Basil Poledouris' final score reunited him with the western, a genre for which he often wrote some of his most colourful and melodic music. Lonesome Dove (1989) is perhaps his best-known, and probably the most epic in scope (the multi-character TV mini-series spanned several episodes and storylines), but in The Legend of Butch and Sundance (2004), another TV production, the instrumentation is scaled-down to a small combo that integrates gentle Americana (conveyed through fiddle, clacking metal spoons, acoustic guitar, and rustic percussion) with discreet orchestral elements, plus some synthesized strings and brass.
The main theme – wistful, jubilant, and full of youthful verve – is an ideal tribute to the legendary outlaws, and the intimate performances by musicians give the score a special lightness that was lacking in Burt Bacharach's iconoclastic orchestral/pop score for that other film version of the outlaws, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). In place of Bacharach's jaunty approach, the more subdued nature of Poledouris' score feels more emotionally earnest, and Poledouris avoids treating the outlaws as familiar characters riding through a comedic action/buddy romp.
“First Robbery,” however, is a cue that breaks the mould of instrumental authenticity; filled with the dense, ascending rhythmic textures typical of the composer, it's further contemporized with an urban beat that works without displacing the film's historical context, and it's a wry infusion of beats, chimes, and fat bass without being too referential to Lalo Schifrin's seventies urban jazz scores.
(The only criticism of the album is that it lacks a bit more resonant bass; the lower frequencies are a bit too reserved, but the overall recording is very crisp, with many of the musicians' performance subtleties coming through clearly.)
Other rhythmically-textured cues of note are “Pinkertons Arrive at Train / Funeral,” and “Not Him! / The Train Heist;' the latter is memorable for the interplay between long chords on strings, brief acoustic strums, and metallic reverberating taps. “Slugfest to Durango / Sergeant” also ripples with a low metallic percussion effect that Poledouris alternates with guitar, and slight Asian harmonics.
Clarinet, multiple guitars, and accordion are all that's used to convey a tender interlude in “Sunrise Bonding,” and there are also some wonderful orchestrations in “What Could Happen,” wherein the timbre of solo violin is seamlessly blended with flute and waves of deep, lamentable strings.
The synth elements are mostly quite subtle, except in a handful of cuts like “Pinkertons Arrive at Train / Funeral,” wherein the first half sounds a bit too vintage Zimmer, in terms of the harmonics of the synthetic brass. (It's a minor quibble, but it's a specific brand of synthesis that recalls way too many eighties action scores that were oft-imitated in countless action and suspense flicks.)
Banjo, guitar, and fiddle are the score's leading instruments, and Poledouris' beautifully evokes the rustic landscape and raw emotions of the old west without delving into musical clichés. It's a fitting swan song for the composer, as it's filled with wit, charm, drama, and warmth, and while fans will relish the diversity and length of the album, it's hard not to feel saddened, knowing Poledouris would've written more gorgeous work in the coming years, filled with the melodic grace of a mature and skilled artisan.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan