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THE GREAT DEBATERS
Charming and easy-going (if ultimately unmemorable) drama score
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
JAMES NEWTON HOWARD
and PETER GOLUB
* * *
Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 2007 The Weinstein Company; review copyright (c) 2008 James Southall
James Newton Howard's prolific end to 2007 continued with The Great Debaters, a score composed by him and Peter Golub. They receive equal billing for the music, though I must admit I'm not at all familiar with Golub nor the circumstances which led to their collaboration here. The film, directed by and starring Denzel Washington, concerns a college professor's attempt to form a debating team from a black college in Texas in the 1930s, which goes on to take on the mighty Harvard in the national championships.
Without wanting to be too rude, of all the major composers, Howard is probably the one you would turn to if you wanted a score to be written by an A-list film composer but you wanted it to sound as if it had been written by a different one; presumably Thomas Newman was unable or unwilling to score this film, but at times it's as if he did. The music - predominantly gentle wind solos over strings, guitar and percussion - is quite lovely. There's a main theme which is one of those pieces which typically accompanies these "inspirational" films, and it's a strong one. It might be predictable, but it's effective.
I suppose that same description could be applied to the score as a whole. I'm not sure about the division of labour on the score (one assumes from the fact that a big-name composer and a virtual unknown are given equal billing that the latter probably bore the brunt of the chores - though there are moments, particularly when the music takes its occasional darker turns, that sound distinctly Howard in style) but whoever wrote it did a decent job. The fact that I'm struggling to say much about the music displays its biggest problem - there just isn't really that much to it. It's pleasant, lovely to listen to, but even after 57 minutes of it not that much has actually happened. I mentioned Thomas Newman earlier - and Newman would have taken the music a lot further I suspect, striving to make slightly more of a dramatic statement with it by developing the material a little more.
Still, sometimes simplicity is exactly what you want when listening to an album, and this entirely inoffensive one will probably fill that need for many people. It's unlikely to ever stand out on Howard's discography, but makes for a pleasant hour's listening.