Musings About Music In Film

The Iron Giant

By Charlie Brigden irongiant

Movies like The Iron Giant don't come along too often. At the time it was a curio, a science fiction animation with no songs loosely based on a story by a Welsh poet, and directed by a writer from The Simpsons. Yet while it was critically embraced the studio dropped the ball on marketing the film, admitting years later that they had no idea what they had. And while the film, now established as a classic for the ages, is still yet to appear on high-definition formats, the wonderful score by the late Michael Kamen has thankfully been treated a little better.

While the score has been on CD since the film's release (a busy 1999 that included Star Wars: The Phantom Menace), Mondo have brought the music to vinyl in two editions, differing only in artwork and price. Pressed over two LPs at 45rpm, Kamen's music is given the lavish treatment it deserves as a simply wonderful score, not just in animation but in the cinema itself. Known mainly for muscular testosterone-fuelled epics like Die Hard or his combination of rock and score with luminaries such as Eric Clapton in the BBC series Edge of Darkness, Kamen had nevertheless shown his talent for melody and a more emotional side in scores like 1995's Mr.Holland's Opus, or even the earlier Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves with its gorgeous themes and sprightly scoring. The Iron Giant belongs to this latter school.

Bird had a stroke of genius when he decided on another illegal alien from another planet to contextualise the Giant and its arrival, which not only familiarise the Giant's story and also inspire the musical direction. Kamen's score has a very knowing tone towards the superhero genre and Superman (and even quotes John Williams' theme in 'Bedtime Stories'), pitting a very militaristic feel of Kent Mansley and the Army against the soaring music of the Giant, together with the classic Americana representing Hogarth and his mother. Kamen gives the Giant another motif for his ability to recall his parts to himself when disassembled (the aptly-named 'You Can Fix Yourself?'), which is amazingly used to finish the album with 'The Last Giant Piece'.

One of the crucial themes of The Iron Giant is about choice, and the true nature of the Giant as a defensive weapon which understandably scares the hell out of everyone. The material regarding this is remarkably dark and frantic, using terrifying brass as the Giant goes crazy on everyone thinking Hogarth is dead in 'Trance-Former', with a real War of the Worlds feel. This is beautifully contrasted with the soaring 'The Giant Discovered' where Hogarth discovers the Giant can fly, where Kamen again employs huge brass, this time in a much more inspirational way that echoes the style of not only John Williams' Superman, but also Sammy Timberg's music for the Fleischer/Famous cartoons of the 1940's.

Where Kamen succeeds most, however, is giving the Giant a soul. Hogarth explains to the Giant that souls don't die, they endure, and this is poignantly recalled in 'No Following', the heartbreaking emotional finale where the Giant echoes Superman to save the town. It starts ever so small, with low-key strings as the townspeople realise what's about to happen (a nuclear bomb is on its way, targeting the Giant) which build and build with brass in anticipation of the Giant fulfilling his purpose - the purpose he has decided for himself. Somber strings sound as the bomb explodes, segueing into bright woodwinds as we admire a memorial statue of the Giant. What follows - the aforementioned 'The Last Giant Piece' - is a marvellous and wonderful cap to the score, uttering the quirky woodwinds of the "Fixing" motif combined with warm emotional strings that build into a huge brass statement of the Giant's theme to end the album. A knockout.

Mondo's LP presentation is excellent. The sound quality is fantastic with a clarity and depth that sounds better than the 1999 Varese Sarabande CD, so well done to James Plotkin. It's also worth mentioning that Mondo's record also includes the secret track from the Varese disc that is 'Duck and Cover', the song from the safety film Hogarth watches in class. The packaging is beautifully put together, with wonderful art from Jason Edmiston completely capturing the spirit of the film. My only criticism is that there are no liner notes of any kind, just an insert listing the score and album credits. I think perhaps some words from Bird would have been fitting given the reputation of the film, especially in Kamen's passing.

Mondo have done a superb job bringing The Iron Giant to wax, and hopefully allowing for more people to appreciate Michael Kamen's score, which is frankly a masterpiece. The record looks and sounds brilliant and is a tribute to Kamen's pure talent in composing. Just wonderful.

The Iron Giant is out now from Mondo Tees