I’m not spoiling by stating that Destin Daniel Cretton‘s Just Mercy (Warner Bros., 12.25), a fact-based legal drama that I caught during last weekend’s Middleburg Film Festival, ends on a positive note. Due to the efforts of a good-guy lawyer (Michael B. Jordan‘s Bryan Stevenson), a falsely-convicted innocent man (Jamie Foxx‘s Walter McMillan) doesn’t rot in an Alabama jail for the rest of his life.
But McMillan’s climatic moment of salvation, which happens in the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, doesn’t entirely work. Because Joel P. West‘s score lays it on too thick — the emotional “Hallelujah” sauce by way of a church choir and an orchestra working its ass off. It’s the only moment in the film that feels like it’s pushing too hard — the rest of it feels suitably restrained and more or less on-target.
I’m not dropping the Just Mercy grade because of West’s “oh dear God” music — it still gets an A minus or at least a B plus. But composers have to be careful not to overplay their hand. Because the right or wrong kind of music at a key moment in a film can make or break, regardless of how good or expert the overall effort might be.
To further my point I’ve pasted Max Steiner‘s main title music for Mervyn LeRoy‘s The FBI Story (’59). On one hand it’s a decent but flat-footed saga of an FBI agent’s (James Stewart‘s Chip Hardesty) career with the bureau; on another it’s a J. Edgar Hoover-approved propaganda film that Hoover almost literally co-directed. It feels like a stodgy chest–beater.
But Steiner’s music, at least during the opening credits, makes you say “wow, okay…maybe this film had some good points that I missed.” It’s spirited and proud-sounding in a marching-band way.
The Austrian-born Steiner (1888-1971) was pushing 70 when he composed the FBI Story music. His best score was for the verging-on-discredited Gone With The Wind, which he composed in his early 50s. His second and third best were for Casablanca and King Kong.