CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD – Michael Convertino
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Children of a Lesser God is a thoughtful, powerful romantic drama directed by Randa Haines, based on the Tony Award–winning stage play of the same name by Mark Medoff, adapted for the screen by Medoff and fellow writer Hesper Anderson. It stars William Hurt as James Leeds, a teacher who starts a new job as an instructor at a New England school for the deaf. One day James meets Sarah Norman (Marlee Matlin), a young deaf woman who works at the school as a member of the janitorial staff. Sarah is a sign language user, and refuses to speak out loud. As James and Sarah slowly develop a romance, it is gradually revealed that her silence is due in part to her difficult relationship with her mother (Piper Laurie), who is domineering and unreasonable, as well as her sexual history – Sarah has been raped before, and is struggling to come to terms with the repercussions of this in her life. The film was a critical success, receiving five Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture, and special praise was reserved for Matlin, who made her acting debut in this film, is deaf in real life, and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actress at the age of just 21.
The score for Children of a Lesser God is by composer Michael Convertino, who is a somewhat obscure figure in film music these days. Back in the early 1980s, having already studied music at Yale and at the Paris Conservatoire, Convertino formed a new wave rock band, The Innocents, with fellow composer and Yale classmate Thomas Newman – Convertino was the guitarist and lead singer, Newman the keyboard player. The band found initial fame as the subject of a TV documentary that chronicled their exploits, following them from their early days playing in clubs, through to them being signed by a major record label. Unfortunately, and despite an appearance on American Bandstand, their self-titled debut album was a flop, and the band quickly broke up.
It was the Newman connection that led Convertino to film music, via Thomas’s brother David, who asked Convertino to help him score director Tim Burton’s 1984 animated short film Frankenweenie. Two years later Convertino made his mainstream feature debut writing the score for Children of a Lesser God, and over the next decade or so he scored several prominent and well-regarded films, including Bull Durham in 1988, The Santa Clause in 1994, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead in 1995, Bed of Roses in 1996, and Jungle 2 Jungle in 1997. The strange thing is that, around the turn of the millennium, Convertino basically stopped writing scores, and disappeared from public view: he has only scored six films in the last 16 years, the most recent in 2009, and none of them were particularly high profile. There are no interviews with him online, and only one photograph of him appears to exist, taken from the LP sleeve of The Innocents album. It’s all quite mysterious, and no-one really knows what happened.
What we do know, especially from his work on things like Children of a Lesser God, is that Convertino was – and is – a very talented composer. His style is actually very similar to that of his friend Thomas Newman (some have even suggested that they ghost-wrote for each other several times during the 1980s, although no concrete proof of this exists), and anyone who enjoyed the dream-like textures and wistful romantic writing of Newman scores like Light of Day, Less Than Zero, or Whispers in the Dark, will find Children of a Lesser God to be just their cup of tea. Convertino’s sound palette is small, limited mainly to a Synclavier keyboard, strings, metallic percussion, and various sampled electronic sounds, but he nevertheless gets a fair bit of mileage out of his undersized ensemble, subtly shifting the tones to depict the changing moods of James and Sarah’s love affair.
The main theme, “Children of a Lesser God,” is a soft, slow, shimmering piece for synths and strings, with cascading, waterfall-like cadences that breathe and sigh. It’s pretty and tender, evocative of a hesitant and at times even reluctant romance, but some may feel it never really attains any real emotional catharsis, as it instead chooses to remain a little aloof. Some have compared Convertino’s writing here to that of people like Brian Eno and Mike Oldfield, whose minimalist tendencies were popular at that time, and anyone who enjoys their electro-acoustic ambiences will find Convertino’s stylings to be equally appealing.
The rest of the score is, basically, a set of variations on the core style set out in the opening cue, with just the tiniest variations and almost subliminal shifts in key and instrumentation conveying the changing moods. “Silence and Sound,” for example, works in a slightly more prominent, almost intrusive piano element, possibly expressing Sarah’s frustration at her aural disability. The subsequent “Sarah Sleeping “ is more abstract than its predecessors, incorporating little woodwind flutters, whistles, sampled vocal effects, and rustling wind noises to create a mood redolent of the sound of nature. In “Rain/Pool” the chromatic piano clusters are again more prominent, offset this time by quiet metallic chimes, while the synths in “On the Ferry” offer a more upbeat, slightly breathless set of overlapping textures, and a variation on the main theme that feels a little giddy with excitement, like someone experiencing genuine love for the first time, but who is trying not to show it in public.
“Goodnight” has a lullabyish quality, soothing and calming. “Searching for Sarah” again revisits the main theme, but breaks it up into fragments, as if Convertino was using the music to illustrate the fractured nature of James and Sarah’s relationship at this point in the film. The unexpected interjection from a solo trumpet in this cue is one of the score’s more startling instrumental touches, at least in the context of the music that surrounds it. “Love on the Couch” once again returns to the romantic piano clusters heard earlier in the score, except this time they are slightly deeper in tone, more serious and intense. Everything builds to its lovely finale in “Joined,” an extrapolation on the sound heard earlier in “Sarah Sleeping,” before concluding with the “End Titles,” a near-verbatim restatement of the main theme.
Two other tracks round out the album from GNP Crescendo Records. The first is “Boomerang,” an original rock-gospel song written by Convertino, performed with finger-snapping sass by vocalist Vonciele Faggette, channeling Diana Ross and The Supremes. The other is a dignified version of the second movement from Bach’s Double Concerto for Violins in D Minor, conducted by Shirley Walker using the same ensemble as the rest of the score.
There are several drawbacks to Children of a Lesser God. The consistency of tone, limited instrumental variation, and generally understated thematic content does render it rather ‘samey’ for much of its running time, and I can certainly foresee that listeners who need more oomph and pizzazz in their film music will feel that this is a score in which very little actually happens. Fortunately, at just a touch over 25 minutes (discounting the song and the classical source music), the score is short enough to never wear out its welcome. It also helps that I find this music approachable and enjoyable for its own sake, and so I give it a cautious recommendation to anyone wanting to explore the work of Michael Convertino, especially fans of Thomas Newman’s similar-sounding works from the period. Convertino has done better work elsewhere, but it was this score that initiated his brief but illustrious career a film composer, and it’s always best to start a journey at the beginning.
Buy the Children of a Lesser God soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Children of a Lesser God (3:02)
- Silence and Sound (3:26)
- Sarah Sleeping (1:42)
- Rain/Pool (1:08)
- Underwater Love (1:23)
- On the Ferry (1:44)
- James and Sarah (1:08)
- Goodnight (1:20)
- Boomerang (written by Michael Convertino, performed by Vonciele Faggette) (3:25)
- Forgiveness/Winter into Spring (4:05)
- Double Concerto for Violins in D Minor, Second Movement – Largo Ma Non Tanto (written by Johann Sebastian Bach) (2:26)
- Searching for Sarah (1:14)
- Love on the Couch (1:24)
- James Alone on the Pier (0:53)
- Joined (2:10)
- End Titles (3:01)
Running Time: 33 minutes 31 seconds
GNP Crescendo Records GNPD-8007 (1986)
Music composed by Michael Convertino. Conducted by Shirley Walker. Orchestrations by Michael Convertino, Shirley Walker, Chris Boardman and John Neufeld. Recorded and mixed by Dan Wallin. Edited by Else Blangsted. Album produced by Michael Convertino and Neil Norman.