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The Book Thief
  • Composed by John Williams
  • Sony Classical / 2013 / 53m

A child’s eye view of Nazi Germany, The Book Thief (based on Australian author Markus Zusak’s acclaimed novel) tells the story of a girl who lives through the harrowing times with the help of a love of books, a Jew hiding in her family house and her foster parents.  The film stars Sophie Nélisse as the main character, Liesel, and Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson as her foster parents; it’s directed by Downton Abbey‘s Brian Percival.  It’s generating a lot of buzz and its release in the traditional “awards slot” is a decent sign that it’s expected to do well.

It’s probably fair to say that the film wasn’t on the radar of many film music fans until the surprising announcement – which didn’t happen until the eve of the recording sessions – that the great John Williams was to provide its score.  He may be the pre-eminent film composer of his (perhaps any) generation, but Williams – now 81 – seemed to have been in semi-retirement (in terms of writing film scores) for some time now, making exceptions only for his friends Steven Spielberg and George Lucas; indeed, the last time he scored a film which didn’t involve either of those men was his last Harry Potter score, in 2004.  Any new score from John Williams these days feels like a special event; one for a non-Spielberg film perhaps even more so.

John Williams

John Williams

There aren’t any surprises in The Book Thief – which itself is not surprising (he’s 81!) – instead, the score album plays almost like a comforting letter from an old friend, a highly-welcome one at that.  It oozes class from every pore, a young whippersnapper in terms of this composer’s glorious career but with all the hallmarks of a classic vintage.  The main themes are sad, of course – but somehow also very homely, with a personal feel, thanks in no small part to the superb piano solos.  There’s a real clarity to the solos throughout – Williams’s orchestration staggering as ever – just listen to the haunting “I Hate Hitler!”, harp and oboe and piano taking turns to tug the heartstrings; such moving music. In common with most cues on the album, it’s quite short, particularly by this composer’s standards; but the musical structure is as strong as ever. Everything has a beginning, middle and end; nothing here feels bitty.

While there is generally a sombre tone, this is a story from a child’s perspective and as such there is often a compelling innocence to it; and just occasionally, a delightfully playful air.  ”Foot Race” is a brilliant little scherzo, the type only John Williams has ever really done in film music; quite wonderful.  In terms of other scores, there are hints of Angela’s Ashes, plus the slightest of reminders of certain aspects of Memoirs of a Geisha and Presumed Innocent.  Those imagining another Schindler’s List are wide of the mark – this isn’t so reverential and, while there are harrowing moments, they are done very differently.

Actually, it’s life that dominates here – an indomitable spirit.  The genuine warmth of “Max Lives” late on the album is lightyears from the kind of Hollywood schmaltz that film reviewers so often accuse Williams of doing (by daring to put music in films that people might actually notice); then there is strained anguish in “Rudy is Taken”, an emotional powerhouse of a cue.  Best of all is the concert arrangement of the main theme which closes the album; it blossoms in its fuller, longer arrangement, again passed around various soloists, the whole orchestra swelling too.  It’s moving, emotional music, the central melody memorable; it’s tragic, but spirited, very beautiful.

There’s nothing groundbreaking in The Book Thief.  It’s well-worn territory.  It sounds like you expect it to sound.  And that means it sounds good.  Williams has always been a master at telling a story through his music; he tells this one beautifully.  There’s heartache and beauty, side by side; agony and ecstasy.  Every spine-tingling chill is eventually contrasted with one of warmth.  Class never ages and Williams has class in abundance; as his forays into film music become more occasional, they become all the more special.

Rating: ****

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  1. Irons on Sunday 10 November, 2013 at 00:20

    I just want to add : Thank God for John Williams.

  2. Edmund Meinerts on Sunday 10 November, 2013 at 12:14

    By the way, do you ever plan on going back and revisiting your review of Lincoln, now that your opinion of it has changed so much?

  3. Thiva on Sunday 10 November, 2013 at 17:02

    plz add a star.

  4. Mark Richards on Monday 11 November, 2013 at 19:15

    Thank you for this thoughtful and detailed review. I have yet to hear the whole album but from the excerpts I’ve heard, it’s right on the money.

  5. Chris Avis on Tuesday 12 November, 2013 at 02:46

    It’s John Williams so this automatically makes this score of a higher caliber than 90 % of the film music being written today. That said, when compared with the rest of Williams’ discography, this really doesn’t standout. One of the main themes is so similar to Angela’s Ashes that I had a hard time forgetting that earlier, superior score while listening to this new one.

    His very underrated score for Lincoln last year is a much more interesting listen and sees Williams pushing into more original musical territory than The Book Thief.

    Still, I’ll take this any day over most of the dreck coming out of the Zimmer factory.

    Chris.

  6. Ammar Kalo on Tuesday 12 November, 2013 at 23:04

    I had a silly smile on my face the whole time I listened to the score for the first time. Classic Williams. We desperately need clones of him ..

  7. Matt on Friday 15 November, 2013 at 04:37

    Great review, thanks! I was on the fence, but now I’ll check it out. Happy to have another Williams score, even a “standard” one.

  8. Luc on Friday 15 November, 2013 at 15:49

    I received this a couple of days ago and your review describes my sentiments exactly. The score has class and we should treasure every note the man writes. The film music world would not be the same without him.

  9. Ammar Kalo on Friday 15 November, 2013 at 18:21

    Great review, but heres some quick nit picking.

    “the last time he scored a film which didn’t involve either of those men was his last Harry Potter score, in 2004″

    The last one was Memoirs of a Geisha in 2005

    “the score album plays almost like a comforting letter from an old friend”

    What are “letters” ? Are they like emails? :P

  10. mastadge on Friday 15 November, 2013 at 18:33

    Spielberg produces Memoirs.

  11. Inside Score on Thursday 9 January, 2014 at 21:21

    Zimmer factory dreck? You should acquaint yourself with Mr. Zimmers entire catalog before you pass such judgement.
    Not taking anything away from Mr. Williams who is undisputed as a one of the greatest film score composers ever, I found on first listening to the score and orchestration of The Book Thief to be very similar to that of Mr. John Barry’s score to Out of Africa.

  12. ANDRÉ - CAPE TOWN. on Saturday 11 January, 2014 at 00:13

    Chris wan’t singling out Zimmer…the ‘factory’ refers to REMOTE CONTROL PRODUCTIONS where dozens of composers [under the Zimmer banner] learn to experiment with musical genrés as they craft film scores. They’re also taught to embrace ‘Sibelius’ & ‘Pro Tools’ technologies to explore new tonal textures & recording techniques. In addition, they contribute to each others music when shedules are tight > resulting in compositional styles often overlapping….to the degree that a stylistic sameness sometimes pervades their scores. Their Pro Tools percussion rhythms have provided a Yang (male…muscular) musical energy that is now globally de rigeur among composers. Many devotees of film music despise the Zimmer- influence in contemporary scoring and refer to the music as ‘drek’. Others are comfortable with both traditional & experimental scores. Oh!… I can only describe as ‘quaint’ the way you prefix a composers’ surname with “MR.” Actually, it’s very amusing.

  13. […] in almost ten years, aside from films involving personal friends Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. A review of the score from Movie Wave gave it four stars, saying that while the 81-year-old Williams […]

  14. Ian Simpson on Thursday 6 February, 2014 at 00:27

    My experience of Lincoln has been similar to James’s original review- for reasons that I can’t precisely pin down, I just don’t find it as enjoyable to listen to as most of John Williams’s other film scores.
    I can’t say that of The Book Thief though- although I do think Chris has a point re. it being an inferior relative of Angela’s Ashes (and one of the sub-themes is indeed almost identical to one in Angela’s Ashes), it’s still consistently good stuff, not a single duff track. I hope John Williams’s health holds out for at least another decade- he certainly seems up for writing plenty more high-quality film scores for as long as he can.

  15. […] in almost ten years, aside from films involving personal friends Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. A review of the score from Movie Wave gave it four stars, saying that while the 81-year-old Williams […]