24: Redemption (Sean Callery)

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Due to the Writer’s Guild strike of 2007-08, the popular Fox drama 24 was left with a gap in its timeline. Once the strike ended, the producers and star Keifer Sutherland filmed 24: Redemption as a telemovie. Departing from the previous seasons of the show, which had unfolded over a 24-hour period, the film covered just two hours in near-real-time and introduced an authentic African setting (filmed in South Africa). It was popular with audiences and critics, with several Emmy nominations, and as a series 24 continued through 2010 and a 2014 revival.

Composer Sean Callery had been a fixture of all six seasons of 24 before 24: Redemption, and the producers retained his services for the telemovie as well. A veteran sound effects designer on series like Deep Space Nine and composer for La Femme Nikita‘s television incarnation, Callery was ultimately involved with every incarnation of the 24 series from episodes to telemovies to video games.

24: Redemption was tightly budgeted, however, and Callery was not given a budget for a live orchestra. Instead, he was forced to come up with a modern political thriller sound with African overtones using only synthesizers and sounds that could be created in the studio. The only luxury afforded the project was vocalist Lisbeth Scott, a veteran film score vocalist, who lent her haunting vocals to a number of tracks.

For his evocation of Africa, Callery relies primary on percussive sounds, including some uniquely African instruments like the finger piano. This is a smart move, as percussion instruments are often easier to sample and (with the days of cheesy drum machines long since past) often sound more realistic than synthesized orchestra. When combined with the standard post-Bourne Identity techno-thriller electronics, Callery is able to build an impressive soundscape despite his limited budget as in the opening “Prologue – Sangala,” “Across the Plains,” or “Willie.” The music is often on the ambient side, and though there are moments of tonality that again work well despite the constraints, it is often difficult to stomach on its own divorced from the screen images due to that ambient personality.

Callery doesn’t dial back on his action music despite the score’s reliance on synth. In some cues, the composer is able to make smart choices in utilizing his synths and samples to maximize their strengths while minimizing their weaknesses. Parts of the volcanic “Don’t Let Them Take My Kids” are prime example of this, using percussion and synths in an excellent mix and often using the former to cover the inadequacies of the latter. However, there are many parts of the action music where Callery’s reach exceeds his grasp: the brass in particular often seems embarrassingly cheap, especially when set against the very real-sounding percussion and Bourne synths. “Open the Gate” is particularly unfortunate in this regard, as it combines Scott’s authentic vocals with Casio-like brass hits.

Where it appears, Lisbeth Scott’s wordless vocals are often very evocative, whether as an accent to brutality as in “Prologue – Sangala” or in a more mournful mode as in “A New President in a Troubled World.” But just as often, Scott is undercut by the fact that Callery’s orchestral synths are simply not up to the music he wrote for them, with the resulting melange often feeling very cheap (especially apart from the film). If the composer had been able to play up the strengths of Scott’s vocals with his own synth and sampled percussion while minimizing the often embarrassingly poor synth orchestra, 24: Redemption could have been a fascinating study of low-budget scoring. Writing music to suit the synth and tools at hand is something that has enabled composers like Nobuo Uematsu to consistently churn out classic music despite dreadful synths, and one gets the feeling that Callery is headed in the right direction but not quite there yet.

So, separated from its telefilm, 24: Redemption has to be regarded as an interesting failure. The sampled African instruments and percussion are terrific, as is Scott’s voice, but they are often undercut in the same cue by music that is let down by its attempts at a full orchestral sound with synths that are simply not up to the task, and even the best parts often have an ambient feel that simply means they don’t work as well without a picture to support. For those willing to give the music a chance, though, 24: Redemption is often available at a budget price of $3-4 after being remaindered to Family Dollar stores.

Rating: starstar

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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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