The Accidental Tourist

Continuing in my occasional blog entries reviewing one score by the wonderful John Williams for every year of my life, we come to 1988, the year I turned 18, and the score to The Accidental Tourist. By this year, I’d been an ardent fan for about 4 years, having discovered that the same person who wrote the music to my all time favourite films based in a galaxy far, far away also wrote the music to the Raiders of the Lost Ark and ET. And so I’d followed his work since that time, saving up to buy every new soundtrack on vinyl. And so I’d fallen in love with scores such as the Empire of the Sun and The Witches of Eastwick. And then, in 1988, this little drama came out based on a book I’d never heard of. I bought the soundtrack. I listened to it a few times, and then put it away. It struck me as being a slightly disappointing offering from the man who had brought us Star Wars. I didn’t even bother seeing the film.

And that was where I went wrong. this score is beautifully crafted, but it needs to be understood in the context of the film. Because it perfectly fits the rather downbeat, melancholy nature of the film. Many of William’s scores have a life outside of the film. They shine in their own light. This one does have it’s merits, but to really understand what John Williams was doing, the film needs to be watched. And so that is what I have been doing. I’ve sat down and watched the film. And through doing so, I have gained a new appreciation for the music to “The Accidental Tourist”.

First, we have the Main Theme, which forms the basis of the majority of the score. It’s a score built on a downward melody, and even though every line of melody tries to lift itself a little higher in pitch, it never quite escapes that downward momentum. This theme represents Macon Leary, the main character (and author of the titular “Accidental Tourist” books, which explain how to pack and behave whilst visiting other countries.) Macon, played by William Hurt, is a character who keeps his feelings at bay. Through the course of the film we discover perhaps some of the reasons for this emotional detachment. He has lost his only son in a drive by shooting, and his wife Sarah, lost in her own grief, has left him.

In order to train his unruly dog, Macon takes him to a dog trainer, Muriel Pritchett, played by Gena Davis. And so begins a slow and rocky romance. The theme, with it’s various sections is used liberally throughout, often predominantly on strings and piano. In the Main theme above we hear the three sections – firstly a chordal sequence based on A minor and E major, and then a subject introduced on French Horns over the continuing chords. It’s a melancholy tinged theme, which never manages to raise itself from it’s own sense of sad inevitability. I think the chords, endlessly repeating, give this sense – it feels like a life which has reached equilibrium only through refusing to allow emotion of any kind to impinge. However, the next subject has the inkling of hope, played on the piano. It has more movement, and more pitch variation. Yet even it can not quite inject joy into the music.

It’s more positive potential is hinted at in “Trip to London”.

Here, it is lifted by sparkling woodwinds and arpeggios on harp and synth.

It’s in the final scene where the theme finally begins to really come to life and reach it’s full dramatic apotheosis. Macon has left his wife Sarah in a Paris hotel, and is returning to the airport, hoping to catch Muriel before she flies away. On route we experience the breaking down of his emotional walls, as he sees a boy walking along whom he thinks is his dead son. The music becomes impassioned and emotionally charged. Moments later, he spies Muriel trying to catch a taxi to take her to the airport, and he stops his taxi. She sees him in the taxi, he smiles with real warmth, and her face is suffused with absolute joy, all to the sweeping strains of the main theme. It really is masterful dramatic writing on Williams’ part, and the music truly becomes part of the story-telling.

Thus ends the film, but perhaps the most masterful stroke is yet to come, for in the End Titles, titles A Second Chance, give us the most jubilant version of the main title theme yet. It gives us hope that indeed Macon has been able to move past his emotional disability and has embraced the possibility of new joy.

So after experiencing this music in the film, what are my thoughts? The vast majority of the music is formed from the main title theme. Without seeing the film, this can seem slightly monotonous in its repetition. However, in the context of the film it makes perfect sense. It truly is Macon’s theme, and as such goes through some subtle variations as he learns that life has more to offer. In a sense the theme is itself freed from its confines as Macon’s walls come down. And without the film to make sense of this, I’m not sure the music can be appreciated in all it’s intricacy.

So if you’re interested in this score, I’d say try to get a copy of the film, and listen to the music as it sits in the film itself. It becomes a whole new being in this context, full of pathos and luminance.

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