Lauren Appelwick, Publicity
Kathryn Kalinak is Professor of English and Film Studies at Rhode Island College. Her extensive writing on film music includes numerous articles and several books, the most recent of which is Film Music: A Very Short Introduction. You may remember her from an Oscar season interview on WNYC’s Soundcheck, when she accurately predicted a win for Michael Giacchino’s score in Up. Now, she has been asked back to the show (today at 2pm ET) to discuss the score in the new Robin Hood movie, starring Russell Crowe. Kalinak shares her thoughts below.
What do Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner, and Russell Crowe have in common with Daffy Duck? They’ve all played Robin Hood on the big screen. Robin’s latest incarnation materialized recently in Ridley Scott’s action adventure version, Robin Hood starring Crowe. Stepping into a long line of Robins stretching from 1922 to the present, Crowe has some formidable competition—and so does Marc Streitenfeld.
Streitenfeld is something of Ridley Scott’s in-house composer at the moment, having scored Scott’s last four outings—A Good Year, American Gangster, and Body of Lies and Robin Hood —and worked on five more including Gladiator (music editor) and Kingdom of Heaven (music supervisor). But this is his first crack at a period piece and a big action adventure blockbuster.
There is a tradition of using authentic (or seemingly authentic) medieval music in these films. Even Daffy Duck sang a “medieval” ballad adapted by Warner Bros. composer Milt Franklyn from the 17th-century “Come Lasses and Lads,” while accompanying himself on a lute. (That is one talented duck.) One of my favorite studio-era Hollywood film scores is Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s for the 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood starring another Aussie, Errol Flynn. Korngold’s score is a gem: melodic, lush, richly orchestrated. Korngold had researched old English balladry of the period but gave up on it, deciding that audiences would find the sound of actual medieval music alien and off-putting. Instead Korngold composed his own “medieval” melodies and lavishly orchestrated them. Listen, for instance, to the banquet hall sequence in Nottingham where English minstrels pluck medieval looking instruments with the sixty-plus musicians of the Warner Bros. studio orchestra playing on the soundtrack. Korngold did include one piece of actual medieval music: “Sumer is ycumen in,” whistled by Alan Hale, playing Little John, before his quarterstaff challenge to Robin. Interestingly, Korngold didn’t want to score the film. He wrote to Jack Warner, “I am not an illustrator for a 90% action picture.” Nonetheless, musical illustration is one of the things he did exceptionally well in Robin Hood—the swordfight between Guy of Gisbourne and Robin is like a master class in scoring action sequences.
The Kevin Costner Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was scored by Michael Kamen and includes some actual medieval music: Friar Tuck sings a thirteenth century drinking song “BaccheBene Venies.“ (A second “medieval” song, “Wild Times,” was written for the film.) Kamen paints with a very big brush—bold brass fanfares, soaring string melodies, huge symphonic resources (110 musicians recorded the score) —Korngold on steroids. Sixteen orchestrators including Kamen, orchestrated the score. Noted Kamen, at times, “the score turns black with notes.” But the soundtrack is more famous for the hit song it produced, Bryan Adams’ “(Everything I Do), I Do It for You,” based on Kamen’s Maid Marian theme. It turned out to be the top grossing song worldwide in 1991. Kate Bush, Annie Lennox, and Lisa Stansfield were all offered the songwriting gig first. An exec at Morgan Creek’s record division suggested Adams but neither Kamen nor anyone at Morgan Creek liked the song Adams created. Under pressure to rewrite, Adams refused. And the rest, as they say, is history.
So how does Marc Streitenfeld’s score for Robin’s latest outing stack up? To start, he doesn’t use any actual medieval ballads, although there are four new songs designed to sound similar. Three of these (“Row Me Bully Boys, Row,” “Sadness, Sadness,” “Large Woman”) were written by Alan Doyle, the front man for the Canadian folk band Great Big Sea, who appears in the film as Alan A’Dayle, and the last song (“Lessons from the Empty Glass”) was written by Chris W. Nebesniak, and previously recorded by The Killigans. They sound appropriately folksy and vaguely medieval and you can even spot some lutes and ancient-looking flutes being played in the film. As for Streitenfeld’s score proper, he’s made the same decision all of the previous Robin Hood composers have: create a “medieval” sound with more modern musical resources. Although he’s thrown some actual medieval instruments into the mix such as the lute, the rebec, and the hurdy-gurdy, the driving rock rhythms accompanying the action sequences are pure 21st century. To my ear, the score has a vaguely Celtic sound—the effect, perhaps, of the uilleann (pronounced ill’-in) pipes, a sort of Irish bagpipe which can’t be traced much farther back than the 17th century. But to hold Streitenfled accountable for historical authenticity is absurd. As Russell Crowe responded to detractors of the film, “It’s a film about someone who didn’t exist so there was little to be inaccurate about.” The score works and it may prove to be Streitenfeld’s break-out moment in the industry.