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TITUS – Elliot Goldenthal

December 24, 1999 Leave a comment Go to comments

titusOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

I was, quite literally, stunned into silence by Titus, both the film and the score. A visually breathtaking, emotionally shattering, conceptually brilliant restaging of William Shakespeare’s timeless play, Titus represents modern film making at its most vibrant. With Julie Taymor, the near-legendary director of several acclaimed Broadway plays (including the recent version of The Lion King) at the helm, and with an intriguing cast that mixes several heavyweight thespians with a group of talented newcomers, Titus is a film which has the power to shock and overwhelm, while still remaining entertaining and (comparatively) true to the original.

The story of Titus concerns the celebrated Roman general Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins), who returns victorious from battle against the Huns with five prisoners: Queen Tamora (Jessica Lange), her Moorish manservant Aaron (Harry J. Lennix) and her three sons. Despite Tamora’s pleas for mercy, Titus murders her eldest son in ritual sacrifice, leaving Tamora and her family swearing vengeance. Tamora finally gets her opportunity when the newly-chosen Emperor Saturninus (Alan Cumming) chooses Titus’ daughter Lavinia (Laura Fraser) as his new bride. Lavinia, who is already in love with Saturninus’ rival Bassianus (James Frain), rejects Saturninus, and is protected by three of Titus’ sons as she flees his affections. Knowing that Titus and Tamora are sworn enemies, Saturninus spitefully chooses Tamora to be his bride instead, thereby giving the Goth queen the power and influence to exact here revenge. And so begins a increasingly bloodthirsty of revenge and treachery, as first Tamora, and then Titus plot and counter-plot against each other, leading to the inevitable conclusions of death and madness for all concerned.

Shakespeare’s plays have always had an absurdist, comedy-of-errors element to them, and despite the graphic nature of the gore and sex on display in this version of Titus, much of the content and humor inherent to this play has been left untouched. What is different about Titus is the way Taymor has chosen to frame her story: in an ambiguous timeframe where the people wear togas, but ride around on motorbikes and play video games; speak in the language of the period, but address their subjects via an electric PA system. In addition, the story is preceded by a contemporary prologue in which a young boy, playing violently with his toy soldiers and a bottle of ketchup on the kitchen table, is suddenly whisked into this indistinct time and place, and thereafter much of the story unfolds through his eyes. Both these things are bold moves on Taymor’s part but, despite everything, they work. Less hip than Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, but less stuffy than any of Kenneth Branagh’s stagings, Taymor’s Titus navigates this potential conceptual minefield with a great deal of success.

The eye-popping costume design and art direction aside, the other element that makes Titus such a successful treatment of the Bard is the emotion inherent in the story. With subjects as gripping and graphic as the ones in Titus, it is impossible not to be drawn wholly into the story, and such is the strength of the acting from virtually the entire cast, the overall effect is overpowering. The harrowing nature of the situations the characters find themselves in, and their respective reactions, unfold with stunning honesty and integrity. When combined with Taymor’s amazing, occasionally disturbing, visual style, the net result is a film which leaves you reeling, having been subjected to over two hours of the most intense emotions imaginable. The scene where Marcus finds Lavinia in the swamp following her encounter with Tamora’s sons is one of the most shockingly brilliant images I have ever seen committed to celluloid, and the entire finale at Titus banquet revels in gory overkill.

It’s may seem almost an afterthought considering the exposition above, but Elliot Goldenthal’s sensational music is another factor which contributes immeasurably to the power and potency of the film. It can’t be a coincidence that Julie Taymor is Goldenthal’s real-life partner; she obviously allowed him a great deal of artistic freedom on this project, and gave him the opportunity to write some of the most emotionally resonant, exciting and beautiful music of his entire career.

Fully orchestral, with solos for Goldenthal’s usual complement of trumpets, saxophones and guitars, the Titus album is captivating from start to finish. It begins with an immense choral track, ‘Titus Victorius’, which accompanies the heroes returning from battle, marching menacingly in time to Goldenthal’s thunderous metal percussion and Latin vocals while steaming through an ancient Roman amphitheater in armored cars and tanks. It’s the most impressive opening track I have heard for a long time, and sets the standards for the score to come.

There are many Goldenthalisms in Titus which anyone who has heard any of his previous scores will recognize immediately. This is not to say that Titus is in any way self-referential – other than the temp-track piece from A Time to Kill which was tracked into final mix, there are no direct lifts. Rather, it builds upon the highly personal musical style Goldenthal has maintained through scores such as Interview with the Vampire, Alien 3 and the Batman sequels.

Much of Titus is heavy and tragedy-laden, reflecting the continuing cycle of misery inflicted on the protagonists by each other. However much tragedy Goldenthal heaps on, though, the music also remains undeniably beautiful, in a desperate, hollow kind of way. Tracks such as ‘Crossroads’, ‘Tamora’s Pastorale’, ‘Philimelagram’, the massive ‘Aaron’s Plea’ and the epic ‘Finale’ stand as some of most moving and emotionally powerful moments Goldenthal has ever written. The former, which marks a turning point in the film in terms of Titus’ mental state, is scored with a searing cello solo and a series of mammoth orchestral crescendos, while the latter, which accompanies young Lucius’s defiant final walk into the sunset, ranks up there with Born to Darkness from Interview with the Vampire, the Adagio from Alien 3, and the Love Theme from Michael Collins as an undisputed career highlight.

‘Revenge Wheel’, ‘Arrows of the Gods’, ‘Titus’ Vow’ and ‘Apian Stomp’ are loud and angry action cues, swelling with deep-throated brass phrases, whirligig string passages and immense percussion, with ‘Arrows of the Gods’ being especially notable for its energy and forward-thrusting motion. In addition, several one-offs, such as the boy soprano performances in ‘Procession & Obsequis’ and ‘An Offering’, the mournful sax duet in ‘Tribute & Suffrage’, the intense dissonance in ‘Ill-Fated Plot’, the wild impressionism of ‘Mad Ole Titus’, the imposing basses of ‘Coronation’, and the ugly-yet-appropriate rock/hip-hop/fairground samples in ‘Pickled Heads’ are also worth noting.

As if to prove that, in musical as well as visual terms, Titus inhabits a muddled timeframe, Goldenthal also engages in several cues worth of boogie-woogie and big band swing, once again defying convention and lending the score a contemporary edge. The aforementioned ‘Tribute & Suffrage’, ‘Swing Rave’ and the unlikely ‘Adagio’ are all bouncy, unmistakably Goldenthalian pieces of New York jazz, complete with rhythm section which, although completely at odds with the style of the rest of the score, do not seem out of place. It’s a musical conceit which shouldn’t work, but somehow does (even though ‘Adagio’ is a virtual note-for-note recapitulation of his song “O Foolish Heart” from The Green Bird).

Scores like this illustrate perfectly what can happen when visionary directors allow talented, challenging composers the room to express themselves to their fullest potential. In the film, Titus is an exceptional marriage of film and music that is faultless in almost every way. On disc, Titus is a challenging, awe-inspiring, exceptional piece of scoring that cannot fail to provoke a response in a listener. I don’t think there are enough superlatives left – except to say that this is one of the most magnificent scores of the year, and the undisputed opus of Elliot Goldenthal’s career to date.

Rating: *****

Track Listing:

  • Victorius Titus (2:58)
  • Procession & Obsequis (3:01)
  • Revenge Wheel (0:52)
  • Tribute & Suffrage (4:17)
  • Arrows of the Gods (1:32)
  • An Offering (2:04)
  • Crossroads (3:24)
  • Vortex (1:33)
  • Swing Rave (1:53)
  • Ill-Fated Plot (2:20)
  • Pickled Heads (5:05)
  • Tamora’s Pastorale (1:13)
  • Titus’ Vow (3:43)
  • Mad Ole Titus (2:28)
  • Philimelagram (1:46)
  • Pressing Judgment (from A Time to Kill) (3:32)
  • Aaron’s Plea (2:02)
  • Coronation (1:53)
  • Apian Stomp (1:32)
  • Adagio (2:25)
  • Finale (8:33)
  • Vivere (3:33)

Running Time: 61 minutes 42 seconds

Sony Classical SK-89171 (2000)

Music composed by Elliot Goldenthal. Conducted by Steven Mercurio and Jonathan Sheffer. Performed by The London Metropolitan Orchestra, The English Chamber Choir, The Mask Orchestra and The Pickled Heads Band. Orchestrations by Robert Elhai, Elliot Goldenthal and Steve McLaughlin. Featured musical soloists Bruce Williamson, Page Hamilton, Mark Stewart and John Thomas. Recorded and mixed by Joel Iwataki. Edited by Curtis Roush, Daryl Kell and Lawrence Manchester. Mastered by Vlado Meller. Album produced by Teese Gohl and Elliot Goldenthal.

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