A masterpiece is rare.
Witness is a masterpiece. It’s a fractal: every part of it replicating the whole, endless repetition – microscopic, telescopic – no matter how close or how far you get – you are still confronted with the same power and emotional truth. It exists in honesty on every level: the crime thriller level, the romance level, the city vs. country level, the rivalry between men level, the atmospheric level (wheat waving, dusk, men hanging over the barn being built) … and also the small moment-to-moment level. Example: John Book picking up Samuel so that he can see the lineup in the police station – and Book saying, “Big guy!” commenting on his weight. Now: John Book is a big strong HUNK. Samuel is 7 years old. There is no way that picking him up taxes John Book in any way. But it is his way of making Samuel first of all feel comfortable, lightening the mood, but also, subtextually, letting him know: “You are a big enough boy to handle this situation. You’re going to be okay.” Harrison Ford plays all of that in that one, “Ooph, you’re a big guy!” moment, but the film is full of moments like that! It exists in the language (“He is going back to his world where he belongs. He knows it …. and you know it, too.”) and it exists in the silences (the phenomenal last sequence on the porch … which had been originally written to be full of words and declarations, Book stating, ‘I will never love a woman like I’ve loved you …” and Rachel Lapp moaning, “I love you more than any woman has loved any man …” etc. ad nauseum exeunt. They filmed it a couple of times, and then realized: Nope. You know what? Let’s not say a damn word. And so they don’t.
You could write a novel about what goes on between those two characters in that silent sequence.)
The film is full of indelible moments. The Amish men appearing at the top of the field when Samuel rings the bell for help. The car in the dark barn, lantern gleaming from within. The men at work raising the barn (and the music underneath that scene – go, Maurice Jarre – my post about Jarre here). Rachel sponging herself off. That scene could have been exploitive or gratuitous or soft-core Red Shoe Diaries erotica (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). But the way they play it is freakin’ ADULT. Her almost challenging gaze. His shame-faced looking away, but then he has to look back. You can feel their hearts beating, you can feel the desire heating up the room. Her nudity is the LEAST erotic thing about that scene.
Let’s look at how delicately things are set up in this film, so much so that you don’t notice them. John Book has recovered (somewhat) from his wound and Samuel Lapp takes him on a tour of the farm. He shows him the well. (“It goes … it makes … it goes …” so cute) He shows him the silo and tells him how it works. He shows him the trap door. All of this will become crucial in the final scenes, as John Book sneaks around, trying to evade the murderers. But what becomes clear, beautifully, in subsequent viewings – is that it is SAMUEL who showed Book the way. It is SAMUEL who, innocently, gave John Book the tools for survival in those crucial end moments. And so the title of the film takes on even more meaning, more depth. WITNESS. “What’s up there?” asks John Book. “Corn,” answers Samuel. Notice the grace and simplicity of how that information is imparted. You might not even notice it. A lesser film would have just had John Book figuring out how the silo worked while he was under the gun (which is how so many thrillers operate – they ARE their plots. That’s it.) … but in Witness we are introduced, via Samuel, to “the way things work”. He’s excited to show John Book around and to show him the well and also to show him how much he knows.
It isn’t until later that we realize what Samuel Lapp has done, in that innocent tour.
In all of the great scenes of the film, and all of the piercingly wonderful moments, it is the scene captured in the screenshot below that is my favorite. The scene is the linchpin of the Ebert-Siskel review (which you can see here (it makes me really miss Siskel).
The scene is a masterpiece.
I feel confident in saying so because I know it when I see it.
Only a movie star can play a scene like that. And when I say “movie star” I mean people like John Wayne. Humphrey Bogart. John Garfield. Guys who could tell the whole story with no lines, guys who spent the first couple of days of filming cutting their parts down so they would have less and less to say. They knew that it was in action – and in the FACE … that the story would be told. And what Harrison Ford does in that particular scene with no language is a tour de force. Yes, he is aided by Maurice Jarre’s effective score, and by how it is filmed (to quote Siskel: “Hitchcock couldn’t have done it better”) – but when you get right down to it – it is the actor in the line of fire, it is the actor who has the job of making us believe … and he can either get it up (to mix a metaphor) or he can’t. Harrison Ford does.
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Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Witness is a thriller set in Pennsylvania’s Amish community. The film stars Harrison Ford as John Book, an honest cop, who is forced to travel to rural Pennsylvania to protect a young Amish boy named Samuel, played by Lukas Haas, who unintentionally witnesses a murder while visiting the big city with his mother Rachel, played by Kelly McGillis. To keep his witness safe, Book tries to maintain a low profile within the community, which shuns modern conveniences and technology, but unexpectedly begins to develop romantic feelings for Rachel, causing friction among the elders, who view Book as an interloper and outsider. Worse still, the murder suspects have discovered the whereabouts of the one eyewitness to their crime, and are coming after the young boy. The film was directed by Peter Weir, and was one of the major cinematic successes of 1985, receiving critical acclaim and eight Oscar nominations, including nods for Best Picture, Best Actor for Ford, and Best Score for the film’s composer, Maurice Jarre.
Witness marked the second of four collaborations between Weir and Jarre, the others being The Year of Living Dangerously in 1982, The Mosquito Coast in 1986, and Dead Poets Society in 1989, and found Jarre deep in his divisive ‘synth phase’. It’s not difficult to understand why Jarre embraced electronica so wholeheartedly in the 1980s; composers like Vangelis, Harold Faltermeyer, Giorgio Moroder, Brad Fiedel and, to a lesser extent, Wendy Carlos, Jack Nitzsche and John Carpenter, had all enjoyed enormous success with their synth writing on a number of significant and popular films, while his son Jean-Michel was becoming equally successful in his own right as a pop and rock artist. Not only that, the popular music charts were full of electro-pop and synth-pop bands taking advantage of the growth of technology and the increasing sophistication of the samples that were available at the time. As such, it’s understandable that film composers would want to tap into that then-progressive zeitgeist.
The difference, of course, is that Faltermeyer and Moroder and Fiedel were electronic specialists; that was what they did, how they worked, how they saw music. Jarre, on the other hand, was an old-school orchestral symphonic composer with scores like Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago under his belt. To me, and with just a couple of notable exceptions, the majority of Jarre’s electronic music always sounded like the work of a composer trying to capitalize on the popularity of a fad, shoehorning his compositions into a sonic world that did not suit the way he wrote. Too often the music came across like orchestral music badly rendered on an unsuitable keyboard, thinly orchestrated, tinny, and weak. Such was the case with Witness.
To perform his musical ideas on Witness, Jarre employed a group of 10 synthesists – Michael Boddicker, Randy Kerber, Stewart Levin, Michel Mention, Chris Page, Pete Robinson, Clark Spangler, Nyle Steiner and Ian Underwood – and organized them like a band, with each person performing a different keyboard/sampler, while Jarre conducted them as if for a chamber ensemble. As such, the score does have a little more depth in its sound palette than one might expect: the fact that all the performers were in the room at the same time is a positive as it gives the recording an immediacy, negating the sterility that can sometimes come across in synth scores. However, in hearing the finished score, it begs the question why Jarre didn’t just use live instruments? One keyboard is clearly programmed to sound like a flute, another programmed to sound like chimes and high end metallic percussion, yet another programmed to give an as-close-as-possible approximation of brass, another programmed to mimic a piano. This is what I mean when I say the music sounds thinly orchestrated, tinny, and weak: if you want a flute, use a flute, not a synth pretending to be a flute. I suppose one could hypothesize that, in using a solely electronic palette to score a film set in the Amish community, Jarre may have been making a point about the encroachment of the modern world into older, simpler communities that eschew technology, but this is most likely a stretch.
Despite all that, the score for Witness still contains a fair amount of melodic writing. The famous main theme first appears in the opening cue, “Witness (Main Title)”. Later, “Delirious John” presents a deconstructed version of the main theme with a dream-like, slightly off-kilter aspect, before a final performance in the conclusive “The Amish Are Coming”. A secondary theme, a depiction of the simple and uncomplicated Amish way of life, appears on elegant synth flutes offset by watery, glittery textures in the second half of the opening cue, “Journey to Baltimore,” and again later in the aforementioned “The Amish Are Coming”. The score’s love theme, “Rachel and Book,” is pleasant but rather insubstantial.
However, several of the score’s middle album cues tend to get bogged down in generally uninteresting rumbling and gloomy textures. Tracks like “Book’s Disappearance,” “Futility of an Inside Job” and “Book’s Sorrow” are for the most part little more than downbeat ambiences: lots of sustained chords, one-note percussion hits, and morose, introspective melodies, again featuring the elusive woodwind sound and those watery vibes. Elsewhere, “The Murder” and “The Beginning of the End” are action tracks, but have a disappointing tendency to sound messy and chaotic, with layer upon layer of jumbled textures and peculiar stabbing rhythms competing for prominence. Although the cues do create an appropriate enough sense of confusion, they lack focus and cohesion, and if I didn’t know better I would think they were just created by having each of the ten keyboardists pound on their instruments at random.
The score’s most famous piece, “Building the Barn,” is a rousing and celebratory track underscoring a key scene in the film, where Book is invited to take part in a traditional Amish barn-raising, as a sign of the community’s growing respect for him. The piece takes the main theme and runs it through several different variations, culminating in a superb, stirring finale. Interestingly, Jarre re-recorded this piece with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for a compilation album called ‘Jarre by Jarre’ released in 1987, and subsequently included it on Milan’s double-CD of The Year of Living Dangerously/Dead Poets Society released in 1996. In this re-recording, the cue really comes alive, and you can hear a tantalizing glimpse of what the score could have been: lively, energetic strings with a romantic, idyllic edge; stirring brasses which speak of strength and honor; lyrical, warm woodwinds; a touch of Mozart in the chord progressions.
Listening to the score for Witness, especially in comparison to the RPO re-recording, the only phrase which springs to mind is “missed opportunity”. Despite the prevalence and popularity of all-synth scores at the time, I still can’t believe Jarre made the decision to score the film for keyboards, considering the superb orchestral ensembles he had at his disposal. Anyone curious to experience the sort of music Jarre was producing at this point in his career might find Witness to be an interesting novelty, especially as it was Oscar-nominated, but from my point of view there are a multitude of other, better Jarre scores out there to experience first, ones which actually take advantage of his excellence as an orchestral composer. Oh, and one last thing: be careful out among them English!
Buy the Witness soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Witness (Main Title)/Journey to Baltimore (6:24)
- The Murder (1:22)
- Book’s Disappearance (3:29)
- Futility of an Inside Job/Delirious John (3:08)
- Building the Barn (4:58)
- Book’s Sorrow (2:45)
- Rachel and Book (Love Theme)/Beginning of the End (4:40)
- The Amish Are Coming (3:21)
Running Time: 30 minutes 07 seconds
Varèse Sarabande VCD-47227 (1985)
Music composed and conducted by Maurice Jarre. Performed by Michael Boddicker, Randy Kerber, Stewart Levin, Michel Mention, Chris Page, Pete Robinson, Clark Spangler, Nyle Steiner and Ian Underwood. Recorded and mixed by Humberto Gatica. Edited by Richard Stone. Album produced by Maurice Jarre, Michel Mention and Tom Null.
Categories: ReviewsTags: Film Score, Maurice Jarre, Reviews, Throwback Thirty, Witness