Sunday, July 24, 2011

Band of Brothers: Bridges across Time

Flash back 20 years:

I have a distinct and vivid memory from the fall of 1991 of dancing with a cute girl at a middle school dance to Bryan Adams' "Everything I Do (I Do it For You)" from the Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves soundtrack. I use "dancing" loosely, of course; we were doing that clunky mutual stagger that you do at a middle school dance, arms outstretched like two zombies who have blundered into one another and are both still trying to stomp forward.

I remember commenting specifically on the song, though, partially just to make awkward conversation and partially because I really did like the song at the time. (I was just on the verge of discovering the grunge movement and real rock 'n' roll, but I wasn't there yet.) That was mostly because of the song's connection to Robin Hood, which I had seen at the Clermont Drive-In (may it rest in peace) over the summer and absolutely loved. It was the rest of that movie's soundtrack that I truly relished, though -- Robin Hood was my introduction to the composer Michael Kamen, who wrote the score to Band of Brothers, the album I'm actually talking about here.

Robin Hood was one of the first times that I remember specifically hearing and admiring the music from a movie -- Kamen's rip-roaring main theme for horns blasted its way directly into my 12-year-old heart as I watched the opening credits from the seat of Mom and Dad's car. It's not that I hadn't noticed and appreciated the music in other movies before; I grew up in the era of some of the great John Williams scores and music like Back to the Future . . . I just hadn't given a lot of thought to it yet specifically. But Michael Kamen's Robin Hood score sparked a specific passion that's been with me ever since.

I learned soon after that, from my school's band teacher, that Kamen was a multi-talented composer who straddled the classical and film genres, but also provided pop and rock orchestral arrangements for the likes of Metallica. This, of course, made him even more awesome to me in 1991 -- the year of the Black Album. I knew that I'd want to pay attention to Michael Kamen. I did end up getting both the Black Album and the soundtrack to Robin Hood on cassette that year. But more on Robin Hood when we actually get there . . .

Flash back 10 years:

I mostly ignored Band of Brothers when it came out -- and not just because I didn't have HBO at the time. I was working for a tiny theatre company in Bloomington, Indiana - the Bloomington Playwrights Project - after graduating from IU, and didn't have time or energy for much of anything beyond that. On top of that, there was the whole 9/11 thing, which distracted just about everyone, and the fact that the whole thing seemed to me like a cash grab to capitalize on the popularity of Saving Private Ryan anyway.

I was mostly wrong about that, of course, but it took me another five years or so to find out. One winter's day I casually flipped the channel to a marathon of Band of Brothers on cable at my apartment while doing laundry. I tuned in to the second or third episode, and I ended up dropping everything to watch the rest.

What I discovered, of course, was a work of historical re-creation that even surpasses Saving Private Ryan in the sensitivity and depth of its characterization of the second World War. While I'm not sure that any filmic depiction of war will ever trump the sheer terror, vivid chaos, and adrenaline exhilaration of SPR's opening scene of the Omaha Beach invasion, Band of Brothers has the benefit of being grounded in the stories of real men and nearly twelve hours of screen time to devote to those stories.

Flash back 67 years:

Michael Kamen's music for Band of Brothers is clearly influenced by the elegiac tone that dominated the famous John Williams score to Saving Private Ryan. Bookended by the main theme (Track 1) and a piece called "Band of Brothers Requiem (Track 20)," the score album evokes a suitably reverent and similarly lyrical tone to Williams' "Hymn to the Fallen." Kamen's work has arguably a lighter touch and a more optimistic tinge in these two primary thematic statements. That's appropriate, since much of the series itself deals with the troops of Easy Company as men, without getting into too much hero worship, speechifying, or "Greatest Generation" sentimentality.

Between these bookends is where most of the meatier material can be found, though. Most of the more heroic statements of Kamen's main themes for Band of Brothers is front-loaded into the beginning of the album in a pair of suites (Tracks 2-3) and an adventurous cue called "The Mission Begins (Track 4)." Kamen's broad, masculine theme for horns actually echoes the structure of his main theme from Robin Hood, jettisoning the swashbuckling tone for a more straightforward military style. It's the kind of music that I would expect to hear in pops concerts by orchestras for the Fourth of July -- in fact, I'd love to hear it in that context.

Kamen weaves other instrumentation in and around the main theme in those two suites to convey a jittery sense of anticipation One moment that never fails to evoke goosebumps comes around 3 minutes into Suite One, and is repeated several times through the cue: A few violins emerge in preparation for a statement of the main theme, with bows skittering across their strings in a little stuttering rhythm that seems to evoke the sputtering of the piston engines of the Airborne troops' C-47 airplanes as they come to life on the runway.

Much of the rest of the album is actually quite contemplative, when it isn't haunting and absolutely beautiful. Many of the main battle scenes are unscored, leaving music to fill in the quieter moments, when the men have time to think and breathe - or to wait, to walk, or freeze. Kamen's commentary highlights the places where beauty exists among the carnage, like the oddly exquisite image of diaphanous white parachutes deploying in daylight, which Kamen embroiders with Debussy-like grace in "Parapluie (Track 8)."

Of these contemplative, moody cues, the one with the most personal significance to me is called "Discovery of the Camp (Track 17)." This eleven-minute piece plays like an adagio over the men's discovery of a Nazi concentration camp, cruelly ignored by the people in a nearby German town. My own grandfather, who died long before I was born, not only landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day, but also went all the way through Europe into Nazi territory in the last year of the war, and was involved in the liberation of one of the Nazi camps -- we think it was probably Buchenwald. I have held and seen his own photographs of that camp, which apparently he never spoke about during his lifetime. I think of those photographs every time I hear about someone who denies that the Holocaust occurred. There are many people alive who know better, though there are fewer of them every day.

Back to the Present

Now, Band of Brothers is additionally fun as a "spot the rising British acting star" game, since most of the show was filmed in England with British actors filling many primary and most of the secondary roles. You can spot James McAvoy, Tom Hardy, Simon Pegg, and Jamie Bamber, among others, in small roles peppered throughout. And of course, the show itself hasn't lost any of its power. I watched the whole thing again last winter and found it even more absorbing (especially with the pop-up historical details I can call up about scenes and characters on my Blu-Ray copy).

Michael Kamen died in 2003 of a heart attack, one of too many great composers who were taken from us in the last decade. Band of Brothers is arguably his last truly great score, and it serves as fittingly as a requiem for Kamen himself as it does for the hundreds of thousands of men and women who gave their all in World War II. We'll revisit him, though, through his music and in this space.

We will not revisit Bryan Adams, though. (You were looking a little worried.)

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