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RACE – Rachel Portman

raceOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Jesse Owens is generally considered to be one of the greatest American track and field athletes in history. Born in Alabama in 1913, Owens suffered as a result of the racist and segregationist political climate that all African-Americans endured at that time, but it was his athletic prowess that brought him fame. He broke three world records in less than an hour while competing for Ohio State University at a meet in Michigan in 1935, and subsequently represented the United States at the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin. In open defiance of German chancellor Adolf Hitler, who intended to use the games as a showpiece to promote his philosophy of Aryan physical perfection, Owens won four gold medals in the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay, and long jump, cementing his place in sporting history. Director Stephen Hopkins’s film Race – a multi-meaning title if ever there was one – is a fairly straightforward biopic of Owens’s life, starring Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Jeremy Irons, William Hurt, and Carice van Houten.

The score for Race is by the English composer Rachel Portman, who has somewhat dropped off the film music A-list in recent years. Although she won an Emmy in 2015 for scoring the HBO movie Bessie, she hasn’t scored a film which has made any significant in-roads at the box office since The Vow in 2012, and it’s a shame because hers is a unique, appealing voice that cuts through a lot of the over-produced film music dross with class and elegance. As a reference to the location of Owens’s greatest triumph, the score was recorded in Berlin with a session orchestra under the baton of conductor Joris Barsh Buhle, and it is generally very good – an appropriate orchestral celebration of the man’s achievements, replete with the usual rousing depictions of sporting heroism, peppered with more personal, intimate moments representing his encounters with racism and prejudice.

The opening few moments of the “Race Opening Titles” will shock anyone who thinks Portman is a one trick pony, being a finger-snapping, toe-tapping, highly-rhythmic riff for guitars, percussion, and piano, that reflects Owens’s southern roots. This is not the first time she has written like this – she explored this style of writing in Beloved way back in 1998 – but it certainly dispels the curiously prevalent myth that she only ever writes pretty waltzes and has no dramatic range. Not only that, the cue is deceiving as it cleverly introduces Jesse’s recurring theme around the 30 second mark, an undulating 8-note piano melody.

The theme for Jesse recurs throughout much of the rest of the score, appearing as a rousing fanfare for noble trumpets in cues like “Three World Records,” but it is also malleable enough to change tack and represent different facets of Jesse’s personality through switches in the orchestration, such as the brooding variation at the end of “Hope You Don’t Go,” the optimistic statement in “I Came Here To Run,” and throughout “Those Are The Rules”.

The actual races in which Jesse competes tend to be underscored in a similar way; the pre-race rituals have a sense of tension in the string and woodwind passages, and a feeling of nervous anticipation in the percussion rhythms. The action of the competition is fast, energetic, with a propulsive forward motion that matches Owens’s own speed and stamina. Finally, the thrill of victory – something that Owens tasted more than his fair share of throughout his career – generally sees Portman raising the volume and intensity of her orchestra by allowing her brasses to cheer the victor home with rousing, triumphant brass performances, usually incorporating further statements of Jesse’s theme.

All these elements are encapsulated in cues like “The Men’s Broad Jump Final,” “The 200m Final,” “Meters Are Longer Than Yards,” and especially “The Final Event” and the conclusive “Please Take Your Last Jump,” where the contrapuntal brass writing between trumpets and horns almost rises to the heights attained by Jerry Goldsmith during the finale of Rudy. Interestingly, Portman occasionally augments these musical sequences with more contemporary instrumental ideas – electric guitars in “Training,” for example – which are anachronistic, but nevertheless add a different level of intensity to the pieces.

In addition, Portman also wrote a secondary theme, which seems to represent the Nazis who loom in the background of Jesse’s trip to Germany, in the shape of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, documentary filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, and the oppressive Teutonic scale of pre-WWII Berlin itself. The three-note Nazi motif first appears in “Avery Visits Berlin,” accompanying the head of the US Olympic Committee Avery Brundage with dark and ominous brass chords as he tours the city. It crops up again in a more subtle variation in “Hope You Don’t Go,” is accompanied by Gladiator-like fanfares and militaristic percussion in “Arrival at the Games,” gets its largest and darkest crescendo during the unnerving and dramatic “The Olympic Stadium,” and has perhaps its best outing in “Meeting with Goebbels,” which sees a very dark and sinister version of the Nazi theme for brooding strings being counterbalanced by a dignified performance of Jesse’s theme on piano.

What’s impressive about Race is the fact that, for the most part, none of this really sounds like ‘typical Rachel Portman music’ as her detractors have come to label it. One or two cues do revisit her characteristic writing style more closely; the eager and upbeat “On the Bus to USC” contains some of the familiar prancing string rhythmic ideas and flourishing contrapuntal piano responses, while “U.S. Olympic Vote” has the warm, inviting trumpet writing from scores like The Legend of Bagger Vance, but these moments are few and far between. Instead, the score is a dramatically appropriate, musically literate, interesting drama score, which occasionally rises to very rousing and celebratory heights, and could never be accused of slavishly rehashing old, clichéd ideas.

Although the film has not been a real box office success, I nevertheless hope that Race initiates a return to more prominent theatrical scoring for Rachel Portman, whose wholly original voice and personal compositional stylistics I have missed considerably during recent years.

Buy the Race soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Race Opening Titles (2:35)
  • Three World Records (1:25)
  • The Men’s Broad Jump Final (2:20)
  • On the Bus to USC (1:26)
  • U.S. Olympic Vote (2:47)
  • Training (1:27)
  • A Business Proposal (1:33)
  • Avery Visits Berlin (1:56)
  • Hope You Don’t Go (4:32)
  • The 200m Final (3:01)
  • I Came Here to Run (2:41)
  • Fresh Blood (0:48)
  • Arrival at the Games (2:39)
  • Meeting with Goebbels (1:39)
  • Meters Are Longer Than Yards (1:39)
  • The Olympic Stadium (4:14)
  • It’s Not Your Race (2:32)
  • The Final Event (2:09)
  • Those Are the Rules (2:03)
  • Waiting for Ruth (1:24)
  • Please Take Your Last Jump (2:23)
  • You Made History (1:53)
  • Let the Games Begin (written by Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III, performed by Aloe Blacc) (3:42)

Running Time: 53 minutes 22 seconds

Back Lot Music (2016)

Music composed by Rachel Portman. Conducted by Joris Barsh Buhle. Orchestrations by Jeff Atmajian, David William Hearn and Andrew Kinney. Recorded and mixed by Tobias Lehmann. Edited by Christoph Bauschinger. Album produced by Rachel Portman and George Acogny.

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