Visit the Movie Wave Store | Movie Wave Home | Reviews by Title | Reviews by Composer | Contact me
Film music has never scaled heights quite this high again
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
* * * * *
Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 1986 Warner Bros. Inc.; review copyright (c) 2008 James Southall.
Roland Joffe's follow-up to his exceptional debut, The Killing Fields, was about a piece of history considerably more distant, as Spanish Jesuit missionaries see their work undone as a tribe of Paraguayan natives fall within a territorial dispute between the Slanish and Portuguese. It's not a great film, but it looks beautiful, is well-acted (Jeremy Irons is excellent as the passive senior missionary, Robert de Niro as a reformed mercenery and Ray McAnally as a papal representitive and smaller roles for Aidan Quinn, Ronald Pickup and Liam Neeson) and then of course comes the pièce de résistance, one of the greatest contributions to cinema of one of cinema's all-time-greatest contributors, Ennio Morricone. The music soars with beauty and passion, and is cinema's most extraordinary marriage of image and music this side of Once Upon a Time in the West.
It's no surprise that the soundtrack album is one of the best-selling of all time. Music plays such a key part in the film that many people who saw it will have gone out and bought the album; but this is the best type of film music, because it doesn't just "work in the film" (the faint praise given to justify any old tripe these days), indeed it doesn't just enhance the film, it absolutely makes the film - and then some. But it doesn't just do that - it's such wonderful music, it pours scorn over anyone's snobbish comments that film music is best left within films. The notion that even the best film composers are somehow lesser than "proper" composers is often based on the fact that they require the stimulus of the film in order to create - I would usually counter that by saying it's the inherent dramatic arc within the best film music (caused, of course, by following a film) that makes it what I love - but on rare occasions it's by no means a stretch to say that it's not the composer taking his inspiration from the film, it seems entirely as if it's the film which is taking its inspiration from the music. Needless to say, this is one of those occasions.
Morricone's ability to craft melodies which are enough to melt the hardest heart has never been in doubt, but The Mission goes beyond what even he usually conjures up - there are half a dozen melodies in this score which all but a handful of film composers could never dream of creating even once, let alone six times in the same score. It's not just the melodies though - it's what Morricone does with them, how he arranges them, moves them along, uses them so inventively. There might not be the astonishing creativity here of his scores for Sergio Leone - at least not in the sense of simply dazzling the listener with extraordinary techniques that no other composer, let alone film composer, had tried before - but in terms of writing such technically-proficient music which is so gut-wrenchingly beautiful, surely this is Morricone at his peak.
Sequencing albums has not necessarily always been his strongest point, but The Mission is perfect. It opens with the end credits - titled "On Earth as it is in Heaven" - and instantly we're into classic territory, a piece of music whose absence from any list of the finest film music would render that list completely irrelevant. It's a religious film, and Morricone is a religious man, and I'll say one thing for the Christians - they have inspired some extraordinary music over the centuries. The mixture here of heavenly choral chanting, subtle tribal percussion and the film's exquisite main theme (on oboe) is enough to make anyone fall to their knees and praise the Lord - I don't know how many hundreds of times I've listened to these three minutes and forty-eight seconds of musical bliss, but one thing I do know is that even after a few thousand more, it won't be enough. Had it been composed two hundred years earlier, I'm sure it would be a classical staple.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that there is considerable danger in putting such a piece at the start of the album - surely nothing could ever live up to it. Not in this case - "Falls" follows and is one of the most blissful, soaring, inspiring film themes you'll ever hear - pan flutes and then the full orchestra play the most sensational of melodies, and while it's not hard to imagine a composer being inspired by the sensational image of the waterfalls which inspire the piece, it's hard to imagine how anyone could have been more inspired than this. Of course, the treats are far-from-over yet - "Gabriel's Oboe" is the main theme for Jeremy Irons's character, with Morricone reportedly taking his inspiration from Irons's random finger placements as his character sits and plays an oboe - in this arrangement, with simple harpsichord accompaniment, it's another piece which just seems heaven-sent.
Perhaps the score's most striking feature is the choral music - frequently performed on-screen by huge choirs of natives, including in the film's greatest moment - and "Ava Maria Guarani" is a fine creation by Morricone - to write music like this, whose presentation as an authentic 18th century piece within the film never rings untrue, and yet which functions within the sensibilities of a 1986 film score, is a great achievement. And with all these great themes, Morricone still finds time to craft a charming, lilting piece for guitar and flute, "Brothers", which plays over happy moments between de Niro and Quinn just before de Niro is prompted to commit the most violent act which ultimately convinces him to become a reformed character. If this were the main theme in any other score, everyone would rave about it - here it's almost buried by the exceptional music all around it.
Five tracks gone, all of them of the most beautiful variety imaginable, yet this is a film with extremely dark undertones so inevitably darker music arrives at some stage. "Carlotta" underscores a moment of high violence, with desperation and anger rippling below the surface. "Vita Nostra" reprises the choral chant of the opening cue (and is indeed the first time it is heard in the film) - a similar arrangement, but this is a piece of music that few would ever tire of hearing. "Climb" slowly builds, never leaving anybody in any doubt that beauty is around the corner, and as it reaches its climax with the reprise of the waterfall theme, it's almost orgasmic. "Remorse" goes back to the darker side - the swirling music perfectly representing the deep psychological trauma on-screen - it's a technique also employed by Bernard Herrmann in his day, and has lost none of its power. "Penance" is based around the score's darkest theme, with Morricone again fashioning a piece which builds and builds, a simple idea being repeated by an ever-rising ensemble until the pay-off, which feels entirely justified.
"The Mission" reprises the waterfalls theme, this time in a slightly slower, more contemplative arrangement (sans pan flutes). When I joined my "real job" back in 1999, and I phoned up to arrange the interview, the music which played when I was put on hold was this track. I instantly knew this was a company I wanted to work for. "River" is one of the score's finest pieces, as the main choral theme builds and builds in the most beautiful fashion, as the papal representative in the colony is taken up river to the mission (sadly when he gets there he decides to have it burnt down and the natives all slaughtered - the Lord moves in mysterious ways, I guess). A reprise of "Gabriel's Oboe" follows, in a fluid arrangement with a terrific ending. A short choral piece, "Te Deum Guarani", is brief but just as fine as its predecessors in the score.
One of the darkest cues on the album now follows - "Refusal" is a rather dissonant, uncomfortable piece, reminding us that things are not all heavenly. "Asuncion" combines pan flute, pizzicato strings and ethnic percussion for a piece representing the hustle-and-bustle of the Paraguayan capital - all set to the melody of the main choral theme. It's a nice piece (and Morricone would go on to write a very similar one a few years later in the wonderful Nostromo). Darkness returns in "Alone", with real dissonance this time, though it doesn't feel out of place. "Guarani" continues the more uncomfortable feeling, but in a different way - this time the dominant force is one of mystery, stressing the different culture which has become mixed up in European politics. "The Sword" reprises Gabriel's theme again (no oboe this time though), even throwing in a slightly heroic lilt to the orchestration; and the album ends with the magnificent "Miserere", a stunningly beautiful arrangement of the waterfalls theme for solo choirboy.
Film scores as good as this one come along at extremely rare intervals, and must be treasured. I don't see how it would be possible to write a more beautiful one than this - having been writing on the internet since I was 18 years old I've more than used up my allocation of the word "genius", but in film music terms, if it applies to anyone then it applies to Ennio Morricone. I'd probably go as far as saying that it's not only film music that could never get better than this - quite frankly, music couldn't. (Of course, there is the exception of Herbie Hancock's Round Midnight, which beat it to the Oscar.) An essential part of any film music collection, The Mission represents the absolute pinnacle of what music can do for a film, and what a soundtrack album can do to enrich the listener's life.