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THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST – John Debney

February 27, 2004 Leave a comment Go to comments

passionofthechristOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

The furore surrounding Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ began almost before a shot was filmed, and continued unabated through principal photography, post-production, and the publicity process. In a nutshell, the crux of the matter was that several prominent Jewish groups accused the cast and crew, and especially Gibson, of intentionally inciting anti-Semitic feelings by portraying the Pharisees of the Jewish Temple in old Jerusalem as the ones who were ultimately responsible for causing the death of Christ (something made worse following some rather off the wall comments from Gibson’s father). As this is a soundtrack review, I’m not going to go into a great deal of detail as to why this film has become one of the most controversial in recent memory, but I do want to say this in regard to my own faith, and my view of the film:

Personally, I don’t believe in God as a “supreme being” per se, but I do believe that there was once a man named Jesus who lived around 2000 years ago, who had a lot of good things to say about the way humanity thinks and acts, and who was eventually crucified by the Romans for being, in their eyes, a “troublemaker”. The fact that so many laws, and so much of the world’s morality is based on his teachings, I cannot believe otherwise, so in my opinion, to tell his story, is to tell a true story. Other issues around religion and faith, and him being the son of God, should be open to interpretation by individuals. Nevertheless, the life of Jesus is arguably one of the most important and significant “stories” in the history of mankind, and as such should be told.

As an agnostic, I didn’t come out Passion of the Christ hating Jews or their faith, just as I didn’t come out of Braveheart hating the English, but I didn’t come out of it a born-again Christian either. What happened instead is that I came out of the cinema having been profoundly moved by the story, and with a new respect for Jesus the man, and for what he went through physically for *his* beliefs – which, ultimately, is all one can expect from such a film.

I feel that saying all this – going into personal religious points of view and so on – is actually quite important when listening to a score such as The Passion of the Christ because your view on the subject matter can actually influence your views on the music one way or the other. Other prominent critics have voiced their dislike of it because of what they perceive as “manipulation”, and the notion that the music is little more than a propaganda tool in favor of the Catholic church. Others have heralded its arrival as something akin to the second coming of Christ himself for precisely the same reasons. As my own view is pretty much down the middle, I have approached the score in the same fashion: valuing its merits as a piece of music as I would any other, regardless of its subject matter and spiritual intentions.

For the record, The Passion of the Christ, tells the brutal story of the last hours of the life of Jesus Christ, as interpreted from various Gospels of the Christian Bible. Beginning with his betrayal by Judas and arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, it goes on to depict his denouncement by Jewish Pharisees in the temple, his trial in front of Roman governor Pontius Pilate, his graphically realized torture at the hands of the Roman guards, and his eventual execution by crucifixion on the hill of Calvary outside the walls of Jerusalem. Jesus is played by Jim Caviezel; his mother Mary by Romanian actress Maia Morgenstern; Mary Magdalene by international star Monica Bellucci, Pontius Pilate by Bulgarian actor Hristo Shopov; and the traitorous Judas Iscariot by Italian actor Luca Lionello. It is spoken in the ancient languages of Latin and Aramaic, with English subtitles.

With everything else that has gone on, it is not surprising that the even music has been tainted by gossip and scandal. During the shoot, journeyman Canadian composer Jack Lenz travelled the world at Gibson’s behest, researching ancient instruments and musical styles from the period and location. When the time came to name the final composer for the final project, Lenz assumed he would be the one with the job, but the first names out of the hat to be linked to the film were actually James Horner, Lisa Gerrard and (oddly) Rachel Portman. However, eventually, due to a quirk of fate involving Gibson’s producer Steve McEveety, the assignment landed at the doorstep of John Debney, who lived on the same street as McEveety during childhood, and who was still a friend.

Since time immemorial, John Debney has been one of Hollywood’s great undiscovered composers, whose talents have, in recent years, been continually wasted on paltry comedies such as The Princess Diaries, Snow Dogs and, god forbid, The Hot Chick. Flashes of his immense talent have occasionally shone through, as scores such as Cutthroat Island and Dragonfly attest, but The Passion of the Christ represents the first time that Debney has been attached to a true prestige film, and thankfully the weight of expectation has not daunted him. The Passion of the Christ is a mightily impressive score.

As a devout Catholic himself, Debney responded strongly to the subject matter at hand, eventually writing a score which mixes great moments of emotional power with sequences of authentic world music, some of which feature ancient instruments from 2000 years ago. After a moody opening in “The Olive Garden”, the core elements of Debney’s music come into play during “Bearing the Cross” – a strong string orchestra, heavy and prominent ethnic percussion, ancient instruments such as the oud guitar, a mainly female Latin choir, a solo male vocalist singing in Arabic, and the lamenting tones of the Armenian duduk oboe, which is quickly becoming the stock instrument of choice to illustrate Middle Eastern cultures. Other similar cues, such as “Song of Complaint”, “Simon is Dismissed” and “Peaceful But Primitive/Procession” continue the trend to great effect, melding seamlessly with Jack Lenz’s world source music and the traditional melodies from the region.

The more emotional cues, such as “Peter Denies Jesus”, seem to have been blessed by the ghost of Georges Delerue, as Debney combines middle-eastern flutes, strings and his choir to glorious effect. The gut-wrenching theme which appears during the course of “Mary Goes to Jesus” is about as emotional as film music ever gets, and stands out not just as a highlight moment of Debney’s career, but as one of the most moving musical moments in recent cinematic history. The finale – from “Crucifixion” onwards – comes together as a 25-minute mini-symphony which both mourns the death of Jesus while celebrating his life, standing in beautiful juxtaposition to the traumatic scenario on screen. While, in passing, the dramatically percussive and subtly electronic sound is almost Zimmerish in terms of style, it’s actually rather refreshing to hear a new, modern voice writing music based on this imagery. While the liturgical strains of Alfred Newman and Miklós Rózsa were undoubtedly excellent in their own right, Debney’s music for the crucifixion can be seen as being the first geographically authentic illustration of the story, and the first which may have some relevance for 21st century audiences. The quite disturbing string dissonances in “Jesus is Carried Down” are chillingly effective, while the sublime vocal performances of Lisbeth Scott throughout the score add a haunting, humanizing touch, but never more so than in the superbly evocative “Resurrection”.

I have intentionally waited this long to review The Passion of Christ, so that my evaluation of the music was not swayed by the media circus that surrounded its initial release. Now, six months after the film opened, I still believe that this is one of the strongest works of Debney’s career, filled with a sense of sincere power and reverence that one rarely hears in modern film music. This, coupled with album sales in excess of 100,000 – almost unheard of for a soundtrack – and a movie gross of over $370 million, could very well see Debney picking up a well-deserved first Academy Award nomination for this score in 2005.

Rating: ****½

Track Listing:

  • The Olive Garden (1:56)
  • Bearing the Cross (3:42)
  • Jesus Arrested (4:37)
  • Peter Denies Jesus (1:58)
  • The Stoning (2:25)
  • Song of Complaint (1:33)
  • Simon is Dismissed (2:25)
  • Flagellation/Dark Choir/Disciples (5:54)
  • Mary Goes to Jesus (2:47)
  • Peaceful But Primitive/Procession (3:36)
  • Crucifixion (7:38)
  • Raising the Cross (2:13)
  • It is Done (3:37)
  • Jesus is Carried Down (4:39)
  • Resurrection (5:04)

Running Time: 54 minutes 09 seconds

Sony Classical/Integrity Music SK-92046 (2004)

Music composed by John Debney. Conducted by Nick Ingman. Performed by The London Symphony Orchestra, London Voices and The Transylvania State Philharmonic Choir. Orchestrations by Brad Dechter, Mike Watts, Frank Bennett and Jeff Atmajian. Additional music by Jack Lenz and Shankar & Gingger. Featured musical soloists Ron Allen, Chris Bleth, Levon Minassian, Pedro Eustache, Karen Han, Jan Hendrickse, Naser Moussa and Martin Tillmann. Special vocal performances by Lisbeth Scott, Tanya Tsarouka, Aaron Martin, Shannon Kingsbury, Ahmed El-Eshmer, John Debney and Mel Gibson. Recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes and Shawn Murphy. Edited by Michael Ryan. Album produced by John Debney and Mel Gibson.

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