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SK 89171

Artwork copyright (c) 2000 Sony Music Entertainment, Inc; review copyright (c) 2003 James Southall


Breathtaking work is a modern classic

Few films have made such a profoundly personal impression on me as Julie Taymor's Titus.  I walked away from the cinema in a state of shock and confusion, unable to speak to my two friends, stunned by what I had witnessed.  It was hardly a surprise, given her reputation and past work, that Titus would be such a visceral, visual extravaganza, but some of Taymor's imagery went beyond anything one might have expected.  Her adaptation of Shakespeare's text was brilliant in itself, and her staging of the film in a sort of timeless version of Rome with gladiators intermingling with motorbikes, togas with leathers, beyond brilliant.  

The play - if you don't know - is frequently (somewhat snobbishly) regarded as being one of Shakespeare's minor works, but to me it speaks volumes about mankind's pursuit of revenge and is as relevant today as it was when it was written over 400 years ago, perhaps even moreso.  Titus Andronicus is a Roman warrior who has captured the goth Tamora and her two sons.  When a new emperor is needed, he lends his support to Saturninus, but the latter's gratitude turns to hatred when Titus's daughter Lavinia rejects his amorous advances.  Saturninus then sets off on a violent quest for revenge, aided by Tamora, her loyal servant Aaron and her sons.  The revenge is so bloody and violent that Lavinia ends up with her tongue cut out; Titus with one of his hands chopped off; and Tamora's sons are baked in a pie by Titus at the conclusion and fed to their unknowing mother, in a scene whose dark humour is as beautiful as it is shocking (and, with Anthony Hopkins as Titus, the obvious Hannibal Lecter allegory is a joy).  Throughout, Titus becomes increasingly mad, unable to cope with everything that is happening, but at the same time hatching a diabolical plot for revenge of his own.  One piece of truly unforgettable imagery is when Lavinia's tongue is cut out and her hands chopped off, replaced by sticks.  Titus's assistant Marcus Andronicus sees her in the distance but it is only when he gets close that he realises what has happened to her hands; and only when she opens her mouth and blood pours out that he realises the full extent of what has happened.

Titus received, astonishingly, a lukewarm critical reception, with Anthony Hopkins's performance in particular attracting criticism.  I thought he in particular was brilliant, but so was the rest of the excellent cast, including Alan Cumming, Jessica Lange, Harry Lennix, Colm Feore and Laura Fraser.  As mentioned earlier, the film's visual style mixes images from the time of Christ with modern (and even futuristic) ones.  This blend of the ancient and the modern was what composer Elliot Goldenthal took as the basis for his music.  He says he drove around Rome (even modern-day Rome, let alone the version in the movie) and was struck by hip-hop music blaring from a car mixing with an Andean pan flute group performing on the street, mixing with an Elvis impersonator and decided that "in Rome - as in this film - it is possible in an instant to embrace eons."

This is exactly what his score does.  It opens with a choral processional - precisely, brilliantly choreographed to match marching gladiators on screen during the opening titles - "Victorius Titus" - one of the most memorable pieces of film music in years.  From then it goes from one style to another quite frequently, with Goldenthal's trademark action music appearing in "Revenge Wheel" and "Arrows of the Gods"; modern hip-hop stylings defining Tamora's sons in "Swing Rave" and more chilled-out beats scoring one of the most shocking moments of the film, "Pickled Heads" (with the heads in question being of Titus's sons).  A wonderful march accompanies a gathering of forces for Titus in "Ill-Fated Plot"; and perhaps the score's true highlight is the eight-minute "Finale", as moving and beautiful a piece of music as Goldenthal has ever written.

Is the score flawless?  In the film, certainly it is; the combination of music and image is as potent and brilliant as any I have ever seen in even the most classic movie/composer combinations.  On album, there are just one or two nagging feelings that would leave me unable to quite elevate it to that level - for one thing, the conflicting styles, while incorporated brilliantly by Goldenthal (he tends to blend the modern elements in gradually rather than just overlaying percussion or flitting about schizophrenically like most film composers would), do mean that I can see why some listeners would find the experience a little uneven when divorced from the movie, especially if they hadn't seen it - and for another, there are various pieces that Goldenthal has taken from previous music he's written.  One piece, "Pressing Judgement", was actually licensed from his score for A Time to Kill and used in the movie and on the album; "Adagio" is simply his song "O Foolish Heart" from the play The Green Bird without a vocalist; and the "Finale", stunning though it is, is very much along the same lines as a similar piece in Michael Collins.

Those two criticisms aside, however, this is one of the finest scores composed in many years, truly a masterpiece.  Opinion is somewhat polarised over it - some film music fans love it, some hate it.  But nobody who has seen the film could deny its brilliance in that context, and no fan of Goldenthal could possibly be disappointed with the album.

Speaking of the film, I do urge you to pick up the DVD, whose presentation is an example to which all other DVD releases should aspire.  There are commentaries by Taymor, Hopkins, Lennix and (yes) Goldenthal and one of the most illuminating "making of" pieces I've ever seen.  As it follows the making of the movie from the earliest days of pre-production right through to the editing and scoring, you can see the whole process of making the film.  Goldenthal not only went on set, he sat in on the earliest rehearsals and spent a lot of time at filming, surely one contributory factor to the score's effectiveness.  It's fascinating to see Hopkins apparently falling to pieces over the course of filming, with the role clearly consuming him, but he still found time to give a wonderful comment about the business of acting.  While considering actors' technique he says "all we do is learn our lives and turn up - no more - it's the easiest job in the world."  But you can tell that he put so much into the role that he isn't really being serious.

Titus is an essential film - I have seen it countless times now, and it still gives me goosebumps and affects me in a way that is difficult to describe - and an essential score.

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  1. Victorius Titus (2:58)
  2. Procession and Obsequis (3:01)
  3. Revenge Wheel (:52)
  4. Tribute and Suffrage (4:17)
  5. Arrows of the Gods (1:32)
  6. An Offering (2:04)
  7. Crossroads (3:24)
  8. Vortex (1:33)
  9. Swing Rave (1:53)
  10. Ill-Fated Plot (2:20)
  11. Pickled Heads (5:05)
  12. Tamora's Pastorale (1:13)
  13. Titus's Vow (3:43)
  14. Mad Ole Titus (2:28)
  15. Philimelagram (1:46)
  16. Pressing Judgement (3:32)
  17. Aaron's Plea (2:02)
  18. Coronation (1:53)
  19. Apian Stomp (1:32)
  20. Adagio (2:25)
  21. Finale (8:33)
  22. Vivere (3:33)