Film scores

Soundtrack review: The passion of the Christ (John Debney – 2015)

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“The Passion of the Christ” is the second most violent movie I have ever seen. It took “John Rambo” and its powerful statement to overtake Mel Gibson’s creation but not by much. That one wins only by body count. In “Rambo” something like 200 people die in 90 minutes. In “Passion”, one man is tortured mercilessly and graphically for more than 100 minutes. So I guess I should rethink this top. Any message that Mel Gibson might have tried to transmit is lost beneath all that flesh, blood and cruelty. I had a hard time sitting through the movie and I rarely felt any emotion or connection to the story, because of the exaggerated violence. Mel Gibson wanted to tell us that despite all that, Jesus still came back with love and forgiveness. I am sure he could have sent that message differently. I shouldn’t have been comfortable putting Jesus and Rambo in the same sentence.

Having said that, the movie isn’t without its merits. It has some stunning visual moments, like the scenes in the Garden of Gethsemane or that tear falling on the ground close to the end, and Jim Caviezel acts his heart out in the title role. He owns that part. But my favorite moments of the movie were the final ones… Once the madness was over, the screen went blank and all of a sudden… Jesus rose. We don’t see all of him, just his feet walking the ground again and one of them most sublime pieces of film music accompanies him. The end. Until that point I had managed to notice the score while trying to wipe all the blood from the screen but that final moment was a true epiphany.

John Debney, while an odd choice at the beginning considering that Mel usually went with James Horner for his movies, wrote something that will last forever. Now, 10 years later, we get a complete, almost three hours long version of his score to explore and enjoy. My eyes are on the 21 minutes variations of that “Resurrection” theme at the end but there’s a lot more to discover until then.

If Mel Gibson chose shock and extreme violence to make his point, John Debney provided the light to that darkness. The origin point of the two paths is similar (the beginning in the olive garden) but afterwards director and composer take different stands. The music is quiet and reflective. The oriental instruments and vocal echoes add to the mystery and dark veil of the lonely opening. When “Satan appears” the music changes into a cunning snake and you never know where it comes from. This cue sounds almost like a chant made by faceless voices.

It’s impossible not to be moved by the rising tide of choral goodness that accompanies Jesus’ arrest. The surprise… the doubt… the clarity and peacefulness in front of this adversity is all there in the music. John Debney had his own vision of the story and of how he wanted to tell it and this score has a life of its own. Every other cue I am tempted to mention the technical merits of the music: the wonderful solos of local instruments, the authenticity of the sound, the spotless instrumentation…. But when I hear a magnificent piece like “Peter denies Jesus” I realize that none of that matters. What this score really is about is the wealth of emotion. Sure each of us has his own thoughts about Jesus and his own relationship with him but the story a cue like this tells is relatable to each of us. I can feel the weight such a monumental decision had on the character… I can understand how hard it was for him and the toll it took and I can ever sense the guilt it came with. And yet with this entire burden it carries the theme is unbearably tender and forgiving and the goose bumps never stop. John Debney was in a state of grace when he wrote it.

That is just one of the peak moments of “The passion of the Christ”. Every single cue is dipped in faith. The music is heartbreaking without being dramatic; it’s heavy without imposing on the listener; it’s haunting without being exaggerated; the choirs are powerful but pious; the instruments pierce without cutting. The echoes are eternal and haunting and each of us will feel a sting, an inspiration or a tear forming at different moments of the score. This transcends music. Listening to John Debney’s composition is a spiritual experience and I am saying this without necessarily being a religious person and, once again, from the point of view of someone who didn’t enjoy the movie. The first time I listened to this score I actually did it without tagging the cues, so with no titles, and it felt just as moving.

Every now and then the music builds up in ways that make my heart stop for a few seconds. “Bearing the cross” gets magnificently overwhelming. Epic is not a good enough word to describe it. Lisbeth Scott, one of the best voices in film music today, adds her magic and completes cues to perfection. Her prayers are touching and ravishing in the same time.

The composer also gives us a small break before the climax of the score. “Song of complaint”, “Breath of the spirit” and “Peaceful but primitive / Procession” make up a special section of “Passion”, moments when we can all catch our breaths and enjoy the beauty of the music. This is the break before the hour that musically depicts the crucifixion and resurrection.

The theme for “Crucifixion / Raising the cross” brings echoes of that ending I never forgot. There are seeds of the “Resurrection” theme in here and they should be, because everything is related in this musical story. Once again, the message of the music is similar to the message of Jesus himself: it’s all about love and forgiveness. There’s no hatred in the music, no anger, no tone of accusation. Everything is accepted as it is and welcomed with the head held high. The music strums the chords of my heard and gently tugs at my emotional resorts.

Even after more than two hours of unbelievable music I am still excited about getting to hear Resurrection. The theme of release, the theme of blind faith, the theme of belief. The ultimate buildup, the cue with no limits. A piece of music to take you over from the inside and give you eternal wings. “Resurrection / End credits” starts with a ray of choral light which has more hope than all the music until then. The suffering and doubts are over. Then comes the percussion to tell us doors you thought forever shut are opening…. Then a rush so powerful, a choir so sweeping and intense that I can’t help but get misty eyed because of its impact. It leaves the ending open; it leaves me with a feeling of eternal light. Everything’s going to be fine. Now rise! Few pieces of music were written that match this one in beauty and wealth. Thank you, John Debney, Lisbeth Scott, Gingger Shankar and all the others involved.

John Debney has written a lot of great scores before and since “Passion”. He wrote for comedies, dramas, animation, pirates, superheroes and even for the other side than the one depicted in “Passion”. His legacy is greater than “The Passion of the Christ” which only legitimizes his place in film music history. But this score is the one moment when he must have been touched by some form of divinity, because the music is out of this world.

Cue rating: 93 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 122 / 167

Album excellence: 73%

Highlights:

Satan Appears

Jesus Arrested/Mary Awakens Afraid

Jesus Arrested (Alt.)

Carpenter Flashback/De Toolah De Tabla

Peter Denies Jesus

Peter Denies Jesus (Alt.)

Peter Denies Jesus (Extended Album Version)

Judas Hangs Himself/Jesus Brought To Pilate/Jesus Speaks Latin

Pilate Orders Scourging/Flagellation/Dark Choir/Disciples

Flagellation/Dark Choir/Disciples

Mary Wipes Up Blood/The Stoning/Pilate Washes Hands

The Stoning (Album Version)

Vast World/Moment Of Truth/Bearing The Cross

Bearing The Cross (Album Version)

Bearing The Cross (Extended Album Version)

Mary Goes To Jesus

Song Of Complaint (Extended Album Version)

Peaceful But Primitive/Procession

Crucifixion/Raising The Cross/Gesmas Taunts Jesus/Raven Attacks Gesmas

Crucifixion/Raising The Cross (Album Version)

Jesus Is Carried Down

Resurrection/End Credits

Resurrection (Alt.)

Resurrection (Album Version)

Resurrection Choir

 

 

About the author

Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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