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Empire of the Sun
1987 Warner Brothers

2014 La-La Land

Composed, Conducted, and Produced by:
John Williams

Orchestrated by:
Herbert Spencer
Alexander Courage

Labels and Dates:
Warner Brothers Records
(December 9th, 1987)

La-La Land Records
(June 24th, 2014)

Also See:
Saving Private Ryan
Jurassic Park

Audio Clips:
1987 Album:

2. Cadillac of the Skies (0:31):
WMA (204K)  MP3 (254K)
Real Audio (179K)

3. Jim's New Life (0:31):
WMA (204K)  MP3 (254K)
Real Audio (179K)

7. Liberation: Exsultate Justi (0:30):
WMA (200K)  MP3 (254K)
Real Audio (179K)

10. The Streets of Shanghai (0:30):
WMA (200K)  MP3 (254K)
Real Audio (179K)

The 1987 Warner Brothers album was a regular U.S. release, still available in the late 2000's for under $10. The expanded 2014 La-La Land Records set is limited to 4,000 copies and available primarily through soundtrack specialty outlets for an initial price of $30.

  Winner of a BAFTA Award. Nominated for an Academy Award, Golden Globe, and Grammy Award.

Empire of the Sun
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Sales Rank: 237842

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Buy it... if you seek a wide range of emotions from John Williams in one score, a work straining in its turbulent, sometimes sparse suspense material but redemptive in its famous theme and wondrous fantasy half.

Avoid it... if you require a strong sense of continuity and flow in your soundtracks, because the film's indecision about balancing the horrors of war and a boy's imagination translate directly into a disjointed listening experience.

Empire of the Sun: (John Williams) So much potential went unrealized in Steven Spielberg's 1987 World War II film Empire of the Sun that J.G. Ballard's autobiographical story largely wasted its chance to make a significant impact as a whole on audiences. Like all of Spielberg's films, there are moments of brilliance in his grasp of psychological perspective, and in Empire of the Sun, these highlights come early. A young British boy (played by newcomer Christian Bale on his way to a career of stardom) lives a life of privilege in Shanghai with other Westerners just prior to the Japanese invasion at the war's start, and in one of the director's most compelling and frightening scenes (once again dwelling upon child and parent separation issues, major hang-up for Spielberg throughout his career), he is separated from his family inside a mob of frantic evacuees. From there, the boy ends up in an internment camp for foreigners, learning all the methods of stealing and scamming his way to likeability and survival. The key to his positive mental outlook is his fascination with the sky and airplanes, fantasizing about aircraft battles and maintaining good knowledge of the vehicles. The story lives through his imagination, which is both an appealing element and, unfortunately, the film's downfall. Empire of the Sun went on to several academy award nominations, all in technical fields, and the reason it did not attract better accolades or particularly strong reviews at the time was due to Spielberg's inability to reconcile the imaginative side of the plot with the necessary horrors of war depicted throughout. Because Spielberg presents the boy's life in a series of episodic scenes, Empire of the Sun loses its sense of direction and ultimately concludes without having delivered a clear, consolidated message. This fault is unquestionably reflected in John Williams' music for the film, continuing a fruitful collaboration that occasionally suffered minor hiccups. While veteran collectors of Williams' scores stand by Empire of the Sun without fail, some even proclaiming its greatness, the fact remains that it suffers from the same split personality as the film. More intriguing is the fact that Williams' music for the project suffered from the whims of the director during the editing process, representing one of the only major times when the composer clearly did not see the same larger picture as the director in their lengthy collaboration.

There are enthusiasts of the film who claim that the dialing out or rearrangement of Williams' score, sometimes to a significant degree, is of benefit to the film. While a case could be made advocating the long sequences of Empire of the Sun without any music whatsoever, Williams' contributions simply removed, a full examination of the score as intended reveals that the composer had pretty good idea of what he was trying to do, regardless of Spielberg's alternate vision. The quality of the composition aside, it is a score of two incompatible halves, contributing to the awkward imbalance of fantasy and reality in the harrowing circumstances on screen. On one hand, you hear the jubilant, celebratory music of both the boy's imagination and his eventual liberation (known best in its concert arrangement, "Exsultate Justi"). On the other is the grim, deeply disturbed ambient material for the actual depictions of wartime hardship. Alone, either half of the score for Empire of the Sun would be effective, but together they especially produce an awkward album experience. It was Williams' intention to score the movie strictly from the perspective of the child's mind, explaining some of the use of classical and traditional music, as well as his somewhat alienated relationship to his parents. But the exuberant side of the score, an offshoot of the boy's hopeless optimism about certain subjects like the airplanes, can be received as representing too much detachment and false hope. The light half of Empire of the Sun ranges from the effortless fun of the frolicking primary theme in "Jim's New Life" to wondrous full ensemble harmony representing the airplanes in "The Plane" and "Cadillac of the Skies." In both "Imaginary Air Battle" and "Liberation: Exsultate Justi," Williams explores lovely variations on this material, foreshadowing the warmth and sense of freedom that both Home Alone and Hook would more exhibit to much greater degrees shortly thereafter. The addition of a choir to Williams' standard orchestral tones was something relatively new in 1987, though the technique is as much a highlight here as it would be in Hook and several other later works. The choral concert arrangement of the primary theme (in Latin), "Exsultate Justi," is by far the most famous piece remembered from the original score, though like the similar application of the primary vocalized themes in Saving Private Ryan and Amistad, this recording is not particularly representative of the remainder of the score.

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In fact, Empire of the Sun is dominated in its running time by its frightfully darker half, arguably more interesting music that may or may not translate to an engaging listening experience depending on your opinion of Williams' suspense and horror material. In the most turbulent portions, the instrumentation and tone of JFK and Jurassic Park is hinted, "The Streets of Shanghai" strongly suggestive of the latter. The anguish of "Lost in the Crowd" causes emotional responses similar to equally troubled parts of A.I. Artificial Intelligence. The lengthy "The Return to the City" rumbles with a rhythmic bass horn figure reminiscent of Christopher Young's material from the era. Like the equally long "No Road Home/Seeing the Bomb," this cue is ultimately atmospheric; with whining string effects, lonely shakuhachi flute, faint reminders of a classical existence on piano, and disembodied chorus, these cues maintain a sense of wonderment, though in a distinctly oppressed atmosphere. Many of the score's early family cues are similarly detached in their cooing choral tones, some of which minimized in its impact on the film. Existing by itself is the four minute "The Pheasant Hunt," a straight precursor to the jungle-like suspense material of sparse construct in Jurassic Park and a cue that all but kills the score's flow on album. When you add the movie's source inclusions, themselves disparate in style and breaking up the continuity of Williams' original contributions, Empire of the Sun is a difficult soundtrack album at best. Of particular importance is the "Suo Gan" traditional Welch song that is performed on screen and serves as the boy's own voice several time in the picture, in some ways overshadowing Williams' own music. The original 1987 Warner album for Empire of the Sun featured a typical LP-inspired arrangement of highlights of the score out of chronological order. A 2014 expanded and limited La-La Lands set, however, restored Williams' score to its original length and order, providing not only the properly timed versions of "Suo Gan" and "Exsultate Justi" for their screen edits but also supplementing the classical pieces with numerous alternate takes of Williams' score. There is much to appreciate in the score, though like the film, there is general lack of overarching direction that forces the music to react without consistent references to a memorable core of ideas. As such, Empire of the Sun is the kind of Williams music that is easy to recommend, but it's not a source of easy listening on album to revisit in its entirety too often, the ten minutes of enthusiastic, imaginative portions a clear exception for suite rearrangement. *** Price Hunt: CD or Download

Bias Check:For John Williams reviews at Filmtracks, the average editorial rating is 3.74 (in 69 reviews)
and the average viewer rating is 3.59 (in 338,223 votes). The maximum rating is 5 stars.

 Viewer Ratings and Comments:  

Regular Average: 3.54 Stars
Smart Average: 3.33 Stars*
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 Track Listings (1987 Warner Brothers Album): Total Time: 54:29

• 1. Suo Gan* (traditional) (2:19)
• 2. Cadillac of the Skies (3:48)
• 3. Jim's New Life (2:33)
• 4. Lost in the Crowd (5:39)
• 5. Imaginary Air Battle (2:35)
• 6. The Return to the City (7:45)
• 7. Liberation: Exsultate Justi (1:46)
• 8. The Brtish Grenadiers (traditional) (2:25)
• 9. Toy Planes, Home and Hearth (adapted from Mazurka Opus 17 No. 4 by Frederic Chopin) (4:37)
• 10. The Streets of Shanghai (5:11)
• 11. The Pheasant Hunt (4:24)
• 12. No Road Home/Seeing the Bomb (6:10)
• 13. Exsultate Justi (4:59)

* featuring The Ambrosian Junior Choir and soloist James Rainbird

 Track Listings (2014 La-La Land Album): Total Time: 108:07

CD 1: (75:54)
• 1. Suo Gan (Extended Version)* (traditional) (3:29)
• 2. Home and Hearth (3:50)
• 3. Trip Through the Crowd (2:33)
• 4. Imaginary Air Battle (2:38)
• 5. Japanese Infantry (3:00)
• 6. Lost in the Crowd (5:44)
• 7. Alone at Home (2:43)
• 8. The Empty Swimming Pool (3:14)
• 9. The Streets of Shanghai (5:15)
• 10. The Plane (3:15)
• 11. Jim's New Life (2:34)
• 12. The Pheasant Hunt (4:28)
• 13. The British Grenadiers (traditional) (2:29)
• 14. Cadillac of the Skies (3:53)
• 15. Mrs. Victor and James (2:11)
• 16. The Return to the City (7:50)
• 17. Seeing the Bomb (4:48)
• 18. Bringing Them Back (2:41)
• 19. Liberation: Exsultate Justi (1:53)
• 20. Suo Gan* (traditional) (2:23)
• 21. Exsultate Justi (Extended Version) (5:14)

CD 2: (32:13)
• 1. Chopin: Mazurka, Op. 17 No. 4 - excerpt composed by Frederic Chopin (2:14)
• 2. Imaginary Air Battle (Alternate) (2:41)
• 3. Alone at Home (Alternate) (2:40)
• 4. The Streets of Shanghai (Film Version Segment) (1:18)
• 5. The Streets of Shanghai (Alternate Segment) (2:17)
• 6. Chopin Again - excerpt composed by Frederic Chopin (1:19)
• 7. The Plane (Alternate) (3:05)
• 8. Cadillac of the Skies (Alternate) (3:51)
• 9. The Return to the City (Alternate) (7:50)
• 10. Exsultate Justi (5:09)

* featuring The Ambrosian Junior Choir and soloist James Rainbird

 Notes and Quotes:  

The 1987 Warner Brothers album's insert includes no extra information about the score or film. That of the 2014 La-La Land set contains extensive notation about both.

  All artwork and sound clips from Empire of the Sun are Copyright © 1987, Warner Brothers Records, La-La Land Records. 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 8/11/09 and last updated 8/10/14. Review Version 5.1 (PHP). Copyright © 2009-2015, Christian Clemmensen (Filmtracks Publications). All rights reserved.