Home > Reviews > MAX AND ME – Mark McKenzie

MAX AND ME – Mark McKenzie

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Max and Me is an animated film from the Mexican production company Dos Corazones. It tells the story of Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan friar who during World War II was imprisoned at the Auschwitz concentration camp by the Nazis and became its de-facto priest. He became renowned for his kindness and, later, his bravery, when he volunteered to die in place of another prisoner who had been unjustly sentenced to be executed. Kolbe was canonized and made a saint by Pope John Paul II in 1982, and remains one of the most respected and admired Polish religious figures of modern times. In terms of this film, Kolbe’s life provides the contemporary frame of reference for the overarching story of an old man trying to help a young, rebellious teenager through some difficult life choices. As was the case with Dos Corazones’s last film, The Greatest Miracle, Max and Me wears its religious convictions proudly on its sleeve – it is an unashamedly pro-Catholic, pro-God, pro-faith film – and this sense of emotion and spiritual reverence informs its score, by composer Mark McKenzie.

I have long felt that Mark McKenzie is a composer who could have, in other circumstances, been one of the greatest film composers of his generation. Early in his career, after he scored a couple of horror films that left him creatively unfulfilled, McKenzie made the conscious choice to try to score films which he felt offered a positive message to cinema-goers; as a result, he became somewhat pigeonholed as a composer who specializes in films with religious themes, which I find immensely frustrating because he has the clear talent and professional willingness to write music across a multitude of genres – I’d love for him to score a great thriller, or a historical romance, or another western, or even more fantasy movies like his trio of Dragonheart sequels.

The reason I’m so vehement about this is because the twenty-five or so films which he has scored contain some of the finest film music I have ever heard – and that’s not a hyperbolic statement. Listen to the music he wrote for films like The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca, or Durango, or The Lost Child, or Blizzard, and then imagine that that music had been written for various high-profile, awards-caliber dramas. McKenzie would be on his fourth Oscar by now. What I love so much about McKenzie’s music is that it is unashamedly, almost defiantly emotional. He’s an old soul, steeped in that glorious film music tradition of taking the audience on a musical journey. When other composers pull back, McKenzie wrings every last drop of power and passion from his orchestra. He writes themes that soar, harmonies that dazzle, and melodies that make you feel something, in every corner of your soul.

McKenzie’s score for The Greatest Miracle was, in my opinion, the finest work of his career to that point, and it was universally lauded by numerous film music critics as one of the best scores of 2011. Max and Me is likely to elicit the same response. Visually, Max and Me looks rather similar to its predecessor, with a fairly simple, almost child-like animation style, but as so often happens in film music, the most unlikely movies sometimes have the most astonishing scores. The producers clearly prioritized music in their budget, because they gave McKenzie the resources to travel to London to record the score with a 135-piece orchestra and choir at Abbey Road, featuring virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell, pianist David Arch, the London Singers, the Libera Boys Choir, and solo vocalists Clara Sanabras and Issac London. Their investment has certainly paid off.

Max and Me is a staggeringly beautiful score, filled to the brim with orchestral glory, soaring melodies, emotional themes, choral wonderment, and sublime instrumental solos. It’s clearly intended to be a spiritual, reverential celebration of religion and faith, and irrespective of whether that means anything to you on a personal level, McKenzie’s sincere and heartfelt music cannot fail to inspire. In a score full of highlights, several cues stand out as being especially noteworthy, beginning with the three cues that feature solo violin performances by Joshua Bell: the opening cue “I Am,” “A Mother’s Prayer,” and “I Love You”. In these three cues, Bell adds a classical touch and a virtuoso’s technique to McKenzie’s already sumptuous music. The richness of the tones, the delicacy of the performances, and the clarity of the sound, are all magnificent. The duet he performs with David Arch’s piano in the second of those cues is just sublime, while the unadorned grace and sense of tragedy and loss in the solo of the third is just heartbreaking.

The rest of the score continues very much in this vein. Thematically speaking, the score is actually a little light. There is a recurring 5-note motif that weaves through several cues and receives several prominent statements – especially towards the end of “Prayer for Peace” – but it never really establishes itself as a strong, clearly definable main theme, which makes it the score’s one and only small disappointment. However, this is mitigated by the fact that there appears to be a callback reference to a theme from The Greatest Miracle in “A Mother’s Prayer,” towards the end of “Nazi Brutality,” during the conclusion of “Auschwitz Cries,” and in others. These specific cues, in both scores, appear to specifically deal with the notion of the power of prayer, and if this is indeed the same theme, then it is a very clever conceptual idea that McKenzie has used, linking both films together with one single over-arching thematic reference.

It would be redundant of me to list all the moments where the score erupts into rousing, spiritually uplifting glory. The score abounds with gorgeous choral tones and sweeping string writing, so instead I’ll pick out a few moments where McKenzie changes things up a little. One such cue is “Head in the Clouds Over You,” which augments the familiar orchestral sound with an acoustic guitar, soothing and calming, that reminds me of George Fenton’s score for Dangerous Beauty. In “You Could Be Anything” McKenzie focuses on London’s solo boy soprano voice, which is used in an optimistic and inspiring way, alongside a series of chord progressions that – oddly – remind me of Jerry Goldsmith’s score for The Shadow.

“In the Trenches” contains some much darker material, with brooding war-like string textures, ominous brasses, and a portentous choir, that eventually gives way to a luscious theme that emerges to cast light onto the shadow of death. A plaintive ‘wailing woman’ cry courtesy of vocalist Clara Sanabras adds a touch of heartfelt tragedy. “If You Are So Intelligent Why Don’t You Believe?” features some notably lovely contrapuntal writing from the brass and woodwinds, and there are hints of Georges Delerue at his most reverential in some of the string phrasing.

On the other hand, “When I’m Saying Me I Mean You” is light and playful, replete with choppy pizzicato strings and bright trumpets. The subsequent “Dare to Dream Bigger” features horns more prominently than before, accompanied by thrusting strings, piano chords, and a male choir; it all comes across like something Jerry Goldsmith would write for an inspirational sports movie. “Dapper Duds” is upbeat and jaunty, with hint of English classicism in the brass and piano writing, and a welcome return from the solo guitar.

“Nazi Brutality” is desperately ominous and foreboding, using harsher tones, more threatening brass writing, and turgid strings to create an overwhelming atmosphere of dread, although even here light pierces the darkness by a way of a haunting, Morricone-esque recorder solo, and some lovely Horner-style chord progressions. “Prayer for Peace” is a hymn for massed voices, liturgical and reverent, which blends the 5-note theme with Sanabras’s wailing vocals, the recorder, and dominant brass, and slowly builds to an enormous finale. “Only Love is Creative” features a stark opening, but quickly becomes another spiritual, majestic piece for chorus and strings. The title of the cue references a famous quote by Kolbe, which he used to comfort the Auschwitz inmates when they were at their most desperate.

However, if all that was not already enough, McKenzie pushes through all barriers of restraint and subtlety in the final four cues, and presents a passage of music that is simply overwhelming in its emotional power. I’m not ashamed to admit that “Triumph Over Fear and Death” made me cry the first time I heard it; I believe it’s the cue that accompanies Kolbe’s death scene in the film, but instead of wallowing in sadness, McKenzie scores it with rapturous splendor. It slowly builds over the course of 3½ minutes, gradually adding layer upon layer of string and choral beauty, slowly increasing the emotional content, until the explosion of glorious brass at 2:34 – replete with cymbal and triangle rings – sends you over the edge. Both “He Was Always With Me” and “I Believe in You” continue the trend – more gorgeous strings, more choir, an especially lovely oboe solo, beautiful romantic piano lines coupled with a final appearance of the guitar – before the conclusive “Heaven’s Welcome.” In this sensational final cue, McKenzie takes the five-note theme and presents it at its most glorious, full of heraldic horns, trumpet fanfares, surging strings, choral accents, and even a church organ. This truly is music to accompany a triumphant journey home.

I genuinely can’t remember the last time I was so moved by a piece of new film music as I was by Max and Me. As I mentioned earlier it has, for me, surpassed The Greatest Miracle as the most outstanding score in Mark McKenzie’s already stellar filmography, and even though it’s only March it has firmly anchored itself in place as the leading contender for 2018’s Score of the Year honors – and it will take something truly miraculous to beat it. Anyone who loves film music in the way I love film music, who yearns for thematic grandeur, who craves emotional power, and who celebrates live orchestras and choirs, should seek out this astonishing score immediately, and then thank whatever deity or higher power is appropriate for the fact that Mark McKenzie is still being given the opportunity to write music like this.

Buy the Max and Me soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • I Am (1:14)
  • Two Crowns Vision (1:21)
  • Head in the Clouds Over You (2:14)
  • You Could Be Anything (2:43)
  • In the Trenches (2:28)
  • If You Are So Intelligent Why Don’t You Believe? (5:20)
  • Ask and It Will Be Given To You (1:23)
  • When I’m Saying Me I Mean You (0:50)
  • Dare to Dream Bigger (1:50)
  • A Mother’s Prayer (3:08)
  • Dapper Duds (1:49)
  • Sunset Hug (1:49)
  • I’m Sorry (3:02)
  • Nazi Brutality (3:15)
  • Prayer for Peace (3:40)
  • Auschwitz Cries (2:56)
  • Only Love is Creative (2:37)
  • I Love You (4:00)
  • Triumph Over Fear and Death (3:20)
  • He Was Always With Me (1:50)
  • I Believe in You (4:12)
  • Heaven’s Welcome (2:28)

Running Time: 57 minutes 39 seconds

Sony Classical (2018)

Music composed by Mark McKenzie. Conducted by Gordon Johnson. Orchestrations by Mark McKenzie. Featured musical soloists Joshua Bell and David Arch. Special vocal performances by London Voices and the Libera Boys Choir featuring Clara Sanabras and Isaac London. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin. Edited by Marc Perlman. Album produced by Mark McKenzie.

  1. March 10, 2018 at 1:09 am

    I was waiting for this score to be released and it went straight to my TOP15 Best Scores for this year too. No-brainer that it is in this week’s update on Screensoundradio.

  2. April 26, 2018 at 4:09 am

    Great review Jon, I was reduced ti tears very early in the score and almost couldn’t get through it all. As you say, what on earth could beat this?

  1. March 12, 2018 at 7:22 am
  2. March 23, 2018 at 6:26 am
  3. April 22, 2018 at 11:54 am
  4. August 23, 2018 at 12:39 pm
  5. August 26, 2018 at 5:17 pm
  6. August 29, 2018 at 12:33 pm
  7. September 16, 2018 at 9:17 am
  8. February 1, 2019 at 9:06 am
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  10. November 23, 2019 at 5:33 pm
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