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Brilliant mixture of styles full of the trials of life
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
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Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 1999 BMG Entertainment; review copyright (c) 2006 James Southall
The remarkable true story of the great Ethiopian athlete Haile Gebreselasse and the tortures he went through on his way to success, 1999's Terrence Malick-produced Endurance was very well-received, but sadly little-seen. Gebreselasse plays himself as a teenager onwards in a film which is half-documentary, half-drama, culminating in his world record 10,000 metres run at the Atlanta olympics in 1996.
British director Leslie Woodhead turned to John Powell for the music; Powell was just making his name as a solo composer at the time, though was still involved at Hans Zimmer's Media Ventures facility, and indeed Zimmer produced the music. The music blows any preconceptions about sports movie music completely out of the water - this is not the rousing anthems of your typical win-against-the-odds story. Powell looks inside Gabreselasse, tells us his inner feelings, expresses his turmoil. He uses an orchestra of reasonable size throughout, but mixes it with Ethiopian music - some of it recorded in a bedroom in a hotel in Addis Ababa, according to the CD booklet - the effect is electrifying.
The disc opens with a song written and performed by Gigi Shibabaw, "Gigi's Lament", an almost mournful song sung a capella (or Acapulco, as Randy Newman would call it). It's an arresting way of opening the album. Powell's score begins in the powerful main title cue - right from the outset, the way he incorporates his own original compositions and arrangements with the Ethiopian music is truly very impressive. "The Struggle of Life" features a solo male vocal (by Lemme Gebre Hiwot) which is almost enough to bring a tear to the eye.
Of course, any score like this will feature some uplifting music, and the first comes in "Haile Runs to School", with a stupendous flute solo line and some truly affecting string work. "Stealing Batteries for the Radio" incorporates some Media Ventures-style brass with a small Ethiopian choir, again to great effect; and "Chasing the Bull" is an almost comical little piece. The full range of human emotions is on display here - and Powell deals with each with the utmost of respect and dignity. "Mother is Sent Away" is full of the most acute anguish, yet is soaringly beautiful - to compose such music requires a rare skill. "The Bus to Addis" simply teems with life, an infectious piece for choir and percussion. The score all builds up to the eleven-minute "The Final Race", which opens with the sorrowful main theme and gradually builds and builds towards the heroic finale, which feels almost life-affirming by the time it arrives! This is music composed with real purpose and intelligence.
Powell is a composer who continues to impress with each new score, having brought something genuinely fresh and individual to film music over the last couple of years, so it is interesting to return to one of his earlier scores and find something as wonderful as Endurance. The album is such a mixture of styles, on paper it really just shouldn't work; but not only does it work, it does so to such spectacular effect that Endurance must go down as one of the great undiscovered gems of recent times. Highly, highly recommended.