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Review by Brad Green:
I’ll bet there are a plethora of pugilists out there who can whistle up a storm. It must be one of the few upsides to missing a front tooth or two. All the same, no amount of radical dental alignment would account for the tunefulness of this boxing movie soundtrack’s central motif. 

I don’t know who is actually performing the pursed-lipped piping of the title theme, but I do know that composer Paul Grabowsky should be ashamed of himself. Great jazzmen are supposed to reinterpret beautiful, made-to-whistle melodies, not invent them. Grabowsky’s titular motif is sweet and melancholy, pensive and poignant and so straightforwardly pleasing that it belies the dextrous musicianship to come. 

Grabowski has that rare gift of being able to combine a jazz sensibility and vocabulary with orchestral structure and refinement. It is a talent that can be no more grandly exploited than in soundtrack composition. Just think Mancini. But don’t think anyone except Grabowski for the application of such talent here. The musical elements are familiar, and the result is singular. 

The score opens with our whistler exhaling his canorous soliloquy, accompanied only by a spare, empathetic bass. Then he takes a breath – he will welcomely return – to allow Grabowsky’s bright, clean piano to take up and expand the melody. This is now enveloped in bittersweet strings, whilst the discrete bass accents maintain the foundation. 

A descending string modulation guides us to the second cue, which in turn segues to the third and beyond, and by which time the jazz heart of the soundtrack has well and truly kicked in. Crisp drums and a tight weave of congas, baritone sax and guitar underpin the solo trumpet that will star for most of the score. This is not the fiery jazz one might anticipate from a boxing film. The trumpet lead often burns slow and sustained, with the warm, silvery tone and breathing space of Miles Davis in meditative mode. Then it lifts the dynamic with fast and flurrying runs, always fluid and never fierce. 

In between are the more orchestral elements of string ensemble and Grabowski’s delicate piano touches. When a spark of action is required, the congas and peripheral percussion ignite into busy patterns. All Grabowski’s jazz mannerisms are present: rhythmic phrases slightly displaced from bar to bar, and chordal and melodic work that avoids both the obvious and the abstruse. Grabowski has that sublime sense of dissonance that serves to delight rather than disturb. Some of the latter cues are the most adventurous, packing a punch without ever bruising the ears. The cue Hard Knocks, for instance, superimposes strange staccato string harmonies over a funky beat, yet remains seductive, seemingly without effort. 

The joyous freedom of jazz applied to a structured score, and enriched with classical and traditional soundtrack qualities, provides emotional jabs to make the most hardened listener go weak at the knees. There are infinite nuances to be discovered here. I feel I could go many rounds with this soundtrack and still be knocked out by something new. 

Published May 15, 2003

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