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Review by Brad Green:
I’m writing this review during the first Australian visit of President George W. Bush. In a few days he is due to address parliament, and much speculation has surrounded the reception he might receive from some members of the house. Those who aren’t fans have threatened all manner of behavior. Remaining seated and not clapping, or even turning their backs. I haven’t heard anyone suggest actually mooning the Pres, although that might give him an authentic feel for the decorum with which our parliamentary sittings are typically conducted. Protocol aside, the most compelling argument for a dash of courtesy is that cheers or jeers should surely be elicited by the quality of the speech. Admittedly, if the recent appointment of William “Jerry” Boykin to a key position in the War On Terror, and renowned for such pronouncements as “We in the army of Gods… have been raised for such a time as this”, is a clue to the up-to-the minute accent of the administration, something more akin to the rallying cry of a God-fearing Civil War general is perhaps more likely than the poignant elegance of, say, Abe Lincoln some seven score years ago.

The soundtrack under review here is for a belated sequel to director Ron Maxwell’s 1993 film, simply titled, Gettysburg. A four-hour portrayal of that decisive battle, which was followed of course by The Great Emancipator’s immortal dedication at a cemetery for the fallen a few months later, the production was highly acclaimed for its historical accuracy and realism. Now Maxwell has directed another lengthy and intricate Civil War piece, recreating the first two years of the conflict from 1861 until the eve of Gettysburg in 1863. Included with the soundtrack is a bonus DVD with music clips, the official movie trailer, and additional scenes that didn’t make it to the final film. These are again the images of a stylish and sweeping epic with attention to detail as its priority. 

The soundtrack comprises a stunning orchestral score by John Frizzell and Randy Edelman (who composed the music for Gettysburg), top and tailed by songs from Mary Fahl and Bob Dylan. The album opener by Fahl is a pleasant ballad with an Irish lilt and Dylan’s is trademark Dylan, at his most folk-rooted in style but at the lower end of the ladder in quality. He is singing better than ever, his rough-hewn, semi-spoken, characteristic drawl honed with new confidence and technique, but unfortunately, if this eight-minute string of cliches is any guide, the once bayonet sharpness of his pen has been blunted by the years. Both DVD song clips are disappointments, following the trite formula of the performer striding through a montage of film footage like an invisible god taking a close-hand perve at the wretched games of mere mortals playing at generals and soldiers. They are of course deeply affected by all the mayhem and misery, and are thus inspired to gaze broodingly into the camera and lip-sync. Dylan does look dapper buttoned up to the neck in period costume and Fahl presents even more appealingly with the camera resting admiringly on her bare neck and decolletage.

If musically the songs are only adequate, they do fit the setting perfectly and in so doing provide contextual complement to an outstanding score written largely in the universal language of war and melancholy rather than any specifically American or historical vocabulary. Elegiac strings, dark choral harmonies and military snares are cut to the common template, with the music’s strength and personality coming from its accessible themes, tasteful dynamics and finely balanced emotion. The difficult art of embodying the blood and agony, misfortunes and triumphs, degradation and nobility of such historic conflict without romanticising it is navigated with the smoothness of Lincoln-esq oratory. A main theme and supporting heroic motif are moving and memorable, and the instrumentation remains fresh and nuanced right to the end. Solo and ensemble brass is deployed particularly effectively as a pensive counterpart to the stings rather than for the overt fanfares one might expect. 

The bulk of the music is Frizzell’s, but the piano cues chipped in by Edelman are vital for dramatic balance, and often in duet with a solo violin, deeply haunting. Violinist Mark O’Connor also struts his stuff on a few folksy fiddling tunes, which along with some lovely Celtic pipe work by Paddy Maloney of The Chieftains are the moments when the score does indeed nod to the landscape. The pipes in collaboration with Fahl’s song also paying dues to the significant involvement of Irish regiments in the war. 

By the time you’re reading this review, you’ll have the advantage over me with regards to how Dubya’s rhetoric went down. On the other hand, what I can report is that when the last notes of this score played out I gave it a heartfelt, one-man standing ovation. 

Published October 23, 2003

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TITLE: Gods And Generals
ID: SK 87891
Sony Classical
SCORE: John Frizzell; Randy Edelman
ARTISTS: Bob Dylan; Mary Fahl

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