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
HSC English Standard - Module B 'Witness'
By Aiman Ahamad
John Book and Rachel Lapp could never have a successful permanent relationship. Do you agree?
Relationships may be permanent or temporary. Different relationship will experience obstacles but may receive considerable rewards. There are many factors that can affect the relationship between people like clash of cultures, their inability to conform to alternate societies and the fundamental values upon which they base their lives. John Book and Rachel Lapp could never have a successful permanent relationship. "Witness" (1985) directed by Peter Weir. The clash of cultures between Rachel and John is a major factor that affects their relationship deeply. Their inability to conform to alternate societies is also a key factor that influences the effectiveness of their relationship, along with the fundamental values that underpin their lives. The clash between Amish pacifism and modern American societies attitude towards violence also affects their bond. These components have affected Rachel and John's ability to have a long-lasting relationship.
The clash of cultures is a significant component that results in the breakdown of their relationship. The way John and Rachel live is so far removed from one another that it serves as the backdrop for the film as it explores the clash of cultures. John Book is polite and respectful towards Rachel, Samuel and others. A close up was used when John sat at the same level with Samuel to reflect that he respects him. John is labelled by Eli as 'the English' the minute he crashes into their bird house. The car crashes to the bird house is symbolic as he crashed to the Amish community uninvited. This implies that his presence is not welcome. Rachel and Samuel look out of place when they were saying grace while John eats the hotdog looking uncomfortable. The opening of the film itself reflects this clash of culture with an extreme long shot to show the buggy holding up the lines of traffic. The clash of cultural identity between Rachel who is living in the Amish society and John who is living in modern American society is also one of the main reasons that will always affect their relationship. Rachel appears more resistant to accept modern American culture than John willing to explore the Amish culture. It is evident that the clash of cultures is a significant factor that affects John and Rachel's relationship.
'Barn rising' is a major scene in which shows John trying to fit in by participating in the community activities. He also wants to demonstrate his gratitude and his kindness by participating at the barn raising. John is proving to the Amish that he is helpful. In the barn raising only John wears a white shirt, it reflects that he doesn't belong and is different. The gender division of women doing the cooking, serving and the men doing the labor duties reflect the Amish values of the gender roles. The stolen glance between John and Rachel shows that their relationship is not welcome in the community. The use of long shot is to show the progression of the barn and prove that they are united. Rachel is impressed by John as he is exceeding the Amish expectations. Daniel is impressed by John as he proves his worth through his building prowess. The fact that John is at the highest level working on the barn scaffold shows that he's trying to prove himself. Low angle shot is used to show that the barn is big and demonstrate their collective attitude which proves that they are unified. It is apparent that the Amish community knows about the bond between Rachel and John as the Amish woman said "Everyone has an idea about you and the Englishmen, Book". Rachel replied "All of them charitable, I'm sure". The Amish woman replied "Hardly any of them" to point out that Rachel and John are being inappropriate. This reflects that John presence is not welcome and is disturbing the Amish community. Rachel serves John first at the lunch table; she is deliberately disobeying the conventions of her culture. This is reflecting how she is being influenced by John's presence and not conforming to the Amish values. Rachel is determined to not be negatively influenced by the 'idle gossip' about herself and John. In the final moment of the scene John is sitting on the back of the cart while the rest of the men were singing a song in German. This emphasise that he doesn't belong. This scene exhibits John's desperateness of trying to be accepted into the Amish community. It also reflects the growing connection of John and Rachel's relationship as Rachel devalues her culture in order to get closer to John.
Rachel's attraction to John leaves her with an inner moral dilemma as to conform to and uphold the Amish values, or to give in to her desire and break the cultural rules and be with John. There are several scenes that reflect Rachel's nonconformity. In the 'Barn building' scene where Rachel serves John first emphasise that she is breaking her cultural values in order to be close to John. There are also signs of nonconforming when Rachel removed her bonnet before embracing and kissing John. When Rachel dances with John to the music in the 'breaking the rules' scene, she is taking a large step in devaluing her culture as she dances with an 'English man' who is not her husband. In the 'bathing' scene where Rachel deliberately exposes herself to John, she is inviting him to take advantage of his attraction to her.
The Amish are critical of John as he does not 'fit in', meaning he does not conform to the Amish ways. As John makes positive contributions within their community, he becomes more accepted. Ultimately, John cannot conform to the Amish ways permanently, so he leaves. But John tries his best to conform to the Amish ways temporary by milking the cows and engaging in daily chores and does not use violence against Schaeffer in the end in order to be accepted by the community. He also wears Amish clothes to make him more accepted physically or on the surface. He participated in barn-building and mended the bird house. Whilst John makes efforts to conform, there are significant moments when he does not. Perhaps it is these small things that create the biggest and most impenetrable barrier between John and Rachel. The moments that reflect John's nonconformity is when he tells Samuel that playing with an unloaded gun is alright, when he becomes frustrated and fight those bullies while saying "But it is my way" to emphasise that