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CD Reviews: Cinderella Man and Kingdom of Heaven

Cinderella Man ****


Decca B0004561-02

25 tracks - 47:01

Hopefully, Oscars voters will not hold Cinderella Man at fault for opening in the wake of last year's triumph of the overrated Million Dollar Baby. Both are boxing movies, but whereas M$B manipulated its characters and relied on maudlin moral grandstanding, Ron Howard's latest movie is an uplifting, emotional triumph of simple movie-making know-how. Howard already won an Oscar for directing Russell Crowe in a period piece in A Beautiful Mind. The two again team up, this time on a Depression era boxing movie about the rise, fall and rise again of real-life boxer Jim Braddock. Modest box-office and an early summer opening may not bode well for the winter Oscar season, but it will not be for a lack of superlatives.

Curiously, Howard hired Thomas Newman to write the score for Cinderella Man, bypassing his usual collaborator, James Horner. Newman, who reached an artistic high point with Angels in America, was critically lauded for his 2002 work on the Depression-era Road to Perdition, a score to which Cinderella Man bears much resemblance. But Newman's Cinderella Man is much more hopeful and optimistic than Perdition, as is needed for this story. The first track introduces the main theme, a lovely, vintage Newman piano melody. He uses the theme sparingly (his usual approach), so when it does return, as in "Hooverville Funeral," it is that much more powerful and haunting. The scene where I found the theme most effective is where Jim is off to a fight and says his good-byes to his wife and children; the piano melody enters at a quiet moment to magical effect. The theme has its most impact, of course, at the end of the final bout, in an emotionally orchestrated build recalling the release towards the end of the Shawshank Redemption.

Except for the boxing scenes, the bulk of the movie focuses on the life in the Depression in New Jersey, and the music is appropriately somber. Gone are some of Newman's more idiosyncratic excesses, including his pitter patter improvisations and the more exotic instruments that made his score to American Beauty so popular, although there are some contemporary touches to "Pugilism" and the upbeat "Turtle" cues. There are also period songs scattered throughout the CD, including a nice whistling rendition of "Londonderry Air" by co-star Paul Giamatti.

Newman did not hide his disappointment in not winning an Oscar for Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events last year; it was his seventh nomination without a win. While it's early in the season yet, Cinderella Man is a mature and artistically rich score that may prove to be Newman's first Oscar winner.     -- CW

Kingdom of Heaven ***


Sony Classical SK94419

19 tracks - 61:57

Director Ridley Scott admits that he wanted the score to his new film, Kingdom of Heaven, to "mix it up," by which he meant the combining of classical elements with other influences. In his first collaboration with the venerable filmmaker, composer Harry Gregson-Williams attempts what might seem a simple enough direction, but that ultimately proved quite difficult.

The issue is how to incorporate modern action scoring with the sounds of Medieval France, as well as the Middle East. Simply adding the various layers on top of each other just doesn't work: the result is a schizophrenic quality that is hard to comprehend. Unfortunately, much of this new release is an unpalatable stew of the various styles. In the end it's a little like a diluted Lord of the Rings meets a watered-down The Last Temptation of Christ.

"Crusaders" starts with a Medieval chorus singing a cappella, after a while, a modern orchestra joins in with contrasting syncopated rhythms. These two styles simply clash for an unpleasant result. "A New World" introduces Middle Eastern influences, but the end product is still firmly rooted in the West.

As the album progresses, the Middle Eastern palette broadens and attempts to blend with the more European base. "To Jerusalem" lets the Turkish musicians who were brought in for the recording have a chance to shine. Beautifully recorded hand drums boom and pop as the string section doubles the main melody, while a couple of soloists have a turn in the spotlight.

"An Understanding" features traditional Middle Eastern drums with a female vocal, which is striking for its astonishing weakness. Where did they find this woman, at a local hospital? It sounds like she just got off of a ventilator.

The tracks that work best are those that highlight each major musical style on its own. For instance, "Better Man" has very little overlapping, instead smoothly shifting through genres. Medieval vocals lead to the pulsating rhythms of a modern action cue followed by the alternating of Medieval and Middle Eastern melodies. This track proves that it is possible to combine the styles and still have it work on a musical level.

While most of the musical ideas on this CD might make for interesting background listening, the real highlight has to be the recording itself. The engineers at Abbey Road are no slouches when it comes to orchestral recording and this album is more proof of that. It's sumptuously recorded with a smooth, creamy, yet detailed and dynamic sound -- all albums should sound this good.

Harry Gregson-Williams is a solid composer, capable of writing interesting music for orchestra and chorus, but on Kingdom of Heaven, I wonder if he might have ventured out a little farther than he should have.     -- Ian D. Thomas

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