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MohicanLand Musical Musings: The Last of the Mohicans

From The Online Magazine of Motion Picture and Television Music Appreciation

Film Score Daily, July 28, 1997

SEX! or: Why Some Soundtracks Is So Popular
by David Dodson

The following is reprinted from [Film Score Monthly] #50, October 1994 (see the backissue list for ordering instructions). Although it was written over two and a half years ago, it is still very enlightening and relevant to an interesting aspect of soundtracks on CD:

Film studios and soundtrack labels often prognosticate optimistically of a soundtrack's sales performance. Labels see their soundtrack's affiliation with a studio's priority release of the season and feel confident of the length of the coattails. Labels work to have their product in the stores synchronous with the film on the generally held truism that 50% of all people who buy a soundtrack will do so in the first week of a film's release. So the film comes out, has the highest per screen average of the year, cracks $100 million in 20 days and, baby, we're looking at album sales of... 8,000 units. What happened?

Remember, I'm talking about fully instrumental/ orchestral soundtrack albums only. It would not be accurate to include titles such as Robin Hood, where in addition to Kamen's score, you had the Bryan Adams single to motivate sales to almost a million and a half units. The same is true of Ghost (over 600,000 units sold), Far and Away (with the Enya song, almost 200,000 units sold) and T2 (Guns and Roses, almost 200,000 sold).

SoundScan sales figures show that the average sales for an instrumental-only soundtrack album sit at around 12,800 units. Some albums, such as [composer John] Williams' Jurassic Park, will sell 526,000 units but since Jurassic is the most successful picture of all time, this can't be used in our model. Titles such as Dances with Wolves, The Last of the Mohicans, Out of Africa and Somewhere in Time have something else in common and, I believe, can be used to extrapolate a couple of ground rules for success. Because films grossing much more than these four pictures have sold far fewer soundtrack albums (Silence of the Lambs, 35,000 albums sold), let's look at these titles for a moment and try to see why they might be exceptions to the soundtrack album sales norm.

Dances with Wolves - 999,216 sold
Out of Africa - 386,645 sold
The Last of the Mohicans - 815,458 sold
Somewhere in Time - 460,371 sold
(SoundScan figures for week of August 17, 1994)

Let me first say that these ideas are not law and not rule because both were made to be broken and frequently are. I'm also aware that some of what I'm suggesting contains issues of political correctness that some may find contentious. Why the disclaimers? I want to do everything I can to head off unrelated argument. I'm only attempting to elucidate a pattern which I feel to be too powerful to dismiss. So...

We want to answer the question of why these records were so successful. I say it's sex. All four of these titles have clearly defined gender roles, reinforcing "traditional" sex roles, substantially depicting a time when men were men and women were women. These are films where men are just downright dominant and women are willfully submissive (pardon the oxymoron). The men are protective while the women want only to be protected (Out of Africa's Karen Blixen is a notable exception, but this, again, is also contentious). These films are unabashedly romantic. [No argument there - SFM.]

These films reinforce patterns of sexual politics that have been around for over thousands and thousands of years. No kidding. Australopithecus afarensis first attained bipedalism 500,000 years ago resulting in the disappearance of nomadism in early humans. Base camps began to be established and our ancestors became dependent on a division of labor wherein females wandered less and devoted more time for care of the young and males dispersed widely in search of animal prey. What does this have to do with anything? Remember Robert Redford striding up to the train at the beginning of Out of Africa carrying a big tusk? Remember Hawkeye's long, long rifle in Mohicans? Remember how the women in these films cooed over their performances? Patterns of male strength and dominance are not recent cultural constructs and, at the risk of over- complicating the argument, the films named are in line with these patterns.

Sales demographics show that many more women than men are the purchasers of the above-named scores. A glance at contemporary culture and the interaction of the sexes shows that women have not yet been allowed the same privileges of the aggressive, competitive Man. Of course the ideal of a truly egalitarian society is to create an environment in which women have the absolute freedom to choose whether or not they want to behave in the frequently self-destructive and roughshod manner of men in business and in their personal lives. But the men in these films are very attuned to the "virtues of the simple life." They are determined to live in conscious harmony with the natural world and this, I feel, makes them very appealing to female viewers.

This is not to disparage the Contemporary Male but large-scale market success depends on tapping into something more than cultural idealism. And if we are to give credence to the demographics mentioned above, this may in itself account for a large portion of album sales. (Another related example is Edward Scissorhands. With 129,000 albums sold, it's not hard to find the innocence and the simple purity in the love story.) The music in these films speaks to this grand idea. And it is grand when you consider the Bierstadt-inspired settings of most of these films. The archetypal emotions within them are indelibly woven into the music and so becomes a kind of dream desire.

Then there's the issue of nature. I don't mean the birds and the bees nature of the above paragraph. I mean the great outdoors nature, the untamed wild. Somewhere in Time is somewhat of an exception here but remember, I'm talking generalities. These films have physical settings of almost mythologized scale. The Great Plains. Virginal American forest. African savannas: the headwaters of creation. It's important not to underestimate the significance of films wherein the protagonists are living within Earth's "nurturing bosom." The virtue is in the land. These films rejoice in the chastity of nature, unviolated by civilization. Nature's promise is fulfilled. All of us who live in the urban pressure-cooker (and who buy CDs) probably at times hanker for a way out of urban clutter and market- driven materialism. I do, anyway. So I don't think it's a stretch to say that simplicity of life and love appeals to the most fundamental parts of all of our souls and in these cases, sells records.

It's also easily understood that these soundtracks are sequenced and programmed in a very listenable manner. There aren't any intrusive pop singles thrown in. A pop single or even a source track from the past century and a half is too much of a disruptive contemporary reference and belies the timeless seductivity of the archetypes within these stories. For the most part, there is a total uniformity to the cues on the record which means you can put it on and not have to jump up and down adjusting the volume if what you're really trying to do is immerse yourself in the primal feelings engendered by these stories. This brings me to my next point. I agree with Lukas Kendall when he suggests that we are trying to "escape into the movies through the music." I think this is accurate possibly up to the first 100,000 units sold. After that, something else is going on. I've suggested some of what this is above. Further, the music from our focus films and the nature of their stories puts us in touch with feelings that make sense in the face of an increasingly complex and isolating world: a world contextualized by the social and cultural constructs in which we live. Look at the love stories in these films. That's the way in.

I'm not pioneering anything here with my sub-semiotic analysis. There are exceptions to every rule. That three of the four are John Barry scores is incidental. He happens to have been typed into this kind of film and has reaped the blessings of good timing. Make no mistake, John Barry is one of the most original and accomplished composers of our day. These are very good scores.

I also want to be clear that I'm not judging the relative virtues of these films. I'm not saying whether or not they and their depictions of male/female relationships are appropriate. I speak only of what these films do, not of what they have done wrong or right. But their records' exemplary retail performances deserve consideration and the patterns presented here are compelling enough to warrant further discussion.

Past Film Score Daily Articles
Film Score Monthly Home Page � 1997-98 Lukas Kendall. All rights reserved.

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