The BFG – The Big Friendly Giant
Music composed and conducted by John Williams
The director/composer partnership of Steven Spielberg and John Williams is by any standards legendary in film business and each new outing of the pair is anticipated with enthusiasm and interest by the film and film music buffs. Their 28th feature film collaboration is an adaptation of the Roald Dahl’s children story, The Big Friendly Giant or The BFG for short,which in the vein of the author’s other works for children combines darker elements and often adults in the roles of villains with humour, lightness of touch and terrific word play. While the film reportedly includes more the whimsy and less of the dark, the score by John Williams sees the maestro returning to magic and childish wonder in full force and in a very familiar style.
The BFG score is a children’s score through and through with whimsical, light and humorous tone that permeates it from beginning to the end. Closest stylistic comparisons would perhaps be Hook and Home Alone or the more recent Harry Potter franchise and The Adventures of Tintin, although this new soundtrack does feel more reserved and doesn’t quite have the spirit of its predecessors in the composer’s catalogue. One could characterize the BFG score by saying that the thematic ideas are new while the style and execution are highly familiar to any fan of the composer.
At this point in his career Williams has attained unmatched orchestrational flair, detail and mastery that is again evident in this score brought out on the album by the excellent articulate recording. Child-like wonder is the modus operandi of the music and thus there is the expected glowing and twinkling Williams veneer to much of this score and bouncy and light touch to most of the orchestrations and I would say that those who are not fans of this side of the composer should steer clear of this one as it is one of his most whimsical and emotionally sweetest albums in ages. But one particular aspect that immediately sets this score apart orchestrationally (and from many of his modern peers) to my ears is Williams’ use of the woodwinds. They are exceptionally prevalent in this score, a constant companion to the other orchestral sections and often have a lead role on many tracks. Especially the flutes are showcased in this score and they actually become thematic in themselves in the course of the soundtrack but the whole woodwind section is afforded frequent chances to shine as a group and as individuals. They sing, bounce, flutter, trill, groan and chuckle for all their worth in this score and lend it truly its most distinct distinguishing element.
It comes as no surprise that this is also a thematically diverse score and Williams grants nearly every major story element its own little leitmotif. These themes have been constructed with typical care by the composer but I would say not to expect quite the Harry Potter level of memorability from these things as they at least to my mind lack certain iconic quality compared to the composer’s many past works. I was also surprised that a score of this nature didn’t actually pack an immediate punch and required this reviewer quite a few listens to fully yield all its intricacies.
Thematically the album is anchored in the deceptively simple and suitably child-like and optimistic Sophie’s theme, which Williams later expands intelligently and combines with other material in his typically effortless manner. This main theme is first heard in the bubbling Overture accompanied by fluttering flutes and is thereafter sprinkled liberally throughout the score. And while it is a relatively short buoyantly lyrical motto, the theme is actually a two-part creation with a more thoughtful and melancholy second half (perhaps signifying the BFG himself) that is actually heard first in the score itself in the melancholy and mystery laden The Witching Hour that formally opens the drama with the introduction of choice thematic ideas. For a children’s fantasy film the theme while certainly openly emotional is a bit subdued and reserved and is allowed very rarely to fully soar in the fashion of his other classic scores. But despite of this Williams draws several beautiful variations from it and it’s loveliest moments come in the quiet lyrical passages like in Building Trust, the in turn quirky and warm Blowing Dreams with some magical woodwind passages and in Sophie’s Future where it is poignantly voiced by harp and solo flute.
Another major theme in the latter half of the album is the regal but warm and intentionally Elgarian musical evocation for the Queen of England that makes its first appearance in Blowing Dreams where woodwind chorus nobly intones the long lined theme that while very familiar in style has a dash of that wonderful fairytale feel in its lilting melody. Williams alternates it with Sophie’s theme tenderly on warm pastoral strings in Sophie’s Future and gives the listener first solemn string and woodwinds reading followed by appropriately courtly brass chorale in Meeting the Queen, which is something you might expect to hear when you meet a monarch. And finally Williams combines Sophie’s theme on lovely tender piano with the soothing strings of the Queen’s motherly theme in the heartwarming Finale to signal a peaceful happy end to the story.
The thuggish villains of the story, the nine evil giants, receive their own quasi-threatening motifs, which are suitably kid friendly musical depictions of these man-eating brutes, and their leader Fleshlumpeater has his bumbling little woodwind march featured in the track of the same name and in the brief and breezy action finale of Giants Netted, which in its humorous style conjures up memories of a certain pair of burglarious bandits from Home Alone or one globe trotting archaeologist without a blimp ticket..
The will-o-wisp -like dreams are represented mainly by the flutes, fluttering and trilling wildly and playfully as they flit about the orchestra. After the Overture these flute colours appear first in Dream Country and make appearances throughout the album in many guises as the composer in this case creates a theme out of instrumental colour and performance style rather than clear cut melody. These sounds are extensively explored in the singular Dream Jars, where the composer has the whole flute section engage in a rather rambling agitated dialogue for two whole minutes. This is followed by a glittering harp duet and in fact this unusual piece and challenging listening experience is some of the most original material in the score and almost feels like a page out of the composer’s concert work. Likewise the threat of nightmares is painted with an agitated and chipper woodwinds and strings scherzando idea that is actually one of the most energetic aspects of the score as it accompanies the short exclamatory nightmare/giants motif in both Sophie’s Nightmare and The Queen’s Dream, the latter containing a good humoured interpolation of Sophie’s optimistic theme into the setpiece.
There are also individual setpieces that too churn away with woodwind fuelled energy. To Giant Country is a bit of animated travelling music that presents a new jaunty waltz idea right out of the Harry Potter playbook carried by strings and flurries of woodwinds and I am rather sorry Williams didn’t have a chance to develop this little idea more extensively in the score. Frolic is a fun little piece that opens with some suspense material heard in To Giant Country before suddenly launching into a full-throated and outrageous can-can dance number for the whole orchestra. The above mentioned Dream Country in the opening section of the album is a lengthy 10 minute musical sequence, which seems to comprise of several distinct sections where Williams’ atmospheric musical painting alternates with short bursts of melody and the dream-flute interludes where the instruments flit to and fro in balletic gestures. It often feels these moments are somewhere between a dance and mickey mousing but the track on the whole despite some lovely small moments of melody doesn’t quite sustain itself for such a long period of time nor build a very coherent arc, which is rather disappointing to note in a John Williams score. The album is wrapped up by a classic Williamsian Sophie and the BFG end title suite that presents all the major elements of the score in a 8 minute musical miniature that is a terrific album closer and typically for the composer contains the lengthiest and broadest performance of the main themes.
To be honest I feel a bit divided when trying to assess this score. On one hand it has all the elements one could expect from a solid John Williams score: great detailed orchestrations, a whole host of melodious themes to paint a broad dramatic musical narrative, several memorable setpiece cues and the soundtrack album makes for a nice entertaining 65-minute listening experience. And on the other hand one can’t escape the fact that it sounds for the most part like something the maestro has already done many times before and there is something singular missing that would allow this score to earn the top marks. With such grand track record in the fantasy/action/adventure genres Williams is inarguably hard put to come up with something to top off his classics from E.T. – The Extra-terrestrial to more modern examples like Harry Potter franchise and in all honesty the BFG doesn’t reach those iconic and dizzy heights.
In many respects The BFG is a strange amalgamation of many stylistic tendencies we have heard from the composer before in the past decades, a dash of E.T., a hint of Home Alone, a dollop of Hook and a liberal dose of Harry Potter. Tried and true and old fashioned one could say but certainly not without its charm as the composer is adept in reaching to the core of the story and translating it into music and he has done so here once again. And although it certainly is no 5 star work there are still some true moments of Williamsian musical magic contained within. A very solid effort from the maestro and certainly among my top scores of the year.