and we probably shouldn’t be feeling TOO sorry for them. It’s presented but once (not counting the reprise in the concert suite), on a solo violin at the beginning of “Evy Remembers”, followed by the entire string section. Like much of the score, it too has a definite and pleasing Golden Age feel to it, though not as obviously so as the spectacular love theme in Cutthroat Island.
Silvestri’s other love theme, that representing our good guys, is less sweeping, less openly romantic and maybe a little bit less enjoyable than Goldsmith’s, though by a minimal margin. The better word for it would be “tender”, a thing Silvestri can do exceedingly well (Forrest Gump, Contact, Cast Away ), and he certainly succeeds here. It’s a flute (rather than a piano in the aforementioned scores) that performs the ethnically-tinged theme most of the time, such as in “Just an Oasis”, “The Mushy Part” and “Medjai Commanders”. It’s not until the latter track that the theme finally sweeps into an all-out romantic crescendo.
To cover all this score’s themes, one should note that there’s also a tragically memorable one-off theme that play’s over Evy’s death, heard in “Come Back Evy” (as well as the suite), that explodes in a massive, sweeping (I’m using that word a lot, aren’t I) statement at 1:35. And then, of course, there's the, ahem, sweeping Lawrence of Arabia-esque theme representing the desert setting, which I already mentioned in the third paragraph.
Finally, a special mention must be made of Silvestri’s prominent use of choir in The Mummy Returns. His use of voices isn’t quite as outwardly explosive as it would later become in Van Helsing or Beowulf, but there is still some extremely exciting, very Egyptian-sounding chanting to be heard in the action music of “Evy Remembers”, alternating cleverly between male and female voices. It's very stereotypical music in a way - it sounds just like what a Western audience would expect Egyptian music to sound like, as inaccurate as this perception may be. But as this film isn't exactly struggling for historical accuracy, the slightly cheesy yet still awesome atmosphere created is perfect. The choir adds a real sense of magnificence elsewhere in the score as well, be it for a crescendo of fantasy as towards the end of the first track, or to add a dark air of menace to the villain’s motif, as in “Rick’s Tattoo”.
To wrap up this lengthy review, this score is a must-have for, at the very least, any fan of Alan Silvestri, though anybody who is even a casual fan of adventure scores should own a copy. Not just because it’s the score that returned Silvestri firmly to mainstream action-adventure scoring, an arena where he is among the best of the best. If you, like me, found Back to the Future to be rather thin in orchestration, then The Mummy Returns is a perfect example of that adventurous style beefed up to the absolute orchestral and choral max. The epic scale of this score is unparalleled by truly none in Silvestri’s career (even if I do find Van Helsing just a bit more entertaining at times). The only material that even comes close are perhaps the final three tracks of The Abyss, and even they pale in comparison to the majesty that Silvestri presents here. To list The Mummy Returns’ most basic ingredients (not that this score can be said to directly lift from any of these sources), this score is an amalgam of the composer’s Back to the Future (with a pinch of Judge Dredd melodramatics to taste), stirred together with the mightiest Miklos Rosza and Maurice Jarre scores and a generous helping of Korngoldian, Arnoldian and Debnian swashbuckle to create a glorious, over-the-top feast of a score that, to be fair, is worthy of a far superior film than The Mummy Returns. The only reason I hesitate to award this score a full house is its album presentation – the lack of the end credits, the unnecessary concert suite, the ten or so minutes of less interesting filler, the song. Other than that, you’d be doing yourself and those living across the street a massive favor by picking this one up. A true masterpiece of popcorn-entertainment scoring.