When do movies about apartheid seem cold and passionless? When you have Richard Attenborough at the helm. Attenborough is an uninspiring director who makes uninspiring films. And, yes, that includes his multi-Oscar-winning GANDHI. After the joke that was A CHORUS LINE, Attenborough returned to dramatic territory with CRY FREEDOM.
The film stars Kevin Kline as journalist Donald Woods and Denzel Washington as South African activist Steve Biko. Attenborough focuses on Woods’ attempt to smuggle his manuscript of Biko’s story out of South Africa after Biko’s death at the hands of the police. Unfortunately, the film radiates “importance,” and wrongly focuses on Wood’s story instead of Biko’s. Washington’s performance is mesmerizing and the relationship between Biko and Woods is sensitively handled, but Attenborough robs the film of any passion.
Attenborough’s best move? Re-hiring George Fenton, who had done such a marvelous job co-writing the score to GANDHI with Ravi Shankar. This time Fenton collaborated with noted South African musician Jonas Gwangwa, and the result is a dramatic score that is far more gripping and moving than the film it accompanies.
Weaving Fenton’s moving orchestral writing with Gwangwa’s chanting chorus and vocal lines, the music gives us a dramatic score as beautiful as the land it portrays. Particularly striking are the opening raid of a South African town and Biko’s funeral with its rousing chorus. My favorite cue weaves Fenton’s pulsating strings, ethnic percussion, and Gwangwa’s joyous chorus as Woods crosses over the Telle Bridge to safety.
Though Attenborough campaigned hard for the film, it netted only three nominations–one for Washington and the score, and another surprising nomination for Fenton’s title song sung over the end credits by the two composers. What emotion there is in the film comes from the score.
This is one of my favorite scores of the ’80s, and my favorite Fenton score, which is saying a lot from such a talented composer. In an exceptionally strong year for scores at the Oscars, which included THE LAST EMPEROR (the winner), THE UNTOUCHABLES, the requisite (and deserved) John Williams double nomination for EMPIRE OF THE SUN and THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK, CRY FREEDOM would have been my choice for the award.