November 12, 1999 Leave a comment Go to comments

themessengerOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Beyond The Three Musketeers and Les Misérables, Joan of Arc’s tale is one of the few genuinely French legends to become common knowledge outside its homeland. The story of Joan of Arc has been often told in the cinema, notably by Ingrid Bergman, but never with as much passion or gusto as in Luc Besson’s new adaptation. With young starlet Milla Jovovich in the lead role and able support from a bevy of international stars including Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway and John Malkovich, The Messenger is every bit an epic. Going down an unlikely route for his music, Besson again turned to his friend and long-time collaborator Eric Serra. This was his one bad move. Serra, whose musical roots are in the pop and rock fields, does not have the symphonic knowledge to be able to properly put together a score like this, and his lack of experience has sadly left him floundering out of his depth.

To give him due credit, Serra has tried awfully hard to make a good job of The Messenger. He gathered together a great set of musicians, hired a capable orchestrator in the shape of Geoff Alexander, and went to Abbey Road Studios to record it. It’s just that, after the debacle of the truly awful GoldenEye and the hit-and-miss The Fifth Element, we should have all known that it would be too much to ask for Serra to leave his synthesizers at home and concentrate on purely acoustic music. This is precisely the problem with the score as it stands: there are some great moments involving the orchestra but, when you have 100 or so of the world’s greatest film music players in a room, why would you then disappear and create a synth mock-up of something you could just have easily got them to perform for you while they were sitting there? More than anything, it is the lack of vision and the great untapped potential that annoys me the most about this score. There is a great orchestral score locked inside Serra’s keyboards.

Far too much of the score is made up of dark, muddy electronic thumping and crunching, such as in ‘Joan and the Wolves’, ‘Burying Our Children’, ‘Re-Crossing the River’ and the supposedly emotional ‘The Repentance’, or high-end, eardrum piercing synthesized wails, such as in ‘Trial’. Would it have been too much to ask for Serra to extend himself just a little and rework his synth lines into new material for violas, cellos, even a woodwind or two, as he eventually managed to do in ‘Anger and Confession’? The effect Serra was looking for would not have been diminished, a continuity with the rest of the score would have been established and affirmed, and he would have avoided all the anachronistic problems that come with using keyboards in a period picture.

Where Serra does go for the fully orchestral effect, the score is lifted tenfold, but here too Serra’s comparative immaturity in writing “big themes” is apparent. In a half-hearted attempt to cover up his own shortcomings, it seems as though Serra felt the need to delve deep into the classical archives to beef up his score and lend it an air of legitimacy. The admittedly very attractive main theme, as heard in ‘Talk To Him’, ‘No Amen’, ‘Procession to Orleans’, ‘La Hire’s A Lucky Charm’ and others is highly derivative of O Mio Babbino Caro from Giacomo Puccini’s famous 1918 opera Gianni Schicchi, albeit re-orchestrated for various soloists, while the big finale ‘Angelus In Medio Ignis’ not so much quotes from but virtually restates the familiar O Fortuna from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.

Where Serra does succeed is with his few action cues, some of which are actually rather good. ‘The Tourelles’ is of special note, with its precise beat and Goldsmith-inspired heavy brasses, while ‘To Arms’ builds to epic proportions over the course of its six minutes as Jeanne tries to rally her comrades into battle. In addition, some of the large-scale choral pieces, especially ‘Armaturam Dei’, ‘The Miracle of Orleans’ and ‘Rex Coronatur’ come across well, hinting at the kind of power and passion this score could have contained, although even these excellent cues are marred by Serra’s rogue electronic “enhancements”.

There are composers working in French cinema today who could have delivered a score infinitely better than anything in Serra’s wildest dreams, if only they were given the chance. Philippe Sarde, Goran Bregovic, Jean-Claude Petit, Alexandre Desplat… any one of these would have made a far better job of lending voice to the legend of Joan of Arc than Serra, in my opinion. So, in the end, we are left with what might have been. A score which is occasionally excellent, occasionally awful, often derivative, and overall not as well developed as it could have been in someone else’s hands. Shame.

Rating: **½

Track Listing:

  • Talk To Him (2:30)
  • A Sword in a Field (0:50)
  • Joan and the Wolves (1:16)
  • Burying Our Children (1:16)
  • No Amen (1:52)
  • At One With You (1:12)
  • Chinon (1:08)
  • Yolande (1:37)
  • The Messenger of God (2:44)
  • Find Him (1:20)
  • Secrets of a Strange Wind (4:52)
  • To The King of England (1:35)
  • Sent By God (1:03)
  • Procession to Orleans (1:29)
  • Re-Crossing the River (2:16)
  • The Tourelles (4:10)
  • La Hire’s a Lucky Charm (1:48)
  • To Arms (6:00)
  • Armaturam Dei (3:17)
  • The Miracle of Orleans (2:00)
  • Rex Coronatur (2:47)
  • Trial (3:40)
  • Anger and Confession (2:03)
  • Answer Me (1:13)
  • The Repentance (2:49)
  • Angelus in Medio Ignis (2:15)
  • My Heart Calling (written by Eric Serra and Noa, performed by Noa) (4:20)

Running Time: 64 minutes 13 seconds

Sony Classical SK-66537 (1999)

Music composed and conducted by Eric Serra. Performed by The London Session Orchestra and Metro Voices with Eric Serra. Orchestrations by Geoffrey Alexander. Additional music by Sebastian Cortella. Recorded and mixed by Ulrich Schneider and Didier Lohazic. Album produced by Eric Serra.

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