When you discuss the best modern entry into the Christmas music canon, most discussion centers on Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You." The 1994 song did a fantastic job of paying tribute to the always-excellent A Christmas Gift to You from Phil Spector (1963), bringing the Wall of Sound to the '90s, and it's lived on for over 15 years.
One Yuletide tune that deserves your attention from earlier in that decade, however, is "Somewhere in My Memory," the heartwarming main theme from the holiday comedy Home Alone (1990). Master composer John Williams has spent the past 35 years of his career delivering eminently hummable, popular film melodies, and Home Alone was no exception. Several Williams originals - with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, no less - formed the backbone to one of (if not the) most memorable scores to a Christmas film; now, two decades later, La La Land Records has honored the film's surprisingly rich legacy with a limited edition expansion of Williams' music to the film (La La Land Records LLLCD1158). After the jump, have a look at the story behind one of The Maestro's most spirited score and its new presentation on disc!
By all assumptions, there needn't have been a particularly complex or memorable score for Home Alone. Sure, the movie is a great one to share at Christmas time: a young boy (Macaulay Culkin) is accidentally left behind in his native Chicago when his extended family takes a trip to Paris for the holidays. As the family rushes to come back to him, Kevin McCallister learns to fend for himself, ultimately foiling a pair of burglars from robbing his home (arguably the most memorable sequence, in which Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern fall victim to a handful of pratfall-heavy booby traps). But its success caught almost everyone off guard. Culkin became, briefly, one of the hottest child actors in Hollywood, and the film became one of the all-time box office champions well after the Christmas spirit left most moviegoers (and long after some critics derided its cartoonish violence).
One person who believed in the film early on, though, was John Williams, who had been asked to compose the score after Bruce Broughton bowed out. In one of the many great stories in producer Mike Matessino's liner notes, Williams reportedly called friends and co-workers after viewing the film and enthusing about its popular potential - something he is not known to do. At this point, the composer had won four Oscars, most recently for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and was the go-to guy for whimsical, fantasy-oriented soundtracks. Home Alone proved to be fertile ground for Williams, who delivered a thematic yet slightly offbeat score. (Cues use non-traditional instruments including seasonal percussion, synthesizers and some otherworldly sounds - the mini-epic "Setting the Trap" cue is the closest Williams has gone toward pop music in awhile.) Its combination of seasonal affectations and memorable themes - most notably "Somewhere in My Memory" and the haunting "Star of Bethlehem," both co-written with Bricusse - anticipated some of Williams' best work of the past 20 years, particularly 1991's Hook and three scores in the Harry Potter series.
The original Home Alone soundtrack (CBS Records MK 49565) had a healthy offering of music - nearly an hour of not only Williams' score but a trio of great Christmas pop standards (The Drifters' "White Christmas," Southside Johnny's "Please Come Home for Christmas" and a heartbreakingly beautiful rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" by Mel Tormé). At around 78 minutes, La La Land's expansion delivers the goods - but hardcore fans won't want one disc to replace the other, as licensing costs prevented those three pop songs from reappearing. Instead, we get not only the full, remastered score as presented in the film (including notable extensions of "Holiday Flight," the Nutcracker-inspired motif that follows the McCallister family's mad rush to the airport, and "Phone Machine/Drug Store/Escape Across the Ice," a tense but humorous chase in which Kevin mistakenly steals a toothbrush) and a handful of alternates and source cues (chief among them a jaunty suite of Christmas carols and a pretty rendition of "O Holy Night" written but not used for the final scene).
Interestingly, while listening to the Home Alone reissue as often as I have, I thought about something that age has previously prevented me from experiencing, as other soundtrack enthusiasts have. Those who became a fan of Williams and Generation X film scores in the 1970s and 1980s had to make do with edited, rearranged or re-recorded LPs of their favorite soundtracks, rather than the expanded CD presentations we all enjoy today. While it's a joy for many to hear the original, intended music freed from the vaults, some edits and album sequences stick with you long enough to make any rearrangements seem jarring. This new edition of Home Alone, though a must-buy for fans of great Williams scores and holiday lovers, is the first time this reviewer has felt such disorientation, having held the original, out-of-sequence album close since childhood. Again, this does nothing to detract from this new release; it is wonderfully produced by Matessino - one of the only producers this writer would want tackling future Williams reissues - and his liner notes show a side of the composer rarely seen in performance or interview. (One of many compelling tales in the notes: Williams' rapid-fire collaboration with Bricusse across two continents, and a phone call from Steven Spielberg that extended the composer and lyricist's collaboration to Hook - ideally a reissue in the cards for 2011!)
But the feeling is strange, not unlike creating a new Christmas tradition while balancing the old ones. And that's exactly what Home Alone is destined to become in its newly expanded form - a lasting Christmas tradition that will entertain for another 20 years and beyond.