Film is the ideal medium to showcase the visual arts. The lives and work of Frida Kallo (FRIDA), Van Gogh (LUST FOR LIFE) and Jackson Pollock (POLLOCK) have all had varying success in film. While not every painter’s life is necessarily worth exploring, there is something indefinable and inspirational about the visual creation of a work of art that makes their stories compelling. THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY (1965) tackles one of the giants—Michelangelo.
Based on Irving Stone’s bestseller, the film paints the tensions, trials, and tribulations between Michelangelo (Charlton Heston) and Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison) over the creation of the fresco for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The film is not perfect but Heston and Harrison manage to convey the tug-of-war between art and religion with genuine feeling and fervor. Inspired by Michelangelo’s masterpiece, Alex North’s score matches the grandeur of the work stroke for stroke.
North wrote a completely modal score using the Dorian and Lydian modes, two authentic modes adopted for church use in the 5th century. The modes provide a religious tone, with organ chords, harpsichord embellishments, and pealing bells supplying a sense of time, place, and atmosphere. North also employed unusual instruments, such as alto flute, E-flat contrabass clarinet, contrabassoon, and Heckelphone (bass oboe), particularly in the scenes conveying Michelangelo’s doubts about the project and agony while painting the ceiling.
Most of the music is in strict 4/4 time, regal and majestic. North researched the music of Renaissance composer Giovanni Gabrieli, and North’s use of antiphonal brass perfectly conveys warring factions, whether it be the Church and its enemies or Michelangelo and the Pope (who was known as “The Warrior Pope”). Though the score suggests the Renaissance period, it is always firmly rooted in North’s distinctive, 20th-century sensibilities.
In addition to North’s score, period cues were supplied by Alexander Courage and the choral work was done by Franco Poltenza. After the completion of the film, a twelve-minute documentary was added as a prologue to give audiences a background of Michelangelo’s life and work, primarily as a sculptor. For this project, North generously brought aboard his friend, Jerry Goldsmith, to compose the score.
The Agony and the Ecstasy is ultimately an intimate film about an epic work. Heston and Harrison are excellent, and the process of creating a masterpiece is fascinating. Alex North’s score gives heart and humanity to divine inspiration.