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MUNICH – John Williams

December 23, 2005 Leave a comment Go to comments

munichOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

The events of 4 September 1972 are forever etched into the memories of those who saw them unfold. At the 20th Olympic Games in Munich, Germany, members of the Palestinian terrorist organisation Black September took hostage eleven members of the Israeli team – wrestlers, weightlifters, and coaches from the shooting and fencing squads – demanded the release of 234 Palestinians and non-Arabs jailed in Israel, and threatened to kill the hostages if their demands were not met, while the horrified world looked on. As the terrorists attempted to escape to Cairo with their prisoners, German police staged a botched rescue attempt at Fürstenfeldbruck airbase: in the ensuing chaos, all the hostages, all but three of the terrorists, and several policemen were killed.

Steven Spielberg’s film, based on the book ‘Vengeance’ by George Jonas, does not concentrate on the actual events of the terrorist attack, but rather the aftermath, when the then-Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir sent a squad of elite assassins to track down and kill those responsible for planning and executing the attack. Eric Bana plays Avner, the leader of a five-man team of covert, ex-Mossad operatives who have been given the task of working with the mysterious Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), who provides them with information about how they can obtain money to fund their operation. The group consists of South African heavy Steve (Daniel Craig), cool assassin Carl (Ciaran Hinds), bomb maker Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), and expert forger Hans (Hanns Zischler). Their mission takes them around the globe, from Paris to Düsseldorf to Beirut to Athens to London and New York City – but as their work continues and the body count rises, Avner begins to have a crisis of conscience: should he return to Jerusalem where his pregnant wife Daphna (Ayelet Zurer) waits for him, or should be continue with his mission, irrespective of the moral and political nightmares such actions might bring…?

John Williams reportedly had a lot of trouble finding the ‘key’ to unlocking the musical world of Munich, something one doesn’t expect to hear of a master composer and consummate professional as he. In the end, and with a couple of exceptional cues, the approach he took was the same as every other approach he has taken to scoring a ‘serious’ film in the last five years: gut-wrenching, emotionally powerful string writing combined with tumultuous action. This time round, however, we also have the added bonus of the dreaded “wailing vocals”.

The first and fourth cues, “Munich 1972” and “Remembering Munich”, feature the haunting, evocative vocal work of Lisbeth Scott, performing a vaguely middle-eastern sounding lament for the victims on both sides of the political divide. At least that was the plan. In reality, Scott’s vocal work is overpowering and, at times, downright annoying. I like ‘wailing’ vocal work as a rule – I never minded Lisa Gerrard, and I even enjoyed Rahat Ali Khan’s throaty contribution to James Horner’s The Four Feathers – but for some reason the sound here grates on me like fingernails down a blackboard. Maybe it’s the intonation (she sounds like she’s about to burst into tears on several occasions), maybe it’s the lyrics (“meeee-heeee-heeee-eeee”), or maybe it’s simply the key in which she sings. Whatever it is, I don’t like it.

In terms of action music, Munich follows the same path Williams has trod for the last couple of years, pitting undulating rhythms for different sections of the orchestra, overlaid with bubbling percussion effects and exaggerated syncopated piano lines. The clever and exciting “Letter Bombs” and the moody “Bearing the Burden” raise the tempo slightly, but quite a lot of the rest of Munich can best be described as ‘textured rumbling’. In cues such as “The Tarmac at Munich”, “Stalking Carl” and “The Raid in Tarifa”, Williams simply has his orchestra play at the lowest reaches of their registers: the combination of low, bass-heavy pianos and cellos is effective in context, but does not make for especially interesting listening. It’s like listening to Minority Report without all the interesting electronics.

The rest of the time, Williams is wearing his dark and emotional hat, writing cues which use the central theme for Avner as their emotional anchor. As the film revolves around him and his thoughts and actions, Avner’s theme is the bedrock of the score, and is performed in fragments or in its entirety in several cues. Stylistically, it bears a few similarities to the themes Williams wrote for Angela’s Ashes in 1999, albeit with a vague sense of ‘Jewishness’ carried over from Schindler’s List, but whereas both those scores were wholly string-dominated, here Williams allows his theme to be picked up by a number of instrumental soloists – Steve Erdody on cello, Gloria Cheng on piano, John Ellis on oboe, Pedro Eustache on woodwind, and Adam del Monte on guitar. “A Prayer for Peace” provides the first full statement of Avner’s melancholy theme performed by the string section, before it comes to the fore for oboe and the full orchestra in “Avner and Daphna”, one of the best cues on the album. The guitar takes centre stage in track 10, “Avner’s Theme”, and the cello shines in “Thoughts of Home”, while the conclusive “End Credits” serves as a showcase of the various solos heard throughout the score, shifting from cello to piano to strings to full orchestra with ease.

As if to underline the point further, one of the highlight tracks is actually “Hatikvah”, Williams’ wonderfully lush arrangement of the Israeli national anthem, written by Samuel Cohen, and based on a melody from Czech classical composer Bedrich Smetana’s tone poem ‘The Moldau’.

John Williams has had a stellar 2005, with Memoirs of a Geisha, Revenge of the Sith and War of the Worlds all proving to be significant entries in his already illustrious filmography. Considering that Williams and Spielberg have so often made beautiful music together, it is perhaps a little surprising that Munich is by far the weakest of the four scores, but the truth of the matter is that, by and large, the score is generally unimpressive and – dare I say it? – actually a little boring. As the film itself would undoubtedly have been overpowered by too much score, it is understandable that Williams’s music is low-key and underplays the drama rather than hammers it home like a sledgehammer. In those terms, the score can probably be considered a success, but this is a review of the score as a CD, not as heard in the film, and as a pure listening experience, Munich is a rare misfire.

Rating: ***

Track Listing:

  • Munich 1972 (2:37)
  • The Attack at Olympic Village (3:00)
  • Hatikva (The Hope) (written by Samuel Cohen) (2:02)
  • Remembering Munich (4:38)
  • Letter Bombs (2:48)
  • A Prayer for Peace (3:51)
  • Bearing the Burden (8:11)
  • Avner and Daphna (4:02)
  • The Tarmac at Munich (3:59)
  • Avner’s Theme (3:07)
  • Stalking Carl (4:24)
  • Bonding (1:57)
  • Encounter in London and Bomb Malfunctions (3:37)
  • Discovering Hans (2:47)
  • The Raid in Tarifa (2:03)
  • Thoughts of Home (4:03)
  • Hiding the Family (1:25)
  • End Credits (4:06)

Running Time: 62 minutes 45 seconds

Decca Classics B0006093-02 (2005)

Music composed and conducted by John Williams. Featured musical soloists Steve Erdody, Gloria Cheng, John Ellis, Pedro Eustache and Adam Del Monte. Special vocal performances by Lisbeth Scott. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Album produced by John Williams.

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