Freedom Song (James Horner)

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A made-for-TV movie depicting the civil rights movement in Mississippi during the 1960’s, Freedom Song managed to attract top talent, including actor Danny Glover, singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock, and composer James Horner. The film was a success, earning Emmy nominations for Glover and “Song of Freedom” by Carole King, though it was rather quickly forgotten afterwards and has aired rarely in syndication.

Director Phil Alden Robinson had co-written Sneakers; perhaps it was this connection, or the generally high-profile nature of Freedom Song (for a television project, anyhow), that brought James Horner aboard. From the beginning, it was clear that much of the film’s soundtrack would involve the singing of spirituals, and Sweet Honey in the Rock provided the vocals for ten such songs on the album. Their performance of classic and era-specific tunes is strong, though the songs do lose much of their power when removed from the context of the movie.

But what of James Horner and the movie’s score? About eighteen minutes of music from Horner made it onto the album, although about six minutes of this material exists underneath narration and sound effects. Horner employs Sweet Honey in the Rock in the score itself, using their wordless vocals as the primary instruments while relying only on himself and an assistant to provide the instrumental backing. As a result, the score is extraordinarily low-key, at times barely even audible, and exists primarily as an extension of the vocal and blues style found in the songs.

Horner’s approach is therefore loyal to the film’s time period and songs, but not very listenable outside of this context, having little in the way of thematic material. In fact, the score is so anonymous that the dialogue and sound effects that obscure a third of it make little difference–the music is essentially the same as that in the score-only tracks. It is as if, by direction or design, Horner made the classic film scoring mistake of confusing blandness for respectfulness, a problem affecting many films that are weighty or issue-heavy.

As a result, Freedom Song is all but useless as a James Horner album. The album’s sole strengths are in its songs, and all but one of the album’s songs are traditional spirituals, and therefore available elsewhere. While the film was no doubt a fine and worthy endeavor, the album it spawned is of little use to anyone but Sweet Honey in the Rock fans and diehard James Horner completists. In fact, one has to wonder why, other than name recognition, the producers brought Horner on board at all; the film’s minimal score requirements could easily have been filled by a cheaper nobody. Avoid the album unless you specifically enjoyed the TNT movie or song performances by Sweet Honey in the Rock, and don’t mind that James Horner’s score is underachieving, bland, and partially buried under sound effects and narration.

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