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FROM HELL – Trevor Jones

October 19, 2001 Leave a comment Go to comments

fromhellOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

It’s been a while since Trevor Jones hit the film music world with a new cinematic score. In recent years, the affable South African has concentrated mainly on writing for low budget, low profile big screen and television scores, scoring critical successes with efforts such as Merlin and Cleopatra, and commercial success with Notting Hill, but little public recognition. The political drama Thirteen Days went some way to redressing that balance in the early months of 2001, and continues with From Hell, a dark thriller set in 18th Century London.

From Hell is a new take on the old Jack the Ripper story, directed by the brothers Albert and Allen Hughes, whose previous credits include the critically acclaimed urban thrillers Menace II Society and Dead Presidents, and for whom a massive change in cinematic direction this is. The legend of Jack the Ripper has been a treasure trove for movies through the years, from the original 1959 British movie, to Nicholas Meyer’s time-travelling adventure Time After Time in 1979, to the excellent 1988 TV mini-series starring Michael Caine. This version stars Johnny Depp stars as Inspector Frederick Abberline, who is assigned to one of the most gruesome cases in British criminal history: that of Jack the Ripper who, in 1888, brutally murdered and disemboweled several prostitutes in the Whitechapel district of London, taunted the police with multiple letters and clues, and was never caught. Support comes from Heather Graham as good-hearted hooker Mary Kelly, Ian Holm as physician and chief suspect Sir William Gull, and Ian Richardson and police inspector Sir Charles Warren.

The approach Jones takes to the Jack the Ripper mystery is one of full-throated Gothic romance: the proper stuff, that drips from your speakers like blood and envelops you like a velvet cloak. The whole score is very bass-heavy, with numerous passages where the lowest registers of cello and double bass take the lead, conveying a sense of ominous oppression. This is counterbalanced by a truly stunning romantic theme, first occurring in ‘In Memoriam’, and swelling to glorious grandeur in several cues thereafter. The ability to write excellent themes has always been one of Jones’s strongest points, as scores like The Last of the Mohicans, and Cliffhanger attest, and although the theme from From Hell is a very different animal in terms of its intentions, it no less memorable. Subsequent recapitulations, in ‘Portrait of a Prince’ and especially ‘Pennies for the Ferryman’ make for superb, sublime listening. The beginning of the dramatic ‘The Compass and the Ruler’ features an unusual effect in which, for the first few bars, Jones’s score imitates the sound of an 18th century wax cylinder, mimicking the cracked, muffled sound of the period before it bursts forth into full-throated 21st century stereo.

There are some gloriously rich crescendos to be heard in ‘Royal Connections’, ‘Whitechapel Murders’, ‘Investigation’ and others, the powerful sound of the Academy of St. Martins in the Field mixing with the soulful sound of the London Voices choir to add another level of demonic texture to the score. The action music, in cues such as ‘A Sprig of Red Grapes’, ‘Chasing the Dragon’ and ‘Death Coach’ is quick and exciting, close in style to that heard in Dark City with its recurring use of powerful percussion, but with an unusual added sense of modernity, especially in the way Jones uses skewed electronic and metallic textures, the ubiquitous EWI (electronic woodwind instrument), and the mystical strains of the Ray Mann Chinese Orchestra at selected intervals. There is also a recurring 5-note cello-based motif, at its most noticeable during ‘Whitechapel Murders’, which provides a subliminal thematic link between several cues, and acts as a musical idiom for Jack’s dastardly deeds.

In terms of tone, From Hell is probably closest to the 1992 masterpiece Bram Stoker’s Dracula, composed by Wojciech Kilar, in that the horror is elevated to almost operatic levels. A couple of minutes into ‘In Memoriam’, Jones borrows from Kilar wholesale, re-using the mournful passacaglia to great effect, creating a definable mood of thick dread. This closeness to the style of the Pole is not a bad thing – Kilar’s musical recreation of Victorian London worked perfectly, and it makes sense not to buck a trend which succeeds on every conceivable musical level.

I even like the Marilyn Manson track that opens the CD: most people dismiss Manson as a oddball, shock-jock devil-worshipper who corrupts the youth of America spewing death and destruction, but some of his lyrics are actually quite profound, and his vocal delivery and musicianship is better than people give him credit. Lord, I NEVER thought I would type that sentence. Some people have commented on the overwhelmingly somber tone being a negative aspect to the score, and that some of the “filler music” towards the middle of album making the CD something of a dull listen. I couldn’t disagree more. Maybe it’s just my own personal liking for dark orchestral scores, but From Hell captured me from the first bar to the last.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • The Nobodies (written by Marilyn Manson and John Lowery, performed by Marilyn Manson) (4:59)
  • In Memoriam (7:03)
  • Royal Connections (5:08)
  • A Sprig of Red Grapes (5:12)
  • Whitechapel Murders (7:23)
  • Chasing the Dragon (7:39)
  • Portrait of a Prince (6:45)
  • The Compass and the Ruler (6:06)
  • Marylebone Workhouse (3:51)
  • Investigation (4:13)
  • Death Coach (3:56)
  • Pennies for the Ferryman (6:22)
  • Bow Belle (Absinthium) (written by Trevor Jones and Victoria Seale, performed by Amanda Floyd and Heather Cairncroft) (3:08)

Running Time: 72 minutes 17 seconds

Varése Sarabande VSD-6296 (2001)

Music composed by Trevor Jones. Conducted by Geoffrey Alexander. Performed by The Academy of St. Martins-in-the-Field, Ray Mann Chinese Orchestra and London Voices. Orchestrations by Trevor Jones, Geoffrey Alexander, Julian Kershaw and John Bell. Special vocal performances by Belinda Sykes and Bill Brooks. Recorded and mixed by Gareth Cousins. Edited by Alex Gibson. Album produced by Trevor Jones and Paul Hicks.

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