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Muhammad: The Messenger of God
  • Composed by A.R. Rahman
  • Sony Classical / 2015 / 70m

An Iranian film about the childhood of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, The Messenger of God is the first of a planned trilogy.  It’s written and directed by Majid Majidi and has some exceptional talent in the crew, including the legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, which just about guarantees that the film must look incredible (and according to a number of reviews, it does).  However, critical response has been rather muted and some more extreme religious groups have taken great offence to the film, as extreme religious groups so frequently do, with one issuing a fatwa against the director and also the composer, A.R. Rahman, objecting apparently because professional actors were used to portray Muslims even though they are not all Muslims themselves.

Rahman apparently spent 18 months working on the score, so he may feel the fatwa is somewhat harsh.  It features an orchestra recorded in Germany and an array of soloists recorded around the world, including no fewer than five oud soloists, the usual array of others called upon for films of this type (including duduk, ney and – performed by the delightfully named Tapas Roy, who sounds like a Spanish fast-food purveyor – saz) and a vast number of vocalists.  The resulting score is a slightly dated-sounding one which has elements of world music popular in film scores 15 years or so ago (but which Rahman was actually doing well before then) mixed with Hans Zimmer-style power anthems of a similar vintage (think Gladiator and Pirates of the Caribbean).  It’s not your religious epic music of old – Maurice Jarre’s wonderful score for a film of the same name in 1977 feels like a lifetime ago – as indeed it is – but if you like your Zimmer of the turn of the century then you will surely like this because in large parts it’s absolutely the best impression of Hans Zimmer I’ve ever heard, to the point I was sure he or his studio must have had some kind of hand in it, but according to the album credits that was not the case.

A.R. Rahman

A.R. Rahman

The album opens with a prologue, “The Infinite Light”, introduced by a beautiful female vocal solo performed by Nikitha Gandhi, all angelic and ethereal, with whispered vocal effects accompanying before the orchestra swells up portentously (but just to emphasise again – not Ben-Hur type portent, Gladiator type portent).  Then in “Makkah 740 AD” the middle eastern flavours come in full force, before Rahman finally unleashes his main theme near the start of “Ababeel”, the first of the real Zimmer-like action cues.  It’s even got the deep male choir once so associated with the German composer’s scores.  It’s done with real verve and vigour and is actually really entertaining.  “Signs of the Last Prophet” then brings together all of the various styles heard so far in the score.

Things turn much softer in “The Birth” with the angelic voice and the theme from the opening cue returning, this time with stately accompaniment from the orchestra.  “And He Was Named Muhammad (SAL)” (I don’t know what the parenthetical part means) is even more reverential, first the main theme then a big, bold, quasi-religious melody offering admittedly slightly cheesy but very enjoyable commentary on the significance of the moment.  Much more exotic but also far more restrained is “Le Trio Joubran’s Roubama” (Le Trio Joubran being three of the oud players); nice though that is, I prefer it when Rahman goes big and it doesn’t take long for that to happen, with “The Camel’s Divine Intervention” (seriously!?) retaining the exotic flavour but adding in a bit of Sturm und Drang.

In “Through the Sands” we get that wailing woman once so de rigeur in film music, but that leads into some nice “travel montage” type music with lots of percussion and what I assume is Tapas Roy’s saz.  “Abraha” is an arresting cacophony of sounds, the darkest material so far in the score but highly entertaining still, the action this time springing forth from a great mix of percussive and other instruments which bring to mind a chaotic market, with some particularly strident writing for brass.  The calm after the storm comes at the start of “Halima’s (RA) Healing”, but that doesn’t hang around too long before swelling up and the pick of the score’s themes, all awe and wonder, appears.

“The Land of Friendship” (a track presumably titled before the fatwa got issued) is light and airy and pleasant, a charming little pause for breath before another piece of quasi-source, “Le Trio Joubran’s Shajaan”.  In “A Mother’s Advice to her Son” there are decent moods and moments of implied grandeur but they are handled better elsewhere on the album and it’s probably a track that could have been dropped.  On the other hand, “The Search” is urgent and propulsive and fast-moving and gets things right back on track.  “Protecting the Innocent” reprises that great reverential theme from earlier in the score, the violins on this occasion taking on a considerably more classical-sounding vein, the wordless choir which joins adding an additional heavenly touch (and it really is heavenly music).

The score starts approaching its conclusion in “The Last Hajj of Abdul Mutallib (AS)” with vocals first hummed then pelted out wordlessly, the orchestra becoming ever more swollen, before one of my favourite moments in the whole score as a large number of male vocalists sing separate individual parts in a great confluence before things are reduced back down to the humming.  “The Sea Miracle” is every bit as big and bold as you’d expect a piece of film music with “miracle” in its title to be, orchestra and choir straining every sinew for the score’s grandest (and finest) moment.  “The Sermon” is almost as good – if a lot quieter – with ethereal vocals mirroring the score’s opening, before a big crescendo at its close, leading into “Ya Muhammad (SAL)” in which the composer has set an ancient text to his main themes in epic style, before going just slightly into the Bollywood style with which he is so associated.

This is a deliciously unsubtle score, Rahman taking up every opportunity to offer bold gestures and moments of grandeur, but the fact the grandeur is of that Hans Zimmer type probably means it will be a “love it or hate it” one.  The sideshow that is the controversy over the film and its score should surely be ignored completely and the music enjoyed or otherwise on its own terms, and I find it very easy to enjoy.  I’m a little surprised it hasn’t attracted more attention, because it’s written in a style that was hugely popular for a while before seeming to disappear somewhat, and I’m sure all fans of the other scores referenced in the review will love it.

Rating: **** | |

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  1. André, Cape Town. (Reply) on Wednesday 27 January, 2016 at 12:49

    Whenever reference is made to the Prophet Mohammad, the words “MAY HE REST IN PEACE” or “PEACE BE UPON HIM” is a demanded addendum. James, I suspected that SAL is an acronym for the Arabic equivalent – so checked with my Muslim neighbour who confirmed that I had assumed correctly. The S = SALAAM [PEACE]…I’d make a fool of myself if I attempted to write the other Arabic words phonetically. I love the ethnic instruments of the Middle-East, and the male and female vocalise- accompaniments [often referred to as WAILING when utilised by Western composers in their scores] AND those soaring melodies that evoke Arabia. Your review reflected what I love in Film Music, so will add this Title to my ‘want’ list. I never associated A.R. RAHMAN with Epic scores (he won an OSCAR for ‘Slum Dog Millionaire’ a few years back) so am looking forward to hearing his take on this genré. A bit of Trivia > With the release of Moustapha Akkad’s 1976 ‘Mohammad, Messenger of God’ {A.K.A. ‘The Messenger’ and ‘Al Ris Alah’} there were also widespread threats and outrage directed at everyone connected with the movie — it’s considered a Blasphemy to depict The Prophet in any form. Thank the Universe that our MAURICE JARRE survived the Fatwa – as did the director, and actors Anthony Quinn & Irene Papas. There were many disruptions where screenings were annouced. ISIL, today, will react violently wherever this “idolatorous” [NOT my opinion] movie is shown.