February 11, 2000 Leave a comment Go to comments

sallyhemingsOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

It’s pretty common knowledge that I’m not Joel McNeely’s greatest fan. In my opinion, these wild claims of him being “the new John Williams” merely on the strength of him writing Star Wars music for the Shadows of the Empire tie-in are vast overstatements. He’s obviously talented, and a very good conductor, but his scores for Virus and Soldier were both far too derivative, and The Avengers was just plain boring. There are plenty of similarly undervalued composers out there who are equally, if not more talented than he, and who deserve the opportunity to let their music shine in a broader setting. Having said that, it gives me a great deal of personal delight to report that his music for Sally Hemings: An American Scandal is quite lovely, and easily one of the most attractive and enjoyable scores of his career to date.

I admit I know very little about this movie. Apparently, it’s an American TV series made by CBS, directed by Charles Haid, and starring Sam Neill, Mare Winningham, Diahann Carroll and the lovely Carmen Ejogo in the lead role. From what I can glean from the track titles, it seems to focus on some kind of racial/sexual liaison between a wealthy white landowner and a young black woman in colonial America, and the political and social that ensues in the aftermath. Until Ford A. Thaxton and the Prometheus boys issued the soundtrack, I had no idea that McNeely had even written this music, let alone that a CD was about to surface – but, boy, am I glad one did.

As befits the “costume drama” oeuvre, McNeely’s music is romantic, lush, and wholly lovely, but with a subtly downcast temperament which, if anything, actually increases the score’s potency and emotional connection. For some reason, sad music, as opposed to buoyantly happy music, appeals to my ear more, and Sally Hemings is no exception. It may be something to do with the nature of the chord structures, or the harmonic progressions, or merely the fact that writing sad music allows a composer to be much more emotionally giving than usual. Whatever the case may be, the music in Sally Hemings has that touch. It’s sad, but not depressing; like a good weepie movie, you actually enjoy the prospect of crying at it.

The opening cue, ‘I Was Born Sally Hemings’, introduces the score’s main theme, a longing motif for the full orchestra that rises, falls, and sweeps in magnificent arcs, bolstered by spine-tingling cymbal rings and a gorgeous brass countermelody. The potent longing of the piano-based love theme makes ‘Falling In Love’ a superb piece of work in its own right, but which somehow manages to get even better when it swells into a full orchestral rendition during the staggeringly beautiful ‘Sally and Tom’. Of score’s generous 28 cues, there are many highlights, notably the warm and exciting ‘Returning Home’, the desperately tragic ‘The Scandal Grows’, the enchanting writing for solo harp in ‘Tom Jr. Returns’ and ‘Bankrupt’, the haunting African vocals of ‘Slave Auction’, and the sweeping recapitulations of the main theme in ‘Birth of the First Child’, ‘Love at the White House’ and during the finale.

Some more urgent rhythmic work features in as ‘The French Revolution’, a cue which brings to mind Basil Poledouris’ excellent score for Les Misérables, while ‘Homecoming Celebration’ and ‘Critta’s Tale’ offer unexpected, but no less enjoyable, bursts of homespun fiddle music. To depict the period, McNeely also offers several appropriate and authentic-sounding classical pastiches, notably the beautifully baroque ‘Journey to Paris’, the Handel-inspired pomposity of ‘At Versailles’, and the sombre piano tones of ‘Death of James’. Many of the cues feature the haughty sound of a harpsichord underpinning the orchestra, lending the score a slightly aristocratic edge and a sensitive depiction of time and place. He even manages to work in some actual themes from the period, such as Beethoven’s Pathetique Piano Sonata in ‘Love Letters’, Corelli’s concerto Grossi for String Orchestra in ‘Tom Hemings Leaves’ and ‘Sally Must Be Sold’, and an uncredited re-arrangement of the popular hymn “Lord of All Hopefulness” into ‘In The Garden’.

It is perhaps pertinent to mention the catalogue of errors that surrounded the creation of this score, as described by McNeely himself in the CD’s liner notes. What with power cuts, heating shortages, impossible rain storms, and the need to make use of diesel generators and propane boilers, it’s a wonder Sally Hemings was recorded at all, much less turn out as good as it has! So, I hereby tip my hat to Joel McNeely, and offer an unreserved recommendation for this score. The lyrical beauty, orchestral cleverness and overall brilliance of Sally Hemings: An American Scandal has restored at least some of my faith in his talents. I still don’t think he’s the next John Williams, but at least now I can genuinely proclaim that I really enjoy a score of his. Although, having now heard this latest work, it begs one question: why hasn’t he written anything this good before?

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • I Was Born Sally Hemings (2:41)
  • Journey to Paris (1:15)
  • Haunted Paris/Consummation (3:19)
  • At Versailles (0:43)
  • Falling in Love (3:00)
  • The French Revolution (3:33)
  • Returning Home (2:15)
  • Birth of the First Child (3:23)
  • Homecoming Celebration (1:22)
  • Sally and Tom (2:17)
  • Love Letters (2:52)
  • The Scandal Grows (2:45)
  • Tom Hemings Leaves (1:40)
  • Sally Must Be Sold (4:00)
  • Love at the White House (2:20)
  • Death of James (3:17)
  • Louisiana Purchase/Stitching Stars (2:33)
  • Tom Jr. Returns (4:05)
  • They Fight (2:49)
  • Bankrupt (2:42)
  • Dupont Arrives (2:30)
  • Slave Auction (3:09)
  • In the Garden (2:17)
  • Death of the President (3:48)
  • Critta’s Tale (2:29)
  • Free Since Paris (1:48)
  • Epilogue (1:25)
  • Monticello/End Credits (2:32)

Running Time: 73 minutes 51 seconds

Prometheus PCD-149 (1999)

Music composed and conducted by Joel McNeely. Orchestrations by Don Nemitz, David Slonaker, Brian Langsbard and Joel McNeely. Special vocal performances by Bobbi Page and Yvonne Williams. Recorded and mixed by Rich Breen. Edited by Jeanette Sturga. Mastered by Dave Mitson. Album produced by Ford A. Thaxton and Joel McNeely.

  1. Kellie O'Brien
    June 14, 2013 at 8:27 am

    Does Joel McNeely use Beethoven for his music because I’m trying to find out the original names of the songs that were used for Sally Hemings.

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