1. The Olive Garden (1:56)
2. Bearing the Cross (3:42)
3. Jesus Arrested (4:37)
4. Peter Denies Jesus (1:58)
5. The Stoning (2:25)
6. Song of Complaint (1:33)
7. Simon is Dismissed (2:25)
8. Flagellation/Dark Choir/Disciples (5:54)
9. Mary Goes to Jesus (2:47)
10. Peaceful But Primitive/Procession (3:36)
11. Crucifixion (7:38)
12. Raising the Cross (2:13)
13. It is Done (3:37)
14. Jesus is Carried Down (4:39)
15. Resurrection (5:04)
It's quite difficult approaching something that has received so much publicity for one reason or another and The Passion of the Christ has certainly attracted plenty, good and bad. For financial reasons (apparently), it has yet to arrive at Guernsey's microplex - a surprise given the veneer of piety that pervades so much of island life - but even people who have no intention of seeing it have heard the arguments surrounding Mel Gibson's retelling of the final days in the life of Jesus. Although low down in the list of pre-release controversy, the choice of John Debney as composer certainly raised a few eyebrows, but it became clear that Debney is an extremely devout Christian (surprising given that he scored Bruce Almighty and End of Days and I'm sure plenty of other films that seemingly should upset the religiously minded) and so he poured his musical and creative soul into a film which clearly meant much more to him than the average assignment. When Steven Spielberg approached John Williams regarding the score to his masterpiece Schindler's List, the story goes that Williams commented that Spielberg would require a better composer than him to score the film, to which Spielberg replied 'Yes, but they're all dead.' I would imagine that a similar feeling would run through the mind of a composer charged with writing a score for such an important film. Unlike the glossy Biblical epics of the 50's and 60's, the level of realism and intensity is much higher in Gibson's film, never flinching from showing every brutal moment of Jesus' torture at the hands of the Romans. Given this realistic style, Debney's score was never going to be a flashy and piously heroic, but takes a much darker approach that combines swathes of ethnic and period instrumentation with various choral and vocal parts, all topped with the might of a symphony orchestra. The drive of some of the percussion passages comes as a surprise. Jesus arrested moves along at quite a pace, but the slow chorus provides the dramatic gravitas.
Several reviewers have commented how some of the score appears as though from a horror film and in many ways, this conclusion doesn't seem unreasonable. That is not to say there are orchestral bangs and stingers, but more the slow burn, suspenseful horror, particularly in the opening tracks. Naturally the dramatic and musical high point is the crucifixion itself where Debney is given space to sustain his string adagios of anguished beauty, topped with a potent chorus that is on the verge of wailing, but fortunately never does anything quite so melodramatic. Surprisingly, some of the score's least agonising passages occur here with a quietly upbeat central section of real beauty, rightly placing the good of the sacrifice alongside its immediate tragedy. Although there is an inherent danger in doing an extreme change in emotional direction at the last minute, but the Resurrection is surprisingly unheraldic. Here the mixture of percussion and chorus evokes Adiemus or, dare I say it, Gladiator.
While I appreciate that Gibson's intent was to show the brutality of Jesus' treatment and the suffering he went through, I can't help but feel that the music seems a little relentless downbeat. After all the pain, the resultant good coming from the sacrifice isn't really palpable in the music - the quiet close of Resurrection is quite lovely, but isn't quite optimistic for the emotional release one might hope for. Still, Debney's deep commitment to his faith through the music shows throughout, the results are certainly more deeply felt than anything he has produced before and probably more than anything he will write from now on. However, I still can't say I connected or felt The Passion any more strongly than with Jeff Danna's Gospel of John which has received a tiny fraction of the publicity, but is an equally impressive work. Still, The Passion of Christ is undoubtedly a score like no other of Debney's and shows a composer of far greater skill than most of his other scores combined.
Debney is probably one of the most typecasted composers working in Hollywood today, scoring mostly lightweight comedies like Bruce Almighty and Cats & Dogs. He's also very prolific, often scoring an unusually large number of movies every year. And he's talented and very versatile, with excellent and even great scores like Cutthroat Island and Hocus Pocus on his résumé. But he has yet to become an A-list composer. Even if it's very possible he just became one, thanks to the score for Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. The movie is a big success and the soundtrack album has sold in large numbers, placing it high up on Billboard's charts. And the score is exactly the kind of score that gets talked about a lot and noticed in the industry. It's large, bombastic, emotional and hard to miss while watching the film.
Compared to Jeff Danna's The Gospel of John, another recent score for a film about Jesus, John Debney's score is a lot darker and much more dramatic. Danna's music is more romantic and beautiful, while Debney's piece features a large number of suspense cues, such as the uneasy "Simon is Dismissed", with its pounding drums and dissonant ethnic instruments. The score isn't especially thematic, mostly relying on texture instead. There is, however, one theme that overshadows the otherwise rather underscore dominated music - the one for Mary, Jesus' mother. According to Debney himself, he suspects that Mary herself had something to do with the birth of the theme. Now, this is a very nice theme, but I don't think Mary should give up her day job and become a full time composer. It lacks the, well, divine power I expected her to deliver. There's also an OK main theme, even if it isn't quite as memorable as the one for Mary and a couple of other minor themes.
Debney's score relies a lot on voices. To support the orchestra and give more power and weight to the music the composer uses a full choir and soloists, all singing in Arameic. Often coupled with percussion - both electronic and real - this creates a sound that is perfect for this kind of movie, while also giving it a more modern and updated twist. Debney also uses ethnic instruments throughout the score, which at times creates a sound similar to Hans Zimmer's Gladiator score. Especially when the duduc, the Armenian flute and apparently very popular among Hollywood composers at the moment, is used.
The Passion of the Christ includes, without doubt, some of the best music Debney has ever written, even if it at times is a little too dominated by underscore. Debney, a devoted Christian, reportedly took this project very seriously and it certainly paid off.
The film itself is of course a very hot topic and has caused a lot of debate among religious people. As an atheist I couldn't actually care less. It's just a movie, for crying out loud. But Debney's score is wonderful, even if I find it hard to take it completely seriously when thinking about Debney's little story about how he almost battled Satan - in a parking lot - while writing it.