Since the very first years of cinema Romeo & Juliet, William Shakespeare’s timeless story of passionate doomed love, has been a well of inspiration for filmmakers, ranging from George Cukor’s 1936 film starring Norma Shearer, the classic Franco Zeffirelli version from 1968, and Baz Luhrmann’s revisionist interpretation from 1996, as well as the popular musical West Side Story, which replaces Montagues and Capulets with Sharks and Jets, and moves the story from Verona to New York City. Director Carlo Carlei’s new version was written by Oscar-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes and is a comparatively straightforward re-telling of the story, with Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth in the lead roles as the star cross’d lovers, and a supporting cast that includes Damian Lewis, Paul Giamatti, Stellan Skarsgård, Ed Westwick and Kodi Smit-McPhee. The film is visually sumptuous, with opulent production design and costumes, and features an equally sumptuous and opulent score by Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski.
Korzeniowski was a fairly late replacement for the film’s original composer, James Horner, who had written and recorded his entire score several months previously; the exact reasons for Horner’s music being rejected are as yet unclear, but whatever the case may be, Korzeniowski was brought in just weeks before the film was due to be released. In these circumstances, scores often go one of two ways: either the new score is rushed and perfunctory, a testament to the short timescale given to the composer, or the new score is absolutely inspired, with the composer seizing his opportunity with both hands and excelling under pressure. Thankfully, Korzeniowski’s Romeo & Juliet is the latter – a sweeping, soaring, romantic masterpiece that is easily one of 2013’s finest musical achievements.
Korzeniowski already has the brilliant Escape from Tomorrow in the can from earlier this year – itself one of 2013’s best scores – but Romeo & Juliet may just top it in terms of sheer thematic beauty and orchestral excellence. The score is large, lush, and exquisitely gorgeous; it features some of the best performances I have ever heard from the Hollywood Studio Symphony, and gives special emphasis to strings, rhapsodic pianos, and a haunting solo female vocalist that adds an angelic, ethereal quality to the lovers’ tale. It’s almost as though Korzeniowski was asked to write the ultimate romantic score for the ultimate romantic story, to accentuate every emotion to its highest point, and to capture the depth of overwhelming feeling experienced by the two young protagonists, and he succeeded in doing just that.
The opening “Juliet’s Dream” is pretty and delicate, and introduces one of the score’s defining features – strong rhythmic scales which run through almost the entire score and which remind me a little of Michael Nyman or Philip Glass in its precise structure. The second cue, “Forbidden Love”, introduces the staggeringly beautiful love theme, the first of several performances during the score which simply take your breath away. As he did with his previously work on films like W.E., Copernicus Star and the slightly more restrained A Single Man, Korzeniowski has yet again managed to write a central romantic theme of such grace and elegance, passion and emotion; virtually no-one working in film music today is writing music like this, and it’s to the enduring credit of the people who hire him that they allow him to write this type of score in today’s anonymous, emotionless mainstream film music world.
“The Cheek of Night” introduces a flighty, fluttery solo vocal effect performed by Los Angeles Master Chorale and Los Angeles Chamber Singers soprano Tamara Bevard, dancing on a bed of fluid string and piano lines. “First Kiss” offers a powerful but intimate solo piano performance which is quite lovely, and which swells in the throws of romantic ecstasy when the strings enter half way through the cue. Later, the more classically-inclined “Come, Gentle Night” enhances the syncopated piano line with twittering flutes and shimmering harp glissandi to give it a magical touch, while “Wedding Vows” blends a velvety solo cello with more of Bevard’s sublimely angelic vocals.
Of course, as the story demands, there is action music too; “Trooping With Crows” offers a more strident, surging string pattern overlaid with a rhapsodic contrapuntal piano part and an occasional vocal interlude; later, both “Fortune’s Fool” and “From Ancient Grudge” are especially effusive pieces with an increased choral, percussion and brass presence, thundering boldly and dramatically, while the synthesizers that appear during the former cue’s middle section adds a sense of confusion and anguish to the violence’s aftermath. Both cues have a notable hint of Shakespearean Patrick Doyle about them, especially the sword fighting music from the finale of his Hamlet.
The highlights of the score, however, are the seven-minute “A Thousand Times Good Night”, and the 15-minute finale, during which Korzeniowski wrings every last drop of emotion from his orchestra, resulting in some of the most moving and affecting music heard anywhere this year. “A Thousand Times Good Night” begins softly, with the solo piano taking center stage, and gradually builds through the addition of warm strings, feather-light woodwind accents and iridescent percussion into several rapturous re-statements of the love theme.
The finale, which comprises “Tempt Not a Desperate Man”, the two “Crypt” cues and the conclusive “Eternal Love”, is magnificent. “Tempt Not a Desperate Man” is mysterious and insistent, and has an almost Desplat-like feel, especially with the way high-register glockenspiels and light percussion items counterbalance the bolder, darker strokes of the orchestra. “The Crypt, Part 1” begins with a funereal solemnity, and is given a heightened sense of religious loss via the softly cooing chorus, parts of which remind me of the more spiritual parts of Braveheart (a temp track holdover from Horner’s original score, perhaps?), while “The Crypt, Part 2” musically explores the great disaster of poor timing inherent in Shakespeare’s devastating finale. The cello, so rich and mournful, is especially impressive here, and the conclusive performance of the love theme, slowed down and accentuated with timpani rolls, is about as heartfelt and tragic as film music gets. Everything concludes with the truly lovely “Eternal Love”, which again uses the voice/cello combination to superb effect, adding a religioso touch and confirming beyond doubt that there never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
Anyone with a penchant for strongly thematic, purely orchestral, emotionally direct, beautifully composed film music will find much to enjoy here. Abel Korzeniowski is a composer who is not afraid to bring out the deeper sentiments in a film through his music, and it’s so refreshing to hear music from a man who so clearly understands what good film music can achieve, and how much music like this can elevate a film, and – most importantly – works with people who understand this too. Comparisons with the great R&J scores by Nino Rota and Prokofiev are, of course, unfair, but taken on its own terms Korzeniowski’s entry into this pantheon of great music comes unreservedly recommended by me as one of the best scores of 2013.