Islands in the Stream

CD Review: Islands in the Stream

ISLANDS IN THE STREAM was the album I bought the day Jerry Goldsmith died. Goldsmith counted the score as one of his favorites. And it may sound silly, but on that particular day, I was looking for a score I’d never heard before that would not only assuage my grief but bring me closer to the soul of this composer who had meant so much to me and this art form I held so dear.

The 1977 film was based on Ernest Hemingway’s autobiographical novel, the first of his novels to be published posthumously in 1970. George C. Scott plays Hemingway’s alter ego Thomas Hudson, a sculptor who has retreated to the Caribbean during World War II after two failed marriages. The film is arranged in three “chapters” dealing with various people and events in his life.

For years I had been steered away from the film, but after a recommendation from my buddy Tim Greiving, I recently watched it to celebrate Film Score Monthly’s release of the long-awaited original tracks. The film is beautifully shot by Fred J. Koenekamp (who received a well-deserved Oscar nomination) and Scott, looking very much like Papa Hemingway, gives one of his most nuanced performances. But it is Goldsmith’s score that ties the film together and gives it an emotional core it might have lacked otherwise.

Goldsmith provides all the elements of the score in the memorable main title sequence. He summons the power of the sea with a dreamy clarinet arpeggio, a harp glissando, and a swelling, ominous 3-note motif in the brass. The 4-note motif in the English horn later becomes a staccato accompaniment to Hudson’s three teenage boys. The real treasure is the heartbreaking French horn main theme. The cue ends with a gently swaying calypso accompaniment to a full string treatment of the theme.

Islands in the Stream soundtrack
“Main Title”
“Is Ten Too Old?”

“Is Ten Too Old?” begins tenderly in the harp and flute with the question of how old is too old for a boy to kiss his father before moving into the calypso mood of the opening track as Hudson and the boys go sailing. This carefree atmosphere morphs into more dramatic fare with the lower strings and staccato violins as Hudson tries to shoot a shark that is threatening his swimming oldest son (a very young Hart Bochner). The syncopation in the brass and timpani and repeated notes in the high strings ratchets up the tension as he continues to miss the predator. You don’t have to see the images onscreen to know what is happening. Just listen to Goldsmith’s music.

The musical tour de force is the 11-minute dramatic cue “The Marlin” as Hudson helps his troubled middle son battle the mighty fish on the open waters. The cue runs the gamut of emotions–from joy, terror and emotion–as Goldsmith skillfully leads us through the bonding of father and son set against the backdrop of man against the sea.

The score was shortlisted for the Academy Award and certainly deserved a nomination over Marvin Hamlisch’s weak Bond entry THE SPY WHO LOVED ME and Maurice Jarre’s little seen MOHAMMED – MESSENGER OF GOD. We can be thankful that Bruce Kimmel of Kritzerland Records has kept a copy of these tapes so beautifully preserved over the years and shared them with Lukas Kendall at FSM. Though I won’t give up Goldsmith’s out-of-print re-recording on the Intrada label, this is the version I’ll return to again and again in the future.

ISLANDS IN THE STREAM is a Goldsmith masterpiece that has finally surfaced in all of its original glory.

  1. Great reflections on a masterpiece, Jim. And I’m glad you took my word over the naysaying hordes concerning the film!

    This is a score that you have to let wash over you several times before it really sinks in. But when it does, boy it becomes like a trance. A dream. There are sugary sweet scores (like Rudy) where Goldsmith unapologetically wore his heart on his sleeve—and believe me, I love Rudy. But I feel like, with Islands in the Stream, Goldsmith wore his soul.

    1. I agree that he tapped into something much deeper here. The score hit me immediately when I first heard it. But, then again, it may have been the sad circumstances surrounding it that came into play. Either way, a beautiful listen and one of those rare scores that is as close to art as we’re going to find.

  2. I’ve got (and enjoy) the Intrada. How vital is the FSM release? Is it appreciably better? Is this a necessary purchase or one to rank lower on the priority list?
    .-= That Neil Guy´s last blog ..Surprised =-.

    1. I personally like the performance better, though I’d have to do a side-by-side comparison to see what differences there are. I also usually prefer the original recordings if given a choice. As a fan of the score, it was a “must have” for me. How’s that for a vague answer? :)

    1. Ah, so it is. My bad. Thanks for providing that link, Jason. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed in that version either. It’s all just a matter of preference. And two versions of a great score can’t be bad.

  3. Great review Jim!

    I really enjoyed listening to these clips and I look forward to hearing the whole score.

    Films back then allowed composers to write for high strings and woodwinds, now it’s all brass and percussion!

    What I meant is you can definitely place this score in time by it’s orchestration, and what beautiful orchestration it is :)
    .-= Wendell´s last blog ..The Infection =-.

    1. I think even more than the orchestration is just the sound of Goldsmith’s writing. It’s a sound that we’ll probably never see again. I agree that there’s a lot of brass and percussion in film score orchestrations these days. And that sounds is what is going to inform the next generation of film composers as well. I’m sure there will be a shift to something different at some point. To what? I don’t know. But I can only hope that the film composers are learning and studying older scores. There’s room for everything out there. The challenge is to be given the opportunity to compose in your own voice instead of someone else’s. And Goldsmith certainly composed in his own voice.

      Pick up this CD. (And, no, I don’t make any money by encouraging you to do so. LOL) You won’t be disappointed.

  4. So, and somewhat ironically, considering our current (on another post) discussion of liner notes, I put in my Intrada Islands in the Stream just now and actually decided to read the brief liner notes. Written by Goldsmith himself, one idea that pops out is his statement that he felt both the original recording itself as well as the playing on that recording “could have been better.”

    Could that be yet another post — is the composer a valid judge of his own recordings? I think most soundtrack nerds (like myself) frequently have the feeling that the original recording is the “real” one and rerecordings are inferior. But is that just a side effect of the idea that the first version you are exposed to is better. Like in James Bonds, the one you grow up with is usually the standard by which others are judged. And I could go on with other thoughts but I will now stop.
    .-= That Neil Guy´s last blog ..Where No Man Has Gone Before =-.

    1. Yes, I remember Goldsmith’s statement from years ago when I got the Intrada version. I actually think the original tracks have more vibrancy than the re-recording. The orchestral playing on the Intrada version may be more technically “perfect” and the digital sound is nice, but I give an edge to the original tracks.

      Funny you mention that idea for a post. I have a draft started on that subject from a few months ago. I just haven’t revisited it yet, because I still haven’t figured in which direction to take it. Now that there’s interest, I’ll give it another whirl.

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