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Artwork copyright (c) 2003 The Book of John, Inc. and The Gospel of John, Ltd.; review copyright (c) 2004 James Southall



Sublime, beautiful music for biblical story


Somewhat overshadowed by another controversial biblical movie (you may have heard of it - it's from the guy who brought you films of such gravitas as Bird on a Wire, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and What Women Want), The Gospel of John - as its name rather implies - tells the story of the last of the four gospels in the New Testament, exactly matching the Good News text over its extended length.  Director Philip Saville strove for authenticity wherever possible, stretching to the score.  As Mr Daish noted at Soundtrack Express, I have in the past commented that no matter how many months of painstaking research Miklos Rozsa did for his biblical epics, they all just ended up sounding like Miklos Rozsa, but what he did - and this is all anyone could really do, given the lack of knowledge of the music of the day - was created music that sounded like it could be appropriate.  Of course, he generally stuck firmly to a traditional western symphony orchestra and choir, whereas these days it's trendy to incorporate all sorts of exotic instruments into scores like this (well, and all other scores, come to think of it) and so that's exactly what composer Jeff Danna did.

Danna is something of an expert on world music (in a literal sense rather than the horrible Lisa Gerrard-style stuff the term has come to be associated with), having incorporated it into many of his scores - never with greater effect than in the sublime Green Dragon - and so he does here.  Helpfully, the liner notes explain what many of the instruments are - otherwise, most listeners, certainly including myself, would have no idea what a ney, a santuri, a kanun, a jouras or a shofar might be.  This score's real success, however, is how Danna incorporates these authentic sounds into a western idiom by combining them with the full forces of London's Philharmonia Orchestra.  I am never fully comfortable when composers go too far in striving for authenticity and write music for small ensembles of exotic instruments but forget that they are actually scoring a film made by and for westerners, who need some element of familiarity in the music if it is to achieve its goal of providing dramatic support to the film, rather than so distracting audiences by its very lack of familiarity that they end up sitting listening to the music instead of watching the film.

This is an excellent film score, heartbreakingly beautiful at times.  The key soloist is actually not one of the authentic period instruments, but French vocalist Esther Lamandier, who occasionally lends support to the music and sings in Aramic.  "Mary Washes Jesus's Feet" is an early highlight, but the later "The Prayer" is a piece of stunning beauty that no listener is likely to forget very quickly.  Elsewhere, Danna uses the orchestra to great effect - the music can be loud and dramatic, but it is never melodramatic.  The composer sometimes introduces a great sweep without resorting to cliche or ever going saccharine - "Solomon's Porch" is outstanding - and other times keeps the music considerably more intimate (when the ethnic instruments play more of a part), and this works very well too - the opening "For God so Loved the World" is a case in point.  More intensely dramatic is "Pilate's Dilemma", a piece of musical desperation.  "Jesus at the Temple" is a piece of ferocious intensity and excitement.

The Gospel of John is a genuinely surprising score, one of real quality that fortunately avoids the cliches of both Rozsa-style pomp and bombast (which would be inappropriate for a film of this nature) or Gladiator-style "world music" (which hasn't been appropriate yet in any film it was used in) - something I'm not sure will be true of the music for the other, more controversial biblical epic about to be released at the time of writing, though time will tell - and is the latest excellent work from a composer who continues to impress on a regular basis, one who is surely well on his way to rather eclipsing his brother, whose star seems to have been falling a little recently.  Highly recommended.

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  1. For God so Loved the World (3:03)
  2. I Am the Bread of Life (2:54)
  3. The Road Through Samaria (3:18)
  4. Mary Washes Jesus's Feet (2:37)
  5. Here Comes Your King (1:44)
  6. Pilate's Dilemma (2:59)
  7. The Lamb of God (2:12)
  8. Jesus and Nicodemus (3:05)
  9. You Will Not Find Me (1:49)
  10. The Prayer (4:21)
  11. Solomon's Porch (3:37)
  12. One of You is a Devil (1:56)
  13. The Betrayal (2:58)
  14. What is Truth? (2:30)
  15. The Ruler of this World (3:15)
  16. Jesus at the Temple (3:10)
  17. Cast your Nets (2:28)
  18. Follow Me (4:33)