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12 Monkeys, Paul Buckmaster, 1995, 62:11

I want to point out immediately that the distinctive 12 Monkeys theme is actually written by Astor Piazzolla. The name of the piece is "Introduccion" from Suite Punta Del Este. Buckmaster reworks it several times, but Piazzolla wrote the original piece. That should not detract from Buckmaster's achievement with the rest of the original score. Nor from the masterful way in which Gilliam and Buckmaster put together the diverse musical ingredients to create such a wonderful whole. From the ghostly version of "Silent Night" (track 3) to the multi-part track 21 ("Fugitives/Fateful Love/Home Dentistry"), everything here creates a stunning aural counterpart to the visuals. I freely admit that I think Buckmaster's score might be a bit too relentlessly melodramatic in certain parts (track 11, "Interrogation/Time Capsule/Cole Kidnaps Railly," is an example). But how many films can use music as anti-melodramatically as 2001, for example? Buckmaster does a solid job of supporting the visual proceedings, and the soundtrack has enough variety to keep everyone listening.

Buckmaster uses Piazzolla's "Introduccion" six times, in tracks 1, 4, 6, 9, 17, and 22. Each time it is accompanied by a subtitle, so track 4's version of "Introduccion" is labelled "(We Did It)" and track 9's "(Escape to Nowhere)". As a theme for a film, you couldn't really ask for anything better. Memorable, hummable, more than a little playful, with a bit of a tragic undertone. Track 17's version, "(Quest for 12 Monkeys)", is particularly dark in tone, and has that peculiar getting-under-the-skin quality that goes beyond melodrama into something more visceral.

There is a second continuing theme in this soundtrack. As I stated in my review of 12 Monkeys the movie, James Cole has a recurring dream, set to an eerie violin solo. Buckmaster wrote the theme for Cole's dream, and it pops up four times in a relatively unaltered form ("Cole's First Dream" in track 2, "Cole's Second Dream" in track 6, and so on) and the fifth, in track 23, as "This Is My Dream." I will talk about the sixth version in a moment. Buckmaster has created a remarkably effective theme here, and again, it goes beyond the stereotype of melodrama (in this case, the weepy violin) and becomes something powerful and inspired.

As for most of the rest of Buckmaster's original score, I will say that it is exactly right for the events of the movie. It supports the apocalyptic vision with the appropriate mood. It gets loud and angry when necessary. And a track like 24, "Peters Does His Worst," is not the kind of full-bore blowout that might be expected. Buckmaster pulls a few subtle tricks here, as if to ignore the fact that 6 billion people are going to die. But how can anyone understand the death of almost everyone on the planet? The kind of personal/cosmic parallels with Cole and the apocalypse are neatly contained in this track.

Buckmaster wrote one truly visionary track on this CD, and it's the final one. Track 25 is called "Dreamers Awake," and it is the sixth version of Buckmaster's original theme for Cole's recurring dream. He takes the setting for a single violin and expands it across the possibilities of orchestration. Somehow the music, along with the closing image of the film that it immediately calls to mind (boy's eyes), will always bring me close to tears. Not to say that it is the weepy violins that cause that to happen. More that the conceptual, visual, and aural are so tightly packed here that I am always deeply moved. "Dreamers Awake" indeed.

The use of pop songs in 12 Monkeys is inspired. Most soundtracks include a few contributions which have little or nothing to do with the film from pop artists who are cashing in on some easy money. But 12 Monkeys has that memorable scene where James Cole is expressing his joy about our "clean air" and our "beautiful music". While our air might not be as clean as he seems to think, our music, in all its vivid diversity, could easily be called beautiful. "Blueberry Hill" by Fats Domino and "What a Wonderful World" by Louis Armstrong are both here, tracks 12 and 13 respectively. Then some strange punk/noise stuff, "Comanche," from Link Wray and the Wraymen (track 15). And how do you classify Tom Waits? Well, you can't, and when he's singing about how the "Earth Died Screaming" (track 16), all you can do is sit back and listen in awe at some raw talent. Track 7 ("Sleepwalk," performed by B.J. Cole) is also here, and it plays a similarly strong role in the movie. Ironically, Cole's assertion that music-lovers will never have it so good again ties in neatly with the other apocalyptic elements of the film.

To close, I would like to mention one track that is a bit of a mystery to me. I certainly don't remember hearing track 6 ("Vivisection," performed by Charles Olins) anywhere during the movie. Oddly, "Vivisection" reminds me of Blade Runner, right down to the piano music and a riff on the synthesizer. Perhaps I'll have to watch the movie again with this little mystery in mind.

Last modified: February 8, 1999

Copyright © 1999 by James Schellenberg (

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