An obscure but well-received 2004 feature starring Annette Benning, Being Julia played out the tale of an aging actress during the golden age of cinema and nabbed its leading actress an Oscar nomination. Hungarian director István Szabó dabbled extensively in both European and Hollywood cinema before and after the film, and with the semi-retirement of Maurice Jarre, who gave the director’s previous English-language feature Sunshine one of his final (and finest) scores, Mychael Danna was hired for the project. One of a pair of stately period pieces (Vanity Fair being the other) the Canadian scored back-to back after the disappointment of his 2003 Hulk rejection, the talky picture had relatively little room for a traditional dramatic score.
Varèse Sarabande can’t be accused of holding anything back; Danna’s entire score is on the album down to the last track. It’s an incredibly short score, a mere 22:28 when stripped of the songs padding out the album, and with 22 score tracks that means that the average song is scarcely over a minute long. In fact, none of the score tops three minutes, 14 of the score tracks are less than a minute long (with three clocking in at under 30 seconds), and the shortest lasts a mere 13 seconds! It’s no wonder the album was padded a bit, as even with 13:34 of period songs it barely tops 36 minutes, nearly the exact length of Varèse’s “30-minute specials” from the 80s and 90s before the AFM musical re-use rule changes.
Ordinarily–at least when the artist is not Thomas Newman–the presence of so many short tracks means that the music will inevitably be highly fragmented, content to Mickey Mouse along with the action and little else. To his credit, Danna sidesteps this through the clever use of a wonderful theme. First heard in the opening track, “Curtain Up,” the theme is a delight, with sweeping neo-classical movements and a rapturous full-orchestral sound that is malleable enough to be adapted into forms both sprightly and dark. Hardly a track on the album goes by where Danna is not referencing his theme, whether in quirky pizzicato mode (“Birthday Presents”) or arranged for heartbreak and tragedy (“It Will Only End in Tears”). The score has only the one theme, and it is repeated early and often, but such is not always a problem–Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings certainly has 22 minutes of various themes kicking around all told.
The album is rather poorly produced, though: a recurring problem in period movies that use older songs to pad out the score CD (to bring up Thomas Newman again, his The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile are key examples of this). The songs break up the score, being completely different in tone and style, and they also suffer from muffled and archival sound which is inconsistent with not only the score but also each other. Nothing jars one out of experiencing Danna’s pristine new recording of variations on his theme than a song which was recorded on 1930s technology and sounds like is has spent the intervening 80 years in a hot barn surrounded by steel wool. A much more logical decision would have been to program Danna’s score as a whole, with the songs clustered at the beginning or end of the album.
While Being Julia remains a relatively obscure film on its own merits and in Mychael Danna’s filmography, the composer was able to transcend many limitations that hamstring short-tracked albums though the consistent application of his theme. While the music’s bittiness does remain a concern, and it’s too bad that the score was broken up by songs, the CD is well worth seeking out at the right price. One of the titles in Varèse Sarabande’s infamous “Family Dollar Housecleaning,” the album can often be found new for as little as $3 or $4 at the discount chain.