Home > Reviews > BAD EDUCATION – Michael Abels

BAD EDUCATION – Michael Abels

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Bad Education is a true-life political drama set in the American school system. Based on the New York magazine article “The Bad Superintendent” by Robert Kolker, it exposes the largest public school embezzlement scam in American history, which occurred in a small town on Long Island, New York, in 2002. The focus is on two individuals – Frank Tassone, the superintendent of the school district, and his assistant, Pam Gluckin – who between them embezzled $7.1 million dollars from the school board finances, until their misdeeds were uncovered by a tenacious high school reporter who found discrepancies in the budget. The film stars Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney, Ray Romano, and Geraldine Viswanathan, and was a major critical success when it premiered on HBO in the United States in April 2020. The film is directed by Cory Finley, and has a score by composer Michael Abels.

Bad Education marks the first time that Abels has worked on a film directed by someone other than Jordan Peele (his score for See You Yesterday, directed by Stefon Bristol, was written after this one, although the film came out first). It’s been a meteoric rise for the Arizona native, who shot to film music fame with his debut score for Get Out in 2017, and followed that up with the equally well-regarded Us in 2019. Those scores were especially praised for their blending of contemporary vocal and percussive ideas, including influences from African music, into the orchestra, but Bad Education is something different again, in that it is highly, unapologetically, classical. With this work, Abels adopts the flamboyant stylistics and compositional techniques of some of European classical music’s most beloved artists, to magnificent effect. Putting this sort of music against what is, essentially, a political drama, would initially seem somewhat incongruous, but in fact Abels’s music gives the story an overwhelming, operatic richness; it makes Tassone and Glucklin’s corruption – and their eventual downfall – seem like a grand tragedy, and gives the whole thing a scale and sense of importance that belies the scam’s small-town setting.

The secondary idea behind using this sort of rich classical music is to reflect the highly prestigious school at the center of the story, and the way Tassone sees himself as a custodian of this environment – it’s old fashioned, elegant, a little pompous, a little full of itself, and a little elitist. And then, as Frank’s world begins to unravel, there’s some minimalist music: Abels describes it as “kind of like a dripping pipe where there’s just a drip but you know if that drip isn’t taken care of then you know it’s going to turn into a flood. That’s deliberately used to portray his world unraveling sonically, and gradually those two styles come together as we get closer to the end of the film.” The whole thing is just brilliant.

The classical pieces are simply magnificent. It’s clearly intentional pastiche – Abels himself name-checks Wagner, Beethoven, Mozart, and Handel as inspirations – but if you’re going to attempt something like this, then why not aim high? The resulting cues all hit the bullseye, with several of them sounding so much like those classical masters that one could be forgiven for mistaking them for a long-lost work from the 1700s. The opening cue, “Ave Noster Redemptor,” has more than a hint of ‘Zadok the Priest’ to it; it begins with a boy chorister singing in Latin, and slowly adds more and more layers of dancing strings and woodwinds until it eventually explodes into thematic grandeur with a volley of horns. “Book Club” is an elegant dance for strings and solo woodwinds, sprightly and graceful. “Eye Contact” and its “Appassionato Alternate” are languorous pieces for slow, multi-layered strings. “Shopping Spree” has a touch of the Renaissance about it, with darting strings and pizzicato textures giving a sense of flamboyance to the woodwind combinations; the theme that emerges in the cue’s second half is just gorgeous, and is enriched by a warm horn countermelody.

“Come Quick” is the first of the minimalist cues; bleak, isolated woodwind notes that echo and then vanish, and provide a stark contrast to all the richness that surrounds it. Metallic percussion ideas, off-kilter rhythms, and spiky string figures add to the unusual atmosphere in the two “Frank the Fixer” cues.

Abels returns to the classical style as the score heads towards its conclusion. “Rachel Ruminates” is warm and sonically appealing, but has a slightly troubled sound, with a hint of uncertainty that comes from the almost subliminal timpani rumbles underneath the strings. “How the Mighty Have Fallen” is stylish and beguiling, again layering woodwinds against churning strings, and building to a rousing choral finish. “Unraveling Air” returns to the melancholy theme first heard in “Eye Contact,” but works in a vocal element, which gives an almost religioso quality to the fates of the protagonists. The pivotal “The Downfall” could be a lost piece from Mozart’s Requiem; it contains numerous references to the ‘Dies Irae’ in the slowly shifting strings, and showcases an especially beautiful thematic nugget that moves around from woodwinds to piano to solo violin to solo trumpet, before exploding in glorious heights in its final minute. The conclusive piece, “History as it Should Have Been,” is more reflective and introspective, a bittersweet duet for piano and boys choir that is just sublime.

The only criticism one can really level at Bad Education is the fact that the score is only 20 minutes long – the film probably didn’t need more, but the fan in me wants more of this exquisite music. What Bad Education has proved to me is this; that Michael Abels is not a one-hit wonder. When a composer makes a splash working for a specific director, the test comes not when he scores that director’s next film, but when he branches out and starts working with other filmmakers, who have different musical needs, and different stylistic approaches. Being adaptable, and excelling in different genres, is the hallmark of a composer with a future, and with Bad Education Michael Abels has passed that test with absolute flying colors. This is a truly superb film score – as I said, it’s very different from both Us and Get Out, and some may dismiss it as nothing more than classical pastiche, but it takes a supremely talented composer to do this sort of thing convincingly, and Michael Abels is without a doubt supremely talented. I can’t wait to hear what he does next.

Buy the Bad Education soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Ave Noster Redemptor (2:17)
  • Book Club (0:39)
  • Eye Contact (0:59)
  • Shopping Spree (1:34)
  • Come Quick (1:42)
  • Frank the Fixer, Pt. 1 (0:46)
  • Eye Contact (Appassionato Alternate) (0:59)
  • Frank the Fixer, Pt. 2 (0:35)
  • Rachel Ruminates (1:00)
  • How the Mighty Have Fallen (1:56)
  • Unraveling Air (1:52)
  • The Downfall (3:32)
  • History as it Should Have Been (1:29)

Running Time: 19 minutes 25 seconds

Watertower Music (2020)

Music composed and conducted by Michael Abels. Orchestrations by Bálint Sapszon. Recorded by György Mohai. Mixed by John Rodd. Edited by Shari Johanson. Album produced by Michael Abels .

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