Empire of the Sun and A.I. Artificial Intelligence are the two most curious pieces of cinema Steven Spielberg has ever produced. Whilst it’s almost impossible to clearly label either of them as masterpieces, both are strangely memorable and mesmerising. Drawing from Spielbergian childhood simplicity, they introduce complexities of adult contradictions and offer the most interesting clash of those two, seemingly mutually exclusive, realities. In the case of the former, it was exactly this dichotomy that many critics (along with larger audiences) found puzzling and impossible to digest.
With the Empire of the Sun score, John Williams’ doesn’t even attempt to offer straight and obvious solutions to Spielberg’s seemingly confused direction. Many of the ingredients that one could associate with his family-oriented films are present - catchy theme, awe-inspiring choral passages and even an energetic scherzo (‘Jim’s New Life’). And yet, all those elements feel distorted and even “misused” among all the darker and edgier material, almost as if they were desecrated by main character’s war experiences. In this context, the schizophrenic approach might not be such a bad idea after all. The story is essentially a coming-of-age tale and those are never painless.
The most distinguishable element of this score is the one not associated with Williams at all. ‘Suo Gân’, a traditional Welsh lullaby, would appear in several key spots within the story (as well as theatrical trailer). The recording prepared for this film (arranged and conducted by James McCarthy) would later become the most famous version available. The latest limited edition album from La-La Land Records presents the extended version of this beautiful piece for the very first time as the opening track.
The actual score opens with ‘Home and Hearth’, at the very beginning of which we hear a slight hint of ‘Cadillac of the Skies’, after which Jim’s theme is soon gently introduced. This melody seldomly makes an appearance within the body of Williams’ music, which is a major deviation from his usual leitmotif-based methodology used throughout Spielberg’s output. But when he brings this theme into the foreground, the results are often awe-inspiring and chilling (‘Planes’ and ‘Seeing the Bomb’). After this shy introduction, we are treated to an original arrangement of Chopin’s Mazurka (Opus 17, No. 4) for piano and orchestra, in which Williams combines the famous piece with his own warm and homely harmonies. That melody becomes an important element within the score, largely representing family.
Chorus would the one of the most divisive element in John Williams’ score to Empire of the Sun. Many detractors would argue that it cheapens the gloomy episode in history and paints over it with overt sentimentality. On the other hand, the usage of vocal ensemble serves as an almost ironic reflection on Spielberg’s childhood themes, being, in a way, perverted and twisted into something slightly off-beat. But also, at the same time, almost religious. That last aspect serves as an interesting counterpoint to Jim’s declared atheism within the story and his journey towards spiritual discovery. This aspect of music is highlighted by several iconic set-pieces, like ‘Cadillac of the Skies’ or ‘Bringing Them Back’. In that context, it also makes complete sense that the conclusion to this story is presented in a form of the quasi-liturgical piece ‘Exsulatate Justi’.
It’s interesting to note how several elements would anticipate composer’s later works. There is a lot of percussive ethnic suspense writing within the score (‘Japanese Infantry’ and ‘The Pheasant Hunt’), in which Williams skillfully combines moderate orchestral ensemble with wide variety of percussion and extended shakuhachi solos. The same kind of techniques he would later revisit in Memoirs of a Geisha almost twenty years later. The action passages in both versions of ‘The Streets of Shanghai’ feels very much like Jurassic Park chase music. The previously unreleased ‘Alone At Home’ and ‘The Empty Swimming Pool’ introduce a surprising linking element to A.I. in the form of melodic line that will be later expanded upon in the ‘Cybertronics’ cue from that film. Last but not least, the lugubrious opening passages of unused version of ‘The Return to the City’ seems to recall the similar cold-hearted lamentation from War of the Worlds.
The complete score, as presented by La-La Land Records, is not exactly a smooth listen. Fragmented and eclectic, without a clear coherent narrative - John Williams certainly doesn’t take us by the hand this time. It is a fascinating journey nonetheless and definitely a stronger alternative to the original 54-minute presentation from 1987. The gorgeous packaging courtesy of Jim Titus pleases the eye and an interesting essay by album producer Mike Matessino offers us most curious interpretation of the film and how music helps to shape (or distort, rather) its world. The main chronological programme of complete work occupies disc one, while the generous selection of alternates fills the second one. It is that section that opens up the creative process a bit and shares some of John Williams’ early takes on several pieces, sometimes quite different from their final versions. And, as such, most welcome.
One of the most curious works in the maestro’s oeuvre can now finally be enjoyed in its entirety, thanks to this new album presentation. It’s the kind of score that’s somehow stuck stylistically between the innocence of Spielberg and the serious projects John Williams would tackle in the following decade. In many ways, it anticipates things to come from this composers. Next generations of film music fans will hopefully discover this largely forgotten gem. Touching, rewarding and well worth investigating, both in film and apart from it.
Empire Of The Sun: Limited Edition is out now from La-La Land Records