A loosely-based remake of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the 2001 film Rat Race (directed by Jerry Zucker, one of the minds behind Airplane!) is one of those explosive, gigantic comedies that seems to take place in a world that has delusions of being our own, but in reality is something utterly surreal and different (sort of like The Blues Brothers ). The plot: eccentric Las Vegas hotel and casino owner Donald Sinclair (played by John Cleese, and I had to laugh out loud at the character's name - the real Donald Sinclair was a Torquay hotel owner who was incredibly rude to the Monty Python team once, and went on to inspire Cleese's Basil Fawlty character from Fawlty Towers) selects six groups of people at random, gives them a key each to a locker in a train station in faraway Silver City, New Mexico - a locker containing two million dollars in cash. Most of the film consists of the hilarious antics of these six people struggling against some truly bizarre odds (a demented old lady who sells squirrels and the proprietors of a Klaus Barbie museum, to name just a few) to get to Silver City first (while Sinclair and other millionaires watch in amusement and place bets on who will get there first), and the film would be a completely entertaining blast if it wasn't for an out-of-place, cloyingly feel-good, tacked-on ending. Still, it's definitely worth a watch for its star power alone (Cleese, Rowan Atkinson, Whoopi Goldberg, the underrated Jon Lovitz, the equally underrated Wayne Knight...a massive accumulation of comedic gold).
2001 being the year that I started seriously going to the cinema, quite a few of my 'nostalgic' scores are from this year - scores that I subconsciously remember from the film, and which sound soothingly familiar the first time I listen to them. James Newton Howard's Atlantis: The Lost Empire is one of these; another is Shrek, co-composed by John Powell and Harry Gregson-Williams. Powell gets a second entry on this (relatively short) nostalgia list with Rat Race, a movie I've owned on DVD for almost ten years now. Like the film, it's a large-scale comedy effort, ranking near the top on the energy meter (which, by now, goes without saying on a John Powell score), complete with full orchestra and, surprisingly, a very prominent chorus.
The score is rather short, at 35 minutes (due to quite a bit of other music finding its way in, notably a great use of Hall of the Mountain King by Edvard Grieg) and these 35 minutes are spread out over 26 cues; 'well-developed' isn't necessarily a word I'd use to describe Rat Race. It is basically held up by a central spine of three explosive chase cues: 'The Chase Begins' at the beginning, 'Helicopter Dance' towards the middle and 'Arrival at Silver City' towards the end of the album. The two-minute 'Helicopter Dance' is probably the pick of the three and of the entire score; it's entirely relentless, featuring a shrieking and chanting female choir that foreshadows, of all things, X-Men: The Last Stand. The other two consist of short bursts of slightly oompah-ish chase music (it's like early Danny Elfman played at double speed, which gives some indication of this score's zaniness) interspersed with softer interludes that only really make sense if you, like me, can play the accompanying scene from the movie in your mind's eye.
There's only one theme that can be said to appear consistently throughout the score - then again, it's a slapstick comedy, so leitmotifs weren't really the order of the day. Powell subjects the lengthy idea to an impressive amount of variation; it appears right at the outset in 'Let's Meet the Contestants', comedic in its oddly downbeat solos for various woodwinds. It's soon thrown into the chase material; even when the theme itself isn't being played, its progressions are there (like at 1:10 in 'The Chase Begins'). Most of the underscore features these progressions too, which does manage to counter the score's schizophrenia with a welcome bit of continuity. Still, by the end of a full listen, there is a good chance that you'll be a bit tired of the theme.
Singular moments entirely unconnected from the theme do exist in Rat Race; most prominent among these is the big choral moment of triumph a minute into 'All the Little Children'. It's nearly as awkwardly over-positive as the ending scene it accompanies, but there's something distinctly Elmer Bernstein-ish about it, a neat touch by Powell (if it was intentional) considering Bernstein's involvement with Jerry Zucker on Airplane! Then there's the pitch-bending madness a minute into 'From a Rocket Car to a Nut Bus', which defies any attempt at description, really. It's simultaneously unlistenable and hilarious.
So what is the end result? Well, you should be prepared going in that this is a slapstick score for a slapstick movie. If it's lengthy thematic development you're looking for - move along, nothing to see here. It's Chicken Run minus the thematic strength, you could say, leaving nothing but raw parody and fast-paced energy. It's pretty much a lightweight, even by Powell's standards (who rarely writes 'heavy' scores), but if you consider yourself even a casual fan of this composer then Rat Race is worth seeking out. It's often overlooked, and not exactly easy to find, but a wild ride is your reward when you do!