Home > Reviews > THE GREAT DEBATERS – James Newton Howard and Peter Golub

THE GREAT DEBATERS – James Newton Howard and Peter Golub

December 28, 2007 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Denzel Washington’s second feature film as director, The Great Debaters is a worthy and noble film based on the true story of an all-black college debating team fighting for recognition and equality. Washington himself stars as Melvin B. Tolson, a professor at Wiley College Texas in 1935 who inspired his students to form the school’s first debate team, which went on to challenge the elite, wealthy and all-white Harvard team in the national championship. Films like these challenged institutional racism in the 1950s and 1960s, but are still just as powerful today: it’s also probably no coincidence that Washington seems to be channeling both Sidney Poitier and Brock Peters on the score album’s CD cover.

Veteran composer James Newton Howard provided the film’s score, working in collaboration with theatre composer Peter Golub. Films like The Great Debaters sometimes have a tendency to overdo the schmaltz factor in the music, overly-emphasizing the various triumphs over injustice and, in doing so, diluting their effectiveness. Howard, thankfully, restrains himself here, writing a pleasant, unassuming, effective score which concentrates mainly on gentle wind solos over piano, strings, guitar and percussion, with occasional moments of color – a harmonica here, a fiddle there, and so on.

On the whole the music is lovely, occasionally swelling into a beautiful performance – the grand and noble “Oklahoma Debate”, the bittersweet “James’ Failure”, or the haunting cello in “Train to Boston” for example – but also sometimes veering off into pseudo-Thomas Newman territory with folksy, old fashioned Americana, notably in cues such as “Meet Me After Class”, which emphasize the underprivileged, working-class roots of the Wiley debaters as they struggle for acceptance.

Occasionally Howard allows the tempo to rise – “Union Meeting” features some throbbing, powerful trombone writing, while “Lynching” is as dark as the title suggests – but by the end the score is in full-on triumphant mode, with the rousing trio “Memorial Hall”, “James’ Speech” and “And The Winner Is…” providing a fitting and enjoyable conclusion to an enjoyable score.

Rating: ***½

Track Listing:

  • Wiley College (1:01)
  • Meet Me After Class (2:34)
  • Who’s Next? (3:37)
  • Choosing the Team (1:07)
  • Give Me the Check (2:24)
  • Who’s Your Opponent? (1:00)
  • Union Meeting (5:42)
  • Sheriff Tightens His Grip (3:56)
  • Quinn Debate (2:39)
  • Burgess Quits (1:18)
  • Oklahoma Debate (4:04)
  • Tolson Arrested (1:56)
  • Lynching (3:09)
  • Lowe Returns Drunk (1:31)
  • Never Going To Forget (1:27)
  • James’ Failure (2:19)
  • Letter From Harvard (1:15)
  • Train to Boston (2:24)
  • Empty Debate Hall (1:10)
  • Satyagraha (2:37)
  • Who’s the Judge? (2:59)
  • Memorial Hall (1:14)
  • James’ Speech (2:14)
  • And The Winner Is… (3:28)

Running Time: 57 minutes 05 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-6869 (2007)

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