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ALEXANDER – Vangelis

November 26, 2004 Leave a comment Go to comments

alexanderOriginal Review by Peter Simons

Since the unexpected success of Ridley Scott’s 2000 sword-and-sandals hit Gladiator, historical biopics are in fashion again; showing us glimpses of the lives of Attila, Helen of Troy, Hannibal and, in this instance, Alexander the Great. Oliver Stone’s film primarily focuses on the eight years of the Macedonian king’s life during which he conquered the vast majority of the then known world. By the age of 25, Alexander (played here by Colin Farrell) had led his armies from Macedonia to India and paved the way for Greek culture to spread its influence. Somewhat controversially, the film also emphasizes Alexander’s bisexual nature and his relationship with boyhood friend Hephaestion (Jared Leto). The spectacular supporting cast Stone gathered together includes Angelina Jolie as Alexander’s mother Olympas and Anthony Hopkins as Old Ptolemy, as well as Val Kilmer, Christopher Plummer and Rosario Dawson.

Taking up the scoring duties for Alexander is, to many people’s surprise, Greek composer Vangelis – full name Vangelis Papathanassiou – who won an Academy Award for his music for Chariots of Fire in 1981 and went on to score Blade Runner (1982), The Bounty (1984) and 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992), but who has not written a full, proper film score for almost a decade. Known and generally loved for his memorable themes and exotic atmospheres, Vangelis has never really been a very sophisticated composer. His tunes may be catchy, but they are also shockingly simplistic at times. The composer may also have received some praise for his use of percussion, but on Alexander he fails to satisfyingly deliver all that he is known for. That the themes can be whistled after listening to Alexander is due to their infantile composition rather than to their true memorability. Not hindered by variations of any kind, the themes are free to be repeated over and over again until they’ve lost any sense of grandeur they once may have had, and instead have deteriorated to the level of ‘elevator music’. The percussion throughout the score consists mainly of sampled drum loops which, again, are repeated endlessly with no variation whatsoever, which eventually become not only tiresome, but downright annoying.

After two short introductory cues we come to the score’s main theme, “Titans”, which is centered around a three-note motif. While strings pulsate in the background, the melody is first hummed by a male chorus and is later performed by horns. It’s clear that Vangelis wants to create an epic anthem and it’s a shame it doesn’t quite work; the theme and its accompaniment are just too simplistic to make a solid, intellectual impression. “The Drums of Gaugamela” is Vangelis’ attempt at writing a big action cue, which, admittedly, is something he hasn’t really done before – and it shows. Horns play yet another Holst impression; a trumpet motif barely avoids going into James Bond territory; sampled ethnic vocals sound as if they don’t match the cue’s tempo; and the percussion consists of more sampled drum loops that are being repeated to the point where they become annoying… and far, far beyond. The pulsating brass and strings along with a nice fanfare half way into the track are reasonably exciting, but it’s the percussion that really kills the cue.

In contrast, “One Morning at Pella” is a thoughtful cue with a solo for harp and some soft strings fading in during the second half of the track. Vangelis creates a nice enough mood, but it’s an unremarkable cue otherwise. “Roxane’s Dance” is another track that suffers from percussion overkill. The ethnic drums and sound design, ethnic flutes and harp glissandi create an atmosphere reminiscent of the album Karma by Canadian pop band Delerium. During “Eastern Path” Vangelis employs a duduk, evoking memories of Hans Zimmer’s Gladiator, while “Gardens of Delight” continues the exotic stylistics from “Roxane’s Dance”.

“Roxane’s Veil” is the most modern sounding cue on the album, although its percussion, bass and synthesized choir would seem more appropriate for a 1980s porn movie than for a historical bio pic. “Bagoa’s Dance” is a percussion driven track that, once again, tends to drag on even though it’s barely two and half minutes long. “The Charge” sees Vangelis combining powerful brass motifs, racing strings, chanting choir and a more effective use of percussion. This is the kind of music we were all hoping for. Unfortunately, during the next cue, “Preparation”, Vangelis once again bores us with his unimaginative timpani loops.

As themes go, the one heard in “Across the Mountains”, orchestrated for strings and chorus, is possibly the best on the album. Though still simplistic, it is less so than “Titans”, and successfully creates an epic travelling mood. “Eternal Alexander” showcases the third big theme on the album: a nice see-sawing motion for strings and brass. “Tender Memories” is variation on the previous cue, but this time performed by a solo harp. “Chant” and “Immortality” are two mysterious cues, with the latter possibly being the most cinematic track Vangelis has ever done: the composer creates a sense of doom with ominous chords for strings and chorus and he very effectively uses gongs and violin trills to scare up the atmosphere. “Dreams of Babylon” briefly continues the tense mood with fluttered brass and timpani doing a heartbeat rhythm, before the “Titans” theme makes a return.

Being one 2004’s most anticipated film scores, Alexander turns out to be quite disappointing. Vangelis goes through the clichéd moves to create an epic, ethnic sounding score but misses the sophistication and the inventiveness to make Alexander a true classic. A few good tracks save the album from being a complete waste, but they hardly outweigh the simplicity of the composition and the annoyance of the endlessly repeated percussion. “If you liked 1492: Conquest of Paradise you will love Alexander” is a much-read comment about the score, but it’s not true: Conquest of Paradise is far superior.

Rating: **

Track Listing:

  • Introduction (1:32)
  • Young Alexander (1:36)
  • Titans (3:59)
  • The Drums of Gaugamela (5:20)
  • One Morning at Pella (2:11)
  • Roxane’s Dance (3:25)
  • Eastern Path (2:58)
  • Gardens of Delight (5:24)
  • Roxane’s Veil (4:40)
  • Bagoa’s Dance (2:29)
  • The Charge (1:41)
  • Preparation (1:42))
  • Across the Mountain (1:42)
  • Chant (1:38)
  • Immortality (3:18)
  • Dream of Babylon (2:41)
  • Eternal Alexander (4:37)
  • Tender Memories (2:59)

Running Time: 56 minutes 23 seconds

Sony Classical SK 92942 (2004)

Music composed by Vangelis. Conducted and orchestrated by Nic Raine. Featured musical soloists Vangelis, Vanessa Mae, Konstantinos Paliatsaras, Irina Valentinova-Karpouchina, Maria Bildea and Vahan Galstian. Recorded and mixed by Philippe Colonna. Album produced by Vangelis.

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