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MUSIC BOX – Philippe Sarde

November 7, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Music Box was a political thriller directed by the great Franco-Greek filmmaker Constantin Costa-Gavras, based on a semi-autobiographical screenplay by Joe Eszterhas. Although Eszterhas soon became better known for writing rather more sordid murder mysteries – Basic Instinct, Jade, and Showgirls, for example – Music Box is a very different, much more serious film. It stars Jessica Lange as Ann Talbot, a Chicago defense attorney, who learns that her father, Hungarian immigrant Michael Laszlo (Armin Mueller-Stahl), is in danger of having his U.S. citizenship revoked. As Ann digs deeper into her father’s past she discovers a shocking truth – that he may have been involved in atrocities during World War II while collaborating with Nazis. It was a moving, emotional film, which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1989, and earned Lange an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.

The score for Music Box is by the great and underrated French composer Philippe Sarde. Costa-Gavras had worked with a multitude of superb composers on his previous films – Mikis Theodorakis on Z, Michel Legrand on Section Spéciale, Vangelis on Missing, Gabriel Yared on Hanna K., Georges Delerue on Conseil de Famille, among others – but Music Box was the first time these two had worked together. Sarde has a somewhat peculiar reputation in film music circles, in that he is undeniably talented, can write fantastic melodies, and has scored some truly excellent films, often working with his producer brother Alain Sarde for some of France’s greatest directors. However, Sarde’s career often mirrored that of James Horner in the United States, in that he was constantly dogged by accusations of self-plagiarism, and of repeating main themes across multiple films to the detriment of both. I have to admit that my deep knowledge of Sarde’s back catalogue is limited to the extent that I often can’t identify whether he is repeating themes from the darkest recesses of his filmography, but I do know this: his music is always interesting, is intricately orchestrated, and is usually built around at least one superb central melody. Music Box is one of these.

The centerpiece of the score is “Ann’s Theme,” heard in the opening concert piece of the same name. It’s a gorgeous, longing piece full of emotion and regret, a lilting combination of lush strings, elegant woodwinds, and wordless solo female vocals, some of which seem to contain the soulful inflections often heard in traditional Hungarian népzene folk music. The subtle inclusion of a cimbalom in the percussion section helps boost this connection to the ‘old country’ even further. The piano interlude that emerges half way through the cue is sublime, and the whole thing offers an appropriately solemn and reverential musical depiction of what happened in Hungary, on the banks of the Danube and in the streets of Budapest, so many years ago. Ann’s Theme is present throughout much of the score, but is especially prominent in “Journey to Budapest” where it combines with striking classical violin improvisations and textures, warmly nostalgic brass chords, and gorgeous orchestral colors which are at times beautifully impressionistic. Later, “Ann and Georgina in Talbot’s Library” is a lighter, prettier variation on Ann’s Theme with more focus on higher strings, and darting woodwinds.

Counterbalancing Ann’s Theme is the Music Box theme, so called because it is initially heard emanating from the titular item, an important macguffin that drives the plot forward and offers several moments of revelation and emotional drama. The theme actually seems like it could be an old Hungarian folk tune – for all I know, it is one! – as it has a lyrical and dance-like central melody that is quite captivating. It doesn’t appear until the eleventh cue, “Candor (The Gendarmes),” which begins by stating the theme with a touch of regret through the use of a solo violin and light pizzicato textures, but becomes grander and more militaristic as it develops, featuring magnificent contrapuntal writing in the horns. Later, in the eponymous cue “Music Box,” the theme is initially presented on a cimbalom, as if coming from an actual music box itself; however it quickly explodes into a frenzy of ethnic female vocals and bold, expressive fiddles which grow and become faster and more intense as the cue continues. Fans of the folk group Muzsikás and their lead vocalist Márta Sebestyén will find this piece to be especially beguiling, as it is her unmistakable voice that carries the lyric.

Several other cues wallow in the tragedy and horror of the Hungarian holocaust, with cues such as “Blood Red Danube,” “The Scar,” “The Mirror,” and “Cemetery” offering a series of beautifully heartbreaking sequences for weeping strings, cimbaloms, and passages of staccato and spiccato extended techniques in the violins which lend a rhythmic, angsty, aggressive tone to the music. Elsewhere, “Federal Building” again offers yet more martial snare drum hits, coupled with foot stomps and hand claps in the percussion, underpinning the familiar dark string chords. “Departure From Court” features a rich and vibrant scherzo, possibly based on the ‘czardas’ national dance of Hungary, showcasing super-fast runs for fiddles, cimbalom, and an old fashioned-sounding piano. “Ann Studies Documents” features moody combination writing for strings and piano which become more insistent and percussive in the second half as the agitated spiccato slaps return, before concluding with something much more twisted and distorted as Ann discovers some horrible truths about her father.

The pivotal “The Newspaper” offers a chaotic, frenzied mix of the Music Box theme, the Hungarian folk influences, and Ann’s Theme, all playing seemingly simultaneously to capture the final moment of revelation and damning evidence against Ann’s father. The conclusive “Finale” cue returns to the Music Box theme one more time for a final, frenetic blast for solo fiddle and cimbalom.

Music Box is a superb, little-known score from an equally superb composer whose international reputation should be much higher than it is, especially among younger film music aficionados. It’s a perfect showcase for Philippe Sarde’s dramatic and emotional depth, as well as his theme writing prowess, and anyone whose musical taste extends into Eastern Europe and finds the combination of western orchestra and folk music to their liking will definitely find much to enjoy here. At just a touch over half an hour in length it never outstays its welcome, and provides just enough variation to be consistently engaging.

Buy the Music Box soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Ann’s Theme (2:30)
  • Blood Red Danube (1:42)
  • Federal Building (3:19)
  • Departure From Court (0:56)
  • Ann Studies Documents (2:09)
  • Journey to Budapest (4:27)
  • The Scar (1:11)
  • Ann and Georgina in Talbot’s Library (2:27)
  • The Mirror (1:43)
  • Cemetery (2:19)
  • Candor (The Gendarmes) (3:45)
  • The Remembering of Ann’s Mother (3:11)
  • Music Box (3:41)
  • The Newspaper (0:55)
  • Finale (1:02)

Running Time: 35 minutes 17 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-5248 (1989)

Music composed by Philippe Sarde. Conducted by Harry Rabinowitz. Orchestrations by Herbert Bougis. Recorded and mixed by William Flageollet. Album produced by Philippe Sarde.

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