Jacob's Ladder (Jarre, 1990)


     On of the most eerie and haunting films of the early 1990's was Adrian Lyne's "Jacob's Ladder", scored by Maurice Jarre.  The basic premise is that a Vietnam vet, now living back in the States, sees "demons" among the New York populace.  He also has nightmarish flashbacks to different points in his life.  In the end (spoiler alert) it turns out that Jacob has been dying from a wound suffered in Vietnam during a friendly fire incident, and the entire film is basically a metaphysical vision about his struggle to stay alive and refrain from ascending "the Ladder" to the afterlife.

     Maurice Jarre is probably most famous for "Lawrence of Arabia", but in this film he creates an entirely different score.  Using primarily shakuhachi, double violin, hand percussion, European women's choir, piano and synthesizer electronics, Jarre creates a dream-like, electro-acoustic soundworld which perfectly suits the film's concept of "Earthly purgatory".  There are 2 male and 1 female vocal soloists as well, who provide an added layer of "dream voices".

     One of they key ideas in the film is that one who is afraid to die perceives "demons", but once acceptance is reached, the demons become angels.  The various vocals and choirs seem to musically realize these opposing elements.  The haunting main theme on piano has a beautifully melody, and possibly represents memories of "good times" in the past.  Ethnic "jungle" percussion is often used with Jacob's brief flashes of "real" consciousness as he is being airlifted in Vietnam. The shakuhachi and Indian double violin (usually electronically processed) may represent the pull of "life", since when Jacob begins to accept his impending death, these elements tend to drift away.  In the final scene where Jacob reunites with his deceased son, the synthetic textures give way to orchestral elements, in order to provide a sense of "rightness", and the two ascend up "Jacob's Ladder".
  • Piano: Gloria Cheng
  • Shakuhachi: Kazu Matsui
  • Vocals: Jubilant Sykes, Kari Windingstad 
  • Vocals (male chant), Double Violin: L. Shankar
  • Female Choir: Kitka Eastern European Women's Choir
  • Electronics: Judd Miller, Michael Boddicker, Michael Fisher, Nyle Steiner, Ralph Grierson, Rick Marvin


     The soundtrack is an edited collage of sound materials and sequences Jarre used in the film, including much material that was unused.  Below I noted places where a scene used a particular texture, but in general this soundtrack really stands on its own without the need for any kind of film narrative.  In other words, one could easily appreciate this album as a "dark ambient" record on its own.

Trk Dur Title Music sequence
1 4:18 Jacob's Ladder 0:00: Opening credits, helicopter flies over the Vietnamese jungle intercut with tired-looking soldiers: Soft, haunting piano theme, joined by strings (synth).
1:12: Chaotic battle ensues as soldiers have mysterious seizures: Ominous synth chords, subterranean male vocal moan, shakuhachi/drums, despondent violin/synth figures.
2:55: Jacob creeps through the forest and is suddenly stabbed with a bayonet.  Scene cuts to Jacob on a subway.  Jacob crosses the tracks and narrowly gets hit by a subway train: Suspense texture with metallic impact sounds, hissing/sirens, metallic scrape into shakuhachi, held strings/falling angelic female vocal.
2 7:43 High Fever 0:00: Jezzie and her friends put Jacob into ice water to try to bring down his fever and Jacob screams: Suspense texture with impact sounds/high whines/col legno strings/creaking/impacts/etc.
1:05: Snare accents with women's choir/low piano chords/strings/rhythmic impact accents.
1:51: Jacob kisses Sarah goodnight, and then sees images of the Vietnam sky as he is transported.  He wakes up in a tub with the doctor looking over him, Vietnam flashback continues as Jacob is taken up into a helicopter: Distant female siren calls, shakuhachi/hand percussion, women's choir chant, shakuhachi.
3:06: Male chant with shakuhachi/synth/siren vocal/women's choir/double violin elements.
4:29: Chiropractor theme: Relaxed guitar ornaments/mysterious synth textures.
5:33: Windy synth textures with shakuhachi/high harmonics/buzzing.
6:51: People leave Paul's funeral: Haunting piano theme.
3 8:20 Descent Into Inferno 0:00: Jacob is wheeled through the halls of a bizarre, nightmarish insane asylum: Rhythmic tapping/suspense textures joined by low male vocal moans/howling shakuhachi, double violin/women's choir/metal percussion/synth ostinato, high tremolo figures become chaotic piano/synth figures.
1:34: Sarah and his 2 of his boys visit Jacob in the hospital.  He insists that he is not dead (also: Jacob talks to a picture of his deceased son Gabe and cries.  Jezzie comforts him): Resigned descending piano/soft synth.
2:25: End credits: Humming synth textures/women's choir, siren calls, shakuhachi/double violin figures.
4:04: Jacob sees flashing images of his deceased son Gabe and demons: Metallic buzzing/low string synth/women's choir in slow harmony.
5:09: Jacob looks through a box of keepsakes and thinks about Vietnam: Shakuhachi/synth string textures, joined by add'l wood flutes, male chant and double violin.
6:46: Shakuhachi/synth winds, ambient textures.
7:27: Ominous, breathy atmospheric textures, women's choir wailing with piano chord accents, ambient textures. 
4 7:18 Sarah 0:00: Low atmospheric textures, low moaning/shakuhachi textures, joined by male chant.
1:13: Jacob wakes up from his fever and talks to Jezzie: Soft string textures joined by haunting piano theme/choir/synth textures.
2:39: Dark ambient textures with creaking/scraping/various vocal soloists and choir elements/string harmonics/shakuhachi, male chant and women's choir with double violin figures/harmonics.
4:53: In a cab, Jacob remembers getting stabbed with the bayonet in the jungle.  He is greeted by a doorman and enters his old home.  He finds his old apartment with no one home: Resigned descending piano/string synth texture.
6:38: Ambient breathing/tinkling/women's choir and low male vocal moan.
5 7:14 The Ladder 0:00: In a bar, Jacob and Paul talk about the demons they've been seeing: Low ambient textures/distant female siren calls/low male choir, joined by string tremoli, ethnic percussion rhythm/male chant.
1:11: Double violin/held textures, breathy ambient texture with male chant.
2:48: Jacob's chiropractor encourages Jacob to start walking.  Jacob takes a few steps and smiles: Relaxed guitar ornaments/wind synth textures (processed shakuhachi and double violin).
3:57: Low ambient textures/distant siren wails/buzzing, women's choir wail/synth, double violin figures/low ambient textures.
5:22: Jacob finds Gabe on the staircase of their old home.  Gabe tells Jacob that it's OK and suggests they go up.  They climb the stairs together into the light.  Jacob's body lies dead in a Vietnam hospital: Very low ambient textures/isolated distant siren wails, haunting piano theme/strings, flute, string arpeggios, building layers of horns, strings, female choir.
6 3:06 Sonny Boy
(Al Jolson)
End credit.


Links
Maurice Jarre Wiki Entry
Jacob's Ladder reviews on Amazon
Kitka Eastern European Women's Choir
Kazu Matsui

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