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AMAZING GRACE – David Arnold

February 23, 2007 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

One of the least worthy aspects of the British Empire was their involvement in and implicit support of the international slave trade in the 1700s. For over one hundred years, thousands upon thousands of west African tribesmen were forcibly removed from their homes and shipped overseas to work as slaves, on sugar plantations in the Caribbean, and in the cotton fields of what would eventually become the United States. This heinous activity, in Britain at least, was eventually abolished due to the tireless activity of one man: William Wilberforce.

Amazing Grace, directed by Michael Apted and starring Ioan Gruffudd, tells the life story of Wilberforce: his first hesitant steps into British government as the young member of Parliament from Yorkshire in 1780, his friendship with future Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger (Benedict Cumberbatch), his conversion to evangelical Christianity in 1785, his subsequent encounters with Anglican clergyman John Newton (Albert Finney) – the writer of the eponymous hymn Amazing Grace – and his eventual immersion into and leadership of the abolition movement which eventually led to the slave trade being successfully abolished in 1807. In addition to the lead actors, the film boasts a starry supporting cast including Romola Garai, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon, Ciaran Hinds, and Senegalese singer/songwriter Youssou N’Dour as Oloudaqh Equiano, the slave who first inspired Wilberforce to act.

Amazing Grace sees composer David Arnold working with Michael Apted for the third time, following their collaborations in The World is Not Enough in 1999 and Enough in 2002. It marks a welcome change in direction for Arnold, who in recent years has been generally stuck writing Bond movie scores, or electronica-enhanced urban thriller music for films like Four Brothers, 2 Fast 2 Furious and Changing Lanes. Amazing Grace is a VERY different score from most of the others in Arnold’s canon, and shows an increase in dramatic sense which is very pleasing, as well as an impressively delicate touch with the orchestra. There are none of the familiar action Arnold action cues or wildly flamboyant licks that have typified his work to date; Amazing Grace is a sombre, reflective score which accompanies the important historical nature of the film to a tee.

The “Opening Title” begins with a soulful vocal passage, almost in the style of a negro spiritual, before rising to encompass the full orchestra, and intimate passages for solo piano and breathy ethnic woodwinds. “God and Nature” and “Gardens” feature some more delightful piano writing, “Good Morning John” features a moody sonorous oboe element offset by the strings and piano, and “Parliament” and “Cheat the Law” are rapt with optimistic undulating string lines and more sprightly, lets-get-down-to-business air, while other cues are actually quite dream-like and ethereal, possibly alluding to the seemingly unattainable dreams and goals Wilberforce set himself. A few moments of darker dissonance – like “The Slave Ship” and the energetic “Something’s Up” – seek to remind listeners just what an abhorrent practice this human bondage was, and how many enemies Wilberforce made during his fight for justice for those who had none.

Alongside his restrained orchestral complement, Arnold occasionally interpolates a number of African-World Music elements to represent the homelands from where the slaves were brutally and forcibly repatriated. Working with the ubiquitous world music guru George Acogny, Arnold uses both vocal and instrumental textures to add colour to cues such as “Second Nightmare”, the buoyantly uplifting “We Have Hope”, the profoundly tragic “Rejecting the Bill”, and the haunting “Waking the Demons”.

As the score reaches its conclusion the music begins to adopt an increasingly impassioned air, as if the music is realizing that Wilberforce’s life’s work is finally coming to fruition, and is celebrating his triumph over barbarism along with him. The 9-minute finale sequence comprising “No More”, “Dying” and “Triumph” recapitulates the score’s main thematic material into an all-encompassing denouement, acknowledging the life and work of one of the British Empire’s most noble and worthy, but unheralded political heroes with a warm and emotional orchestral sweep.

One of the things Amazing Grace doesn’t have, oddly, is a performance of “Amazing Grace”, despite it being featured prominently in the film’s finale, where it is performed by a troupe of Scottish bagpipes. Although it’s a familiar tune, and may be considered something of a cliché (especially for anyone who has seen Star Trek II), the emotional potency of the piece remains undiluted, and would have been a worthy inclusion to the album, considering its importance in the context of the film. Also missing is “Everyone’s Sky”, the excellent original song Arnold wrote for the film, which is based on his main theme, has lyrics by Don Black, and is sung by both Arnold and Youssou N’Dour over the closing credits.

If one was to resort to comparisons, you could say that Amazing Grace is the quieter, more reserved cousin of Last of the Dogmen – but, having said that, in many ways its quite unlike any score Arnold has written before. The delicacy of the piano writing, the softness of the string lines, the gossamer-like atmosphere of the score as a whole is something we don’t often hear from him, and anyone seeking a change from the massive bombast of his action scores of the urban grooves of his more contemporary work would do well to seek this one out.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Opening Title (3:47)
  • Torture (0:49)
  • Fetch Him (1:16)
  • God and Nature (1:10)
  • Politics and Religion (1:35)
  • Good Morning John (1:43)
  • Ghosts (1:50)
  • Second Nightmare (1:44)
  • Slave Ship (2:23)
  • Gardens (1:48)
  • We Have Hope (1:49)
  • Courting (1:03)
  • Parliament (1:58)
  • Dark Meeting (0:50)
  • Will of the People
  • Rejecting the Bill (1:36)
  • Waking The Demons (1:35)
  • Off The Ship (0:57)
  • Cheat The Law (0:48)
  • Devious Plan (1:14)
  • Something’s Up (2:28)
  • No More (1:42)
  • Dying (3:39)
  • Triumph (3:10)

Running Time: 42 minutes 34 seconds

Spring House Music SPD-88509 (2007)

Music composed by David Arnold. Conducted and orchestrated by Nicholas Dodd. World music co-ordinator George Acogny. Featured instrumental performances by Andy Findon, Pete Lockett and The Dufay Collective. Recorded and mixed by Geoff Foster. Edited by Dina Eaton. Album produced by David Arnold.

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