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MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA – Terence Blanchard

September 26, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

When thinking about popular and enduring composer-director collaborations, a number of names are mentioned regularly: Steven Spielberg and John Williams, Tim Burton and Danny Elfman, Robert Zemeckis and Alan Silvestri, Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann. It would take a while for anyone to get to Spike Lee and Terence Blanchard, but these two have collaborated on over a dozen films since their first work together in 1990 on Mo’ Better Blues, and since then have quietly become one of the most enduring artistic collaborators in Hollywood. Titles such as Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Crooklyn, Clockers, 25th Hour and Inside Man have cemented their relationship.

Miracle at St. Anna is their latest collaboration; based on James McBride’s best selling novel, it tells the story of four soldiers from the all-black 92nd ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ Infantry Division who get trapped near a small Tuscan village during World War II after one of them risks his life to save an Italian boy. The story was inspired by the real-life Sant’Anna di Stazzema massacre, which was perpetrated by the Nazi Waffen-SS in retaliation to Italian partisan activity in August 1944. The film stars Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso and Omar Benson Miller as the four protagonists, and features John Turturro, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Leguizamo and D.B. Sweeney in supporting roles.

Terence Blanchard’s musical roots lie in the sound of Louisiana jazz, and since bursting onto the New York jazz scene in the 1980s, along with contemporaries such as Wynton and Branford Marsalis, he has built a reputation as one of the most important and influential jazz musicians and bandleaders of his generation. Recently, though, much of Blanchard’s focus has shifted to film, and as a result his talents with an orchestra have been growing significantly. He received a Golden Globe nomination for 25th Hour in 2002, and a Grammy for his much-praised score for the recent documentary When the Levees Broke, the music for which he released as a solo album entitled “A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina)”.

The “Opening Credits” of Miracle at St. Anna present a moody, yet slightly hopeful solo piano theme of delicacy and intimacy, before engaging in some highly unexpected string and percussion dissonance at the beginning of the “Main Theme”. Although not especially pleasant to listen to, this vivid expressionism is indicative of Blanchard’s emergence as an orchestral composer of great skill and talent. As the score progresses, Blanchard see-saws between three different musical styles – unnerving, textural, percussive sounds of war for the scenes set in Italy, slightly more modern, jazzier pieces for the contemporary story which frames the film, and warmer, elegiac orchestral sounds, eulogizing and respecting the Black soldiers who fell in service of their country.

The centerpiece of the film’s WWII-era musical identity is the 11-minute “War Is Hell” piece. There is no real theme to speak of here; instead, the cue consists of a series of string and brass chords and shifting tones, some slightly dissonant, others slightly warmer, which come together to form a sort of musical collage depicting the unfocused, unsettling nature of a chaotic time. Percussion plays an important part, with tom-toms, snares and the sound of rattling chains adding an unusual layer or color to the music; eventually, when the piece emerges into a poignant, noble brass fanfare, the effect is rather impressive. Towards the end of the score, “Final Battle” and “Mourn the Dead” mix the darkness of the War Is Hell theme with defiantly optimistic performances of the main theme, resulting in a pair of cues that speak of patriotic boldness and noble sacrifice.

Cues such as “White Commander” and the shrill, angry-sounding “Third Reich” continue the ideas from War is Hell, while the three “Paisans Theme” pieces offset the war-torn textures with a fife-and-drum percussion tattoo, before eventually emerging into a hopeful-sounding string theme and, eventually, a somber lament for weeping strings in “The Massacre”. The recapitulation of the main theme in “Main Theme at Herbs” introduces a twangy steel guitar into the mix, adding an element of the American south, and a touch of homesickness, into the proceedings, while the version of the main theme in “The Prayer” is a beautiful recapitulation of the piano motif heard in the opening cue.

The jazzier elements of the score initially come by way of the “Tim Boyle Theme”, an upbeat, peppy piece with deft percussive rhythms and a hip attitude. The various “Theme of an Angel” cues have a slightly more optimistic, lighter tone through their use of woodwinds and higher-register brasses to carry the melody, which makes them welcome respites from the otherwise quite moribund music that surrounds them. The third restatement of this theme is especially notable for its soft, flute-led refrain.

The first “Renata You’re Beautiful” theme, depicting a romantic relationship between one of the soldiers and a young Italian woman, is an unexpectedly bittersweet motif featuring solo accordions and a strumming mandolin above the orchestra. These instruments add a certain Euro-centric ethnicity and exotic flavor to the music, giving it a sense of time and place, which is quite delightful. It’s second performance, subtitled “Bishop and Renata” is a romantic interlude for piano, solo violin and woodwinds. The first “Great Butterfly” cue is a lovely, warm piece for solo guitar and a bandoleon, which further add to the intimacy of the score, and are romantically reflective of the film’s Italian setting. The second, while consisting of basically the same instrumental ensemble, turns things on their head, resulting in a stark, intense cue that speaks of danger and tragedy.

Everything reaches a glorious conclusion in the “Final Theme” and the “End Credits”, in which all the restraint which was held in during the rest of the score is released into a large-scale, tender, thematically satisfying orchestral release of emotion, which ends the score on a definite high note.

Listeners experiencing Terence Blanchard’s music for the first time may be surprised to discover that this is what he sounds like. There is a misconception amongst film music fans that jazz composers can only compose jazz music, and this is clearly not the case with Blanchard on Miracle at St. Anna, who shows beyond doubt that he is an orchestral composer of considerable dexterity. While the generally downbeat nature of this score is unlikely to inspire a throng of new Terence Blanchard fans, I hope that it at least inspires people to at least explore some of his earlier works that may otherwise have overlooked. Despite occasionally being quite bleak, Miracle a St. Anna is an impressive, engaging score that may well be a contender for awards in 2009.

Rating: ****

Buy the Miracle at St. Anna soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Opening Credits (1:11)
  • Main Theme (4:04)
  • Tim Boyle Theme (4:12)
  • The Primavera (0:57)
  • War is Hell (11:58)
  • Theme of an Angel, Part 1 (3:00)
  • White Commander (0:55)
  • Renata You’re Beautiful Theme (1:47)
  • Third Reich (5:13)
  • Great Butterfly, Part 1 (1:45)
  • Paisans Theme, Part 1 (2:31)
  • Stamps & Bishop Argue (1:36)
  • Main Theme at Herbs (3:50)
  • Theme of an Angel, Part 2 (1:17)
  • Paisans Theme, Part 2 (1:46)
  • Main Theme – The Prayer (1:11)
  • Renata You’re Beautiful Theme – Bishop and Renata (1:23)
  • Paisans – The Massacre (1:21)
  • Great Butterfly, Part 2 (5:31)
  • War is Hell – Final Battle (7:14)
  • Theme of an Angel, Part 3 (2:17)
  • War is Hell – Mourn the Dead (2:36)
  • Finale Theme (3:45)
  • End Credits (4:36)

Running Time: 75 minutes 55 seconds

Hollywood Records Digital Download (2008)

Music composed and conducted by Terence Blanchard. Orchestrations by Howard Drossin. Recorded and mixed by Frank Wolf. Album produced by Terence Blanchard.

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