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DEATH OF A NATION – Dennis McCarthy

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The world is in a strange place, politically. The rise of Donald Trump to the office of President of the United States has forced the country into a sort of ideological schism between Republicans and Democrats, red states and blue states, right wing and left wing. Across the world authoritarian leaders are flexing their muscles, from Vladimir Putin in Russia to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey. In Europe, Britain’s still-controversial Brexit is causing discord in the European Union. There remains political turmoil in the Middle East, while in places like China people like Xi Jinping are looking to consolidate their power in increasingly draconian ways. I’m not going to get into the meat of any of those thorny issues in this review, but I will ask this: where does art fall into this equation? Does art and music have a role to play? If so, what is it?

The question I’m asking arises from the release of this film, Death of a Nation, and its accompanying soundtrack album. The film is a documentary (and I use the term loosely) from filmmaker, right wing conspiracy theory peddler, and convicted campaign fraud perpetrator Dinesh D’Souza, who has made a career out of making poorly-researched and factually inaccurate cinematic portraits of people like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Death of a Nation is his latest dumpster fire, in which he favorably compares Trump with President Abraham Lincoln, and equates the modern day Democratic Party with Adolf Hitler’s Nazis. The reviews have not been kind. One read “if ever there was a movie that looked as if it had been slapped together in a couple of weeks as part of a quid pro quo agreement involving a dubious-seeming criminal pardon, Death of a Nation is that film.” Another said “Dinesh D’Souza is no longer preaching to the choir; he’s preaching to the mentally unsound.” A third concluded “D’Souza fans and Trump apologists will flock to this, misguided moths to a misleading flame. In that way, it’s a perfect representation of the current climate. In every other way, it’s a mess.”

As a person who, politically and socially, leans significantly to the left, you might be wondering why I’m giving any sort of attention to the ravings of a filmmaking charlatan whose opinions are as different from mine as it is possible to be. The reason is because I want to ask that very question of myself: should art be ignored because you disagree with its message? Can something like Death of a Nation, which is not only a bad film but also espouses an abhorrent and dishonest message that reinforces everything that is negative about contemporary politics, even have any type of artistic value? These are difficult, weighty questions that have been discussed for generations. Richard Wagner was a raging anti-Semite; does this, and the fact that Hitler adored his work, negate his musical genius? D. W. Griffith made a pro-Ku Klux Klan film in 1915 with Birth of Nation; does that film’s disgusting racism mean we should overlook its technical brilliance and Griffith’s contribution to the cinematic lexicon? What about the people who worked on those films? Should actress Lillian Gish have made a moral stand and chosen not to appear in Griffith’s film, even if doing so may have massively hampered her career?

In the context of this project, that last question has swirled around four people: composer Dennis McCarthy, conductor/arranger John Beal, music producer James Fitzpatrick, and record label executive Ford A. Thaxton. First of all, let me point out that there is no way on Earth that this film or its music is going to have the sort of societal impact that Griffith did in 1915. But, nevertheless, the questions have been asked, and considering everything that’s going on in the media, they demand some answers. For starters, while I know nothing about the political ideologies of McCarthy or Fitzpatrick, I do know that Beal leans to the right, while Thaxton is vocally and staunchly left-wing. As such, should Thaxton have taken an ideological stand and refused to release the music from a film that stands so clearly in opposition to his personal politics? Is it justified, as he says, to work with a long-time friend and genuinely excellent composer like McCarthy, even though the project itself is morally repugnant to millions? The album will likely sell very well amongst D’Souza’s followers; it clearly makes sense to release it from a business standpoint, but are the inevitable profits tainted by the stench of D’Souza’s bullshit? All those same questions can be leveled at Fitzpatrick – should he have allowed an orchestra as prestigious as the City of Prague Philharmonic to get involved with a project like this, or is a gig a gig?

As for McCarthy and Beal – they are the ones who are contributing the most to the project in a creative way… but should they have? Are they, by their association, implicitly endorsing D’Souza’s insanity, and giving it a veneer of respectability when it should be wholly denounced? I doubt either of them needed the money or the exposure – McCarthy has 20 years of Star Trek music under his belt, while Beal was the groundbreaking pioneer of creating original trailer music back in the 1990s – so what motivated them to take the job? It’s not clear. Some have suggested that their association with this film may slightly taint their legacies – but should it? Composers for hire just want to do the best job for them employers, and writing music for questionable political propaganda is not without precedent. Sergei Prokofiev wrote some of his best music at the behest of Joseph Stalin, as did Dmitri Shostakovich. I’m not saying that McCarthy and Beal are Prokofiev and Shostakovich, but the general conversation is the same. It’s a thorny, complicated set of issues which combine art with commerce, professionalism, ethics, and an overarching political ideology.

I suppose at this point I should talk about the actual music which, disregarding the moral and political issues around it, is wholly excellent. It’s fully orchestral, thematic, and often rousingly patriotic. The album is bookended by two of the most outrageously over-the-top orchestral arrangements of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and the national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner,” performed with wall-shaking gusto by vocalists Angela Primm, Sofia Cox, and Todd Barnhill, respectively. These performances are so astonishingly overblown, they are almost brilliant in their ludicrousness. Primm, especially, sings like she has a gun to her head (which, for all we know she might have – the NRA and D’Souza love each other!), and has to take first place in an overt patriotism contest. They clearly wants to be inspiring, but come across as parodies of themselves. There’s also a bizarre jazz arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner” which sounds like something that would be played ironically by a trio at the White House Correspondent Dinner.

Once you move past those misfires, the first score cue, “Rioters/Hitler Suicide/Burning Hitler,” is actually an original piece by John Beal, and it’s really outstanding; it begins with a powerful and turbulent march with a forceful brass figure at its core, moves through some more disturbing electronic textures that are eerie and unsettling, and concludes with a throbbing piece of orchestral action music underpinned by snare drums and bold string ostinatos. Everything else is by McCarthy, and it’s really, really good. There are a number of obvious stylistic similarities to his Star Trek scores, especially his 1994 feature score Star Trek: Generations and his theme from Deep Space Nine, as well as to the more Americana-tinged stylings of composers like Jerry Goldsmith, Randy Newman, and even James Horner.

Several cues stand out; the warm horn-led nostalgia of “Sad Pundits”, “Lincoln,” and “Lincoln Again/Lincoln Dies.” The more insistent and nervous orchestral passages in “Rioters and Pundits,” “Rioters Again,” the bombastic “Hitler,” and “Charlottesville,” which at times come across as vaguely Bruce Broughton-esque in tone and texture. The elegant woodwind writing in “Interview”. The more darkly-hued piano and string phrases in “Slavery” and “Nuremberg,” some of which eventually rise to some beautiful pastoral heights. The oppressive, overpowering brass writing in “To Europe and Hitler”. The more abstract “Revolution Prelude,” “Revolution,” and “Booking,” which feature some interesting colliding brass writing in the former, and some shadowy pizzicato dissonance in the latter.

Elsewhere in the score, impressive sequences include the thunderous action of “Long Knives” and “Chase and Capture”; the beautiful solo violin writing in “Jewish Problem” and “Soros,” both of which have vague musical echoes of Schindler’s List, and are performed impeccably by soloist Lucie Švehlová; the Holst-inspired “College Raid”; the unusual combination of war-like rhythms and ecclesiastical chorus in “Master Plan”; the lyrical homespun Americana of “Democratic Plantation”; the gorgeously angelic choral textures in “Sophie Intro”; and the subsequent orchestral beauty of “Sophie Dies”.

There’s not much to go on in terms of memorable recurring thematic content – McCarthy is mostly content to mainly score each sequence like a standalone vignette with connective tissue coming mainly via the orchestrations – but it’s so rare to hear fully fleshed-out orchestral writing like this these days, that one can overlook its minor deficiencies and simply enjoy being taken on a rise of clear, clean, well-arranged orchestral music that doesn’t rely on chugging ostinatos or endless banks of electronica to get its point across. So, from a purely musical point of view, there is much to admire. McCarthy has clearly not lost any of the emotional prowess that won him countless Emmy nominations in the 1980s and 90s, and it’s wonderful to hear Beal writing original film music again after so long – it’s now 35 years or more since The Funhouse and Terror In the Aisles, but he still clearly has the chops.

Ultimately, though, everything comes back to the stigma surrounding the project itself. Speaking from my own political viewpoint, D’Souza’s film is clearly a dangerous piece of misinformation and propaganda, cobbled together from a mish-mash of conspiracy theories, half-baked connections based on barely credible logical leaps, all designed to boost the authority of what may actually be the most destructive and intellectually barren presidency in American history. And here’s my personal take on the music: although I have a great deal respect of the each of the men involved in the creation of this score – especially John Beal, who I know personally and like a great deal – and although the musical content of the score is exemplary, I can’t help feel that this was a deal with the devil that should not have happened. At this point American history, there’s far too much at stake, and men and women of conscience must distance themselves from anything that in any way normalizes, legitimizes, supports, or apologizes for this disastrous administration and its warped view of truth and facts. While I understand that jobs need to be done, and business opportunities need to be taken, this feels a little like unfaithfulness to the cause. In all good conscience, I cannot recommend this score for that very reason, and this is why there is no purchasing link below.

Track Listing:

  • The Battle Hymn of the Republic (written by William Steffe and Julia Ward Howe, performed by Angela Primm) (3:35)
  • Rioters/Hitler Suicide/Burning Hitler (composed by John Beal) (4:07)
  • The Star-Spangled Banner – Jazz Arrangement (written by John Stafford Smith) (2:05)
  • Sad Pundits/Rioters and Pundits/Rioters Again (2:42)
  • Lincoln/Interview (2:27)
  • Slavery (6:49)
  • Gentile/To Europe and Hitler/Hitler (6:06)
  • Revolution Prelude/Revolution/Long Knives (5:33)
  • Jewish Problem (2:34)
  • One Drop of Blood (2:51)
  • College Raid (1:49)
  • Master Plan (2:05)
  • Mengele/Nuremberg (3:47)
  • Calhoun (1:26)
  • Charlottesville (2:16)
  • Democratic Plantation (1:24)
  • O’Keefe (1:39)
  • Soros (2:41)
  • Venezuela (0:57)
  • Sophie Intro/Sophie Typing/Pamphlet/Chase and Capture (4:50)
  • Booking (2:45)
  • Sophie Dies (2:34)
  • Lincoln Again/Lincoln Dies (2:33)
  • The Star-Spangled Banner (written by John Stafford Smith and Francis Scott Key, performed Sofia Cox and Todd Barnhill) (4:06)

Running Time: 74 minutes 28 seconds

BSX Records (2018)

Music composed by Dennis McCarthy. Conducted by John Beal. Performed by The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. Recorded and mixed by Jan Holzner. Album produced by Dennis McCarthy, Ford A. Thaxton and Mark Banning.

  1. I came here for the music, felt like I was reading CNNs front page from the last two years
    August 8, 2018 at 8:21 pm

    Thank you for putting some musical commentary into your political soap box sandwich.

  2. Scott W Weber
    August 9, 2018 at 12:56 pm

    I’m curious to hear this now…but only on spotify…can’t bring myself to reward them with money in any way.

  3. Martijn
    August 9, 2018 at 2:56 pm

    One of the most dynamic, engaging and interesting film music reviews I have read here, exactly because it is not divorced from contextual factors! It would have been so EASY to just skirt around these very, very relevant moral and political questions and just get hung up on a technical, nigh academic analysis of the music. But the whole thing about music is that it *transcends* boundaries! It is not merely an aural or mathematical thing…it’s very core essence is emotion! It conveys emotion, affects emotion, elicits emotion. So yeah, emotional questions are -to me- part and parcel of the experience. I can listen to Wagner (hell, I love most of his overtures!) but the question of his politics and repugnant racism remains on my mind….all the more BECAUSE I love the man’s art. I can imagine myself enjoying this score…while all the way wondering the exact same things Jon does: what does that mean for ME and MY values? There is no easy answer here (as Jon himself states). This makes this review all the more poignant, worthwhile and yes: brave. Jon, I applaud you. This can NOT have been easy.

    • August 12, 2018 at 8:56 am

      Thank you so much. It means a lot to me that you’ve given me this sort of feed back and it’s exactly the sort of conversation I hoped to stimulate with this review.

  4. supermegaa
    August 10, 2018 at 6:37 am

    Remember when one of Washington’s last recommendations was to completely avoid political parties? This is why. It does nothing but divide people and it exchanges debate with petty insults, straw man arguments, and propaganda. whether it be films like this, Fox News, or CNN.

    • supermegaa
      August 10, 2018 at 6:38 am

      But otherwise, I’m interested in the music. Great review on that front.

  5. Dennis McCarthy
    August 13, 2018 at 10:01 pm

    Yo Jonathan! Probably the best review I’ve ever read! Yes, I am conservative; after 9 years on the road with Glen Campbell I came to love all the flyover country folks. So many reviewers have not listened to the music or in many cases have not even seen the movie. I must take exception to one of your observations; the ‘jazz’ version of the Star Spangled Banner was recorded in my living room; the trumpet player had just lost his son six months earlier. When he came into my house he said that he had a dream where his son appeared and inspired him to do the version you heard on the album. Tears in everyone’s eyes. A beautiful soulful rendition. I have to give Ford great credit for having the courage to put this album out; he knew he would be vilified but he felt that the music deserved an honest hearing.

    Your carefully crafted thoughts on the cues are much appreciated; I am sending your review to all of my family and friends; mostly liberal but accepting of all points of view. May God bless you and your family – Dennis

    • August 13, 2018 at 10:28 pm

      Thank you, Dennis. I’m very pleased you took the time to read the review, and even more pleased that you felt the points I am making, and the discussion I am hoping to to generate, was worthwhile.

  6. September 24, 2018 at 6:49 pm

    I just discovered your review here, Jon. Thank you for taking the time to listen and make – as always – informed musical comments. When I was asked to work for the producer of Schindler’s List, conduct the music of Dennis McCarthy with the wonderful City of Prague Philharmonic, and finally have the opportunity to work with James Fitzpatrick after so many years of trying, I jumped at it. It was always all about the music, and the score speaks for itself. I have been conducting major orchestras around the world for some time, and this was one of the most enjoyable experiences I had this year. I have watched this orchestra grow into the fabulous ensemble that it is today and was brought to tears by some of the performances. So, I have no regrets. I am a conductor and they are musicians. We make and play music for a living. We are not paid to support political ideologies. In over 2,000 movie trailers, I wrote original scores to promote so many bad movies, I hope to not be blamed for them as well! Cheers.

  7. Ben
    September 27, 2018 at 12:55 pm

    As much as I despise this movie, the score for Dennis McCarthy is truly its sole asset and much better than the ones composers provided for D’Souza’s previous propaganda pieces.

  8. Benjamin Stock
    April 4, 2020 at 8:18 pm

    I still can’t get over how the composer for this movie worked on Star Trek for EIGHTEEN YEARS.

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