- Composed by Marco Beltrami
- Sony Classical / 2016 / 66m
Lew Wallace’s Christian epic novel Ben-Hur became a huge bestseller following its release in 1880, becoming the most successful American novel yet written (a position it would hold for over half a century, until Gone with the Wind came along). MGM adapted it for the screen in 1925 and then most famously in 1959, with William Wyler’s film becoming the epic of all epics as it took audiences by storm. Films like it are certainly not made any more, but I suppose someone thought maybe audiences would still be attracted to the story because along has come a remake, directed by Timur Bekmambetov and starring Jack Huston as Charlton Heston.
It didn’t take a genius really to think that whoever decided that was plain wrong, and for a long time in advance of its release the film seemed particularly ill-advised; now it’s out it looks destined to be one of the great box office bombs unless it somehow finds an audience in large Christian countries other than the US. At least we had another historical epic Marco Beltrami score to look forward to, following the year’s earlier great box office disappointment Gods of Egypt (whose music was excellent).
It all starts very well, with the opening “Ben-Hur Theme” being nothing short of outstanding. Beltrami wrings much emotion from his players – strings, solo voice and choir along with various local colours. The melody is a little simple, sure, but it’s exquisitely moving and not in any way out of place in a movie called Ben-Hur, where the musical bar has been set rather high by Miklós Rózsa, who wrote what is almost universally considered to be one of the greatest film scores of all for the 1959 version.
Unfortunately it all goes downhill very rapidly after that. Horrible synthetic sounds usher in the second cue “Jerusalem 33 AD / Sibling Rivalry”, and while it does pick up after that to be a decent enough Beltrami action cue, for a while it sounds like it might be more at home in a Zack Snyder movie, which I guess is the point if they were hoping to engage the 300 audience. It’s really quite grating. I know – “you can’t compare it to Miklós Rózsa, it’s not 1959 any more” – but it’s impossible not to compare it to Miklós Rózsa. Nobody in his right mind would have expected Beltrami to write music like that, but he’s an exceptionally gifted composer in his own right and so one could reasonably have expected him to write something that sounds vaguely like it might be from an historical epic rather than a modern techno-thriller but he was evidently instructed to do something very different.
There are moments of genuine quality – whenever that main theme appears it is a joy (even when it’s in a more dynamic, modern setting such as “Training”) and there are other sequences which are very effective: “Messala and Tirzah” is quite lovely; in “Home Invasion” there is finally just a hint of the epic sound; “Horse Healer” offers a bit of a tentatively religious feel; “Ben and Esther” sounds like it belongs in a more serious moment in a modern rom-com but is still very pleasant; and at the end, “Forgiveness” brings the score full-circle back to where it began with the wonderful theme soaring away again.
Sadly they are the exceptions. Listen to the big action sequences – “Galley Slaves” with its god-awful HORN OF DOOM approximation punctuating pretty soulless suspenseful noodling which wakes up only very slightly as it nears its conclusion, or even the music for the most iconic sequence, “Chariots of Fire”, which is probably the second best action track on the album but is just so generic it could be a Man of Steel castoff or something. (The best action cue immediately follows that one, “Brother vs Brother”, when some much-needed emotion comes in, even a touch of heroism, but now the electronics are figuring so heavily the emotion gets rather drowned out.)
I have long admired Marco Beltrami and he has trodden hallowed ground quite successfully in the past (for instance on The Omen remake) so I can only hope that it wasn’t his decision to score the film in this way. It’s perhaps unfair because I’m comparing it with preconceived ideas of what Ben-Hur should sound like – but that’s what a large number of other people will be doing too. It’s not by any means awful from start to finish (but I have to say, there are times when it is, remarkably so given who it’s written by) and the album is partially redeemed by the few tracks of real quality, but if you said it was a Remote Control score for a modern thriller set in Jerusalem then I doubt anyone would doubt that it was. You could probably make a decent 30-minute album from the material, but that’s got to go down as a very disappointing outcome from a score that could have delivered so much even if the movie never seemed likely to.