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SAHARA – Clint Mansell

saharaOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

British composer Clint Mansell has had an interesting career arc. Beginning as a vocalist/guitarist/keyboard player with the 1980s electro-rock band Pop Will Eat Itself, he went on to produce and arrange music for a variety of bands in the 1990s, including Nine Inch Nails, before making his film debut in 1998 with the low-budget sci-fi cult Pi. Further projects, notably Requiem for a Dream, The Hole and Murder By Numbers, brought him further into the limelight, and he briefly received attention when his theme from Requiem for a Dream was re-orchestrated and used in the trailer for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers in 2002, but nothing in his back catalogue gave even the merest hint that he was capable of writing something like Sahara, which is possibly one of the most engaging and – for want of a better word – cool action scores in quite some time.

Sahara is a popcorn adventure movie adapted from the popular novel by Clive Cussler, and directed by Breck Eisner (son of the former Disney head honcho Michael). Matthew McConaughey stars as adventurer and archaeologist Dirk Pitt, who is obsessed with the legend of the “Ironclad”, a boat from the American Civil War which supposedly set sail for Africa in 1866, and promptly vanished. Having always wanted to visit the sub-Saharan region where the boat was last seen, Pitt gets his chance when he crosses paths with World Health Organization doctor Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz), who is investigating a lethal epidemic which is spreading across western Africa. In the company of his sidekick Al (Steve Zahn), Dirk and Eva set out to find the source of the plague while simultaneously investigating the Ironclad legend – but quickly find themselves involved in something much more dangerous and sinister involving a guerrilla warlord and some shady European businessmen. The most regular summary of the film I give to people is ‘big, dumb fun’, which is essentially accurate – the action unfolds at breakneck pace with gravity-defying stunts, exotic locales, and wise-cracking comedy the order of the day. Character actors of the gravitas of William H. Macy and Delroy Lindo even find their way into joining in with the antics, giving this shameless B-movie an A-list sheen. I enjoyed it, but made sure I left my brain at the door.

The undoubted highlights of Mansell’s score are the multitude of action cues, all of which throb to a relentless percussion undercurrent, undulating strings, and a powerful, driving brass theme accompanied by enormous ragged trumpet calls which bring to mind the best work of John Barry from the Bond era. Cues such as “Hold Tight!”, “Hold Tighter!”, “Fight in Asselar”, “All Aboard”, “Land Yacht”, and the sensational 17-minute finale which comprises the decidedly Aliens-esque “Burn Tower” and “Bomb Alley/Ironclad Revealed/Victory” simply overflow with energy, vitality and good humor. There’s a little bit of Jerry Goldsmith’s The Mummy, and more than a little bit of David Arnold’s Independence Day in some of the orchestral textures, but this is easily overlooked in the face of the instrumental bravado and composing panache on display.

In addition to the main action theme, the opening “Ironclad” features a secondary 2-note brass motif representing the legendary ship itself, which adds another ingredient to an already thrilling mix, especially when augmented by a choir. It occurs later during the twinkly ‘discovery’ sequence “A Clue”, and again during the aforementioned finale, when it plays an important counterpoint role against the rest of the action music. Interestingly, the central action motif also makes a number of appearances in less flamboyant guises, notably performed on solo woodwinds with an intimate string combo in “Calliope at Night”, and under sun-blushed acoustic guitars in “Desert Trek”.

To depict the colorful African setting, Mansell makes excellent use of a great deal of ethnic percussion, vibrant vocal performances, and other assorted techniques which bring to mind the spice, heat and dust of the environment and culture. “Here We Go!”, the first half of “Into the Unknown”, parts of “Ambush” and “Truck Escape” could all have been lifted straight from a modern world music album, while “Kazim’s Theme” is an unexpectedly soothing mélange of percussion textures, and “Mosque” has all the evocative flavor one would expect from a cue with this title. Similarly, “Discovery at Asselar” features the delightfully mysterious work of British/Egyptian vocalist Natacha Atlas, who lent her evocative tones to David Arnold’s Stargate a decade ago, and who appears subsequently in “Kazim Arrives” and the melancholy “Death in the Desert”.

As good as Sahara is, though, one does have to wonder how much of it is the work of Mansell and how much of it is as a result of the participation of the erstwhile conductor/orchestrator Nicholas Dodd. Since first appearing on the scene in 1994, Dodd has made something of a habit of giving composers not previously known for their orchestral acumen a ‘boost’ in terms of the depth of sound in their scores. Pre-Dodd, David Arnold was just a keyboard player from Luton, Mychael Danna was the darling of the independent set, and Mansell was a former pop star with a niche in the electronic-indie market. I’m not suggesting for a moment that any of these composers are simply riding on the musical coat tails of their hired help, but it surely can be no coincidence that there are stylistic similarities between Stargate, Independence Day and this score, or that Dodd is called in to breathe life into the work of a hitherto orchestral virgin.

Nevertheless, irrespective of who wrote what, Sahara remains a rousing, hugely enjoyable album of music which will surely figure in a number of year-end Top 10 lists in terms of pure entertainment. Kudos should go to producer Ralph Sall for recognizing the commercial demand for this score (the original soundtrack CD featured none of Mansell’s music), and rescuing it from oblivion. Like the film it accompanies, Sahara is big dumb fun, but nowhere is it written that these things alone are not enough to recommend it.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Ironclad (3:55)
  • Beach Attack! (1:22)
  • Here We Go! (2:22)
  • Calliope At Night (1:17)
  • Mosque (2:43)
  • Into The Unknown (2:05)
  • Kazim’s Theme (2:31)
  • Hold Tight! (3:18)
  • Hold Tighter! (2:56)
  • Discovery At Asselar (1:57)
  • Eva Investigates (1:15)
  • Kazim Arrives (4:25)
  • Fight In Asselar (2:06)
  • Death In The Desert (2:55)
  • Ambush (3:05)
  • Bonding (2:19)
  • A Clue (2:22)
  • Desert Trek (2:40)
  • All Aboard! (2:38)
  • Solar Plant (3:07)
  • Truck Escape (1:18)
  • Desert Heat (2:02)
  • Land Yacht (1:15)
  • Dirk’s Got A Plan (1:16)
  • Burn Tower (6:25)
  • Bomb Alley/Ironclad Revealed/Victory (9:48)
  • Celebration (1:29)
  • Rock On! (Ironclad Remix) (3:52)

Running Time: 78 minutes 45 seconds

Bulletproof/Rykodisc RCD-10819 (2005)

Music composed by Clint Mansell. Conducted and orchestrated by Nicholas Dodd. Featured musical soloists Abdelkader Harir, Paul Clarvis, Justin Adams, Simon Edwards, Nathan Thompson and Dawson Miller. Special vocal performances by Natacha Atlas, Prudence Mampe, Joe Legwabe, Djely Kouyate and Sibongiseni Chicco Mdima. Recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes. Mastered by Louie Teran. Album produced by Clint Mansell and Ralph Sall.

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