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Joel Diamond: The Believer

by Jason Foster


Joel Diamond had to look no further than his upbringing to find inspiration for his score to director Henry Bean's film The Believer. Because the film takes place in New York City -- and in a variety of cultural idioms -- the native New Yorker's experience working with Haitian, Latin, Asian and Hassidic music produced an abundance of musical ideas.

And they all came in handy for The Believer, a film about a young Jewish man's search to understand the meaning of Judaism in his life. Based on a true story, The Believer follows the life of Danny Balint from impassioned religious student to rising star in a neo-Fascist political movement that contradicts everything he was brought up to believe.

The film was the 2001 Grand Jury Winner at the Sundance Film Festival and also took the Best Picture honor at the Moscow International Film Festival in June. Diamond read the film's script before it was shot, which offered him a chance for early inspiration. "I spent the following months writing a symphonic piece based on what I had read, and starting to develop themes for each of the characters in the film," Diamond says. "I knew that that music was not necessarily going to be used, but I wanted to create a base from which to work."

Diamond's understanding of the script was key, according to director Bean. "In ways, he seemed to understand it better than I did," Bean says. "He also saw that it was funny, and, because so few people felt this, it meant a great deal to me."

But for Bean, the film is about contradiction. "The movie is predominantly internal. It is about the conflicting and, really, contradictory impulses within the main character," he says. "I wanted the music, first, to draw the audience inside the character, and, second, to continually surprise them with sides of him they didn't expect."

Diamond's score runs the gamut from R&B to klezmer music, from strict classical to traditional Jewish music, and weaves between light and dark textures. He also had to compose music to go along with a scene involving a White Supremacist group. "I wasn't familiar with this movement, so I did some research and looked it up on the internet," Diamond says. "The experience was incredibly uncomfortable, especially as I'm Jewish, but I think I finally captured the feel of the music."

Bean originally used Gorecki's Third Symphony as a temp track for the lead character of Danny Balint. But after repeated listens, Bean decided it wasn't expressing what he intended. "It was too delicate," Diamond says. "There had to be a grittier tone underneath." In search of that tone, Diamond composed a piece for voice and strings, which incorporated a descending ostinato pattern on the strings, and introduced a recurring five-note phrase for vocalist Genya Niéves. "Ms. Niéves sang the first phrase in an operatic tone and then, on repeating the phrase, she sang with a more agitated color," Diamond says. "It worked very well."

After replacing more cues on the temp track with Diamond's new music, the score was almost ready to be mixed. But something still wasn't right, Diamond says. The duo found the missing element in music editor Suzana Peric. "She was able to focus in on all our remaining questions, making the process of integrating film and music easy," Diamond says. "She nudged and maneuvered until it clicked with the rhythm of the shots. Her choices were impeccable. It was a great collaboration."

Diamond's finished score goes beyond the realms of the film, according to Bean. "Joel's score is, really, a text of its own, a variation of and commentary on the text of the script," Bean says. "It has its own set of associations, meanings and emotions which are inspired by other elements of the film...and alter our experience of it."

Bean also points to the score's sparingness as one of its strengths. "Not only is there relatively little music, but its specific silences are often very powerful," he says. Bean recalls a scene in which Danny and some neo-Nazis go into a synagogue to plant a bomb.

"Danny finds himself unexpectedly moved by the ark and the torahs," he says. "At the end of the scene, Danny is alone with the desecrated Torah. We are hearing the Kol Nidre, but at the last moment, when Danny picks up the Torah and holds it, the music fades away, and he is left in silence. This silence, which also seems to contain the reverberation of the now-unheard music, seems to me one of the sublime moments of the film."


The Believer was to air on Showtime, but due to the attacks on the World Trade Center it has unfortunately been pulled (at least for now) in light of its sensitive subject matter.


Jason Foster is a journalist and freelance writer living in North Carolina. He can be reached at jgfoster@carolina.rr.com.

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