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MEMPHIS BELLE – George Fenton

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Memphis Belle is a World War II action-drama, directed by Michael Caton-Jones and written by Monte Merrick. It is a narrative remake of William Wyler’s 1944 documentary feature The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, and follows the lives of a squadron of American G. I. airmen stationed in England, working with members of the Royal Air Force to counter the threat of the Nazi Luftwaffe at the height of the conflict. Specifically, it focuses on the events surrounding the final mission of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress aircraft called the ‘Memphis Belle,’ and how the members of its crew overcome the dangers and tragedies inherent in war, and endeavor to complete their last mission, so that they can return home safely to their families. The film starred a cast of up-and-coming (at the time) American actors including Matthew Modine, Eric Stoltz, Sean Astin, Harry Connick Jr., Tate Donovan, and Billy Zane, with John Lithgow and David Strathairn supporting as their commanding officers.

The score for Memphis Belle was by English composer George Fenton, whose trio of Oscar nominations for Gandhi in 1982, Cry Freedom in 1987, and Dangerous Liaisons in 1988, as well as his work on popular projects like High Spirits and We’re No Angels, had propelled him to the top of the pecking order for scoring prestigious British films. However, the first thing that people will notice is how much of Fenton’s score is based on pre-existing material, specifically the songs “Danny Boy” and “Amazing Grace”. Both songs are usually credited as ‘traditional’, but contemporary research indicates that “Amazing Grace” was originally written as a poem by John Newton in 1772, and was then set to music by American composer William Walker in 1847, using a pre-existing folk tune called ‘New Britain,’ the origins of which are unknown. Similarly, “Danny Boy” has lyrics by English songwriter Frederic Weatherly, which he set to a different pre-existing folk tune called ‘The Londonderry Air’ in 1913, the origins of which are also unclear.

Fenton’s inclusion of these two pieces as the cornerstones of his score make sense in context. The lyrics for “Danny Boy” are especially significant as they have frequently been interpreted as being a message from a parent to a son going off to a war or uprising, and it is also associated in general with Irish culture, which many Americans have. Furthermore, Eric Stoltz’s character Daniel Daly is nicknamed ‘Danny Boy’ by his fellow airmen, and he plays a critical role in bringing the airplane home. It is for this reason that Fenton likely chose the song to be the main melodic part of the score. It’s the first thing you hear in the first cue, “The Londonderry Air/Front Titles: Memphis Belle,” where it receives a lush and emotional arrangement by Fenton and his lead orchestrator Jeff Atmajian. However, after a minute or so, the music switches and presents the initial statements of Fenton’s own original main themes for the film in suite form.

The theme that begins at 1:13 is the theme for the Memphis Belle itself, and is carried by noble horns, rousing percussion, and sweeping strings. It’s a terrific theme, one of the best Fenton ever wrote, and when he revisits it later in the film’s explosive and majestic finale, it really soars. The theme that begins at 1:46 is a sort of all-encompassing theme for the war itself, and is more elegant and longing, with more emphasis on the strings, encompassing the hopes and dreams of those fighting, and their desire to return home. Finally, the theme that begins at 2:05 is a jauntier, playful melody for the GIs themselves, and it has a whiff of Aaron Copland in the string phrasing to reflect their American-ness. The rest of the cue moves between these three central identities, cementing them at the forefront of the score, and priming us for the moments to come.

“The Steel Lady” offers a slow, solemn performance for brass and woodwinds backed by strings, which moves backwards and forwards between the Memphis Belle theme and the War theme, and then moves into a lovely, lyrical piece where the focus shifts to a classical guitar that is just gorgeous. It has the sound of the morning, warm and inviting, full of possibilities, and tinged with nostalgia. The arrangement of the traditional song in “Prepare for Take-Off/Amazing Grace” sounds more like the American Civil War than World War II, as it is filled with banjos, fiddles, and a healthy dose of fife-and-drum, and offers a piece of rousing Americana that speaks to the heritage of the protagonists.

The first of the score’s two showstoppers is “The Final Mission,” in which Fenton runs through numerous statements of both the Memphis Belle theme and the War theme, each one grander and more magnificent than the last. It’s filled with a set of conflicting emotions – confidence, trepidation, patriotic duty, and genuine excitement – and as it builds from a solo horn to encompass the full orchestra, you can feel your heart leap. The introduction of the score’s main Action Motif at 1:04 is superb, noble horns underpinned with excitable strings, darkly hued cellos and throbbing percussion. This is followed by a bright fanfare version of the GI Theme at 1:59, arranged like a classic western. It all leads up to an explosion of thematic musical power at 3:00 that, even today, still puts a lump in my throat. I live for film music moments like these.

The solemnity of the pianos, the dourness of the strings, and the bitterness of the horns allow “With Deep Regret…” to offer a much more musically serious side of the war, before “The Bomb Run” re-engages with the score’s action music sensibility, offering a sequence of string-based tension and nervous snare riffs to really emphasize the danger of the mission at hand. The final three cues – “Limping Home,” “Crippled Belle: The Landing,” and “Resolution” – tend to be a little more introspective and understated, offering versions of the Memphis Belle theme and the War theme that are tempered with loss, sadness, and a little bit of wistfulness. There’s some lovely writing for muted brasses and tremolo strings here, as well as some occasional moments of anguish wherein Fenton uses his brass and strings in a little more dissonant and challenging way. There’s also an interpolation of the ‘Danny Boy’ melody half way through “Crippled Belle: The Landing” that is very clever, and which eventually becomes a relief-filled anthem of survival as the crew of the Belle survive their ordeal and touch down back at home.

Eventually we come to the second and final showstopper, the 7½-minute “Memphis Belle End Title Suite,” in which Fenton returns to all his recurring main themes, and somehow manages to perform them at their grandest, most sweeping, and most emotional. It opens with a final statement of Danny Boy, glorious and poignant, before moving on to Fenton’s original material just after the 2:10 mark. The piano performance that emerges at that point is superb, strong and emphatic, and from then on the music just builds and builds, refrain after refrain, moving backwards and forwards between all four main themes, and reaching especially magnificent crescendos at 5:48, 6:21, and 6:39. The latter of these is simply glorious.

The album, on Varese Sarabande, is rounded out by three jazz and swing songs from the period, including a new Fenton arrangement of Nilo Menéndez’s smooth “Green Eyes,” a similar new arrangement of Benny Goodman’s toe-tapping “Flying Home,” and an archival performance of Mack Gordon and Harry Warren’s “I Know Why, And So Do You” by the Glenn Miller Orchestra. The final cue is a new arrangement of “Danny Boy” performed by jazz vocalist Mark Williamson, which is included in lieu of the in-film performance of the same song by actor Harry Connick Jr., which could not be licensed for release.

Memphis Belle remains one of my all-time favorite George Fenton scores. Despite the soundtrack album only containing a touch over 30 minutes of original music, the thematic depth and emotional complexity he manages to pack into such a short time is enormously impressive, and the highlights, when they come, remain high on the list of his career best. Anyone who is of the mistaken belief that Fenton is only capable of light comedy and pretty English period pastiche only needs to listen to “The Final Mission” to have that misconception blown out of the water. Memphis Belle wholeheartedly deserved it’s BAFTA nomination for Best Score (where it lost to Cinema Paradiso), and deserves to be re-discovered by the current generation of film music fans, most of whom have grown up not knowing the excitement my generation felt when anticipating a new George Fenton score.

Buy the Memphis Belle soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Londonderry Air/Front Titles: Memphis Belle (traditional, arranged by George Fenton and Jeff Atmajian) (3:58)
  • Green Eyes (written by Nilo Menéndez, Eddie Rivera, and Eddie Wood, arranged by George Fenton and John Warren) (3:29)
  • Flying Home (written by Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton, arranged by George Fenton and John Warren) (3:02)
  • The Steel Lady (1:50)
  • Prepare for Take-Off/Amazing Grace (traditional, arranged by George Fenton) (2:44)
  • The Final Mission (3:57)
  • With Deep Regret… (2:06)
  • I Know Why, And So Do You (written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren, performed by the Glenn Miller Orchestra ) (3:02)
  • The Bomb Run (1:36)
  • Limping Home (2:31)
  • Crippled Belle: The Landing (3:32)
  • Resolution (1:08)
  • Memphis Belle End Title Suite (7:37)
  • Danny Boy (Theme from Memphis Belle) (traditional, arranged by George Fenton, performed by Mark Williamson) (3:34)

Running Time: 44 minutes 07 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-5293 (1990)

Music composed and conducted by George Fenton. Orchestrations by George Fenton and Jeff Atmajian. Recorded and mixed by Keith Grant and Geoff Young. Album produced by George Fenton and Eliza Thompson.

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