Quite why Cutthroat Island sank a studio (almost literally) yet Pirates of the Caribbean has spawned two (so far) upcoming sequels is rather difficult to quantify. Admittedly, Cutthroat Island took everything far more seriously, while the recent Disney flick stuck tongue in cheek and turned in some hilariously loopy performances (Johnny Depp anyone?). However, in one area, Cutthroat Island stands out as vastly better and that is, of course, musically. Mind you, given the pitiful dreadfulness of Klaus Badelt's (and underlings) music, that's almost damnation through faint praise. Mind you, in truth, John Debney's work only infrequently rises above that of a skilled technician into the realms of truly memorable - he's the ultimate chameleon film composer who always seems to sound more like someone else than himself. True, Cutthroat Island owes some debt to the film music masters of the past and present, it is still a hugely entertaining and one that manages to be bombastic, but genuinely exciting, tuneful without being repetitive and manages to sustain itself over a double disc release.
The Main Title introduces the bracing, suitably heroic and windswept main theme and the one likely to stick in the mind longest. The other main material is romantic and makes a pleasing counterbalance, plus manages to be memorable enough to stand on its own and is consequently no less appealing. In fact, after a barrage of thundering brass, percussion and some heavy duty choral work, the restful periods are extremely welcome. Despite being laid on in broad strokes, the spiky orchestral writing underpinning the choral passages ensure that the texture avoids becoming too stodgy. Having said that, Debney's liner note dedicates the score to Rozsa, Korngold, Steiner and Newman, but I think even at their most extravagant most of those venerable golden age composers would have been a little more restrained.
The original single disc release is still a little tricky to find and many will find the more recent deluxe double disc edition essential. As noted, even over two hours plus bonus tracks, Debney sustains the momentum and there are few weak spots. Although the overall impression is that the tone could vary a little more, in truth there are some effective quieter moments outside of the action, notably the delightful Wedding Waltz (which went unused in the film) plus the cheekily titled faux period music in Purcell Snatcher (composed by Brad Dechter). On top of that, several of the original album tracks are expanded, perhaps most obviously the 18 minutes (or 17:72 minutes if you believe the packaging) of action covering the final confrontation where Debney manages to sustain the excitement in spectacular style, although those of a more sensitive disposition may find it all a little bit much by the conclusion.
The bonus tracks are an interesting bunch. A couple of alternates, most interestingly, a choir free mix of the Main Title, which works well and uncovers a somewhat cleaner sound and showcases the underlying orchestration. The final track is a synth demo of two cues which actually makes one realise just how much zest a real orchestra can provide as, to be honest, it all feels a little underwhelming when reduced to tinny synth patches. Owners of the single disc edition should not necessarily feel the urge to replace their original copy as it contains a fine sample of the best music and covers all of the major bases. From that point of view, the expanded release is more of the same although, in fairness, the previously unreleased is of no lesser quality. In a career with rather too many well wrought, but somewhat anonymous scores, Cutthroat Island is rightly seen as one of Debney's finest hours, brimming with melody, personality and makes for an exhilarating ride.