12 YEARS A SLAVE – Hans Zimmer
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
One of the most important and acclaimed films of 2013, 12 Years a Slave tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York in the pre-Civil War United States, who is tricked, abducted and sold into slavery. Arriving in the South, the story chronicles the next twelve years of his life as he faces cruelty after cruelty, indignity after indignity, relentlessly barbaric treatment at the hands of a malevolent slave owner, and his struggle to maintain some semblance of dignity and humanity as he strives to find a way back home to his family. The film is directed by British filmmaker Steve McQueen, stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup, and features an outstanding supporting cast including Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Alfre Woodard, Brad Pitt, and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, who is destined for an Academy Award nomination for her soulful performance as Solomon’s fellow slave, Patsey. A brutal, difficult, and at times excruciatingly raw film, 12 Years a Slave is clearly one of the year’s best films, in that it examines in unflinching detail one of the most heinous periods in American history, and features a powerhouse central performance from Ejiofor as the man who refuses to be beaten down by the wrongs done to him.
It was almost inevitable that Hans Zimmer would eventually score a Steve McQueen film, considering that the scores for the director’s last two features, Shame and Hunger, were thinly disguised temp-track copies of Zimmer’s score for The Thin Red Line. Zimmer was apparently rather reluctant to score this film when first approached, as he humbly felt that he wasn’t up to the task of scoring such a difficult and challenging film, but he needn’t have worried; in the end, like those other scores, the score for 12 Years a Slave is essentially a thinly disguised temp-track copy of an earlier Zimmer score, except that rather than The Thin Red Line, the score in question here is his 2010 work Inception – specifically the cue “Time” – although that cue was also clearly based on “Journey to the Line” from The Thin Red Line (there some superficial similarities to the conclusive “Leave No Man Behind” cue from Black Hawk Down, too) .
The main theme of the score, heard on the commercial soundtrack in the cue “Solomon”, is an almost note-for-note restatement of the piece from Inception, with slight variations in orchestration, key, tempo and volume. A slow, solemn, introspective piece led by cellos, the theme certainly captures the sense of tragedy and loss felt by Solomon, and laments appropriately for all those who were forced into servitude and bondage in the cotton fields and plantations, so in those circumstances it succeeds admirably in achieving its aims. Furthermore, 12 Years a Slave is not a film which needed a big, emotional orchestral score to convey its messages – doing so may have overwhelmed it and trivialized its importance – so the restraint shown by all involved is also admirable. My issue, apart from the Inception issue, is that this is really all there is to the score: one theme, repeated endlessly throughout the film with just a couple of variations, with little else going on. There’s no musical identity for Patsey, no musical identity for Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender’s character), or anyone else for that matter, and as a result the score gets very monotonous very quickly. I’m not saying that the score needed a multitude of themes or motifs, or anything like that, and I absolutely feel that Solomon’s music needed to be the centerpiece of the work, but some kind of different recurring melody or texture would have given the score more depth and allowed Solomon’s theme to stand out more clearly when it is heard.
The only other cue on the commercial soundtrack is a 25-second piece called “Washington”, a little waltz melody for solo cello and solo violin that is pretty enough, but over almost before it begins. The rest of the soundtrack is given over to a series of what used to be called ‘negro spirituals’, plus several traditional violin performances arranged by Nicholas Britell, and original songs from African American artists such as John Legend and Alicia Keyes. The violin performances by fiddler Tim Fain are all very good, especially “Devil’s Dream” and “Yarney’s Waltz”, and the work songs are all very authentic, especially when considering that “My Lord Sunshine – Sunrise” is brand new and written specifically for the film, but score fans will find little of interest outside of the four minutes of featured Zimmer music.
However, several weeks after the commercial soundtrack was released, a score promo pressed specifically for Academy Awards consideration started appearing on the market, containing a further half hour of Zimmer’s score, giving a much more detailed representation of everything Zimmer contributed to the film. As you would expect, it has a multitude of performances of the Solomon theme – cues such as “Solomon Northup”, “Sarasota Flashback”, “Eliza Flashback”, “Judge Yarney’s Ball”, “Soap”, “A Free Man” and the conclusive “Nothing to Forgive” – which vary in timbre from violin to cello to bass to solo piano to dreamy-sounding synths, but usually do little more than simply re-state the melody in different guises.
Of all the variations on the theme, “Solomon in Chains” and “Letter Writing” are probably the most interesting; the former presents a dark, deep, anguished performance for low, guttural basses that perfectly captures Solomon’s despair when he first realizes what has happened to him, while the latter features a repeated pizzicato pulse and a soft hummed vocal effect over the top of a subtle performance of the theme which is quite effective. However, these two cues notwithstanding, perhaps the most frustrating thing about the theme is how little it develops, emotionally, over the course of the film. The piece heard at the beginning of the score is almost identical to the one heard at the end – giving no indication, musically speaking, that Solomon has changed as a man at all despite his ordeal.
One or two other cues do provide additional textures that flesh out the score somewhat, but on the whole these are difficult to connect with. “Bedtime” has a gentle music-box quality, which takes on a sense of poignancy when you realize it underscores a scene between Solomon and his children the day before his abduction. The much talked-about “Boat Trip to New Orleans” has a harsh, guttural quality, combining clattering percussion rhythms with brutal brass chords and incessant, buzzing electric violin notes into an overwhelming, frenzied soundscape. It’s not easy listening by any means, but it does enhance the sense of menace and uncertainty Solomon feels at he leaves on a paddle boat down the water, and the lonely violin performances of Solomon’s theme deep down buried amongst the chaos acknowledge his presence and keep him the focus of the piece.
However, then you get cues like “Preparing for Travel” and the first “Plantation Life” cue, which are a minute each of synth drones and textures, or “River Rafting Claps”, which is nothing but someone clapping for a minute, or “Escape Sequence”, which is, literally, someone hitting a woodblock very hard for a minute and a half. I appreciate minimalism and simplicity in music, but there’s minimalism, and then there’s this, which can barely be considered music at all.
12 Years a Slave is likely to be one of those cases where a score for a genuinely excellent and worthy film is swept along on its coat tails, and receives awards nominations galore, despite the actual musical content of that score being significantly inferior to many other scores released throughout the year. At the time of writing Zimmer has already been nominated for both a Golden Globe and a Critics Choice Award, and he is almost guaranteed to receive an Oscar nomination in the New Year. For me, however, while I acknowledge the score’s effectiveness in context, as well as the subtle beauty of the Solomon theme as a standalone piece, the lack of any clear development of that theme and the lack of any other recurring thematic ideas in the rest of the score render 12 Years a Slave something of a bore to sit through. Not only is it nowhere near one of the best scores of the year, it’s not even Zimmer’s own best work over the past 12 months.
Buy the 12 Years a Slave soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- REGULAR RELEASE
- Devil’s Dream (traditional arr. Nicholas Britell, performed by Tim Fain) (0:29)
- Roll Jordan Roll (traditional arr. Nicholas Britell, performed by John Legend) (2:48)
- Freight Train (written by Elizabeth Cotton, Paul James and Fred Williams, performed by Gary Clark Jr.) (2:35)
- Yarney’s Waltz (written by Nicholas Britell, performed by Tim Fain and Caitlin Sullivan) (1:17)
- Driva Man (written by Oscar Brown Jr. and Maxwell Roach, performed by Alabama Shakes) (4:32)
- My Lord Sunshine – Sunrise (written by Nicholas Britell, performed by David Hughey and Roosevelt Credit) (1:13)
- Move (written by Fin Greenall and John Stephens, performed by John Legend feat Fink) (3:50)
- Washington (0:25)
- In the Evening When the Sun Goes Down (written by Lonnie Donegan, performed by Gary Clark Jr.) (4:37)
- Queen of the Field (Patsey’s Song) (written and performed by Alicia Keys) (5:38)
- Solomon (3:31)
- Little Girl Blue (written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, performed by Laura Mvula) (4:30)
- Misery Chain (written by Chris Cornell, performed by Chris Cornell feat. Joy Williams) (5:09)
- Roll Jordan Roll (traditional arr. Nicholas Britell, performed by Topsy Chapman feat. Chiwetel Ejiofor) (1:57)
- Money Musk (traditional arr. Nicholas Britell, performed by Tim Fain) (0:38)
- What Does Freedom Mean To a Free Man (written by Cody Chesnutt and Izzi Dunn, performed by Cody Chesnutt) (2:41)
- PROMO SCORE
- Solomon Northup (1:55)
- Main Title (0:28)
- Bedtime (1:35)
- Arrival in Washington (0:24)
- Solomon in Chains (5:03)
- Preparing for Travel (1:00)
- Boat Trip to New Orleans (5:14)
- Saratoga Flashback (2:12)
- River Rafting Claps (1:05)
- Eliza Flashback (1:45)
- Escape Sequence (1:19)
- Time Passing Sequence (1:32)
- Devastated Crops (0:51)
- Plantation Life, Part A (0:59)
- Plantation Life, Part B (0:56)
- Judge Yarney’s Ball (1:10)
- Letter Writing (0:52)
- Solomon Burns the Letter (1:06)
- Soap (3:28)
- A Free Man (2:12)
- Nothing to Forgive (3:32)
Running Time: 42 minutes 24 seconds (Regular Release)
Running Time: 38 minutes 49 seconds (Promo)
Columbia Records 88843-00857-2 (2013)
Music composed and arranged by Hans Zimmer. Additional music and arrangements by Benjamin Wallfisch. Special musical performances by Ann Marie Calhoun. Recorded and mixed by Hans Zimmer. Edited by Bob Badami. Score produced by Hans Zimmer. Commercial soundtrack album produced by Hans Zimmer, Nicholas Britell and John Legend.