Home > Reviews > THE WOMAN KING – Terence Blanchard

THE WOMAN KING – Terence Blanchard

September 21, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

In the 1800s in the Kingdom of Dahomey – which is now part of the current Republic of Benin – there was an all-female military regiment called the Agojie, whose fierceness and prowess in battle was so well-known, even in Europe, that they were nicknamed ‘the Dahomey Amazons,’ a reference to the stories of the female warriors from Greek mythology. This new film, The Woman King, takes this real life history and tells a new story through the eyes of two fictional characters: Nanisca (Viola Davis), a veteran commander in the Agojie, and Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), an orphan girl newly recruited to the group. The story touches on several real historical and political issues – the revolutionary reign of King Ghezo, Dahomey’s clashes with the rival Oyo Empire, and its involvement in the Atlantic slave trade – while also presenting a rip-roaring action adventure full of female warriors, enormous battle sequences, and powerful depictions of tribal culture. The film co-stars Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, and John Boyega, and was directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, based on a screenplay by Dana Stevens and Maria Bello.

The score for The Woman King is by composer Terence Blanchard, who worked with director Prince-Bythewood on her first film Love & Basketball in 2000. However, it was Blanchard’s long-lasting professional relationship with director Spike Lee through films like Malcolm X, Clockers, Summer of Sam, and 25th Hour, that eventually led to him receiving his first two Oscar nominations, for Blackkklansman in 2018, and Da 5 Bloods in 2020. The Woman King could very well land him a third; it falls under the same cultural, tonal, and emotional umbrella as the Oscar-winning scores for The Lion King and Black Panther, and is likely to appeal greatly to listeners who appreciated those earlier works.

In an interview with Jon Burlingame for Variety, Blanchard says that he and the director wanted a score which had “classic orchestral bigness” but was also “steeped in West African culture, instrumentation with voices, to bring the feel of the ancestors.” To this end, Blanchard recorded his score with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in Glasgow, and augmented those rich classical tones with vocals provided by the Vox Noire ensemble and their Ghanaian-American mezzo-soprano leader Tesia Kwarteng, as well as five-time Grammy winning jazz singer Dianne Reeves. Blanchard says that he considered Reeves to be the “emotional representation of these women,” and that he encouraged her to improvise; Blanchard intentionally did not write lyrics, allowing Reeves’s vocalizations to instead simulate language, “guttural sounds and noises that sound like she’s singing words.”

To further enhance the cultural specificity of the score Blanchard worked with the Benin-born composer and guitarist Lionel Loueke – ironically one of his former students – to ensure that the rhythmic and harmonic elements of the score had their roots in the music of the region. Blanchard says he “recalled that much of the music of that region is very melodic, almost like American spirituals in a way, but with a different kind of harmonic progression.” For yet more geographic specificity, Blanchard also incorporated the sound of a kalimba, an African musical instrument with a wooden soundboard and metal keys, into his Scottish orchestra; Blanchard played the instrument himself at the recording sessions.

Thematically, The Woman King is anchored by one main recurring one, and several smaller motifs that play off against the main theme depending on the scene in question, or insert themselves into the many action cues. The main theme is not really introduced until the fourth cue, “Agojie Return,” and is an open, welcoming, lyrical theme carried mostly by a lush orchestra, augmented by layered vocals and Reeves’s evocative improvisations. The theme pulls double, and sometimes triple duty, depending on context; sometimes it acts as a personal theme for Nanisca, sometimes it acts as a theme for the Agojie as a whole, and sometimes it is a representation of the entire Dahomey culture.

It’s present in several subsequent cues – the playfully upbeat “Agojie Training Montage,” the inspirational “Nawi Trains Alone,” the more solemn “Choosing Agojie for the Oyo,” and especially the superb “Palm Oil”. In this latter cue the theme is sometimes carried by a haunting solo cello, and comes across as depicting the aspirations of the country itself, trying to transform from a slavery-based economy to something more sustainable and less… well… abhorrent. This latter aspect of the theme also informs a secondary theme which also appears to be a representation of Dahomey culture; cues like “Road to Abomey” are filled with warm, inviting, calming African rhythms and soft choral voices backed by gentle orchestral tones. Fans of the more lyrical parts of scores like The Lion King will find these cues especially appealing.

Contrasting this main theme is the music representing the Oyo, a neighboring country located in what is now Nigeria, and who are pitted as the film’s antagonists – they are the bitter rivals of the Dahomey, and still wholeheartedly and brutally embrace slavery as an economic practice, working with the Portuguese to send black Africans overseas in chains. The Oyo music contains dark brass clusters, brooding choral ideas, heavy percussion, and some occasionally quite aggressive electronic manipulation; you can hear it prominently in cues such as “Oyo Warriors to the Village,” “The Oyo Arrive,” “Sometimes a Mouse Can Take Down an Elephant,” and “We Bring Tribute,” among several others. This is obvious ‘good vs evil’ music – there’s no subtlety here – but it works in context as a menacing leitmotif for the Oyo and their brutal leader, Oba Ade.

The other main element in the score is the action music, which is really quite excellent. Blanchard is a composer who, until recently, was not known for his action music, but scores like Da 5 Bloods began to change all that, and he’s really come into his own here. A lot of the action music is percussion based; many of the drum patterns he employs are super-complicated and multi-layered, sometimes almost-dance like, but also powerful and driving. He makes use of a wide array of different sounds and textures, and them lays them off against horns and strings to striking effect. “Enemy Village” is an impressive early example of his action writing, and then “Final Test” is another standout with its elephant calls, orchestral power, and tremendous action setting of the main theme augmented by a rich choir.

One or two other cues are worth mentioning. “Malik Arrives,” “Through the Jungle,” and “Malik and Santo Enter Abomey” all contain a minor motif for Malik, the naïve mixed-race Dahomey-Portuguese slaver who arrives in his mother’s homeland for the first time, and whose firsthand experience of the slavery changes his views, and leads him towards a romantic relationship with Nawi. Malik’s music is initially slightly sinister, but softens as it goes. Elsewhere, “A Shark’s Tooth” underscores Nanisca’s chilling flashback to the reason for her hatred of the Oyo with haunting, breathy voices and eerie synth tones; the delicacy of this music juxtaposes perfectly against the horror of Nanisca’s memories, and also adds a level of poignancy to the revelation about Nanisca’s relationship with Nawi.

The finale of the score begins with the massive 7-minute set piece of the “Oyo Battle,” a huge action sequence that begins with moody synths and solemn cellos, erupts into a battery of intricate percussion rhythms, and then brings in the orchestra after the 3:15 mark. Some of the orchestral textures in this cue occasionally remind me of Don Davis and The Matrix – a very good thing! – and thereafter Blanchard expertly layers the three elements against each other – staccato strings and proud horns bolstered by drum patterns and moody synths. There are several action settings of both the Main Theme and the Oyo Theme, and it all builds to a rousing finale.

“You Fought Well,” “Nawi and Izogie, Part 2,” and “I Have to Try to Save Her” are notably intense, with the second of those cues being very powerful. Blanchard uses many of the same textures as he does throughout the rest of the score, but his performance of the main theme here is especially emotionally wrought, as Nawi dramatically weeps over the body of her fallen mentor, and Dianne Reeves’s voice erupts in response, a warrior’s lament calling to the ancestors for strength and vengeance. “There Will Be No Prisoners” is an action version of the Oyo Theme, dark and menacing and heavily percussive, and then “The Final Battle” gives Nanisca’s final confrontation with Oba Ade both epic grandeur and personal intimacy; there are performances of both the Main theme and the Oyo theme throughout the cue, playing off each other in action counterpoint, surrounded by heroic heraldic brass, bold percussion, stirring string crescendos, and rousing vocals.

The “Coronation” cue underscores Nanisca’s elevation to the position of Woman King by Ghezo in recognition of her wisdom and her years of dedicated service to Dahomey; Blanchard uses both the Main Theme and the related Dahomey Culture Theme here, cleverly linking both concepts, and the end result is stirring and majestic, but also a little whimsical, and again gives off strong Lion King vibes. “Whiskey for Izogie” offers a sense of warm and respectful remembrance. “Mother Will You Dance” features playful woodwinds and pizzicato strings and is a little mischievous, but warmly inviting. The conclusive “The Woman King” is a rousing final statement of the main theme, filled with powerful, joyful, celebratory vocals.

In addition to Blanchard’s score, the film also includes a handful of original pieces written by South African composer and vocalist Lebo M, who was tasked with coming up with a new set of chants and dances which sound true to the period and the geographic setting. Three of Lebo’s pieces – “Tribute to the King,” “Blood of Our Sisters” and “Agojie It’s War” – are included on the soundtrack, and they are wonderfully authentic. According to the same Jon Burlingame Variety article, the director said to Lebo M that the songs “needed to feel of this kingdom and time, and of the culture. That started with the instrumentation and rhythms that he created, and the lyrics I gave him in the native language of Fongbe. He sent his team to teach the actors how to sing these complex melodies as a unit. It was a beautiful environment to see the actors enthralled in the music he created.”

The final track on the album is an original song, “Keep Rising,” written by Jessy Wilson, Jeremy Lutito and Grammy winning singer Angélique Kidjo, who is from Benin, and who also acts in the film as the character Meunon. Structurally and rhythmically the song reminds me very much of the classic African American traditional spiritual song “Sinner Man,” which was of course made famous by the great Nina Simone, and Kidjo’s vocal stylings are similarly evocative. If it doesn’t feature in the Best Song Oscar conversation next year I will be astonished.

Overall, The Woman King is an outstanding score. It’s a rich tapestry of themes and motifs, with one especially prominent one that will remain in the memory. Blanchard’s use of native percussion and African-inspired vocals throughout the score is especially impressive, and the way he blends these themes and textures into the excellent action sequences is really quite superb. As I mentioned earlier fans of scores like The Lion King and Black Panther will be especially enthralled by what Terence Blanchard has done here but, honestly, unless you have some sort of knee-jerk aversion to music that has influences from Africa, I can see this having a generally broad appeal – one that can carry him all the way to the Academy Awards.

Buy the Woman King soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Dahomey at a Crossroads (1:28)
  • Enemy Village (2:35)
  • Stronger Warriors (0:46)
  • Road to Abomey (2:01)
  • Agojie Return (1:37)
  • Entering Palace (1:15)
  • Oyo Warriors to the Village (1:05)
  • The King’s Entrance (0:37)
  • You are Called to Join the King’s Guard (2:04)
  • Tribute to the King (written by Lebo M, performed by Lebo M. feat. South African Choir) (0:51)
  • Agojie Training Montage (2:06)
  • Nawi and Izogie (Part 1) (0:54)
  • Nawi Trains Alone (0:40)
  • The Oyo Arrive (1:54)
  • Sometimes a Mouse Can Take Down an Elephant (1:23)
  • Choosing Agojie for the Oyo (1:40)
  • Malik Arrives (1:18)
  • We Bring Tribute (2:59)
  • With One Purpose (1:20)
  • Palm Oil (1:30)
  • Through the Jungle (1:23)
  • Malik and Santo Enter Abomey (0:41)
  • Final Test (2:27)
  • To the Vector (1:16)
  • To Be Great You Must Focus (1:52)
  • A Shark’s Tooth (2:57)
  • Agojie It’s War (written by Lebo M, performed by Lebo M. feat. Jabu Chirindah & South African Choir) (2:09)
  • Nawi Learns the Truth (0:50)
  • The Blade of Freedom (0:38)
  • Oyo Battle (7:17)
  • You Fought Well (2:57)
  • Nawi and Izogie (Part 2) (3:22)
  • I Have to Try to Save Her (2:02)
  • There Will Be No Prisoners (1:46)
  • Blood of Our Sisters (written by Lebo M, performed by Lebo M. feat. Nokukhanya Dlamini & South African Choir) (1:02)
  • The Final Battle (5:28)
  • Nawi and Malik (1:00)
  • Coronation (2:31)
  • Whiskey for Izogie (2:47)
  • Mother Will You Dance (1:28)
  • The Woman King (2:47)
  • Traditional Benin Song (traditional, performed Sheila Atim, Lashana Lynch, and Adrienne Warren) (0:36)
  • Keep Rising [The Woman King] (written by Jessy Wilson, Jeremy Lutito, and Angélique Kidjo, performed by Angélique Kidjo) (3:14)

Running Time: 82 minutes 56 seconds

Milan Records (2022)

Music composed by Terence Blanchard. Conducted by Allan Wilson. Performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra with Vox Noire. Special vocal performances by Dianne Reeves and Tesia Kwarteng. Orchestrations by Terence Blanchard, Howard Drossin and Robert Elhai. Recorded and mixed by Greg Hayes. Edited by Louie Schwartz and Del Spiva. Album produced by Terence Blanchard.

  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: