Eager to recapture the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, megaproducer Jerry Bruckheimer teamed up with British director Mike Newell (who helmed the fourth film in the Harry Potter series) to create Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, an action-adventure based on the popular platform-based video games. Young Jake Gyllenhaal plays urchin-turned-Prince Dastan, who at the side of Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton annoyingly channeling Keira Knightley’s character from Pirates) must battle his dastardly uncle Nizam (an underutilized Ben Kingsley) and stop him turning back time to seize the throne of Persia. The film is fun enough, but Gyllenhaal’s decent-but-underwhelming performance is too forgettable compared to Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow for things to become as enjoyable as Pirates of the Caribbean. Like its lead’s acting, Prince of Persia’s box office returns were decent but underwhelming, and the odds of this franchise taking off like Pirates of the Caribbean did are unlikely. Despite all this, Prince of Persia is easily the best video game-based film I’ve ever seen (though with competition like Tomb Raider and Mortal Kombat, that’s hardly great praise).
In hiring Harry Gregson-Williams to provide the score, a wise decision was made. Producer Bruckheimer has a notorious reputation for suppressing creativity and orchestral dynamism in the scores to his films, preferring a simplistic, driving, rock-influenced approach. Case in point is again Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, where Bruckheimer sacked Alan Silvestri (whose music was in all likelihood a traditionally swashbuckling effort along the lines of his own The Mummy Returns ) in favor of Hans Zimmer, Klaus Badelt and an entire committee of Media Ventures composers. As a Media Ventures alumnus himself, Gregson-Williams has the ability to create the rock-y sound Bruckheimer requested – but as Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian and above all Kingdom of Heaven show, he certainly has the ability to pen orchestral adventure scores for historical and medieval settings, as well as a flair for (faux-)ethnic music.
Fortunately for film score collectors, Gregson-Williams capably toes the line between Bruckheimer simplicity and vibrant orchestral and ethnic writing. His action music is built along typical Media Ventures principles – chopping strings and driving rhythms – but he also incorporates a full orchestra, religious choir and various ethnic plucked, struck and blown elements (yes, blown – there are woodwinds in a score for a Jerry Bruckheimer film!). The latter are not dissimilar to those he incorporated in his excellent Kingdom of Heaven score five years ago, though their presence is not as prominent and they are, perhaps, a touch less authentic here.
Gregson-Williams composes two notable themes, both extremely attractive and sufficiently memorable, though they are not used as consistently throughout the score as they were in Prince Caspian. They are both presented in the opening track, “Prince of Persia”, which is the album’s best. The first may roll a few score collectors’ eyes – it closely resembles Alan Silvestri’s “exotic setting” theme from The Mummy Returns and is orchestrated very similarly, with sweeping strings derived, of course, from the granddaddy of desert scores, Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia. Gregson-Williams uses this theme for two purposes: in its sweeping setting, such as at 0:53 in “Prince of Persia”, it addresses the exotic desert setting much the way Silvestri’s theme did in the other film. It also doubles as a love theme for Princess Tamina, for example in its delicate performance on an ocarina at the outset of “Tamina Unveiled”. It gets some of its most satisfying development in the final “Destiny” cue, where it builds from solo flute at 1:15 to full ensemble glory at 2:41. Despite its slightly clichéd and derivative nature, it makes for great listening whenever it turns up.
The other theme is used more liberally, especially during action sequences, for it represents the piece’s hero, Prince Dastan. Again, this theme should sound quite familiar, especially to Gregson-Williams collectors, as it begins with the same three notes as Prince Caspian’s theme. Indeed, comparisons to Prince Caspian will come to mind often throughout this score, for the action music is usually built along the same straightforward, harmonious lines – by no means a bad thing. This heroic theme’s first performance occurs at 2:32 in “Prince of Persia” over a fantastic bed of rattling ethnic percussion. It receives its most prominent performance at the very satisfying conclusion to the excellent “Raid on Alamut” action cue – from 5:14 to the end, the theme’s swellingly heroic statement over chopping string arpeggios will definitely recall “Return of the Lion” from Prince Caspian.
Gregson-Williams doesn’t treat Kingsley’s villain with any memorable theme. This is perhaps in part due to the character’s nature as a conniving, string-pulling puppeteer, rather than a fighter. He sends his Hassansin killers to do his bidding, and it is they who receive musical treatment. In a move surely dictated by Bruckheimer, these mysterious killers are given an extremely grungy, electronics-dominated identity (like Hans Zimmer’s Joker material in The Dark Knight, it is more of a soundscape than an actual theme). Some of this stuff is so dominated by electronics that it has been compared to the music of Paul Haslinger. I actually find myself hearing Tyler Bates’ “work” for 300 at times, such as 0:27 into “Visions of Death”. Needless to say – if the 300 comparison didn’t make it clear enough already – this is easily the worst music on this album, obnoxious enough to drop the rating by at least one star.
In the end, however, this score’s good points far outweigh the bad. Having disappointed his collectors with the lackluster (though at times promising) X-Men Origins: Wolverine score last year, Prince of Persia is a true return to form for Harry Gregson-Williams. It’s one of the most intelligent and nuanced scores to ever grace a Bruckheimer film and manages to balance exciting action music with interesting ethnic instrumentation and extremely satisfying, full-blown thematic moments of full orchestral and choral glory that compete well with Kingdom of Heaven (and then there’s the “Ostrich Race” cue, worth pointing out as a brief, singular highlight of Sinbad-like fun). Though the Hassansin material (and, for some listeners, the all-too-familiar nature of the two major themes) stops this score being as good as the year’s highlights Alice in Wonderland, The Last Airbender or the utterly stupendous How to Train Your Dragon (written by former Harry Gregson-Williams collaborator John Powell), Prince of Persia solidifies 2010 as a fine year for film music in general. That a film as brainlessly fun as this can receive a score both fun AND intelligent also strengthens Gregson-Williams' status as an adventure composer, for this is a genre in which he is finding himself more and more at home. Recommended.