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The Tempest
  • Composed by Elliot Goldenthal
  • Zarathustra Music 7040 / 2010 / 34:52

Julie Taymor’s last Shakespeare adaptation for the big screen, Titus, was a resplendent spectacle for the senses, one of my favourite films of the 1990s.  It is with great anticipation therefore that I look forward to The Tempest, which is clearly going to be visually extraordinary even if nothing else; the bard’s final play is brought to life by an eclectic cast featuring Helen Mirren, Alfred Molina, David Strathairn and that great thespian Russell Brand, whom I have suspected for many years to be the next Gielgud.  Taymor’s partner Elliot Goldenthal’s film scores are few and far between these days (this is only his seventh since the turn of the century) but of course he’s on hand here.  

Goldenthal’s score for Titus was every bit as spectacular as the film; in my opinion his greatest work, the film afforded him the opportunity to craft music for orchestra and choir of considerable majesty without ever losing his unique vision.  Well, 95% of the score was like that; the other 5% rather harder to take, extremely quirky, a kind of industrial rock music with blaring saxophones and numerous electric guitars.  Reverse those proportions and you pretty much end up at The Tempest.  Without any question, this is extraordinary music – impossible to hear without marveling at Goldenthal’s vision and craft, his sheer bravery in creating film music this bold.  One would have to be made of pretty stern stuff to actually enjoy it, though.

Elliot Goldenthal and Julie Taymor

Melody comes mostly from songs – there are four here on the shortish album, vocalists including Reeve Carney (currently taking the lead in Taymor’s much-discussed Spiderman musical on Broadway) and Beth Gibbons of Portishead.  The two songs which bookend the album (and film) are the standouts here – “O Mistress Mine” and “Prospera’s Coda” both feature some stunningly beautiful harmonic progressions, and while the earthy feel of the vocals isn’t particularly to my taste, I can certainly appreciate it.  The other songs, both sung by actor Ben Whishaw, also feature moments of great beauty, always set against an extremely violent backdrop.

The instrumental score is essentially just that extremely violent backdrop without the moments of beauty laid on top.  Those saxes and guitars (lots and lots of guitars) from Titus are here; unfortunately the sound created is so guttural, my first thought of how extraordinary it is quickly gets taken over by my second thought, which is that I never want to hear it again.  This is music which was clearly created in an emotionally-charged way, but those emotions are so complex it likely takes a rather intellectual listener to appreciate them.  There’s a big orchestra here too and Goldenthal speaks in the liner notes of his main aspiration for the score being to intertwine the sound of the orchestra with amplified guitars – there’s no doubt that it’s the latter which dominate.  (Amusingly, the composer also says that the finale song came after four days being locked in his apartment filled with “equal amounts beer and doubt.”)  The single more palatable instrumental track, “Hell is Empty”, reminds me of some of the music from SWAT (of all things); it’s still the electrical rather than acoustic side of Goldenthal being heard, but will be for many (I suspect) the standout of the non-sung pieces.

I’ve sat attempting to write this review for several days; at one point I was simply going to write “This is indescribable” and leave it at that; my attempts to describe it seem so woefully inadequate, perhaps I should have stuck to my original plan.  You won’t hear, probably ever, another film score which sounds like The Tempest.  It is unmistakably Goldenthal, but a very long way from the music which his film score fans probably like most in his past.  I cannot stress enough how impressive it all is; nor how clear it is that in terms of the effort put into its creation, this is lightyears beyond your typical film score; nor that the strange beauty that comes from the opening and closing songs is amongst the most heartfelt and real I’ve heard in film music in years; nor that I can’t remember the last time I heard music which impressed me so much but which I find so truly hard to actually like.  There is every possibility that greater minds than my own will love it.  I wish them luck.  All I can suggest is listening to soundclips and making a judgement, or finding a review by a more competent writer (apologies for the cop-out).  For sheer quality of creation, this gets five stars without question.  Rating my enjoyment of the experience of listening to it, clearly not.  I hate star ratings.  **

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  1. Mastadge (Reply) on Friday 24 December, 2010 at 01:59

    I was really excited at the idea of a new Goldenthal score, but found the samples so unpleasant I decided not to purchase it. Difficult, dense, intellectual music is one thing, but this, on its own, is just too far. I hope it works in the movie.

  2. Casey (Reply) on Friday 26 July, 2013 at 05:46

    Goldenthal had a severe brain injury in 2006, which affected his output, though he’s still done stage work like Grendel, which I’d love to hear…

  3. ANDRÉ - CAPE TOWN. (Reply) on Saturday 27 July, 2013 at 10:54

    It was INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE in 1994 with its complex & “remarkable” score that catapulted Goldenthal into the forefront of Hollywood composers. He dazzled us with scores such as TITUS…ALIEN 3… FRIDA…DEMOLITION MAN & BATMAN FOREVER, but others such as A TIME TO KILL, SPHERE & FINAL FANTASY with their impressive orchestral structures remain inaccessible (for me) due to moods of incessant heaviness & oppressiveness that make the listening experience unpleasant. His output in a 19 year career span has been meagre so, naturally, I was looking forward to THE TEMPEST in 2010> inteviews done at that time indicate Goldenthal had fully recovered from the earlier surgery and was mentally & creatively potent. Yet THE TEMPEST’s score disappointed. The play, one of Shakespeare’s greatest, explores not only human relationships, but also magic, sorcery & control. One of the greatest influences on the Royal Court of Queen Elizabeth in the early 16th Century was HERMETICISM. GIORDANO BRUNO, the celebrated Italian scientist & philosopher arrived in England with the liberating concepts of the Hermetica – and the esoteric wisdom & magic of Ancient Egypt was welcomed by ‘diva Elizabetta’, her courtiers, most advisers & WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE….. the Hermetica’s Book of Knowledge became Prospero’s Book of Spells (the magician became the female Prospera in this film version). And the CD’s artwork of pictures from the movie focuses on the romance and magic (both luminous & dark) that underlined the play’s text. Regretably these elements are NOT evidenced by Goldenthal’s score which focused on darkness & savagery, ignoring the scintillating, fairytale realm that existed alongside the other. The marvellous JERRY GOLDSMITH musically achieved both polarities in LEGEND’s world of good & evil, of humans, demons & luminous magic. I know the Bard’s brilliant play, but have yet to view the movie. Maybe Julie Taymor {producer & director} only wanted the evil underscored??

  4. Daniel Henderson (Reply) on Thursday 14 January, 2016 at 08:15

    You’ve pretty much distilled what I think of Alex North’s Dragonslayer. I can appreciate the music on an intellectual level, but I can’t love it or desire to listen to it.