Public Enemies - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Soundtrack Review

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by Chris McEneany Nov 5, 2009 at 12:00 AM

  • Movies review

    Public Enemies - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Soundtrack Review

    Inspired by Michael Mann's moody and visually sumptuous adaptation of the final stretch of the life and crimes of John Dillinger, Public Enemies, and immediately struck by the evocative power of its soundtrack, I have decided to take a look at the score CD and, particularly, the achingly beautiful, yet passionately brooding compositions that Elliot Goldenthal composed for it.

    As John Dillinger, Johnny Depp slips into the role of the charismatic 30's bank robber with supreme ease, paying incredibly close attention to the mannerisms, the perfectionism and the reckless, live-for-the-moment allure that the last-of-a-dying-breed outlaw possessed. As his nemesis, proto FBI G-Man, Melvin Purvis, Christian Bale brings an equal amount of commitment, by matching expressions, turns of phrase and the dogged detective graft that his own painstaking research into the character informed him of. The action was hot, violent and chest-thumpingly aggressive. That the story dove headlong into Dillinger's love affair with coat-clerk Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) and, in some film-goers' eyes, robbed the impetus from the Tommy-gun blazing mayhem that they craved, is of small consequence to a tale that managed to embrace both the romance as well as a lot of the reality of the final months of America's Public Enemy Number One. This wasn't Scarface, it wasn't Angels With Dirty Faces and it certainly wasn't Heat redressed and back-engineered. It was something a little different and I think that it takes a couple of viewings to fully appreciate the collage of moods that Mann shepherds into one fateful direction.

    And such a stylish and dramatic take on the tale would need a score that matched its sense of slipping bravado and inevitability. There would be good times ahead, but they would be gradually overtaken and engulfed by shattered trust and the cannibalism of fame. With the likes of Alien 3 and Interview With The Vampire behind him, the brooding, introspective power of the Oscar-winning Elliot Goldenthal was a ripe candidate for the job of scoring the film.

    Now, as Goldenthal's fans will probably already know, this is actually his first proper soundtrack for something like six years. An accidental crack on the head that rendered him literally speechless for several months bizarrely stalled his creativity until he found the impetus to compose his own first opera, Grendel, and then arrange the songs from The Beatles catalogue to form the soundtrack for the whimsical Across The Universe, for his long-time partner and collaborator, Julie Taymer. But Mann's thriller was the first project to fully coerce him back into the film-scoring fold. Having worked together before on 1995's epic Heat, the two would tread similar thematic ground here, albeit serviced by a sixty year period relocation. Goldenthal, this time out, would use his thick and smothering tonal blankets in a much more melancholic way, redirecting attention away from the sensational side of Dillinger's thrilling raids and the G-Men's ruthless pursuits into the fateful limbo of a tragic, yet all-consuming romance and the obsessional quality of adrenaline. It is telling that frequent and violent gunfire would figure as much on the soundtrack as the score from Goldenthal, as well as the songs from the various other artists who form the gang behind this enterprise. Somewhat similar in conception to Howard Shore's work on Scorsese's Gangs Of New York which, itself, was made up mainly of source cues, songs and old standards, Public Enemies is a hodgepodge of flavours, tones and impressions, musically speaking. But the composer's own material points relentlessly in one grievous direction, Dillinger's own theme, as well as those of Purvis and Frechette actually rolling together as one unified swell of splintered pride, enveloping even the high points with a sense of clock-ticking destiny.

    Either by pure coincidence or ushered-in by virtue of subtle hints from Mann, Goldenthal's music often reminds of Trevor Jones' phenomenal score for the director's awesome wilderness actioner, The Last Of The Mohicans. The same massively doom-laden chords reverberate like the heartbeat of an anvil, announcing destiny in a uniquely mesmerising fashion that totally signifies its unavoidable approach. But whilst Goldenthal's score leads in one singular direction, Mann enlists a variety of provocative era-tainted jazz, blues and big band ballads, standards and moonshine-ditties to punctuate and distil the composer's ominous mood-fugues. In this way the film is effortless in its transportation of us into the vibrant 30's, and utterly complete in its soundscape. What it doesn't do, however, is glisten and soar with Goldenthal's often dizzy and cathedral-like cadences for a vast orchestra, such as the scores he created for Batman Forever and Batman And Robin. Here, he is on much more restrained form, and remarkably spartan with his writing. The film actually repeats Goldenthal's cues throughout, often making you think that there is more of his music here than there really is. But, like Ennio Morricone, who was no stranger to the psychology of the gangster genre, himself (with State Of Grace, to which this score owes a lot, Once Upon A Time In America, The Untouchables and countless European crime sagas to his name) was the unequivocal master of such devices.

    But the album certainly starts off with a lip-curling snigger and frenetic pace.

    Otis Taylor's catchy cat-scratch guitar and banjo-fuelled opening track, Ten Million Slaves, is fast, pulsating and massively evocative of rural shanties and God-fearing farmsteads. In the film, this is Melvin Purvis' introduction, with Christian Bale chasing down Pretty-Boy Floyd (G.I. Joe's Channing Tatum) with a bolt-action sniper rifle. It is a great track and something, with that insanely zanging electric guitar and Taylor's drawling growl, paints a picture of a lawless time full of moonshine, gun-running and contraband. By contrast the following track, Chicago Shake from the Bruce Fowler Big Band, is pure 30's swing and percussion beat. Clashing cymbals, spiralling trumpet and pivoting double-bass wrap themselves around you, the rhythm fast and propulsive and eminently smoky with cheer and grins.

    Goldenthal's first contribution comes next, and a devoutly sombre piece it is, too. Drive To Bohemia, dislodged from the film's own chronology is dark, heavy and loaded with mirthless intent. It is also, very sadly, over before you know it - truly a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cue. The composer returns for Track 4's Billie's Arrest. With a gut-wrenching revelation, strings and piano rip away any vestige of luck that Dillinger once enjoyed as he watches the love of his life apprehended and driven away, whilst he is powerless to intervene. Goldenthal is staking his claim that this is not a tale of joy and roses and he digs deep to ensure that we understand this explicitly. Again, if we are to complain, it would only be at the relatively short cue that the album provides, but the effect is still devastating. In a vague contrast, Track 7's Love In The Dunes is a brief tonal avenue into a dream-like romance that doesn't exactly reveal its bullet-snatched outcome, but doesn't exactly announce any sweet lullabies either. Piano-led and ethereal, this is, once more, agonisingly swift. Phone Call To Billie (Track 9) is delicate, soft and sweeping in horn-buoyed intimacy. It is now typically forlorn, but the pay-off is in the growing sense of affinity that we feel for John Dillinger and his crushed and unrealistic outlook on life. The American Dream, born out of ten years in a state penitentiary, and a fast and wild crime-spree with the lessons that he learned on the inside, has burned brightly in his wake, but his own shortsightedness is threatening to extinguish it before too long.

    Possibly the composer's most epic cue comes in Track 11, Plane To Chicago. Having been caught, Dillinger is whisked off by aeroplane to face trial in the gangster-ridden city of Chicago. Yet when he lands there he is faced with a mass of reporters all clamoring for his story and an even greater throng of what he gradually realises are his fans, who line the streets as he is driven past, all eager for a glimpse of the man that they believe is speaking for them, the oppressed of an economy that is owned by the fat cats and has allowed them to go to the dogs of the Dust Bowl. Dillinger's theme grows to mythical stature - at once dark and sown with ill portents, and yet swollen by a charismatic sense of “giving some back”. Strings gain strength and vigour, bass hammers out the toll of judicial fury, a bell chimes in the distance, mid-way through and the dirge-like rhythm then gathers momentum as Dillinger sits back, coming to understand that he is, indeed, larger than life and that all he has to do is continue to believe in that. At last, though, Goldenthal has unleashed some swagger and might. It is still in-keeping with the grand melancholy of his score at large, but this is the closest that we will get to uplifting. A great and searing track.

    It is now worth mentioning the assortment of songs that bounce around Goldenthal's music. A sultry and haunting performance of “Bye-bye, Blackbird” from composer Mark (The Mist) Isham's wife, Diana Krall means that the lyrical coda that connects Dillinger to Billie gets a smoke-filled semi-Creole cushion of hazy sequins, brushed drums and the seduction of a skin-prickling saxophone. The legendary Billie Holiday has three period standards to offer in the laid-back smooch-riffle “Love Me or Leave Me”, the smelting shoulder-snuggle of “Am I Blue?” and the cosy-toes, crowd-pleasing balled, “The Man I Love”. These three tracks are shut-your-eyes-and-travel-back glories of whisky-tinged regression that waft through the speakers with a vocal caress that is rare and sinuous. Otis Taylor then sets the foot a-tapping once again with Nasty Letter which, after a relatively tranquil start, moves into another lengthy mountain-man bristle-back rhythm that curls and thumps in a swirling welter of liquor-sodden remorse, guilt and hangdog petulance. Wonderful stuff again from the maestro with a voice like gargled wood-chips.

    Apprehensive angst and spiritual absolution comes in the form of the spectacularly weird “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah” which is performed by the Indian Bottom Association, Old Regular Baptists and arranged by Elliot Goldenthal. Eerie, existential and tribal, this paints a more avant garde depiction of the fatality and futility of Dillinger's odyssey. And, in its wailing-cum-murmuring vocal ambience, it conjures darkness in its own shanty-baptist reverence.

    Goldenthal then issues a final statement of the doomed affair in Gold Coast Restaurant, Track 13. A clarinet hauls itself across a softly played piano, the strings then swelling as emotions rise to a pitch that can only implode along with any dreams that the lovers may have for peace and harmony together. In the last act of the film, Billie is captured and abused to make her talk whilst Dillinger, lost and adrift and unfocussed without her and all those trusted men-at-arms he once had, relaxes a bit too much and becomes infatuated with his own legend. Both Mann and Goldenthal have been working towards this eventuality and, in a hauntingly atmospheric climax, their combined talents weave a majestically understated tapestry of defiance and quasi-admiration for myth and factuality.

    The sweetly heartbreaking penultimate track, the rather simply titled J.D. Dies, is a wonderful set-piece of wistful self-ideology (in the film, John Dillinger fatefully sits in the Biograph Theatre watching Clarke Gable go to his execution in Manhattan Melodrama with a confidence and a wit that he, himself, completely understands and empathises with) and remorseless, surging destiny (the FBI are positioned outside to take him down when he leaves), the whole cue turning through a dream of romanticised glory and devil-may-care charm to culminate in a stunningly wrought exercise in heroic resignation. I'm reminded of the cue that Nick Cave composed for the excellent and similarly themed The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, for the build-up and denouement of the title outlaw's final moments and the wretched, but short afterlife of self-defeating lies and shame that his killer suffered afterwards. Bathed with the tranquil lights of nonplussed night-life, Dillinger walks into oblivion accompanied by Goldenthal's elegiac hymn to the hourglass sands of time finally running out. Although I already knew how the real story ended, and even though I doubted that Mann would “go all Hollywood” and drastically alter things, I, like many others I suspect, found myself wishing that we'd had one final blaze of glory ... and one final chance for Elliot Goldenthal to wheel out the big guns. But the more I watched that final sequence, the more powerful and perfect it seemed to be - the imagery, the performances and, of course, the score, all coming together in one terrific, though unmistakably and deliberately subdued fashion of all-consuming irony.

    The last track, Blind Willie Johnson's “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground” is, therefore, the most fittingly melancholy epitaph. Lost, fragile and seemingly crooned in the half-light of a dying fire, the guitar strings vibrate with the mournful smirk of something akin to “I told you so”, the hushed vocals just the contentedly reflective ebb and flow of a wordless litany.

    For such a long film, the score is remarkably short - a scant sixteen minutes, or so, of actually composed orchestral material - and even there what there is remains un-cajoled by variety, Goldenthal's aim to flicker in the final throes and not bask in the flames of sensation. Only the songs and jazz numbers occasion any deviance from a path that is grimly postmarked by tragedy. Thus, the score release for Public Enemies runs the risk of disappointing many with the sparseness of Goldenthal's music. Even the music that he does contribute is predominantly morose and tinged with morbid fate. The numerous shootouts don't have the benefit of his customarily lush bombast, so there is no “action music”, as it were, which may be the cause of consternation for some. But, as I have attempted to point out, the score has been very carefully constructed and its main emphasis directed towards the emotional darkness of the drama and the chaos formed out of the obsessions of both Dillinger and Purvis, and their colliding narratives. The point of it all is the capturing of the ache of desire and its lurking accomplice of guilt, the vicarious cloud of vanity and the guaranteed fall from grace that inevitably follows. In this respect, Elliot Goldenthal does more than enough to convey the conjoined-twins of celebrity and infamy and the gutter-level flack that both entertain.

    With its strains of Jesse James, Mohicans and even Hans Zimmer's Black Hawk Down (Zimmer's own orchestrator, Bruce Fowler, actually takes command for the ebullient Chicago Shake) Goldenthal's score aims directly at the heart and brings its dense thematic wallop home with the poetic weight of inescapable fatalism. Some would call it miserable, no doubt. But I would cite it as being the wounded lull after the battle, a hymn to the conscience that Dillinger, Purvis and all of those who follow them, from either side of the fence, must inevitable feel at a set of circumstances that none of them can simply walk away from. Simple, downbeat and singular, the score leaves you under no illusion that a life of crime has any longevity.

    An acquired taste perhaps ... but the music for Public Enemies, like the film it supports, is dedicated, meticulous and quietly spellbinding.

    Full Track Listing -

    1. Ten Million Slaves (performed by Otis Taylor) (4:07)

    2. Chicago Shake (performed by The Bruce Fowler Big Band) (3:08)

    3. Drive to Bohemia (1:10)

    4. Love Me or Leave Me (performed by Billie Holiday ft. Teddy Wilson & His Orchestra) (3:20)

    5. Billie's Arrest (2:19)

    6. Am I Blue? (performed by Billie Holiday & Her Orchestra) (2:50)

    7. Love in the Dunes (1:48)

    8. Bye Bye Blackbird (performed by Diana Krall) (3:44)

    9. Phone Call to Billie (1:42)

    10. Nasty Letter (performed by Otis Taylor) (5:04)

    11. Plane to Chicago (3:22)

    12. Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah (performed by Indian Bottom Association, Old Regular Baptists & Elliot Goldenthal) (1:35)

    13. Gold Coast Restaurant (2:04)

    14. The Man I Love (performed by Billie Holiday & Her Orchestra) (3:05)

    15. JD Dies (3:54)

    16. Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground (performed by Blind Willie Johnson) (3:19)

    Total Running Time: 46.37


    A film that split the camp. Critics loved it, audiences seemed largely indifferent. Me? Well, I loved it ... but with some reservations. Depp is as brilliant as ever, Bale is better than I've seen him of late, but still adhering to the “no-smile, no-charisma” mode of acting that he has been increasingly emplying. The action is furiously superb and the evocation of the height of the Depression Era is nigh-on faultless. But there is still something missing. The romance between Dillinger and Frechette doesn't convince and, most maddeningly, the dialogue written for Depp is too often contrived and clichéd, and we just don't care enough about Purvis and his crusade. But, hey, I still thoroughly enjoyed it and was gripped by the churning, remorseless drive towards a destiny that Dillinger, himself, seemed aching to meet.

    Mann's decision to use the music of the period as well as a deeply poignant orchestral score from Elliot Goldenthal was a fine and character-enriching one, and the brooding combination of psychologically dark introspection and sometimes rip-roaring big band bombast, glass-tinkling blues crooning and upbeat jazz that resulted is strangely moving and beautific. I know that many score-fans will think this album nothing more than cheat, with scant material on it that is actually composed by Goldenthal, but this remains a beguiling experience, just the same, since the songs and the original score complement one another perfectly in an atmospheric dust-storm of myth and emotion. Like the film, it may take a couple of sessions before its innate mood fully permeates, but the rewards are worthwhile, in my opinion.

    Plus, it is nice to review a score CD that isn't horribly limited in release, for a change. Public Enemies is widely available, folks.

    The Rundown





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