Latest reviews of new albums:
The Birth of a Nation
  • Composed by Henry Jackman
  • Atlantic Records / 2016 / 41m

Telling the dramatic story of Nat Turner, a slave who led a rebellion in Virginia in 1831, The Birth of a Nation (complete with its title ironically repurposed from D.W. Griffith’s notorious but groundbreaking film) was very much a passion project for its star, writer, producer and director Nate Parker and looked set to be a major contender come awards season following its rapturous reception at Sundance.  However, reviews after its mainstream release have been more lukewarm and Parker himself has been surrounded by controversy following the resurfacing of historical allegations about him.  The music is by the prolific Henry Jackman, better known for his music for animations and comic book movies than for serious dramas.  It’s certainly not your typical Jackman score – very sombre and respectful of its subject matter, the music mixes a disparate collection of styles.  There is snare-heavy militaristic percussion, low-key chamber orchestra drama often with solo voices and African-inspired percussion and voices.  It shouldn’t really work as a unified whole, but somehow does.  (To be fair it is the second of those three traits that dominates.)

The highlights are certainly the more spiritual pieces: the smooth female vocal in “Matrimony” is gorgeous, and there is real soul in “Cherry Anne”.  The pair of choral cues “The Reckoning” and “A Riotous Disposition” is very impressive.  The best cue by far is the longest, the six-minute “On to Jerusalem”, which summarises the whole score and to be honest is all you really need: slow strings open up before choir joins, the sound inspirational, beautiful; solo cello enters with a subtly affecting melody, then the string section swells, choir rejoins requiem-like, suddenly the African percussion hits, a solo voice adds energy and drive.  (It doesn’t actually have a memorable tune in it though.)  The “problem” with much the rest of the music on the album – and it feels a little unfair to use that word, even though it is what it is – is because it’s so sombre and respectful (and, frankly, safe), it’s often not actually particularly interesting.  Generally very brief tracks (17 out of 21 run for less than two minutes) pass by without enough time to create an impression: maybe a delicate piano or cello melody with harp and a small group of strings, maybe a passionate but short-lived bout of percussion and voices, maybe a deeply sorrowful, very slow-paced piece of mournful drama.  Still, it’s nice to hear Jackman demonstrating a different side to his musical personality: it might not get any truly memorable moments like these films often do in their scores but it’s certainly not overcooked, nor ridden with clichés.  The composer manages to successfully convey Turner’s faith, his conviction and his inspirational qualities, at the same time as demonstrating an understanding of just how tragic and awful so much of what happened actually was.  Unfortunately I suspect some of Jackman’s usual fans will find it all a bit too dull, and those who generally like more serious film music will be able to find better-executed similar examples fairly readily.

Rating: *** | |

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