Film scores

Soundtrack review: The birth of a nation (Henry Jackman – 2016)

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“The Birth of a Nation” is a 2016 American period drama film based on the story of Nat Turner, the enslaved man who led a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831. The film is co-written, co-produced and directed by Nate Parker (in his directorial debut) and stars Parker as Turner, with Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller and Gabrielle Union in supporting roles. Parker also petitioned financiers to invest in the film, ultimately getting a $10 million production budget, and started filming in May 2015 in Georgia. Nat Turner, as a child, is taught to read so he can study the Bible, and be a preacher to fellow slaves. When Turner’s master takes him across the country on a preaching tour to profit from his preaching, Turner begins to see the scope of slavery, and decides to become a different kind of leader. Henry Jackman wrote the score. I’m thinking this story could give him space to experiment.

I like the elegance of “Turner plantation”; this cue has a dreamy fairy tale sound to it and welcomes me quite warmly to the score. The sound of the cello caresses my ears and I travel back in time to the period when the story takes place. On either side of it there are a couple of quite spiritual pieces, the music less “Prophecy” and the wood ethnical instruments driven “The calling”.                  The composer makes a clear distinction between the regular cues and the ones that express dreams of visions.

The quiet and somber cello gets to me every time. I like it that Henry Jackman chose this instrument as the expression of the main character’s beautiful soul. The slow moving music speaks to me and I feel as if I’m sitting in a living room by the fire in a faraway winter’s day, listening to a beautiful story. I’m curious who the cellist for this score was. The theme for Cherry Anne where the cello meets the piano is just stunning.

As I listen to this beautiful composition and think about Henry Jackman’s other scores from 2016 for blockbusters I’m thinking he is much better when he has freedom to imagine and when the story lets him explore other musical areas. “The birth of a nation” is emotional and intense and each cue is different and poignant. The composer manages to express quite clearly what he wants to tell us. I listen to the tremor and choir in “The oppressed” and I feel all the anguish and injustice, the quiet revolt and the rising anger. The flute and violin on the other hand show me a beautiful life for Nat Turner. The choral parts make me think of prayers. The African voices that call to arms are stripped of music to feel more real.

“The birth of a nation” is a respectful, spiritual and deep musical reflection of a life that tried to change many other lives for the good. Henry Jackman treated this story with care and love and gave it a musical component that develops with the attention for details and sensitivity of a Chinese painting. The music moved me and made me feel; it’s a minimalistic score that echoes deep inside me and leaves a mark. It focuses on the good and it’s Jackman’s best score of 2016 for me and, together with “Risen” and “The young Messiah” one of the most beautiful spiritual scores of the year. Absolutely do not miss this one.

Cue rating: 95 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 31 / 41

Album excellence: 76%

Highlights:

  1. Turner Plantation (1:42)
  2. Cherry Anne (2:43)
  3. Matrimony (1:35)
  4. The Oppressed (1:49)
  5. The Life of Nat Turner (1:53)
  6. The Remission of Sin (1:05)
  7. Transfiguration (1:50)
  8. A Call to Arms (0:49)
  9. The Reckoning (1:57)
  10. On to Jerusalem (6:16)
  11. The Legacy of Nat Turner (1:58)
  12. The Birth of a Nation (2:55)

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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