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TILL – Abel Korzeniowski

November 2, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

In the summer of 1955 Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American boy from Chicago, traveled by train to visit some family members in northern Mississippi. Not long after he arrived young Emmett was brutally murdered – lynched and mutilated – by a gang of white men who thought that he had ‘behaved inappropriately’ around a white woman, thereby violating the racist social norms of the time and place. The appallingly violent manner of Emmett’s death, and the horrific racism that surrounded it, was compounded by the fact that the men – who never denied killing him – were later acquitted by an all-white jury. Back in Chicago, Emmett’s brave mother Mamie insisted on having an open-casket funeral for her son, to show the world what had happened to him. Along with Rosa Parks’s bus protest, and the subsequent work of leaders like Martin Luther King, Emmett Till’s life and death became one of the defining moments of the civil rights movement. This new film, directed by Chinonye Chukwu, tells the true story from Mamie’s point of view; it stars Danielle Deadwyler as Mamie and Jalyn Hall as Emmett, alongside supporting actors Frankie Faison, Haley Bennett, and Whoopi Goldberg.

The score for Till, perhaps unexpectedly, is by Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski, who has been having a quiet couple of years – his only scores since the TV series Penny Dreadful ended have been Nocturnal Animals in 2016, The Nun in 2018, and The Courier in 2020. However, what we lack in quantity, we certainly make up for in quality, because Till is yet another outstanding score, filled with all the thematic content, profound depth, and orchestral beauty we have come to expect from works by him.

Interestingly, Korzeniowski chose not to really address the geographic setting or the time period through his music, and instead it concentrates solely on the human emotion at the heart of the story. This is music that scores Mamie Till’s journey – the loving relationship she had with her son, the utter horror and despair she felt as a result of what happened to him, and the dignified strength and determination she showed through her desire to see that his death was not in vain, and could inspire America to be a better country.

The score is written mostly for strings, with modest additional writing for piano, woodwinds, and percussion, but virtually no brass. Throughout its running time it offers a variety of emotional styles and techniques, each seeking to illustrate the changes in the relationship between Mamie and Emmett. At the beginning of the score, when the film is establishing the Till’s loving family home and the mother-son bond, Korzeniowski’s music is playful, happy, and charming, as evidenced by cues like the pleasant “Through the Tunnel” and the delightful “Chicago,” the latter of which uses sprightly rhythms and hand claps to add a spirited edge.

However, once the action shifts from the relative safety of suburban Illinois to rural Jim Crow-era Mississippi, the music becomes darker and more anguished, reflecting the danger young Emmett is in, and of which he is naively unaware. Cues like the frenetic “Wolf Whistle” and especially “They’ve Come for You” are full of tormented string harmonics and dark, brooding thematic ideas, underpinned with pulsating, hypnotic string figures that really underline what a hazardous place the deep south was for a black boy in the 1950s. It’s not horror music per se – it’s certainly more approachable than things like The Nun, or the more avant-garde parts of Penny Dreadful – but you can certainly feel the sense of dread and terrible inevitability of Emmett’s fate.

Later, “A Perfect Baby” has the rhythmic urgency of a steam engine locomotive, while the subsequent “The Tallahatchie River” has a mesmerizing, pulsating quality similar to parts of Hans Zimmer’s score for Interstellar – the music feels like it’s in a daze, shocked and disoriented by the awful discovery found deep within the river’s calm waters. This melts into “Why Is This Happening,” which is a bitter reflection of Mamie’s grief, and is deathly slow, full of mournful string harmonics; this then then leads into “Threnody,” which becomes more melodically strong, and builds to a powerful yet sensitive sweep in its conclusion.

From this point forward the score shifts its focus; it’s still about Emmett’s death, of course, but rather than dwelling on the awfulness of the tragedy, it instead begins to concentrate on Mamie’s efforts to use it for change – to ensure that people saw what happened to Emmett, and to harness that subsequent revulsion into a galvanizing civil rights movement. The score’s main theme, which had hitherto been largely absent, emerges properly for the first time in the outstanding “This Is My Boy,” which brings the piano and the woodwinds much more to the forefront, in combination with a powerful and emotional classical cello melody backed by rich orchestral tones and some fascinating tapped percussion sounds.

The sequence from “The Story Must Continue” through to the end of “I Know What the Verdict Is” is similar in style and approach; rich, classical, elegant string work often referencing the score’s main theme, with frequent moments of instrumental or rhythmic variation that keeps the score fresh and interesting. “The Story Must Continue” features an unusual ground bass idea under an array of florid string lines, determined, forthright, and unwavering. “Money, Mississippi” reprises the main theme for elegiac strings, underscoring a scene where Mamie retraces Emmett’s final steps and finds herself face-to-face with the female grocery store clerk whose accusation led directly to her son’s death. “Witness” revisits the forceful string figures from earlier in the score, and blends them with an urgent, driving, curiously dissonant base. “We Do the Best We Can” features a lovely rolling piano. “I Know What the Verdict Is” is tragically poignant, underpinned with rueful resignation.

The final two cues offer the score’s biggest dramatic kick, and are sure to appeal to anyone who has appreciated Korzeniowski’s leave-it-all-on-the-table expressive side. “I’m Ready To Go” is a knockout; it’s initially built around an elegant high violin line, and then sees a bittersweet but beautiful melody passing between the cello and the rest of the string section, as piano chords churn and lyrical woodwinds flutter underneath, backed by forthright snare drum riffs. This is really the core piece of the score – it has a sense of determination verging on optimism, reflecting the steadfastness that Mamie shows in the face of this unspeakable tragedy, but it is of course rooted in the horrific fact that this is a mother who lost her son in the most brutal way imaginable. Korzeniowski balances that tricky line well, and the fact that he does it with this much grace is all the more impressive.

Finally, “Emmett’s Room” reprises the main theme in a reserved, reflective way, starting out with some interesting interplay between strings and woodwinds, before becoming powerfully moving and strong as it builds to its conclusion. This cue underscores the film’s final scene, in which Mamie becomes symbolically reunited with Emmett, imagining him as if he were still alive, still cheerful and smiling, in his bedroom. Korzeniowski said that this finale represented the director’s wish that “we don’t end in darkness, so this ending is a way of saying, Mamie won’t be broken, she will prevail and change the world in the process.”

Till is an excellent score. It perhaps doesn’t quite have the same sort of crowd-pleasing bravado as Romeo & Juliet, or Copernicus Star, or Escape from Tomorrow, or the beginning of Nocturnal Animals, but that’s just the nature of the beast. Instead, it’s a mature, serious work that captures some complex emotional concepts with music that is engaging, appealing, intellectually appropriate, and compositionally compelling. The main theme is perhaps a little understated, as it doesn’t linger in the memory as long as some of those other works, but in terms of it capturing the pride, compassion, and dignified defiance that Mamie Till shows after the brutal death of Emmett, it does exactly what it needs to do. If the film ends up being a player at the Academy Awards for its acting and writing and directing, I predict that Abel Korzeniowski’s name will be floating around the Best Score conversation too.

Buy the Till soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Through the Tunnel (1:43)
  • Chicago (1:45)
  • Watch (1:20)
  • Wolf Whistle (0:45)
  • They’ve Come for You! (4:37)
  • A Perfect Baby (2:50)
  • The Tallahatchie River (2:10)
  • Why Is This Happening? (3:29)
  • Threnody (1:49)
  • This Is My Boy (4:46)
  • The Story Must Continue (1:50)
  • Money, Mississippi (2:25)
  • Witness (1:54)
  • We Do the Best We Can (1:47)
  • I Know What the Verdict Is (1:15)
  • I’m Ready To Go (4:10)
  • Emmett’s Room (4:02)

Running Time: 42 minutes 30 seconds

Mercury Classics Soundtracks & Scores (2022)

Music composed and conducted by Abel Korzeniowski. Orchestrations by Abel Korzeniowski. Recorded and mixed by James T. Hill. Edited by Jonathan Zalben. Album produced by Abel Korzeniowski and Mina Korzeniowski.

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