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DEFIANCE – James Newton Howard

December 26, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

One of the less well-known stories of heroism in World War 2 is that of the Bielski Partisans, a family of Jewish brothers who, following the invasion of Poland by the Nazis in 1941, managed to flee the advancing troops and make their way to the inhospitable forests of what is now western Belarus. Over the course of the next two years, the Bielski brothers rescued and sheltered more than 1,200 Polish Jews from the Nazis, often fighting in hand-to-hand skirmishes alongside Soviet forces, and survived the war, and in doing so made one of the most significant contributions to the Jewish cause in the Holocaust in terms of lives saved. Director Edward Zwick’s acclaimed film Defiance stars Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Bell as the Bielski brothers, and has an emotional, powerful, Oscar-nominated score by composer James Newton Howard.

Howard scored Zwick’s last film, Blood Diamond, in 2006, and the two men are clearly developing a strong working relationship. In terms of tone, Defiance is closest to Howard’s 2004 score for M. Night Shyamalan’s film The Village, especially through the use of a solo violin as the score’s main instrumental element. Of course, using a solo violin to depict the suffering of the Jewish people in World War II is not a new idea – John Williams famously employed Itzhak Perlman to the same ends in Schindler’s List back in 1992 – but its continued effectiveness cannot be denied. The solos are performed here by the acclaimed American violinist Joshua Bell, and the high level of emotion and skill he brings to the project elevates the entire score.

The overall tone of the score is one of somber reflection and subtle tragedy, eventually tempered with a muted optimism that illustrates the Bielski’s triumph over adversity and aggression, but which thankfully falls short of becoming schmaltzy. It’s also very, very beautiful, especially if you have an affinity for classically-inflected string scores which take their time to weave their emotional spell, and gradually allow the listener to become drawn into the sonic world.

Bell’s elegant, expressive performances are the cornerstone of the score. The effortless grace and dexterity he brings to virtually every cue mirrors the contributions he made to earlier scores like John Corigliano’s The Red Violin and James Horner’s Iris, and are a true delight to hear. His performances range from the starkly dramatic – as in the opening “Defiance/Main Titles” or “The Wedding” – to the overwhelmingly emotional – as in the stunning “Your Wife” and “Exodus” – but are never anything less than superb. His very presence exudes class, and his work here represents some of his best contributions to the film music world. Occasionally, as one might expect, the actual melodies he plays have vaguely Yiddish overtones, and almost sound as though they could be adaptations or variations on a traditional folk song from the era without crossing the line where authenticity becomes alienation.

Howard introduces a more hopeful new theme in the “Camp Montage”, which gradually builds from soft woodwinds into a warmer, more life-affirming statement for the string section, while in “Tuvia Kisses Lilka” Howard makes his one concession to romance, allowing Bell’s violin to play alongside a soft string section and aching woodwinds, before it descends back into cimbalom-led anguish. As the score progresses towards its climax, Howard brings the various distinct thematic elements together into an all-encompassing whole, culminating in the superb standout tracks “Nothing Is Impossible” and “The Bielski Brothers”, which offer superb recapitulations of the themes with a bigger, bolder orchestral sweep, a noble brass counter-melody, and a generally uplifting quality which is hugely satisfying.

To counterbalance Bell’s distinctly weighty musical contribution there are a couple of action cues which recall the similarly powerful writing from scores such as The Postman, notably “The Bielski Otriad”, which throbs to an increased percussion section, a driving internal string rhythm, and some interesting touches in the orchestrations, including a cimbalom. There are also a couple of more atmospheric moments of dark drama, notably “Bella and Zus” and “Police Station”, both which are vaguely reminiscent of the understated rumblings that characterized John Williams’ score for Munich. However, these cues play second fiddle (pardon the pun) to the longing emotional heart of the score.

Defiance is a truly outstanding score, easily of the best ten of 2008, and is a worthy recipient of the critical praise it has received. Whether the casual listener can withstand just under an hour of solemn, somber string writing depends on what they expect their film scores to provide; personally, I find Bell’s performances intoxicating, and Howard’s thematic strength exceptionally appealing.

Rating: ****

Buy the Defiance soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Defiance/Main Titles (2:26)
  • Survivors (2:10)
  • Make Them Count (2:39)
  • Your Wife (3:07)
  • The Bielski Otriad (5:17)
  • Bella and Zus (2:16)
  • Exodus (4:29)
  • Camp Montage (2:22)
  • The Wedding (1:36)
  • Winter (2:01)
  • Escaping The Ghetto (1:34)
  • Police Station (4:32)
  • Tuvia Kisses Lilka (3:16)
  • Nothing Is Impossible (7:33)
  • The Bielski Brothers (4:22)

Running Time: 48 minutes 19 seconds

Sony Classical 738523 {2008)

Music composed by James Newton Howard. Conducted by Nick Ingram. Orchestrations by Jeff Atmajian, Brad Dechter and Randy Kerber. Featured musical soloist Joshua Bell. Recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes and Joel Iwataki. Edited by Jim Weidman. Album produced by James Newton Howard and Jim Weidman.

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