By Tony Buchsbaum
If I think back -- way back -- I can sort of remember first hearing the work of composer Mark Isham in his score for Mrs. Soffel, whose soundtrack was released on the Windham Hill label back when Windham Hill released pretty much just New Age music. That was the time of George Winston and his "Autumn" CD...or, rather, LP. Anyway, Mark Isham's score for Mrs. Soffel was a quiet, brooding affair--a far cry from the work of John Williams and John Barry, which I loved--and I loved it just as much.
Since then, Isham has made a career of film scoring, and he's proven again and again just how great he is, in film after film.
To me, though, his pinnacle (so far?) is his music for Bobby, the 2006 film written and directed by Emilio Estevez. If you didn't see it in theaters, see it now. Rent it. Buy it. Just see it. It's a spectacular montage of stories that take place on the day Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Estevez managed to get permission to film at the hotel just days before its demolition, which makes the movie a fascinating postcard. But even more, it's just a great thing to see. Several stories unfold at the same time, with liberal intercutting from one to another, but somehow Estevez captures just the right moments, the perfect details that bring these characters to life. The husband and wife aching to be happy in their May-December marriage. The Kennedy pollsters who spend the afternoon on an LSD trip. The busboy forced to give up historic Dodgers tickets when he's handed a double shift in the hotel's kitchen. The bored, boozy lounge singer. The aging hotel doorman who can't seem to say gooodbye to the old place. The woman who works in the salon. The hotel manager who's screwing one of the switchboard operators. The young woman who's marrying a classmate just to keep him from having to go to Vietnam.
And the cast? Breathtaking. Anthony Hopkins, Sharon Stone, Shia LaBoef, Laurence Fishburn, Helen Hunt, Ashton Kutcher, Lindsay Lohan, William H. Macy, Demi Moore, Martin Sheen, Christian Slater, Freddy Rodriguez, Elijah Wood. Like their director, each one finds the telltale nuggets that make their characters human, only to see them experience, first-hand, the assassination of RFK.
Just as critical to the actors, the script, and Estevez's deft direction is Mark Isham's score. It's both heroic and heraldic, a deeply moving series of cues that enliven the greater story. Certain characters get their own themes, but the score's primary driver is a grand theme that drapes a musical fabric of shattered dreams, of a lost Americana, over these stories. Blending acoustic and electronic colors, Isham delivers music that works on personal and national levels, if you will, for so many of these short stories are about loss and sacrifice and redemption. They are enduring on this day what the country has been enduring since the murder of JFK, and now, just when the nation has caught its breath after the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr., RFK is taken down. National tragedy mirrored by personal betrayal and disappointment. Somehow, Isham captures all of this. It's miraculous.
At the time of the film's release there was a CD of songs for the film, including the spectacular "Never Gonna Break My Faith." (In addition to the score, the movie is a jukebox of period hits.) But in recent weeks the complete score was released--and it's cause for celebration. It's one of the standout compositions of 2006, and it now brings 2007 to a close, into the 40th anniversary year of the assassination itself.
If Estevez's Bobby is an indelible film, the music Mark Isham made for it is unforgettable. Occasionally light-hearted and tinged throughout with a devastating truth, it is always insightful, bringing new layers to an already multi-layered story.