Mychael Danna,
Vanity Fair
(Universal Classics, 2004)

One must consider, when commenting on music composed or adapted for film, the difficult and often unenviable role a composer must play. A film score, after all, exists to reinforce what it happening on the screen. At its most effective, it is subtle and so completely apt that it is more or less transparent. On the other hand, the composer for films does have the opportunity, now and again, to take center stage: transitions, moments of great dramatic conflict, particularly battle scenes and, of course, the theme. (How many movie themes have invaded the top 40 airwaves over the years?) Some great names in music have been associated with film over the years -- Prokofiev and Copland come immediately to mind -- which only indicates to me that movie music should be taken seriously.

Mychael Danna has been scoring films since 1987, when he made his debut with Family Viewing by Atom Egoyan, with whom he has worked frequently. His credits also include Ang Lee's The Ice Storm and Ride with the Devil, John Greyson's Lilies, Gillies Mackinnon's Regeneration, Joel Schumacher's 8MM, James Mangold's Girl, Interrupted, Scott Hicks' Hearts in Atlantis, Denzel Washington's Antwone Fisher, Jim Simpson's The Guys and Billy Ray's Shattered Glass. Danna is also recognized as a pioneer in bringing non-Western influences and electronics to film scores.

Which brings us to Mychael Danna's score for Vanity Fair. Right up front, this music is a delight. I haven't seen the movie -- or even read the book -- but the score is captivating.

I normally like to point out highlights when commenting on musical recordings, particularly those that might be called "popular" music. In this case, it would be pointless. At the very outset, Danna establishes his mastery of styles with the haunting "She Walks in Beauty" (performed by Sissel, whose incredibly pure soprano adds an almost otherworldly dimension to the music), followed immediately by the late classical opening of "Exchange." Danna plays the full range of emotional shadings throughout this score, shifting from the grandeur of "Announcement of Battle" to the somber "Waterloo Battlefield" (an intensely visual piece) to a reprise of classical intricacy in "The Move to Mayfair," a recurring motif -- the opening of "Steyne the Pasha" echoes Mozart himself. And then, suddenly, we are in the fabled East with "El Salaam," which sounds almost too much like recordings in my collection that originated in the Levant, or later, with "Gori Re," the final track, a song I might hear in my favorite Indian restaurant. Danna even borrows a page from Richard Wagner's book, incorporating a leitmotiv that makes its appearance so subtly that I still haven't figured out when I first heard it.

I've remarked elsewhere on Danna's facility for creating and sustaining a mood. Vanity Fair goes somewhat beyond that, highlighting his intelligence and versatility as a composer in a film score that, kaleidoscopic as it is, somehow maintains a singular identity.

What's my final reaction? No, I haven't seen the movie -- but suddenly, I very much want to.

by Robert M. Tilendis
24 September 2005

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