For composer, `Passion' soundtrack is a challenge - and hit

Music

March 07, 2004|By Jon Burlingame | Jon Burlingame,NEWSDAY

HOLLYWOOD - Composer John Debney's agent had one piece of advice before Mel Gibson came calling to hear some sample music for The Passion of the Christ: "Take down all of the posters for the movies you've done, because no matter what you've written, it'll be very hard to listen to in the proper context while he's staring at images of happy elves and talking animals."

That's because Debney is far better known as a composer of music for light comedies (Elf, The Princess Diaries) and the occasional action film (The Scorpion King). Gibson probably didn't know that. For the most controversial Hollywood film in years, the guy who scored Cats & Dogs - a live-action comedy in which cats and dogs battle for world domination - might not have been tops on the list.

Debney, the second of three composers on the project, walked into a firestorm of controversy last fall when he undertook the complex task of setting Jesus' last 12 hours to music - and, perhaps even tougher, pleasing director Gibson.

While the process was difficult, the rewards may be great. The Passion soundtrack is so in demand that Sony Music's Christian-music imprint, Integrity, shipped 300,000 units to stores nationwide when the album went on sale Feb. 24.

Recently, Passion was No. 3 on amazon.com's top-selling album list, and in its first week, it sold nearly 49,000 copies, according to SoundScan. It was the third-best opening week for an instrumental score in SoundScan history, behind John Williams' Star Wars sequels The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. The film itself grossed more than $117.5 million in its first five days (it opened Feb. 25).

"I couldn't turn down The Passion," says Debney, 47, in his Burbank, Calif., studio. "This is a film that comes along once in a lifetime. Especially because it's so personal to me." He describes himself as a lifelong Catholic who has "rediscovered my faith" since his mother's recent death.

Typical Hollywood scores for biblical films have tended to feature big orchestras and angelic choirs, such as Miklos Rozsa's music for King of Kings (1961) or Alfred Newman's for The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). Peter Gabriel moved in an entirely different direction with Middle Eastern sounds for Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).

Debney terms his work a "world-music score" that features traditional orchestra and choir but also incorporates such ethnic instruments as the ney flute and the stringed oud, as well as synthesizers and a battery of percussion.

The choir doesn't just "oooh" and "aaah" as on most Hollywood scores. Debney and his vocal collaborator, Lisbeth Scott, created lyrics that were translated into Aramaic and Hebrew texts for the choir and for Scott, whose ghostly solo vocals are heard throughout.

"This was not an easy film to score," Gibson says in a telephone interview. "In fact, it was almost impossible, given the subject matter. It had to be an extraordinary piece of work, something that helped the images, that had to counter the images. It had to tell a lot."

When he heard Debney's first samples to accompany a trailer, "I really liked the rhythm of it," Gibson says. "It was sophisticated and at the same time primitive. It had this kind of drive to it, and energy that I loved." Within hours, Debney had the job.

Like others who worked on the film, Debney insists that The Passion is not anti-Semitic. "It's not anti-anything," he says. "It's about self-sacrifice. Whether you believe Jesus was the Son of God or just a holy man, his teachings are meant to unite us. ... I'm hoping that the film will bring people together."

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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