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Defiance by James Newton Howard


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Defiance (Soundtrack) by James Newton Howard

Composed by James Newton Howard
Sony Classics (2008)

Rating: 7/10

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“Both the tragic cry of murderous injustices that befell these people and likewise the hope, however faint at times, that remained within them is represented by the skillful playing of violinist Joshua Bell. The mournful tone of the violin has become the most natural musical voice for the persecuted Jews of World War II and JAMES NEWTON HOWARD makes extensive use of Bell's talents here.”

Defining Defiance
Review by Christopher Coleman

Nazi Germany and the Jewish plight during World War II have been, and will likely be for many years to come, the source for powerful movie-making. We need look no further than the end of 2008: THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYGAMAS, VALKYRIE, and DEFIANCE, where three such films were released in very close proximity to one another. There are, obviously and sadly countless stories of persecution and death, but also of heroism and life to be found throughout Europe during World War II.  While many of them will go untold, authors, producers, and directors are telling more and more of those that have survived. One of the most conceptually interesting is director Ed Zwick's DEFIANCE. Taken from the book by Nechama Tec, "Defiance: The Bielski Partisans," Zwick brings to the big screen the tale of the three Bielski brothers who lead a growing group of Jewish refugees in hiding from the extermination of the Nazi army. The film is, unsurprisingly, not without its controversies concerning historical accuracies. Those debates aside, Zwick brings his considerable talents, along with those of his musical collaborator from 2006's BLOOD DIAMOND, composer JAMES NEWTON HOWARD, to bear on the project.

Without a doubt, the score for DEFIANCE is built on and around the violin - an instrument that has become representative of the Jewish culture -  particularly of that era. Both the tragic cry of murderous injustices that befell these people and likewise the hope, however faint at times, that remained within them is represented by the skillful playing of violinist Joshua Bell. The mournful tone of the violin has become the most natural musical voice for the persecuted Jews of World War II and JAMES NEWTON HOWARD makes extensive use of Bell's talents. Without question, the most poignant moments of the film are represented by one violin-lead theme or another. Regarding the importance of the violin, director Ed Zwick said, "To hear the violin in this context, is to hear the sound of what was became the center of something and what we were going to embroider around." 

At the conclusion of "Survivors" (2) we get our first glimpse of what I have labeled the "survivor motif." It is built upon a sorrowful violin melody undergirded by NEWTON HOWARD's easily identifiable overlapping strings. This string pattern resurfaces in "Nothing is Impossible" (14) evoking vague memories of NEWTON HOWARD's work for SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS and THE VILLAGE. While some critics are crediting Daniel Craig, who plays the lead role of Tuvia Bielski, with shouldering the film with his acting, it is Liev Schribner, as his brother, Zus, that steals the show. Fittingly, Zus is given a sumptuous violin theme introduced on the soundtrack in "Your Wife" (4), which happens to be the most emotionally powerful scene of the film. As this rag-tag band of refugees gather and move in the forest, JAMES NEWTON HOWARD gives them another beautiful, yet painfully sad theme to accompany them. Again, lead by Joshua Bell's violin. First heard in "Exodus" (7) and later in "Escaping the Ghetto" (11) and "Nothing is Impossible" (12), it is likely the most memorable melody of the film. Lastly, there is, what I call, the "hope theme." It's sparsely, but most effectively used as it brings some balance to what would have otherwise been a fairly depressing score. In "Camp Montage," as the Bielski community starts to take shape and actually become self-sufficient, we hear a piece build from soft woodwinds into a cautiously bright orchestral crescendo. Such lightness is not felt or heard again until the concluding moments of the film and the final track of this release, "The Bielski Brothers." (15).

DEFIANCE is a rare story that depicts the more militant courage of the Jewish people under the persecution of the Nazis and, while the heart and soul of the score is consolidated into Joshua Bell's violin, there remains al little more to this JAMES NEWTON HOWARD score.  Even in the "Main Titles" (1), with Bell's sharp, violin punctuating the track, there is a great sense of foreboding conveyed through his employment of timpani and  strings. Arguably, the true main theme of the film and possibly for the Bielski brothers themselves is introduced here as three, low-register, brass and string notes. This more ominous element shows up in some of the more intense scenes and tracks "Make Them Count" (3) in reference to the four bullets Tuvia has to protect or to exact revenge, "Police Station" (12) and again in "Nothing is Impossible" (14). Other moments providing some much needed contrast to the violin performance are those of dark ambience and dissonance found in "Make Them Count" (3) or "The Bielski Triad" (5).

There is hardly an Ed Zwick directed film that disappoints; however, very much to my surprise, DEFIANCE does somewhat. Even the solid acting, beautiful photography, and virtuoso Joshua Bell playing the thoughtful notes of JAMES NEWTON HOWARD, aren't quite enough to lift DEFIANCE into the same category as say "GLORY," "LEGENDS OF THE FALL," or "THE LAST SAMURAI."  No doubt, this was a special film for Zwick, Bell and Howard; each having Jewish routes.  The story of the Bielski Brothers is one that deserved to be transformed into film and to have their respective talents as means for the telling.   As we have grown to expect of any and all projects that NEWTON HOWARD is attached to, DEFIANCE is solid effort it most every way.  The score just doesn't quite reach the ethereal or inspirational levels of other violin-centric scores like SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS or even THE VILLAGE, but there's no defying it's depth of emotion.

Rating: 7/10


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Track Title Track Time  Rating
1 Defiance Main Titles 2:26  ****
2 Survivors 2:10  ***
3 Make Them Count 2:39  ***
4 Your Wife 3:06  ****
5 The Bielski Otriad 5:17  ****
6 Bella and Zus 2:16  ****
7 Exodus 4:29  ****
8 Camp Montage 2:22  ****
9 The Wedding 1:36  ****
10 Winter 2:01  ***
11 Escaping the Ghetto 1:34  ****
12 Police Station 4:32  ****
13 Tuvia Kisses Lilka 3:16  ***
14 Nothing Is Impossible 7:33  ****
15 The Bielski Brothers/ Ikh Bin A Mame 2:52  ****
  Total Running Time (approx) 48 minutes  




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