- Composed by Hans Zimmer
- Milan / 1995 / 39m
A tense political thriller directed by John Boorman, Beyond Rangoon sees an American tourist (played by Patricia Arquette) forced to go on the run in Burma after becoming separated from her tour group and then witnessing various acts of violent repression by the government. (Just in case she wasn’t miserable enough, the reason she’s there in the first place is to try to get away from it all after her husband and son were both murdered back home.) As with many of Boorman’s films, it attracted great acclaim for its extraordinary visuals but not so much the other aspects of the film.
Much has changed since 1995. For one thing, Burma isn’t Burma any more, it’s Myanmar. Another thing that’s changed an awful lot is Hans Zimmer. He was already extremely successful at the time, but it was that year (with his Oscar win for The Lion King) that he really got propelled to the forefront of Hollywood film music, and very shortly afterwards his Media Ventures model was well established and churning out film scores like nobody’s business. It’s interesting, two decades on, to look back at how very different this score is from his more recent efforts. I’ll leave it for others to decide whether he has truly evolved since then, or perhaps devolved – but I will say that Beyond Rangoon is an exquisitely beautiful score, notably for a deftness of touch and extremely careful construction that is full of nuance.
The score’s main theme is a true beauty. In the opening (gorgeously-titled) “Waters of Irrawady”, it is heard performed first by some sort of eastern-sounding wind instrument (my attention to detail is as acute as ever), then later by a wordless female vocal. The performing ensemble is interesting – there’s a small string orchestra but much of the work is carried by keyboards, ethnic wind solos (performed by Richard Harvey) and percussion, with the female voice. What I really like is that even though much of the music is synthesised, it doesn’t sound at all cheap – this isn’t synths being asked to perform “an orchestral role”, a problem I feel has blighted some of the composer’s higher-profile efforts of late, it’s genuine electronic music (with the aforementioned acoustic elements) with an ethereal beauty resulting that couldn’t have been achieved any other way.
“Memories of the Dead” offers another reflective arrangement of the theme before some action arrives in the lengthy “I Dreamt I Woke Up”, bass-laden synths and percussion alternating with the increasingly-frantic pipes. It’s hugely effective at matching Boorman’s contrast between abject despair and wonderful beauty, mirroring the film very well. At times it certainly enters territory which is uncomfortable for the listener – the requirements of the film force it to – but it’s a challenge certainly worth taking on, because detailed study reveals a surprising amount of dramatic depth.
The brief “Freedom from Fear” continues this, though here there are broader dramatic strokes coming from the dynamic keyboards. It’s not by any means what you’d call “Media Ventures action music”, but there are familiar elements from that which are blended with a drive for atmospheric beauty that is really quite captivating. The main theme returns in “Brother Morphine”, in more sweeping form than before, and while here the deep bass sound does sound somewhat dated, it remains very impressive music. In “Our Ways Will Part”, while the bulk of the melodic material is familiar, Zimmer adds a new element, a sense of desperation and real anguish – it’s a suite of different cues seamlessly blended together, and while in fact it veers through various different styles, from more subtle, detached, contemplative sections to overtly dramatic ones, the way it holds together and maintains a consistency of feeling is very impressive.
“Village Under Siege” begins calmly, but soon the peace is very much shattered by the most thrilling action music of the score, the emotional anguish still underpinning it all. The album ends with the very impressive ten-minute suite “Beyond Rangoon”, which serves as a very nice summary of the main ideas; it goes on a pretty well-defined dramatic journey itself, and is just part of the very impressive journey of the album as a whole. The clarity of thought, the development of ideas and above all the sheer beauty of the music make this one of Zimmer’s very finest albums, probably his most contemplative and beautiful before his masterpiece The Thin Red Line. If you think he’s a one trick pony, a listen to this will be enough to change your mind very quickly.
Rating: **** 1/2