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Heart and Soul: Amistad

by Doug Adams

Although it's been about four days since I saw Amistad, Steven Spielberg's (and John Williams') historical account of a group of Africans captured by Spanish traders, etc., etc., I feel like I'm still digesting it. There's an awful lot packed into this piece, but the overall impression I've forged thus far is that it played more to our minds than to our emotions. Internally, I'm still trying to rectify the two--my mind is trying to talk my heart into being moved. Many of Williams' choices in the film were cerebrally motivated, particularly in regards to his characterization of the Africans and their plight to regain their freedom. This slant is especially noteworthy, because Williams usually works as an unabashed Romantic. Here, he leads with his (considerable) intellect. For example, I loved the way the humming female voice came in to play only once the Africans encountered the Americans. Not only did it act as a wonderful representation of the communication barrier (the Africans spoke no English), but it also was very telling of the race struggles present--the blacks were closed off and not allowed to express themselves externally. There was a real urgency to the writing in these spots, but when sung with a closed mouth, it became not only an emphatic voice, but an oppressed voice. It reminded me slightly of the spirituals in Rosewood, but it took that raw emotional content and negated its ability to be articulate. A sort of a stifled message.

Scoring Identity

Yet, Williams' most interesting gestures, I thought, came in the form of the percussion scoring for the Africans. Williams first uses a mixture of drums, rattles, and whatnot for these characters when they're being rounded up and netted on the American coast. My first thought was that it was a little bit offensive to see whites capturing blacks to the accompaniment of film music's equation of "jungle music". But later, it occurred to me that this was probably part of Williams' thrust, because we were watching this scene through the whites' eyes. In their minds they were rounding up animals. Listen as Cinque has a momentary lapse of resolve and begins to sink in the ocean. As soon as he is completely submerged, the percussion disappears and the vocal writing returns. He is divorced from the white man's point of view and the "white" musical referencing disappears with it. In this scene, Williams has taken the Africans' indigenous music and turned it against them by using it as a sort of hunting theme.

Even more impressive is the fact that as the picture goes on, Williams sticks with this percussive device for the Africans, but he slowly ennobles it. After all, this kind of percussive music, which American popular culture has basically annexed and mobilized for all things visceral and violent, actually did originate with Africans. We've come to think of it as "jungle" music, but in it's true, stripped down form it's very expressive of a certain way of life that has nothing to do with this. As we get to know the African characters better, the percussion writing becomes less lunging and more of a ambient texture over which a wooden flute often solos. So, the same music which once was a simplified, physically- based, anti-character representation of the blacks becomes an empathetic identity for them. It avoids simplifying them because it's done very accurately and sensitively. I don't think I've ever seen music used to shift point of view like this before, at least not where it's essentially the same music rendered differently. Now, I don't know if Williams applying his music in order to effect our perceptions or as a result of the film's demands. But, I don't really care. This is exactly the kind of seamlessness that film music should involve.

Nationalistic Anthems

Yet, above all else, Amistad is a film where people talk. There is legal maneuvering, deposition, political finagling, character exposition, jail cell stories, fire-side confrontations. As we know, it's difficult to score around this kind of aurally-intensive drama. To his credit, Williams manages to work his anthem "Dry You Tears Afrika" and what he calls his "Quaker music" (the Copland, Americana stuff) around much of this dialogue without ever overpowering or drowning it, but that also means that he rarely gets a chance to speak out. The final speech by John Q. Adams is scored with a wonderful bit of patriotic hymn-song writing, but it tends to feel like one of those semi-animated educational filmstrips they used to make us watch in grade school. Of course Williams' music is much more interesting than most of that stuff, but it's basically used as the same kind of "Glory Hallelujah" backdrop. There's nothing conceptually wrong with that, but it does show us a glimpse of why the film can be so involving and oddly unmoving at the same time. When Spielberg and Williams did Schindler's List together, it consisted of their memories of an event that really happened, and it was referenced through our collective real-life memories of the events portrayed. The black and white photography and the geographically, ethnically, and period based music all ensured the effect. At times, Amistad plays more like a recollection of the past filtered through entertainment. The music mythologizes scenes like this to the degree that it seems they're not so much based on real events as on past representations of the period. It's a new old movie--a new legend. John Adams could have been Zeus in this scene. Yes, it's touching, it's immediate, and Anthony Hopkins is wonderful, but it seems to be such a hoary old tale of past glories--an over-told fable--that the audience hears its messages without feeling them.

That doesn't mean that the proper creative choices weren't made for the Adams scene, or even for the film. Appraising the heart of a film is almost always a subjective task. When it comes to intelligence, Amistad is still the best film I've seen for a while. A few weeks ago I was invited to attend the final dress rehearsal before the world premiere of an opera version of Amistad. This version concentrated on heart more that mind, and the results were dramatically disastrous. There were some interesting musical aspects--when's the last time you heard anyone scat in an opera?--but the composer tried to substitute black originated music for black characterizations. I guess the idea was to make the black point of view omnipresent through the compositional styles, but when their Cinque does little more than say how much he misses Africa while supreme court justices get entire recitatives... well, I much prefer the film's form to this. In fact, I'd have to say that construction- wise, Amistad is among the top films of the year. Maybe the fact that there's so much for the mind to chew on leaves the heart feeling a bit under-utilized. Maybe it's the narrative's second-hand style. Or, maybe it's the fact that we tend to judge a Williams and Spielberg project as tough as possible. Nonetheless, it's an exceedingly smart film and score, and I'd recommend them strongly.

And, I can't wait to pick up the CD. "Adams' Summation" is going to make a great in-joke for my answering machine.


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