Film scores

Soundtrack review: Ben-Hur (Marco Beltrami – 2016)

This is how a historical score should sound like and this is how much joy and emotion listening to a film score should bring me.

Ben-Hur is a 2016 American epic historical action film directed by Timur Bekmambetov and written by Keith Clarke and John Ridley. It is the fourth film adaptation of the 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace following the 1907 silent film, the 1925 silent film and the Academy Award-winning 1959 film of same names. It has been termed a “re-adaptation”, “reimagining” and “new interpretation” of the novel.A nobleman, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), is falsely accused of an assassination attempt by his childhood friend and adoptive brother Messala (Toby Kebbell). He survives years of slavery under the Romans and attempts to get revenge by challenging his adoptive brother in a grand chariot race while being forever changed after a series of encounters with Jesus of Nazareth.

Marco Beltrami wrote the score and he had some big shoes to feel. The score for the 1959 adaptation was written by Miklos Rozsa and is one of the most epic, spectacular and memorable film music compositions ever. That main theme still echoes in my mind. Yet Beltrami is one of today’s most chameleonic composers and he can transform his music into anything.

Even with these thoughts in mind I am stunned by the new main theme. All bets are off and all memories fade as Beltrami opens with a show stopper; a magnificently emotional and deep piece of music where the flute, the violin and the subtle solo voice blend together and build up into one a theme that will surely stand the test of time. I’ve heard countless Marco Beltrami score in countless styles but this is just beyond anything I could have expected. It takes me through a whirlwind of emotions and leaves me drained at the end.

As I listen to this score develop I don’t have the original Ben Hur in my mind but John Ottman’s “The passion of the Christ”; that’s the standard for biblical epics for me and this one falls in the category. Marco Beltrami weaves a canvas that helps me travel back in time for 2000 years and feel the wind on my face, the dust in my throat and the weight of the emotional and spiritual turmoil of that cruel period. Every cue tells me a story and the music stands on its own without the help of the movie. The composer wrote a complex and layered score that’s both fulfilling and rewarding as a standalone listen.

The score itself builds up as the action unfolds; the first few cues are quiet and filled with love until the adoptive brother becomes evil and the music takes a turn for the dark without losing any of its emotional weight. The cues that describe Ben Hur being taken from home and thrown into slavery are brutal and cold. The melodic balm is replaced by uncomfortable and jagged musical edges. The cue that describes the infamous galley scene is particularly dense.

The story that Marco Beltrami wrote has no filler moments. I liked listening to it all. I felt the painful moments and  I felt the emotional ones like “Horse healer” as well. The composer chose to focus on what was going on inside the characters instead of the spectacle and turmoil or the outside world and it was the right choice. For me film music is about feeling and this score touched a lot of resorts inside me.

Driven by the best theme that Marco Beltrami wrote so far this will please all film music fans. Quiet, melodic and powerfully epic when it needed to be, the new “Ben-Hur” is one of the best scores from 2016 and one that will be remembered. This is how a historical score should sound like and this is how much joy and emotion listening to a film score should bring me.

Cue rating: 95 / 100
Total minutes of excellence: 51 / 67
Album excellence: 76%
Highlights:
Ben-Hur Theme
Jerusalem 33 A.D. / Sibling Rivalry
Carrying Judah
Mother’s Favorite
Dear Messala
Messala Returns
Messala and Tirzah
Galley Slaves
Rammed Hard
Horse Healer
Ben and Esther
Training
Leper Colony / Messala Will Pay
The Circus
Chariots of Fire
Brother vs. Brother
Carried Off
Jesus Arrested
Forgiveness
Modeh Ani Haiku

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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