(Reproduced as published from the Supertracks release
of "Big Trouble in Little China - Expanded Musical Soundtrack")
Big Music in Little China - Settling the Score
By Josh Horowitz
What happens when you pair together a film director who can't read a note with a skilled sound-effects editor? Lots of synthesized "mood music," which is probably the best way to describe John Carpenter and Alan Howarth's score to Big Trouble in Little China. The score distinguishes itself for its interesting use of "Western" rock instruments (such as guitar, drums, and synthesizer keyboard) while simultaneously maintaining a distinctly "Eastern" feel.
Certain characters get their own musical motifs in the score. Jack Burton, the John Wayne-like protagonist of the movie, is represented by a beefy electric guitar (played most prominently during "Pork Chop Express"). The villain of the film, Lo Pan, has his own three-note entrance theme that also emerges throughout the score, played on the glockenspiel, koto, woodblock, and xylophone. Even the hideous-looking Guardian, a floating mass of eyeballs, has a ghostly moaning theme that adds a further touch of supernatural mystery to an already eerie musical score.
Some of the score's best tracks seem to be polar opposites from each other. In "Lo Pan's Domain," Carpenter and Howarth establish Jack Burton as a "reasonable guy who's just experienced some very unreasonable things" through music reflecting Jack's discomfort with his foreign surroundings. As Wang tells Jack about the reality of Lo Pan and Chinese black magic, the synthesizer provides a soft wailing sound, which, coupled with chimes, evokes a Chinese, campfire-like scary-story atmosphere. These "quiet moments" in the score contrast the other, more action-packed musical sequences such as "The Alley" and "The Great Arcade." These tracks typically consist of electronic rock-beats backing up a wailing electric guitar that plays variations on a 2-1-2 Chinese theme. Ethnic percussion instruments such as the xylophone and wood-block further contribute to the score's Chinese mood.
As a whole, Carpenter and Howarth's score is a treat to listen to for its rocking rhythms, musical variety, and distinctive 80's feel. It is great that the music of Big Trouble in Little China is once more getting the recognition it so richly deserves. Hopefully this CD will keep fans satiated until the next time Jack Burton swaggers onto the big screen…
Josh Horowitz is a fourth year English major at the University of California, Los Angeles and is interested in film, music, and computer games. He is also the moderator of one of the major Big Trouble in Little China sites on the Internet, the "Wing Kong Exchange" (http://users.cybermax.net/~wedge/)
Big Trouble in Little China - Track by Track Analysis
By Josh Horowitz
1. Big Trouble in Little China - Coup de Villes - 3:13
This track boasts an actual performance by John Carpenter as both a guitarist and vocalist of his own 80's rock band, the Coup de Villes. Alongside Nick Castle and Tommy Lee Wallace, Carpenter presents a selection of powerful synthesized rock with a Chinese twist in his theme song to Big Trouble in Little China.
2. Pork Chop Express - 3:40
Carpenter's wild ride into the unknown begins with a truck, the "Pork Chop Express," driven by a wise cracking, no-nonsense Jack Burton (Kurt Russell). The track opens with a wailing electric guitar, one of the more "Western" instruments to emerge throughout the score. As Jack drives defiantly through the pelting rain, his powerful actions are accompanied by a repeating, bad-ass guitar theme with a hard rock beat. Carpenter injects a Chinese element into this motif, bringing out an ethnic-sounding synthesizer with two and three-note percussive sequences. The music has a "road-movie" feel to it, really giving you the sense of a huge truck and the wise-ass behind the wheel going full throttle. As the day breaks after a pit stop for a raucous game of fan-tan, the wailing guitar theme returns and fades out.
3. The Alley - 2:00
Jack meets with his buddy Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), and the pair drive to the airport to pick up Wang's fiancée, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai). Unfortunately, Miao Yin is captured by the Lords of Death, a group of vicious street punks from Chinatown. Driving after them in pursuit, our heroes find themselves in an alley in Chinatown, where a huge battle between two warring gangs is about to begin. Evoking images from Akira Kurosawa's Ran, each gang, armed to the teeth, cautiously pauses in a "Chinese stand-off." The drama of the moment is captured through a military-sounding, electronic drum beat that trails off. Finally, the silence is broken, and with the screams of battle and a running rhythm on the synthesizer, the fight begins. A rock-like electric guitar enters the rhythm's fray with Chinese-sounding rising and falling tones. The tension seems to build as the fight escalates, echoed by the presence of powerful wood-block drums. Abruptly, the music and fighting ends as the Storms emerge.
4. Here Come the Storms - 2:20
After a one sided battle between the mysterious Storms and the fighting gangs, Jack and Wang encounter the evil Lo Pan (James Hong) and are forced to ditch "The Pork Chop Express" as they flee to safety. Regrouping at Wang's restaurant, our heroes meet the headstrong lawyer Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) and Maitre'D Eddie Lee (Donald Li). The group plans to rescue Miao Yin at a Chinese brothel, the "White Tiger." The rescue attempt goes sour, however, as the Storms break into the brothel to capture Miao Yin themselves.
The Storms' dramatic entrance is marked by a bell, followed by ghostly, slinking strings to evoke a supernatural mood. As the Storms begin their assault of the "White Tiger," the music swells to a frantic-sounding, repeating high keyboard melody, counter-pointed with a low-sounding electric guitar bellowing out a dark theme. Gradually, rock drums emerge, and the electric guitar belts out a Chinese-sounding 2-1-2 theme. The cue ends with an ambient high-toned synthesizer fading out, reflecting the mystery of the situation as our heroes are left empty-handed.
5. Lo Pan's Domain - 4:30
Still stinging from their failed rescue attempt, Jack and Wang plan to infiltrate the "Wing Kong Exchange," a trading company serving as a front for Lo Pan's secret hideout. Unfortunately, the duo are captured, and after a meeting with Lo Pan (in his 2,000 year-old human form), they are thrown in a dungeon.
The music cue starts with a cello and a ghostly choir mixed with the throbbing sounds of a high toned, sustained synthesizer, creating the feel of an uncomfortable, foreign surrounding. As Wang tells Jack about the reality of Lo Pan and Chinese black magic, the synthesizer provides a soft wailing sound, which, coupled with chimes, evokes a Chinese, campfire-like scary-story atmosphere. A gong marks the entrance of Thunder (Carter Wong), one of the Storms, in the prison. An Eastern-sounding theme plays on woodblock and synthesizer as Thunder, trapped by the escaping heroes in the dungeon, bursts from the prison in a rage.
The music then cuts to low strings and bells to mark the presence of Lo Pan. Soon, wailing voices rise in tension and dissonance as Lo Pan transforms from what Jack calls the "Little ol' basket-case on wheels" into the "Ten foot tall road-block." Wind chimes accompany Lo Pan's new spirit form, and we hear the first instance of Lo Pan's three-note entrance theme, played on the koto, woodblock, and xylophone.
There is an abrupt smash of percussion and keyboard as an action sequence begins between the heroes and bunch of nefarious Wing Kong thugs. Repeating wood blocks slow and fade as the fight ends and the heroes take an elevator deeper into Lo Pan's domain.
6. Escape from Wing Kong - 8:00
This cue opens with a synth-bass and a synthesized, repeating melody. Strings and bells add to the spooky feeling of entering a creepy hideout. Soon, a bass drum beat emerges to signify a confrontation between the heroes and the vicious female Wing Kong thugs. The rock beat grows in intensity as an electric guitar takes over the melody along with a woodblock-like synthesized bass. The beat slows as Jack pauses to talk to the captive Gracie. The electric guitar and rock beat returns with a vengeance as more Wing Kong women appear. Throughout the sequence there are hints of the Chinese 2-1-2 theme.
A bell rings signifying the heroes' escape and Jack shares a brief moment with Gracie in the cramped sewers underneath the Wing Kong Exchange. In their moment of respite, the heroes' strange surroundings are represented musically by spooky strings, synthesizer, woodblock, and koto.
Climbing out of the sewers, Jack and the heroes open a door to escape, only to reveal dozens of Wing Kong waiting for them. A crashing chord reflects this shock, and the ensuing action is introduced by a new intense rock beat. This is Wang's show, however, and a repeating 1-1-1-2 and 1-3 / 1-5 melody accompanies his amazing martial arts abilities. The beat calms down as the fight ends, giving the feeling of wiping your hands after a job well done.
The heroes still have to escape from the Wing Kong Exchange, and the beat quickly rises in intensity. Unfortunately, Gracie finds herself captured by Lo Pan's henchmen, and the rhythmic melody continues as the beat fades into choral voices and strings representing Lo Pan, her mystical captor.
7. Into the Spirit Path - 7:07
Faced with the capture of both Miao Yin and Gracie Law, Jack and Wang summon the help of Egg Shen (Victor Wong) and his Chang Sing warriors. The group descends into the tunnels underneath Chinatown in an attempt to infiltrate Lo Pan's hideout.
As the group walks through the mysterious tunnels, an Asian theme plays on the xylophone, woodblock and tambourine. At one point Egg begins to tell Jack about Lo Pan's place in ancient Chinese history, accentuated with a high, ghostly sliding synthesizer and a low choir to establish a mood of mystery in a foreign surrounding.
Soon, Jack Burton and company arrive inside the underground palace where Lo Pan is to marry his two captive girls with green eyes, Miao Yin and Gracie. As guards march down the main corridor, their presence is marked by Lo Pan's powerful four-note theme on a sitar and high-synth with choir. The music begins to rise in urgency as the wedding draws closer.
Suddenly, the hideous looking Guardian confronts our heroes. We hear ghostly wailing rise in pitch in front soft, eerie strings as the floating eyeball reports the intruders' presence to Lo Pan. The music fades out as Jack finally shoots the thing.
A bass motif of continuous notes with high synthesized strings then accompanies the heroes as they search for an entrance to the wedding chapel. Suddenly Lo Pan's four-note theme returns in swell and grandeur as the scene shifts to the evil spirit descending an escalator to the wedding stage.
Returning to the heroes, a soft theme on synthesized brass signifies the time to drink Egg's magic potion from the "six demon bag." After a hearty Americanized toast, Jack drinks and can "see things no one else can see" and "do things no one else can do." The music has a gritty determination to it that steps through the haze of the mystery and unfamiliar surroundings, only fading as the heroes descend in an elevator to crash Lo Pan's wedding.
8. The Great Arcade - 10:00
Attended by dozens of Wing Kong thugs, Lo Pan's wedding ceremony has begun. The ritual is marked almost nightmarishly by a church organ mixed with bells, strings, and horns to give it an exotic, Eastern feel. Before the ceremony can be completed, ghostly moans emerge as the Guardian sees our heroes, and signals Lo Pan. As Wang slays the eyeball, shouts rise up and a rock beat emerges to signify a new fight between the Wing Kong and the Chang Sing. An electric guitar wails throughout this new musical section, which has a bit more intensity than the music in "The Alley." The martial arts chaos that ensues is picked up with steel-drum synth, and an electric guitar that wails a variation on the 2-1-2 Chinese theme.
During a spectacular aerial sword fight between Wang and the Storm Rain (Peter Kwong) , a steel drum synth plays a scale-like rising and falling melody, coupled with many jumpy notes to keep up with the action. Eventually, Wang's skill bests the sword-fighting Storm.
Soon Egg Shen confronts his nemesis, Lo Pan, in a magic duel. Shooting out beams of colored energy, the duo play a form of virtual-reality video game involving mystical swordsmen. Lo Pan gleefully flexes his thumbs like joysticks as Egg struggles to hold on. Musically, the duel is accompanied with chimes and a ghostly choir in front of the rock beat representing the fight going on around them. Like a boxing match, the duel ends with a bell, and Egg returns to the greater battle.
Jack, Wang, and the Chang Sing are winning the fight, and soon the beat fades as Lo Pan escapes with Miao Yin, accompanied by rhythmic low notes and a church organ. As the cue ends, Jack rescues Gracie, and the two share a romantic moment while they descend an elevator to face Lo Pan.
After a brief pause, a new cue begins with a frantic, repeating detective-like-theme on synthesizer as Lo Pan sees his options crumbling around him. Before Lo Pan can appease the gods by killing Miao Yin, Jack Burton emerges to face him. The encounter is backed by sustained strings and ethnic percussion that grows in intensity as Wang makes a dramatic entrance to help out Jack. As Wang fights Thunder, Jack prepares to use his knife on Lo Pan. The music swells in intensity as Jack misses his throw, and prepares as Lo Pan flings Jack's knife back at him. Amazingly, Jack catches the blade in midair and hurls it back, striking Lo Pan right in the forehead. As the evil one falls, the music goes down with him, with strings fading out.
9. The Final Escape - 4:47
The last track begins with a crashing gong and percussive xylophones and drums to mark Thunder's emergence on the scene. As Thunder sees his master dead, he gets angry and begins to physically expand in rage. During this weird moment, the ethnic high synth slows and becomes more spooky, with dissonant voices rising in intensity as Thunder literally blows up, leaving nothing but synth.
The heroes' troubles do not end with Thunder's demise, however. The last remaining Storm, Lightning (James Pax), faces the heroes. Lightning enters to the sound of a bass guitar and a re-emerging rock beat. The familiar 2-1 and 2-1-2 theme repeats with modulations on the keyboard and electric guitar as the Storm tries to stop Jack and Wang from escaping. Suddenly Egg Shen shows up with a grappling hook to help the heroes escape. As they are lifted to safety, the keyboard plays a frantic, repeating climbing theme. Lightning continues to pursue the heroes before Egg drops a heavy statue on the Storm, finishing him.
Jack, Egg, Wang, Miao Yin, and Gracie flee the Wing Kong Exchange and enter a garage only to find Jack's beloved truck, "The Pork Chop Express," waiting for them. With a roar of the engine that marks 6.9 on the Richter scale and a final dramatic chord, the heroes finally escape.
Copyright 1999 Josh Horowitz - Please do not reproduce without permission.