2 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
This past fall, audiences stayed away in droves from the movie “August Rush.” Those that went in rushed out. When a film tanks, the sound track often suffers a similar fate. Occasionally, no matter how horrid or incidental the movie is (for example, “Saturday Night Fever”) sales of the soundtrack can go super nova. I’m not holding out much hope of that happening with the soundtrack of “August Rush,” a collection of interesting but disjointed performances gaurenteed to make directors reconsider whether actors should be allowed anywhere near a recording booth.
The movie is about an orphan, August Rush (Frankie Highmore), the product of a one night stand between American cellist Lyla Novacek (Keri Russell, minus the ringlets) and Irish musician Louis Connelly (John Rhys Meyers, minus the charisma that allowed him to play a convincing Elvis). August grows up as a street performer who hangs out with “Wizard” Wallace, a sage perpetrated by Robin Williams (minus his talent). Wizard resembles and acts like a forced mating between Bono and a leprecaun, (which is pretty much the same thing anyway). Naturally, the mega-talented August wants to reunite his parents and save the world with his music. Well he ain’t gonna do it with this music.
John Rhys Meyers’ private adventures haven’t received many plaudits of late. He recently pulled an alcohol induced freak out at a Dublin airport that left airport security dialing for the equivalent of a S.W.A.T. team. His Oscar worthy postal performance made Amy Winehouse’s recent runny mascara melt down look like a Billy Graham telethon. Apparently Meyers is still traumatized by the ordeal, because his voice still shakes uncontrollably whenever he sings.
The soundtrack’s Zen-dreamy opener, “Main Title,” arranged and orchestrated by Mark Mancina, has subtle but stock flourishes of luxuriant strings and melancholic piano. But there’s also a cloying spoken intro by little August himself, who prattles on about how he connects with his muse: “Maybe the notes I hear are the notes they heard the night they met.” No, August, what you’re hearing is a collective dry heave. Remove the Mayor of Munchkin land’s intrusive narration and you’ve got a striking performance, even if it is predictable.
“Back/Break” is a back-breaking conspiracy between John Rhys Meyers and Steve Erdody, that takes hopped up classical sketches and mosh pits them together with your typical Generation-X boy band guitar-drums-bass musings. The sudden shift in musical direction when you hit the “Break” has all the subtlety of a fatal head on collision. Without even seeing a photo of Meyers, I’m willing to bet this guy is pasty and at some point in his career sported one of those “look at me I’m cool” soul patches. The “Break” part of “Bach/Break” is ridiculously emotive, loud, and pat, with guitar runs borrowed from The Edge, who’s not someone anyone should want imitate anyway.
Meyers gets credit for (or should I say takes the blame for), a sluggish version of “Moondance.” The slower pace points a middle finger at Meyers’ wobbly vocal that’ll leave you mooning your CD player. A well-played harmonica in the Stevie Wonder/Lee Oskar vein nearly makes the time you’ve wasted butt-clenching your way through Meyer’s American Idle performance worthwhile. Fortunately, Meyers only sings one verse before the harp takes over.
In “This Time” Meyers’ voice vibrates so much he sounds as if he’s standing naked on an ice flow in Antarctica. We should be so lucky…”This Time’s” few selling points include a gentle sweep of slide guitar, and some song saving work by the string section, which provides a measure of serenity. But Meyers pushes his limited larynx too far, turning a potentially beautiful song into an ingenuous cheat. He’s acting, not singing, and you can tell there’s nothing real behind what he’s saying.
Guitarist Kaki King has been a guest player with the Fooey Fighters, and has also lent her considerable talent to the soundtrack of Sean Penn’s upcoming flick “Into the World.” King has recorded three solo albums and has already been anointed a guitar wunderkind. Her style incorporates the best of flamenco, funk, folk and raga. She slaps, bangs and plucks the strings without making them buzz or rattle from abuse. King’s two contributions to the soundtrack, “Bari Improv” and “Ritual Dance” put the rush back in “August Rush.” King’s echoey slap guitar work in “Bari Improv” displays her flexible style, pitting Steve Howe-ish electric riffing against an acoustic backdrop that’s also a thematic cousin to Joni Mitchell’s strumming on “Big Yellow Taxi.” Experimenting with a thousand interesting variations on the same chords in “Ritual Dance,” King plays the guitar with the speed of a delighted holy man who’s one with his sitar.
“Raise It Up,” credited to moppet Jamia Simone Nash, is Ben Harper urban gospel lowered by the insertion of an adolescent chorus. I know there aren't many eleven year-olds out there with young Nash’s talent or resume, but please keep her hackneyed chipmunk chirping off my CDs. Haven’t we taken advantage of child acts long enough (and vice-versa.)?
“Dueling Guitars” by Hector Pereira and Doug Smith is, as you might have surmised, a
more cosmic version of “Dueling Banjos.” After a hesitant start, the disjointed picking gives way to some rapid and enjoyable strumming reminiscent of the Jefferson Airplane’s emblematic “Embryonic Journey.”
Meyers’ “Elgar/Something Inside” is more chop shop classical meets modern pop dog dew. Meyers is still singin’ from the cheap seats when it comes to mastering the ear-stabbing genre he’s had a hand in creating. “Something Inside” encroaches on the Tim/Jeff Buckley stream of consciousness folk territory without incorporating its best part – what’s inside the singer’s heart. Pay attention to the sliding strings and silky violin in the background instead of Meyers’ palsied vocal chords.
Perhaps a little too close to the theme song for the ad campaign for beef ( “It’s what’s for dinner!”), Steve Erdody’s “August Rhapsody” sports a rousing mid-western giddy up, then quickly slums to the sounds of the city (dig the brass section sounding like blaring car horns), before slowing to a tranquil conclusion. It gets all wrapped up in its own pretentiousness when a chipmunk child starts wailing, making that particular section of the song unsafe for pedophiles. Like most of the material, it tries too hard to embrace too many styles at a record setting pace. It might work as background music for a motion picture, presumably because you have something visual to distract you, but on its own it’s too scattered. “August” might as well be a rap instead of a rhapsody.
As far as I’m concerned, John Legend is far from legendary. The hip hop Barry Manilow blatantly ripped off the Classics IV’s “Spooky” for his song “Save Room” and got a paid instead of sued. Someday they may erect a statue in Legend’s honor. At the end of the ceremony I’ll coordinate the pigeon’s flight patterns so they can christen it. In the meantime, skip Legend’s “Someday.”
There’s more tired vocalizing in John Ondrasik’s “King of The Earth.” Ondrasik goes by the stage name “Five For Fighting.” Too bad he didn’t bring his four other personalities into the recording studio. Either artists no longer care how they sound anymore or some public relations genius has convinced this generation’s fodder of pop singers that sounding bored is cool. Too bad, because a creative arrangement with a sensitive string arrangement and withering background vocals is wasted on Ondrasik, who sounds like Happy Gilmore trying to whine his way through “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
Let me preface what I have to say about “God Bless The Child” by admitting I’ve always hated the song. Didn’t matter if a legend like Billie Holiday was junkie slipping her way through it or a hack like David Clayton Thomas was resurrecting it for the hippie generation. You have to feel this song to pull it off, and I’ve yet to hear a version by anyone that actually sounded like they’d lived through any of this song’s intended misery. Paul Cole’s career-saving gig was serving as Peter Gabriel’s back up vocalist for his “Up” tour, and she did a forgivable job. So how does she repay the listening public? By recording an American Songbook version with Chris Botti, who wisely tries to Herb Alpert his way through the cocktail lounge arrangement. God bless the child that’s smart enough to press the skip button.
Leon Thomas II was a whack job quasi-jazz vocalist who appeared in full bellow on Santana’s most confusing album, “Welcome.” Well, the sins of the father are not always visited on the son. Leon Thomas III, (who plays Arthur in the film), fashions a funky, strutting, hip hop version of the tired chestnut “La Bamba” that’s so fresh it sounds like a new song. Thomas injects his urban-influenced take with quick blips of horns and rhythmic acoustic guitars borrowed from Babyface. He tends to over enunciate the lyrics, but has a playful delivery. You’re a game saver, Leon 3.
Turn off the CD after “La Bamba,” unless you want to be put into a trance by a Tonight Show Band take on “Moondance.” Actually, trance may be too mild a description. Coma is more like it. Doc Sevrenson may like this jazzy emasculation, but you’ll need a doctor to keep down yesterday’s mid-afternoon knosh because there’s no dancing around how moldy this take is.
Movie soundtracks are often a repository (or is that suppository?) for ambitious, disconnected viewpoints designed to enhance a flick’s rollercoaster ride of emotions. On that note, the diverse throw-something-against-the-wall-and-see-if-it -ticks approach of “August Rush” works. In order to separate itself from the dozens of movie sound tracks that have flooded the market like fertile bunnies, the material on the “August Rush’s” CD needed to be strong, distinctive, and at the very least tolerable. On that note -- maybe they’ll get it right next August. Actor John Rhys Meyers is given too many opportunities to prove he’s not a singer, and the more pleasing musical passages are saddled with American idle trickery designed to appeal to the Gen X audience. There are some brauva performances by Kai King and Leon Thomas III that are worth repeated listenings, but the only rush you’ll get from John Rhys Meyers parched puckering will be when you change the CD.