Music Composed and Conducted by John Williams
A review by Mikko Ojala
This is a little gem from 1984 that shares the year with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom but musically is in a wholly different world. Rural Americana performed by small ensemble, given at times a subtle jaunty pop sensibility by a drumkit and peppy rhythms and graced with numerous gorgeous flute and guitar solos the River is a fascinating work in the middle of the run of JWs grand symphonic opuses. Williams's music perhaps with even too generously compliments director Mark Rydell's very everyday drama of a family (Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek in leading roles) struggling to make ends meet on their farm with the constant threat of the nearby river flooding and with a greedy banker/developer (played by Scott Glenn) waiting to foreclose on the land. Sounds less than riveting doesn't it. Well not so with the music!
Despite the short running time of the album (the movie doesn't have much more music) the composer crafts not one, not two but three distinct thematic ideas, the jaunty down-on-the-farm main theme, the smoky bluesy often flute-led love theme for the family and the main couple and the dignified and noble "ancestral home" theme that stands for the sanctity of home and hearth and the worthy fight of standing up to the forces of nature (and pressures of modern society).
Whoever says Williams is only the guy for strum-und-drang should listen to this humble work with down-to-earth melodicism, beautiful and emotional small scale soloist work, especially for flute and guitar, and the joie-de-vivre that bubbles throughout the music. It is a short album full of highlights. The track The River presents a 2-part end credits suite opening with the sprightly and excited rendition of the main title theme where drumkit gives it a slightly more contemporary (for 1980s) feel before the love theme takes over full of bluesy almost noirish yearning and ends in an extended solo flute coda. Absolute wonderful stuff and a great way to open the album.
The Ancestral Home (the finale of the film, here presented in the middle of the album) is the grandest piece on the album but there is not much orchestral grand standing as Williams slowly builds and builds the long lined noble and gentle Americana theme in the strings, illustrating musically a gradual and steady struggle, which finally burgeons into a triumphant crescendo coinciding with shots of the family and neighbours coming together to build protective wall against the river, celebrating the small victory of the individuals and the community. Love Theme from The River is an extended performance of the bluesy melody, first introduced by flute and trumpet and then given a grander string accompanied reading, that is somewhere between truly romantic and longing. A truly outstanding piece of writing that feels so inherently American without pulling out the old Copland sound palette.
The Pony Ride is another playfully energetic piece featuring the main theme and great deft guitar work. It is of course not all sunshine and fun and for variety we have the slow burning suspense of the Tractor Scene (a classic matter-of-fact JW title!) where slow threatening atmosphere is conjured up with minimal means. In the same style the slightly ominous Rain Clouds Gather (the actual main title) introduces the main theme in electric bass and the love theme in flute, both almost sullen and subdued by the foreboding as the eponymous river is seen swelled by the rain. This is also the only piece of the score that in my opinion gives even a slight hint that it was written in the same year as ToD as the flute work here has the same mysterious, almost exotic and dark quality that pervaded some of the early scenes in the Indian village in that Indy film. Young Friends Meet presents a tender guitar dueting with the flute which rounds off the album in wistful mood, leaving us almost with a musical question mark and certainly wanting for more.
The River is an often overlooked little gem of a score, intimate yet full of colours and variety and shows how Williams thrives in very different musical genres and situations and is always acutely aware of the size of the film and what are its requirements. The score is a stylistic second cousin perhaps to the later grander evocations of rural Americana in Rosewood or even the flute solo moments in War Horse and just as good. Not to be overlooked!