Home > Reviews > CRY FREEDOM – George Fenton and Jonas Gwangwa

CRY FREEDOM – George Fenton and Jonas Gwangwa

November 9, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

It’s difficult to look back at South Africa in the 1970s and 80s and remember that, for decades following the end of World War II, the country operated under a legal political system called apartheid, whereby white South Africans held all the power and black South Africans were second class citizens, subjugated by a minority in their own country. This systematic racism was decried all over the world until 1991, when the policy was formally abolished. Director Richard Attenborough’s film Cry Freedom is a look at one of the most notorious events of the apartheid era: the death of activist Steve Biko at the hands of the local police in Pretoria, and the complicity of the South African government, who tried to cover it up. The film starred Kevin Kline and Denzel Washington, and was a major critical success in the winter of 1987, eventually receiving three Academy Award nominations: one for actor Washington, and two for the music by George Fenton and Jonas Gwangwa.

English composer Fenton, a stalwart of prestigious British television and cinematic fare, had scored Attenborough’s previous directorial effort Gandhi in 1982, and continued his collaboration here. Fenton had worked with Indian composer and instrumentalist Ravi Shankar to develop an ethnically authentic score for Gandhi, and on Cry Freedom Fenton again sought out the help of a local musician to create a truly genuine South African sound. To this end, Fenton shared scoring duties with Jonas Gwangwa, a South African jazz musician, songwriter and producer, who had been an important figure in South African jazz for over 20 years previously, and who was the leader of Amandla, the cultural ensemble of the African National Congress (ANC), Nelson Mandela’s political party. The resulting score is about as authentic a representation of South African traditional music as one could ever find in a film, which blends Fenton’s contemporary dramatic orchestral writing with the tribal rhythms and vocals of the Xhosa people to whom Steve Biko belonged.

Vocals actually play an enormously important role in the score, acting as the spiritual soul of the movie. Gwangwa and his singers offer a wide array of styles and emotional resonances to convey the life and death of Steve Biko, and his struggle for justice; sometimes they are joyful and uplifting, sometimes they are dramatic and defiant, sometimes they are somber and full of regret and reflection.

Several vocal cues stand out as being especially noteworthy. The opening piece, “Crossroads – A Dawn Raid,” features African vocals that are epic and soaring. They carry the main melody, supported by both Fenton’s orchestra – a bed of intense thrusts with imposing brass and clattering percussion – and synths arranged by Ken Freeman, who is still best known in England for his theme to the long-running BBC drama series Casualty.

The subsequent “Gumboots” is a joyous, upbeat guitar piece accompanied by chanted, raucous African vocals, and hand claps and foot stomps in the percussion section which pre-date James Horner’s The Mask of Zorro by a decade! “Black Township” is distant and wistful, with humming female voices and sighing males, accompanied by Fenton’s string washes and moody, breathy woodwinds, offering a sobering musical depiction of the harsh realities of life the black communities suffered under white oppression.

Later, “Asking for Trouble” is a suspense piece, in which female vocals whispering in Xhosa are offset by an incongruously light woodwind line, in a style which reminds me very much of Michael Abels’s opening piece from the 2017 film Get Out. “The Mortuary” is a dark piece, filled with nervous tremolo strings conveying a sense of danger and apprehension, while faint, bitter chants keep time with a slowing heartbeat in the percussion section.

“The Funeral (September 25, 1987)” is an album standout, filled with operatic African acapella vocals and humming harmonies that simultaneously celebrate Biko’s life and lament his loss. When the cue segues into a spine tingling rendition of “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” which would eventually be adopted as the post-apartheid South African national anthem, the emotional impact is enormous.

The rest of Fenton’s underscore tends to be understated, a combination of strings, harp, piano, soft woodwinds, and muted horns, which accompany Kevin Kline’s character Donald Woods, the editor of the East London Daily Express, as he attempts to escape from South Africa to break Biko’s life story to the world. Cues like “Detention,” “At the Beach,” and “The Phone Call” offer some interesting textures, and cues like “The Getaway” and “Deadline” become more urgent and intense, but Fenton’s two most important contributions come elsewhere.

The first, “The Frontier,” is a genuine highlight, which begins with lilting, lyrical piano and horn writing, moves through a nervous sequence for bass flutes, pizzicato strings, and odd chord progressions, before concluding with a joyous, celebratory finale full of bold vocal calls and an open, buoyant thematic idea. The second, “Telle Bridge,” uses muted brass to add a touch of elegant jazz to a cue otherwise full of drama and pathos, and the fanfares towards the end have the rousing catharsis similar to his score for The Blue Planet.

The score concludes with an original song, “Cry Freedom,” written by Fenton and Gwangwa, and performed by Jonas Gwangwa himself with soulful passion and raw emotion. The song bares little relation to the music as heard in the score itself, but Gwangwa’s performance is important, especially when you listen to the lyrics: Gwangwa opens the song by rattling off lists of names of anti-apartheid activists imprisoned or killed by the South African government, and places where subjugation of blacks by whites reached violent conclusions, before imploring the world to ‘cry freedom for South Africa’. Gwangwa’s performance of the song at the 1988 Oscars brought the house down, although it eventually lost to Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes’s “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” from Dirty Dancing.

As good as Cry Freedom is, it still strikes me that its Oscar recognition came as a result of its attachment to a worthy and acclaimed film, rather than it being outstanding music in its own right. As I’ve mentioned several times, Fenton and Gwangwa’s music is nothing less than 100% authentic, and it packs an emotional punch in context, but there’s nothing inherently outstanding about it in terms of composition; it’s not amongst Fenton’s 10 best career scores, and from my point of view it’s nowhere close to being in the Top 10 of 1987, let alone a potential number one. Still, anyone who enjoys scores with an African flavor, especially ones with extensive vocal work, will find plenty to entertain them here.

Buy the Cry Freedom soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Crossroads – A Dawn Raid (2:16)
  • Gumboots (1:46)
  • Black Township (2:32)
  • Shebeen Queen (2:58)
  • Asking for Trouble (2:23)
  • Dangerous Country (1:38)
  • Detention (2:00)
  • The Mortuary (2:27)
  • The Funeral (September 25, 1987) (4:40)
  • At the Beach (3:25)
  • The Getaway (3:23)
  • The Frontier (2:59)
  • Last Thoughts (1:35)
  • Deadline (2:15)
  • The Phone Call (2:01)
  • Telle Bridge (2:47)
  • Soweto – And Vocal Reprise (1:08)
  • Cry Freedom (written by George Fenton and Jonas Gwangwa, performed by Jonas Gwangwa) (4:41)

Running Time: 46 minutes 54 seconds

MCA Records MCAD-6224 (1987)

Music composed by George Fenton and Jonas Gwangwa. Conducted by George Fenton. Orchestrations by George Fenton and Peter Whitehouse. Recorded and mixed by Keith Grant. Album produced by George Fenton and Jonas Gwangwa.

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