Tuesday, November 10, 2020

The Evocative Power of "Jerusalem" by Vangelis


I truly enjoy listening to movie soundtrack CDs from time to time. When a director spends five, fifty or two hundred million to make a great films, it pays dividends to have a soundtrack that is equally memorable and evocative. Music has ways of connecting with us in inexplicably deep ways.

Favorites, over the years, include soundtracks for Barry Lyndon,  The Truman Show, O Brother Where Art Thou. The Lion King, A Clockwork Orange and so many others. A lot of movies incorporated tracks that were already popular, and others turned to reliable composers like David Grusin, Ennio Morricone and Randy Newman to embellish the key plot points. 

Morricone is astonishing for the longevity of his career, but he contributed to making many movies memorable. Yes, Clint Eastwood was the star, but Morricone's embellishment (soundtrack/theme) for The Good, Bad and the Ugly made it eternally memorable. (His soundtrack for The Mission is another I've listened to many times over the years.) 

* * * 

Here's another great Hollywood score, the soundtrack for Academy Award winning Chariots of Fire. Released in 1981, the film is a re-telling of the 1924 Olympics in which runners Eric Liddell, a devout Scot Christian and Harold Abrahams, an English Jew, were competing for gold. Liddell, who afterwards became a missionary to China, was running for the glory of God. Abrahamson ran to overcome prejudice. Both were motivated by high ideals. 

A fair summary of the plot can be found here.

The soundtrack by Vangelis is more than simply catchy. It lifts the spirit, elevates the soul and is at times even haunting. The opening scene, in which the Chariots of Fire theme is introduced while British Olympians run along a beach, was parodied for years afterwards and often used in slow-mo scenes in television. The beauty of the full score reaches deep places of our heart where only music can penetrate.

Great artists see themselves as part of a greater stream of history, swept as it were on the wings of the greats who preceded them. The selection of the song Jerusalem at the culmination of the film pays tribute to classical chorale themes and the transcendent Jerusalem by William Blake:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy lamb of god
On England's pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark satanic mills?
Bring me my bow of burning gold
Bring me my arrows of desire
Bring me my spear, o clouds unfold
Bring me my chariots of fire
I will not cease from mental fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land

Part of what set the Chariots of Fire soundtrack apart from many other films considered "period pieces" set in the past is that this soundtrack utilized modern synthesizer-based music combined with raw piano and orchestral elements. 

It was Kubrick's inimitable A Clockwork Orange ten or so years earlier that cracked open the possibilities of electronic and digital soundtracks. When I was a freshman at Ohio U in Athens I had a friend from Washington Dorm who was set to become the first grad in their music program with a Moog synthesizer as his instrument. From time to time I've wondered where his path took him.

Here is the music for the Jerusalem track that I find so moving. Perhaps you'll agree that it is truly sublime.


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