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Cutthroat Island
1995 Silva

1995 Nu.millennia

2005 Prometheus

Composed and Co-Produced by:
John Debney

Conducted by:
David Snell

Orchestrated by:
Brad Dechter
Frank Bennett
Don Nemitz
Jeff Atmajian

Co-Produced by:
Ford A. Thaxton

Performed by:
The London Symphony Orchestra

The London Voices

Labels and Dates:
Silva Screen Records FILMCD 178 (European)
(May, 1995)

Nu.millennia 00009-4 (American)
(May, 1995)

Prometheus Records XPCD 157
(March, 2005)

Also See:
Independence Day
Pirates of the Caribbean

Audio Clips:
1995 Silva Album:

1. Main Title: Morgan's Ride (0:34):
WMA (222K)  MP3 (274K)
Real Audio (171K)

2. Carriage Chase (0:30):
WMA (197K)  MP3 (242K)
Real Audio (150K)

5. To the Bottom of the Sea (0:30):
WMA (197K)  MP3 (242K)
Real Audio (150K)

18. Dawg's Demise/The Triumph (0:31):
WMA (204K)  MP3 (251K)
Real Audio (156K)

The American "nu.millennia" album is long out of print, however the identical European Silva album (released concurrently) is still available at some outlets. The 2-CD set from Prometheus is available primarily through soundtrack specialty outlets.


Cutthroat Island
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Buy it... if you define your swashbuckling pirate music by the parameters of Hollywood's Golden Age and seek the one truly impressive translation of that sound to a masterful digital-era recording.

Avoid it... if loquacious bombast of relentless and dramatic orchestral and choral intensity, consistent in its massive scope over the course of two hours, is simply too much ruckus to tolerate (no matter the score's status as a modern classic).

Cutthroat Island: (John Debney) If you measure the success or failure of a motion picture production only by its profitability, then Cutthroat Island ranks among the most disastrous ventures in the history of Hollywood. Costing $92 million and only returning $10 million in domestic performance, the film suffered the consequences of a tragic series of production failures and mishaps. The concept of a large-scale swashbuckling adventure on the high seas was frightfully overdue by the 1990's, with the last major entries in the genre long forgotten in the 1950's. Unfortunately, the loss of two of the three lead actors in the days before the beginning of production, endless changes in the script (extending well into the filming), and the last-minute loss of a composer for the soundtrack all compounded the problems. Despite being quite entertaining in parts, Cutthroat Island was doomed by terrible word of mouth, and the endeavor largely ended the cinematic careers of director Renny Harlin, his wife and lead actress Geena Davis, replacement lead actor Matthew Modine, and, most importantly, forced the Carolco studio itself towards its inevitable bankruptcy. It didn't do much good for producer Mario Kassar either, whose first choice to score the film was David Arnold, the young Brit whose meteoric rise to the mainstream of Hollywood scoring was supported by Kassar's recent projects. Arnold, however, would have to bow out of the production due to scheduling conflicts. He had spent two weeks writing music for Cutthroat Island, and, by his own admission, "a few bits and pieces" of the ideas he conjured for the film would be adapted into Independence Day. He would have his own opportunity six years later to spread his wings in the swashbuckling genre, to an extent, with The Musketeer. While Arnold was pleased by his material for Cutthroat Island, none of it was actually recorded, and contrary to popular belief, the replacement composer did not use any of Arnold's ideas in his own music for the film. That replacement was the little-known John Debney, who career had already been hyperactive with the same B-rate projects that still earn him most of his paychecks fifteen years later.

The rampant speculation about John Debney's score for Cutthroat Island is due to the simple fact that so many of the constructs and orchestration heard in its various parts are so similar to the style that Arnold would perpetuate in his own career during the 1990's. With both composers claiming that they had no effect on each other for the purposes of Cutthroat Island, it would be most likely that Arnold's music for Independence Day was influenced by Debney and not vice versa. Adding fuel to fire of the debate has been the intriguing circumstance of Debney's inopportunity to return to the genre in order to flesh out his ideas further and stake a claim to the style of the music over the wishes of Arnold's somewhat stubborn fanbase. Also interesting to note is that the only other composer working in Hollywood during the 1990's and 2000's whose music comes close to the style of Cutthroat Island is Alan Silvestri, who was originally set to score the first of the hugely popular Pirates of the Caribbean films before he was sacked in favor of the Hans Zimmer machine of industrialized (faux-)orchestral music. One of the reasons why Cutthroat Island is held with such resoundingly high regard by traditional film score collectors is because it does exactly what Debney set out to accomplish: pay tribute to the masters of the Golden age who defined the concept of orchestral pirate music (and most of this sound is owed to Erich Wolfgang Korngold's extensive influence going back to the mid-1930's) and modernize the concept with an ambitious combination of the London Symphony Orchestra and London Voices. Debney succeeded so well in providing a satisfyingly powerful and current reincarnation of the old swashbuckling spirit that many of the fans who cherish Cutthroat Island are the same ones who despise (or at least marginalize) the Zimmer-led production of music for a Pirates of the Caribbean franchise that features sounds more appropriate for modern military thrillers than the genre it resides within. The soundtrack was one of the few enduring highlights of Cutthroat Island, and Debney seems to be among the few crew members unscathed by the film's poisonous touch.

Not only was the score for Cutthroat Island considered a breakthrough and a superior effort at the time, placing Debney on the map for a wide variety of studios and producers, but it has endured extremely well over the subsequent dozen years since its recording. Debney himself looks fondly back at the experience; he would not set foot in the same recording studio until 2004's The Passion of the Christ, and even he recognizes that Cutthroat Island --no matter how troublesome the production turned out to be-- is his crowning achievement from an artistic standpoint. And why not? It's about as rowdy and ambitious of an orchestral composition written anytime in the digital age. The only aspect of the score better than the updated vibrance of the swashbuckling genre is the quantity of it. The film would feature over two hours of music, requiring Debney to write and record at an incredible pace. The music literally exudes the sense of urgency and excitement that Debney must have been feeling when writing it. The rhythmic movement of his score is relentlessly charged, overwhelming at its best and engaging at its worst. A bold attitude is never absent from Cutthroat Island; the music continuously strikes an aggressive tone and hits the listener over the head with it in a deceptively elegant manner. Part of the recording's success is owed to the phenomenally athletic performance by the London performers. Only John Williams (and perhaps James Horner on a rare occasion) could work out this ensemble to such an ambitious level. Precise orchestrations led by Brad Dechter and even more precise performances by the group offer a resilient power that never yields in the score's major statements. The percussion section earns significant kudos; the performer on the cymbals alone must have been on his or her toes during the entire process. The choir features a masculine, adult sound without emulating the more uniform tones of Hans Zimmer's maturing usage at the same time. Debney employs it somewhat sparingly given the impressive length of the recording, but the usage is made to count when necessary. The vocal group also stretches to meet some unconventional needs, including some deep throat-style groaning in "Escape from Mordechai's."

Three major themes occupy most of the bombastic and memorable portions of the score, with several less obvious motifs securing transitional sequences throughout. Two of the three ideas overlap regularly, and they are the representation of Davis' character of Morgan as well as an overarching adventure interlude for the entire film. Because of Morgan's heroics from start to finish, her idea is natural to represent the bulk of the running time, and an extended treatment of these interwoven two ideas exists twice in "Main Title/Morgan's Ride." A better example of the film's general action theme is "Carriage Chase," an exhausting seven minutes of glorious action that, in places, pulls some ideas for the brass section from Horner's The Rocketeer. The other major thematic idea for Cutthroat Island is the love theme, and while there are some characteristics of the preceding action themes that would resemble Arnold's Independence Day, this sweeping string theme for the two leads is a shameless pull at Arnold's Stargate. This theme, more than the others, is responsible for the speculation about Arnold's involvement, even in the case of temp track imitation that Debney has been known for in the hectic schedule of his later career. In the film, the love theme doesn't receive as full a treatment as would be presented on the various album releases, though "Discovery of the Treasure" provides some development. Other minor motifs inhabit Cutthroat Island, including a growling of low-range brass and percussion for the evil uncle Dawg character. A sailing motif highlighted by "Setting Sail" is a blatant pull of inspiration from Korngold (quite shameless, really), but its execution is so dynamic that you can't help but admire the tribute. A theme of wonder, used during some of the more poignant, fantasy-laced parts of the film, mirrors the choral style of James Newton Howard in scores ranging from Waterworld to I Am Legend, led by the majestic "To the Bottom of the Sea." Subtle representation in the orchestration is used for smaller elements; the incorporation of tingling percussion in a cue like "Discovery of the Cave" is saturated with the anticipation of gold. Likewise, the more usual use of clanging percussion is always a good accompaniment for sword-fighting scenes.

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The complexity with which Debney weaves his themes together is astounding. Some of the more outrageous action cues offer two simultaneous lines of counterpoint to the primary statement, producing a harmonious result that is as surprisingly adept at a technical level as it is entertaining. His arrangement of the primary themes, as well as a wealth of unique secondary material, keeps Cutthroat Island fresh despite its lengthy running time. It's not uncommon for both reviewers and fans alike to comment on the urge to leap out of their seats and conduct along with the score while enjoying it in privacy, and while it may be a rare circumstance when such a massive action score causes that reaction, there is an understandable infectious appeal built into the score's refusal to quit. The album situation for Cutthroat Island was less than optimal for its first ten years in release. Two albums distributed in 1995 offered 70 minutes of the score's most important material, arranged by Debney into a satisfying listening experience. The Silva Screen release from Europe was the most widely available of the releases; an American counterpart with the same contents under the suspect nu.Millenia label offered seemingly poorer sound quality. While the American album completely disappeared from the market, copies of the 1995 Silva product circulated with regularity until an expanded treatment was offered for Cutthroat Island by the Prometheus soundtrack specialty label in 2005. On two CDs, 146 minutes of material was offered in remastered sound quality (you still have to love those wildly rolling cymbals) and in film order. Alternate takes and other music not included in the film are accompanied by a seven-minute demo that Debney used to be hired for the project (which is really interesting despite its sparse electronic rendering... only minor tweaking was needed to translate the cue to the final recording). The additional material varies widely, with some of it impressive enough to justify the release, but none is as dramatically elegant as "The Wedding Waltz," which did not make the film's cut. Overall, Cutthroat Island is a rare score that can support a comprehensive 2-CD release, and while the original 70-minute Silva album itself was enough to merit five stars, the Prometheus presentation simply lengthens the enjoyment with few detriments. Seek either album with the utmost confidence. ***** Price Hunt: CD or Download

Bias Check:For John Debney reviews at Filmtracks, the average editorial rating is 3.23 (in 49 reviews)
and the average viewer rating is 2.97 (in 43,789 votes). The maximum rating is 5 stars.

 Viewer Ratings and Comments:  

Regular Average: 4.24 Stars
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   Holy crap, it's awesome!
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 Track Listings (1995 Albums): Total Time: 70:24

• 1. Main Title/Morgan's Ride (4:38)
• 2. Carriage Chase (7:20)
• 3. The Language of Romance (2:39)
• 4. Setting Sail (1:03)
• 5. To the Bottom of the Sea (2:43)
• 6. Morgan Takes the Ship (4:30)
• 7. The Funeral (1:30)
• 8. The Rescue (3:41)
• 9. Discovery of the Treasure (2:19)
• 10. The Big Jump (2:38)
• 11. The Storm Begins (2:33)
• 12. Morgan Captured/Sword Fight (5:23)
• 13. Shaw Steals the Map (3:30)
• 14. Escape from Mordechai's (2:09)
• 15. Charting the Course (2:19)
• 16. First Kiss (1:54)
• 17. The Battle (6:09)
• 18. Dawg's Demise/The Triumph (3:31)
• 19. It's Only Gold/End Credits (9:42)

 Track Listings (2005 2-CD Set): Total Time: 145:46

CD 1: (72:24)

• 1. Main Title/Morgan's Ride (4:38)
• 2. The Rescue/Morgan Saves Harry (3:41)
• 3. Purcell Snatcher*/** (2:58)
• 4. Shaw is Caught* (1:15)
• 5. The Funeral (1:29)
• 6. Morgan in Command* (2:51)
• 7. The Language of Romance (2:40)
• 8. A Lady Scorned* (1:38)
• 9. Carriage Chase (7:21)
• 10. Ainclee Plots*/To Spittelfield* (3:46)
• 11. Uncle Mordechai* (2:02)
• 12. Morgan Captured/Sword Fight (5:23)
• 13. Escape from Mordechai's (2:09)
• 14. Setting Sail (1:03)
• 15. Charting the Course (2:19)
• 16. First Kiss/Love Scene/Dawg's Plan* (3:12)
• 17. Shaw Discovers the Location* (2:04)
• 18. Betrayal* (2:46)
• 19. The Storm Begins (2:33)
• 20. To the Bottom of the Sea (2:43)
• 21. The Island* (3:41)
• 22. Shaw Steals the Map (3:30)
• 23. Discovery of the Cave* (4:39)
• 24. Discovery of the Treasure (2:19)

CD 2: (73:12)

• 1. The Wedding Waltz*/*** (2:43)
• 2. Caught* (1:37)
• 3. The Rope* (2:17)
• 4. Morgan and Shaw Jump the Cliff/The Big Jump (2:38)
• 5. Shaw Captured* (2:32)
• 6. Morgan Takes the Ship (4:30)
• 7. The Hangman's Noose* (3:56)
• 8. The Battle/To Dawg's Ship*/Morgan Battles Dawg*/Dawg's Demise/The Triumph (17:52)
• 9. It's Only Gold/End Credits (9:33)

Bonus Tracks:
• 10. Main Title/Morgan's Ride (Without Choir)* (4:48)
• 11. Carriage Chase (Alternate Version)* (7:21)
• 12. First Kiss (Album Edit) (1:54)
• 13. Dawg's Demise/The Triumph (Without Choir)* (3:31)
• 14. Morgan's Ride & The Rescue (Original Synth Demo)* (7:25)

* contains previously unreleased music
** composed by Brad Dechter
*** not used in the film

 Notes and Quotes:  

The 1995 Silva album contains the following notes from Renny Harlin and John Debney:

    "John Debney has recently emerged as one of the most talented and versatile young composers on the music scene. It was my great fortune to work with him on Cutthroat Island. He has created an incredible, large scale score, recorded by the 120-piece London Symphony Orchestra. In hiring John, I took something of a chance. I had heard his demo tape and loved it, but Cutthroat Island is a huge movie and is extremely demanding and complex in its music needs. However, as soon as I heard John's work, I knew he was the right choice. His score surpassed my wildest expectations. Every time I arrived at the studio, I was amazed at his inventiveness and talent. It was always a pleasure to hear his latest melody." -- Director Renny Harlin

    "Where to begin? I was thrilled when I recieved word that I would be composing the score for Cutthroat Island. Rarely does a composer get the chance to write music for a canvas as large in scope and adventure as this film. When Renny Harlin first showed some footage to me from the film I became even more excited and yet a bit apprehensive. The score, I felt, had to be every bit as large and grand as the film. I wanted it to harken back to the great pirate/adventure scores of old and yet not be "Old Fashioned". Also, from what Renny said, there would be a tremendous amount of music needed. A bit daunted I pressed ahead. Almost 2 hours of music later, I jumped on a plane and was immediately blown away upon hearing the impassioned performace of my score by The London Symphony Orchestra (complimented by The London Voices). Needless to say, it was a glorious series of recording sessions at Air Lyndhurst Hall in London. Renny was terrific to work with and I will always be deeply grateful for his belief, loyalty, and support on this score. Enjoy!" -- Composer John Debney

The correct order of tracks for the 1995 albums (as they appear in the film) is as follows: 1, 8, 7, 3, 2, 12, 14, 4, 15, 16, 11, 5, 13, 9, 10, 6, 17, 18, 19

The 2005 Prometheus album includes extensive notes from Paul Tonks about the score and film, as well as a revised note from John Debney (written in November, 2004) looking back at the experience fondly.

  All artwork and sound clips from Cutthroat Island are Copyright © 1995, Silva Screen Records FILMCD 178 (European), Nu.millennia 00009-4 (American), Prometheus Records XPCD 157. The reviews and other textual content contained on the site may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of Filmtracks Publications. Audio clips can be heard using RealPlayer but cannot be redistributed without the label's expressed written consent. Page created 3/31/98 and last updated 2/10/08. Review Version 5.1 (PHP). Copyright © 1998-2015, Christian Clemmensen (Filmtracks Publications). All rights reserved.