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 SK 60271

Artwork copyright (c) 1997 Tri Star Pictures, Inc.; review copyright (c) 2004 James Southall



Williams soars up the Himalayas


An interesting story, a fine cast, stunning location photography... all the ingredients were there for Jean-Jacques Annaud's Seven Years in Tibet to be a great movie, and yet for some reason it just never quite cuts it.  It tells the story of a Nazi expedition into the Himalayas, but the four-man team is caught on what is still British-ruled soil and so they are captured and placed in a prisoner-of-war camp.  The group's leader (played by Brad Pitt) leads an escape and heads for Tibet, eventually meeting and befriending the young Dalai Lama (who also met my parents' friend Sid - though no movie has yet been made of that).  I'm not quite sure why the movie doesn't work, but it doesn't, compelling though certain passages are.

Annaud turned to John Williams for the music, a shrewd move; he was clearly rather wowed by the experience, because in his liner notes, which could perhaps be described as being a little overenthusiastic, he states that he would like to be reincarnated as Williams.  Parts of the score were entirely new territory for Williams, but the parts that everyone remembers are rather more typical.  His special guest star this time round was Yo-Yo Ma and his cello, which seemed quite impressive at the time, though now of course "classical superstars" slumming it on even the most mundane film score recordings are ten-a-penny.  The main theme is exquisitely beautiful; it's full of schmaltz, but then nobody does schmaltz quite like Williams, and it's one of his most memorable themes in a great many years.

Used somewhat sparingly through the score, whenever it does appear the theme is certain to send a shiver down the spine.  What surrounds it is quite a surprise, with Williams not going the expected John Barry route of rather ignoring the location and simply scoring the drama (indeed, Barry was first choice to score the movie, but - extraordinary though it is to believe - he didn't get on with the director), but instead featuring some ethnic elements, particularly in the low, low brass and occasional throat singing - deep, deep throat singing (if you pardon the expression).  There is the occasional traditional music interpolated ("Young Dalai Lama and Ceremonial Chant", "The Invasion") but most of it is original material by Williams.

The action music, when it comes, is dark and uncompromising, of the variety heard in Born on the Fourth of July.  "Peter's Rescue" is particularly powerful, the sort of thing that will have Williams's more casual fans running for the wind, but fans of the wider range of his music are sure to be impressed.  Also good is "The Invasion", whose opening percussion isn't a million miles from Tan Dun's celebrated Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which develops into a particularly fine piece.  The following "Reflections" is achingly beautiful, presenting at length the "B" section of the main theme.  "Approaching the Summit" has an almost dream-like, psychedelic feel as it begins, before turning into a fantasy on the main theme.  After the cheerful diversion of the gentle "Palace Invitation" comes one of the standouts, "Heinrich's Odyssey".  It's an eight-minute set of variations on the main theme(s), frequently with an added urgency, exceptional throughout.  The finale, "Regaining a Son", is truly moving and lovely.

Remarkably - though I'm not sure why I should use that particular word, given the organisation's history of baffling decisions - the Academy decided not to award Williams with an Oscar nomination for Seven Years in Tibet.  Now, I saw "remarkable" because I'm sure Williams would get an Oscar nomination most years for recording himself farting, and the number of unremarkable Williams scores to have been nominated (such as Amistad, from the same year as this) would suggest that when he does write something as special as this, it would be recognised with a few accolades.  It isn't quite first-tier Williams, but the amount of emotion not only in the sweeping theme but in the subtle passages which dominate most of the score positively eclipses anything actually seen in the movie.  This is 65 minutes of fine film music.

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  1. Seven Years in Tibet (7:08)
  2. Young Dalai Lama and Ceremonial Chant (2:14)
  3. Leaving Ingrid (3:43)
  4. Peter's Rescue (3:45)
  5. Harrer's Journey (4:05)
  6. The Invasion (5:08)
  7. Reflections (4:41)
  8. Premonitions (2:56)
  9. Approaching the Summit (5:44)
  10. Palace Invitation (4:46)
  11. Heinrich's Odyssey (8:03)
  12. Quiet Moments (4:21)
  13. Regaining a Son (1:48)
  14. Seven Years in Tibet (reprise) (7:13)