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CHAMPIONS – Carl Davis

February 6, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

When I was a kid, Grand National day was one of my favorite days of the British sporting calendar. I had, and continue to have, a very personal connection with it, as it was something I shared with my late grandfather, who had a passion for the sport of kings, and my childhood memories of spending those Saturdays with him in the 1980s are some of my fondest. For those who don’t know what it is – which is probably every American reading this – the Grand National is a steeplechase horse race, in which 40 brave and gallant horses and their equally brave and gallant jockeys test themselves by negotiating 30 daunting fences over two 2-mile circuits of the challenging Aintree racecourse in Liverpool. The race has been run every year since 1839, and has grown to become a major television event in the UK, watched by millions across the country. The winning horses, winning jockeys, and the race’s controversies go down in history and become part of the nation’s sporting lexicon – speak to pretty much any Englishman of my generation, and he will know what you’re talking about if you mention Devon Loch or Red Rum, Ginger McCain or Jenny Pitman. However, by far the most famous Grand National in terms of human and equine drama was the race run in 1981.

Bob Champion was a successful jockey on the British steeplechase circuit, but in 1979 he was diagnosed with advanced testicular cancer, and given a short time to live by the doctors treating him. However, Champion refused to give up, and embarked on a massively grueling treatment program of surgery and chemotherapy to beat the disease. Meanwhile, the racehorse Aldaniti, whom Champion rode regularly, was himself suffering from career-threatening injuries so severe that, at one point, the horse’s owner Nick Embiricos and trainer Josh Gifford considered equine euthanasia to spare the horse from more suffering. However, against all odds, both Champion and Aldaniti recovered enough that they were able to compete in, and miraculously win, the 1981 Grand National, thereby cementing their place in British sporting folklore. The film Champions, directed by John Irvin, tells the true life story of these remarkable individuals; the film stars John Hurt as Champion, Edward Woodward as Gifford, Peter Barkworth as Embiricos, Jan Francis, Ben Johnson and Kirstie Alley, and has a staggeringly beautiful score by the great Anglo-American composer Carl Davis.

Although Davis has written some outstanding works in his career – things like The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The World at War, and Pride and Prejudice – the theme from Champions is probably his most famous and enduring piece. The BBC still plays it every year during their Grand National broadcast, usually accompanying a montage of horses silhouetted against a breaking dawn, or galloping through mist-shrouded fields, emphasizing the nostalgia and romance of the event as a whole. Performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra of London and conducted by Davis himself, it’s a piece of phenomenal power and emotion: emerging from a soft, warm, noble horn solo, it gradually picks up a rhapsodic classical piano element and an increasingly sweeping string section that builds and grows in intensity as it develops. It runs through a couple of variations and introduces a couple of secondary motifs, including a beautiful section for solo trumpet, but never lets up with its ever-escalating scope, so much so that by the time the most majestic statement of the main theme kicks in around the 2:30 mark, with its cymbal clashes and rolling timpani and woodwind accents, I’m usually in tears. It is one of my all-time favorite movie themes, a testament to the power of the genre.

The rest of the score is, understandably, a little more subdued – if it had the same level of emotional intensity throughout everyone would be a wreck – but it still maintains its thematic integrity, building off the main theme and the secondary motifs, and even introducing some new material as it progresses. Pieces like “Interlude” and the defiantly optimistic “I’m Going to Live” keep the listener grounded in the score’s primary identities.

“Jo’s Theme,” the music for Champion’s long-suffering but devoted partner in life Jo Beswick, is a lovely piano variation of the main theme, which uses the same key and starting point, but heads off in a prettier, more romantic direction. Conversely, “A Day Out” takes the theme and sends it to a darker and more dramatic place, before culminating with a lovely, gentle performance of Jo’s theme. “Recovery” is the closest thing the score has to an action cue, even containing a short sequence where Davis channels Bernard Herrmann and his slashing Psycho-style strings, while the Coplandesque country stylings of “Kentucky Holiday” briefly transplant the action from rural England to the American heartland.

Elsewhere, cues like “Soon It Will Be Too Late” and “Uncle Bobby is Dying” deal with the seriousness of Champion’s devastating diagnosis in a direct way. The former is anchored around a tragic-sounding cello line which is emotional in a different way, but still contains some lovely accents for strings, solo trumpet and piano in a softer and more reflective tone. The latter is almost funereal in its seriousness, and has staccato brass notes, bassy percussion rhythms, and a rolling, insistent piano element that eventually gives way to a dramatic, almost angry-sounding version of the main theme, all off-kilter rhythms and odd keys.

The score’s extended finale, beginning with “Meeting an Old Friend,” gradually gets more and more rousing and triumphant as it progresses. After a somber opening, that first cue explodes into a joyous, ebullient celebration of the connection between a man and his horse, as they both experience the unbridled exhilaration of hurtling across the fields as one that neither thought they would ever feel again. Jo’s theme gets another lovely outing for especially lyrical woodwinds in “Proposal,” before we get to the grit and determination of the “Grand National” itself, where the main theme gets a rousing workout with whooping brasses, vivid string runs and a driving, galloping beat. “We’ve Won” is a majestic, celebratory explosion of the sheer ecstasy that comes with sporting triumph over odds such as these; the high, searching strings, magical triangle rings, and cymbal crashes are just superb. The “Champions Finale” ends the score with a warm, nostalgic, optimistic performance of the main theme, reminding the listener that, once the brief thrall of victory has gone, there are still friendships to maintain, families to love, and long, full lives to lead.

Despite its fame and popularity in the UK, the score for Champions has never been legitimately released on CD. Both Antilles Records and, later, Island Records released an LP and a cassette of the score in 1984, around the time of the film’s release; the Antilles release featured a bonus track, a song called “Sometimes” performed by Elaine Paige and based on Davis’s theme, while the Island release omitted the song, and instead showcased an orchestral concert arrangement of the theme. However, other than an LP-to-CD bootleg in the early 2000s on the Movietrack Classics label, there has been no other digital release of the score – the only releases I am aware of are four cues which can be found on the Carl Davis compilation album ‘Those Liverpool Days’, and a superb performance of the theme which can be found on several compilations, notably an album entitled ‘Carl Davis: The World At War, Pride and Prejudice, and Other Great Themes’, which Davis himself recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1996.

Despite its rarity and comparative obscurity, especially where American audiences are concerned, I cannot praise Champions highly enough, and unreservedly recommend it to anyone with an ear for film music that unashamedly lavishes its audience with unrestrained emotion and passion. As I said earlier, the “Champions Theme” is one of my all-time favorite movie themes, and anyone who knows my taste will know what that means. If you only ever experience one Carl Davis score in your life, this is the one.

Buy the Champions soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Champions Theme (3:16)
  • Soon It Will Be Too Late (4:32)
  • Jo’s Theme (2:41)
  • A Day Out/A Walk With Jo (2:40)
  • Uncle Bobby Is Dying (3:45)
  • Interlude (1:09)
  • Dark Rider (3:11)
  • I’m Going to Live (3:28)
  • Recovery (1:30)
  • Kentucky Holiday (1:54)
  • Meeting an Old Friend (2:32)
  • Proposal (4:09)
  • Grand National (2:33)
  • We’ve Won (1:26)
  • Champions Finale (2:56)

Running Time: 41 minutes 12 seconds

Island Records ISTA-7 (1984)

Music composed and conducted by Carl Davis. Performed by The Philharmonia Orchestra. Orchestrations by David Cullen. Recorded and mixed by John Richards and Alan Snelling. Score produced by Carl Davis.

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