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This is a spectacular album, not just because it made the film great but also because it is perfect for standalone listening in its own right.
The movie is an epic civil-war masterpiece focussing on the tensions between Native Americans and the United States militia. It's a gruelling film at times, but is interspersed with serene moments of beauty, and John Barry's score reflects these fluctuations perfectly.
From the racing drums of "Pawnee Attack", to the soaring strings of the "John Dunbar Theme", this score delights the listener with its poise and variety. My favourite track is "Journey To The Buffalo Killing Ground" which lays powerful french horns over rich cellos: it is a truly dignified accompaniment to America's indigenous culture.
There are 18 tracks on the album, providing just shy of an hour's music. I feel this represents good value for money. Also, the CD insert is full of stunning photographs from the film.
I heartily encourage you to try it.
When Kevin Costner started filming Dances With Wolves in 1989, it not only meant the re-evalution of what we usually would consider a western, but also brought about a departure from the usual way of Hollywood to picture Native Americans as either singularly noble savages or alternatively bloodthirsty ones. Running a full four hours in its Director's Cut edition, the film garnered a lot of popular and critical success, going on to win seven Academy Awards in total (including Best Director and Best Picture), and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 1997. In a way, the film bolstered up a more rounded view of Native Americans and led to other filmmakers taking on similar viewpoints in their own illustrations of the American West, while audiences around the world were also usually favourably impressed with the film and its portrayal of the different American cultures, regardless of the very long running time and that a lot of the film is also spoken in the Lakota language. And, for all intents and purposes, it also shows Kevin Costner at the peak of his career before his name became more aking to a joke after starring in a string of awful films such as Waterworld, The Postman, and 3000 Miles to Graceland, making the once so bankable star end up as box office poison in many ways. The film itself, in case you don't know what Dances With Wolves is all about, tells the story of the disillusioned Colonel John Dunbar fleeing the Civil War into the calmer American West, where he encounters a group of Lakota Sioux and gets acquainted with their way of life. Eventually he becomes accepted into the Sioux family and finds a new sense of inner harmony while also falling in love with an orphaned white woman whose family the Pawnees had killed and who had been raised by the Sioux, while effectually abandoning his older life as an Army officer, something not taken with a lot of happiness by the Army itself. To score the film, Costner turned to John Barry, who was by that time already a multiple Academy Award winner and no stranger to creating epicly stretching scores for the wide open frontiers, as already heard in his recent 1985 Oscar winner Out of Africa, a score Dances With Wolves closely resembles.
Barry's score is a wonderful representation of understated yet epic, simple yet powerful, long-drawn but melodious music. Barry deliberately steared away from writing a properly traditional western score (after all Dances With Wolves is not your everyday western), as well as deciding to not represent the Sioux with much ethnic influence. Instead Barry took John Dunbar as a starting point, preferring to focus on his story; his journey to the American frontier, his encounters and observations with the Sioux, and his assessment of these people. The main John Dunbar Theme is one of the most recognizable themes to rise from the movies in the 1990s and it is a popular addition on many compilation albums of re-recordings. The theme has two distict personifications: one is a small, haunting fanfare with a very noble personality, essentially representing Dunbar's own sense of honour, and the second (more of a main representation of the man himself) is an extended string melody of great simplicity and innocence, that eventually becomes an elegy for the passing of the American frontier. Secondly, to complement the theme specific of John Dunbar, Barry offers a love theme for Dunbar and Stands With A Fist, that is naturally understated, sweet and perfectly in style with the John Dunbar Theme in both tone and overall dramatic style. The third major theme is the Vista theme that has a broad and expansive scenery-like quality to it, basically a two-note motif that raises through a steady progression in an ascending movement, alternating on trombones and strings in turn. First heard in "Journey to the Buffalo Killing Ground" and then making appearances whenever people are essentially journeying somewhere among the breathtaking scenery, the theme is possibly the best of the main themes in its deeper impressiveness. To add to these, there are a number of sub-themes like the beautifully innocent Wolf theme presented in the cues "Two Socks/The Wolf Theme" and "Two Socks at Play" and the score's most violent music depicting the Pawnees in "Stands With A Fist Remembers" and "Pawnee Attack", employing a lot of beating percussion to bring out a more savage sound (and it certainly works I can tell you that).
Despite the simplicity of much of the writing, the thematic grandeur and epic sweep create an amazing aural and dramatic whole that is infused with the everchanging colouring of the orchestrations, though these qualities are not perhaps most noticeable when taking in the whole epic sweep of the music. In many ways Dances With Wolves is the archetypal epic Barry score: it has the lush strings alternating with simple brass interjections, it features the usual repetitons of each phrase on almost every measure, and the strong melodic language is maintained throughout the entirety of the score, making it essentially the grand culmination of Barry's big sound heard profusely in his 1980s work like the aforementioned Out of Africa. As a whole the score is fairly optimistic though slowly elegiac, but there are also a few instances when some very dark and melancholy writing brings things down to a more suffering level to tell you not everything is just happy and easy going. The cue "Looks Like a Suicide" opens the score to a somewhat stark first scene with haunting fanfares, snare drum, and melancholy strings, though the second half features a stridently heroic fanfare for Dunbar's suicidal heroics; the Pawnee tracks feature heavily pounding native drums that have a very barbaric edge to them; the second half of "Journey to the Buffalo Killing Ground" uses a minor key version of the John Dunbar theme to a great effect; and the haunting piano and choir in the beginning of "Stands With A Fist Remembers" creates a wonderful feeling of past memories. However, these are offset by many a positive outing, most noticeably in the journey music in "Journey to Fort Sedgewick" that has a wonderful sense of movement to it, in the exceedingly warm music in "Falling in Love", or in the last cue "Farewell and End Title" which finally showcases all the themes heard in a 9-minute suite.
There are three album releases of the score in existence. The original 1990 album of some 50 minutes in length contains just about all the basic material a random film score fan is likely to require. All the important tracks are here and Barry's achievement is showcased in a very good and coherent way, with good sequencing and a very good recording quality. In 1995 the score was reissued as a 24K Gold-release (the series also including Apollo 13 and Schindler's List). The contents were identical to the original album apart from the inclusion of three bonus tracks. Two of them were pop versions of a couple of themes and the third was the cue "Fire Dance", written by Peter Buffett, which however is a little too pop-oriented to mesh well with Barry's score. Coinciding with Barry's 70th birthday In 2004, an extended release of the album was made available, this time including over 75 minutes of music. The most interesting additions to this expanded release is the film version of the "Buffalo Hunt" that is even more strident and Western-like than the previous album version (which is also included as a bonus track), composed because Costner wanted something more akin to Aaron Copland for the scene against Barry's objections. There is also the film version for "The John Dunbar Theme" that is basically similar to the album version, but ends with a gentle flute rendition rather than the usual string arrangement. Other interesting additions are the expanded version of the "Main Title/Looks Like a Suicide" cue, which also features eerie choral writing toward the end of it, the fabulous "Journey to Fort Sedgewick" that is also greatly expanded, and a number of additional little nuggets left out from the original issue, fleshing out the musical journey even better, many of which should be a delight to any fan of the music.
Marketed as being the complete release of the music, the expanded version still does not contain ALL the music from the film. But then again it is doubtful that anything really great un-released cues still remain un-represented on CD, so the excisting expanded edition is quite likely to be a most sufficient presentation of the music. Should you not have any of the Dances With Wolves soundtracks yet, then this expanded edition is the one to get. Otherwise the casual film score fan will probably be content with the original album as there is nothing really that "new" on the extended version. In the event, Barry garnered his fourth Academy Award for Dances With Wolves, and rightfully so. Dances With Wolves is a timeless score, presenting music that is dramatic, epic and tuneful through and through, and works wonderfully with the film itself, though for anybody not a fan of Barry's writing in the past, neither does the score present anything inherently new, and will most likely not change your opinion on Barry. However, this score is a classic of the 1990s, and it will probably remain as the greatest achievement in John Barry's career. A true must have in even the smallest of soundtrack collections and a work of art that will endure the test of time.
Original 1990 album
1. Main Title - Looks Like a Suicide (3:59)
2. The John Dunbar Theme (2:16)
3. Journey to Fort Sedgewick (3:25)
4. Ride to Fort Hays (2:00)
5. The Death of Timmons (2:25)
6. Two Socks - The Wolf Theme (1:30)
7. Pawnee Attack (3:49)
8. Kicking Bird's Gift (2:10)
9. Journey to the Buffalo Killing Ground (3:43)
10. The Buffalo Hunt (2:42)
11. Stands With A Fist Remembers (2:00)
12. The Love Theme (3:46)
13. The John Dunbar Theme (2:04)
14. Two Socks at Play (1:59)
15. The Death of Cisco (2:14)
16. Rescue of Dances With Wolves (2:09)
17. The Loss of the Journal and the Return to Winter Camp (2:09)
18. Farewell and End Title (8:46)
Expanded 2004 album
1. Main Title/Looks Like a Suicide** (7:34)
2. Ride to Fort Hayes (2:02)
3. Journey to Fort Sedgewick/Shooting Star/John Dunbar Theme/Arrival at Fort Sedgewick** (4:55)
4. The John Dunbar Theme (2:18)
5. The Death of Timmons (2:25)
6. Two Socks/The Wolf Theme (1:31)
7. Stands With A Fist Remembers (2:11)
8. The Buffalo Robe (2:12)
9. Journey to the Buffalo Killing Ground (3:39)
10. Spotting the Herd* (1:49)
11. The Buffalo Hunt (Film Version)* (4:33)
12. Fire Dance (by Peter Buffett)* (1:40)
13. Two Socks at Play (1:59)
14. Falling in Love* (3:04)
15. Love Theme (3:46)
16. The John Dunbar Theme (2:06)
17. Pawnees/Pawnee Attack/Stone Calf Dies/Toughest Dies** (6:15)
18. Victory* (1:03)
19. The Death of Cisco (2:14)
20. Rescue of Dances With Wolves (2:09)
21. The Loss of the Journal/The Return to Winter Camp (2:09)
22. Farewell/End Titles (8:46)
23. The Buffalo Hunt (Album Version) (2:44)
24. The John Dunbar Theme (Film Version)* (2:22)
* Previously unreleased
** Contains previously unreleased material
Music Composed and Conducted by John Barry
Orchestrated by Greig McRitchie and Mark McKenzie
Recorded at Columbia Studios, Los Angeles
Recording Engineer: Shawn Murphy
Assistant Engineer: Sue McLean
Music Editor: Clif Kohlweck
Epic/CBS, 1990 (467591 2)
Epic/Legacy, 2004 (EK 63555)
© berlioz, 2005/2008
Fans of the film will like this album. It brings back the almost haunting emotion with a great score. The john Dunbar theme has been used again and again for various soundtracks and it really brings the film together. Its the sort of album you might play on a rainy day after walking your dog. Sit down with a nice cup of tea and chill with the peaceful melodies of John Barry. Trouble is it does get a bit sammy.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Main Title
2 Looks Like A Suicide
3 John Dunbar
4 Journey To Fort Sedgewick
5 Ride To Fort Hays
6 Death Of Timmons
7 Two Socks The Wolf
8 Pawnee Attack
9 Kicking Bird's Gift
10 Journey To The Buffalo Killing Ground
11 Buffalo Hunt
12 Stands With A Fist
14 Love Theme
15 John Dunbar (1)
16 Two Socks At Play
17 Death Of Cisco
18 Rescue Of Dances With Wolves
19 Loss Of The Journal And The Return To Winter Camp
20 Farewell And End Title