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UNITED 93 – John Powell

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

There can scarcely be a person who doesn’t remember where they were and what they were doing on September 11th 2001, when four passenger aircraft were hijacked by terrorists from the extremist Al Qaeda group and flown into the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre in New York, destroying the latter completely. Many people of my generation refer to it as our ‘Pearl Harbor’, or our equivalent of the day JFK was shot. A cultural touchstone which, for some, has becoming a defining moment of the 21st century. I vividly remember sitting in my old office in Regent Court at the University in Sheffield, working on some project, and a colleague sticking their head round my door. It was about 2:00 in the afternoon. “Have you heard what’s going on in America?” they asked. I shook my head no, flicked on to Yahoo news, and read about the unfolding horror. Sky News went on the TV as soon as I got home, and stayed on almost for the next 24 hours as I watched the rest of the footage with increasing disbelief.

With several documentaries having already been made about the subject, it was only a matter of time before someone made a theatrical film about 9/11: it was just a matter of when, and who. Some argue that five years is too soon to have made a film about something which is still so raw to a great deal of people, but the film has nevertheless been made. The ‘who’ is Paul Greengrass, the British director of The Bourne Supremacy. His film United 93 does not tell the story of the terrible events in New York City that day – that task was left to Oliver Stone – but instead focuses on the fourth plane, the plane which didn’t reach its intended target, and instead crash-landed in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The flight was possibly intended to crash into the White House, or the Capitol Building, or something else, but through the combined efforts of passengers such as Todd Beamer, Mark Bingham and Jeremy Glick (whose names are now synonymous with the heroism of the day), the hijackers failed in their mission, and another potential disaster was averted, despite the loss of all 44 people on board the plane.

One of the potential problems facing composer John Powell in writing music for United 93 was how to make his score work in the film, and be dramatically appropriate, yet refrain from being overly-manipulative, saccharine, or somehow trivialise the events with Hollywood cliché. Composer Velton Ray Bunch had already written a sparse, electronic score for a TV-movie about the same events several months earlier; director Greengrass strived for authenticity, appropriateness and respectfulness in his production, illustrated by him casting anonymous character actors like David Alan Basche, Peter Hermann and Cheyenne Jackson in key roles. Powell, for the most part, followed their lead, writing a rather sparse, hesitant score for string orchestra, synthesisers, and solo vocals. And, while I wholeheartedly applaud Powell for remaining true to the intent of the movie, respecting the filmmakers wishes, and in essence walking a tightrope, the end result is a score which, unfortunately – in purely musical terms – isn’t all that interesting.

Quite a large portion of the score can be classed as ‘atmosphere’ – droning electronics and never-ending string sustains, overlaid with shifting violin and cello chords, tolling bells, subtle synth beats, and vaguely Middle Eastern percussion, the latter presumably to give a musical dimension to the thoughts and actions of the hijackers themselves. The first 20 minutes of the album is made up almost entirely of music like this, with the exception of a few brief interludes where some new texture or orchestral timbre enters the fray (such as the brass blast during “2nd Plane Crash”, the sampled bass woodwinds in “Making the Bomb”, or the buzzing electric violins in “The Pilots”). Several cues, notably “Prayers”, “2nd Plane Crash”, and the 10-minute “Phone Calls”, feature a lonely-sounding vocal performance by child chorister (and John’s son) Oliver Powell, intoning forlorn la’s over a morose bed of layered strings. In these moments, United 93 takes on a slightly new dimension: that of innocence lost, with a sense of naïveté about to be shattered forever by the events unfolding on screen. Although young Powell’s voice is raw, untrained, and cracks repeatedly – he can’t hold a note beyond a couple of seconds – there is a sensitivity in his performance which shines through. These brief moments are the best parts of the score.

Only during “The End” does Powell’s writing kick in with any kind of life or energy. He underscores the final dramatic push by the ill-fated passengers to take back the plane with a searching string line, tumultuous percussion rhythms, and an urgent electronic throb which drives on the action to a darkly moving crescendo at its tragic conclusion. The “Dedication” offers no sweeping theme, no moment of Hollywood glory, no false sentiment: just a quiet, simple string elegy, given a human touch by another performance of the fractured, childlike cooing.

It almost feels wrong to be so critical of a score which has obviously tried so hard to be respectful, honest and true, and which has gone out of its way not to trivialise the nature of the story with overly-manipulative music, but the bottom line is that United 93, for all it’s good intentions, just isn’t that great to listen to as a standalone album. At times, it’s flat-out boring. I hate to say it, but this really is one of the most lacklustre pieces of music Powell has written in a while, and in no way reaches the levels of any of his previous work. Really, this is recommended only for Powell completists, and even then it comes with reservations.

Rating: **½

Track Listing:

  • Prayers (6:03)
  • Pull The Tapes (4:14)
  • Take Off (3:07)
  • 2nd Plane Crash (2:27)
  • Making The Bomb (3:57)
  • The Pilots (1:21)
  • The Pentagon (1:43)
  • Phone Calls (10:49)
  • The End (5:50)
  • Dedication (3:51)

Running Time: 43 minutes 46 seconds

Varèse Sarabande VSD-6740 (2006)

Music composed John Powell. Conducted by Gavin Greenaway. Orchestrations by John A. Coleman and John Ashton Thomas. Special vocal performances by Oliver Powell. Recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes. Edited by Michael Higham. Album produced by John Powell.

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