More than twenty years following the release of the 1989 film A Dry White Season and on the 21st anniversary of the release of political prisoner Nelson Mandela – which signaled the end of South African Apartheid - the film-music specialists, Kritzerland, have issued the first-ever soundtrack to the riveting 1989 film that starred Donald Sutherland, Susan Sarandon and Marlon Brando (in a terrifically understated performance that was his first film appearance since 1980’s The Formula).
This film, along with many musical outpourings from people like Artists United Against Apartheid (1985) and Paul Simon’s Graceland (1986), helped to make the rest of the world aware of what was going on at the time in South Africa.
The film’s score, by Dave Grusin, is certainly one of the composer’s lesser-known achievements. It comes between Grusin’s scores for 1988’s Robert Towne epic Tequila Sunrise (a Mel Gibson-Michelle Pfeiffer-Kurt Russell starrer that earned a song soundtrack on Capitol Records) and the Jeff Bridges-Michelle Pfeiffer-Beau Bridges starrer The Fabulous Baker Boys (a Grammy Award winner whose soundtrack was issued on Grusin’s own GRP Records and one that was also nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe award).
A Dry White Season ranks among the composer’s most notable scores: a subtle inflection of emotion that underlies Grusin’s abundant abilities in the conspiracy genre (Three Days of the Condor, Recount) as well as those he has outlined in dramas that develop into personal and life-affirming struggles against the odds (The Yakuza, Absence of Malice, The Little Drummer Girl and The Milagro Beanfield War) and those that require little if any music at all (The Graduate, The Goodbye Girl and one that has some incredibly beautiful music, On Golden Pond).
Directed with great care, caution and sensitivity by the French director Euzhan Palcy, A Dry White Season is little more than the story of one man, blinded by his privileged circumstances, discovering that every bit of his privilege is all based on a lie. The story takes place in 1976 when South Africa’s “Special Branch” was putting children – children! – to death for merely insisting on equal rights and the right to be taught in English rather than Afrikaans, a language that kept Black South Africans subservient to the far fewer white people in control of their land.
Donald Sutherland, as Ben du Toit, gives one of the most remarkable performances of his remarkable career as a white man whose black gardener, Gordon Ngubene (Winston Ntshona), tells how his young son, Jonathan (Bekhithemba Mpofu), who is a good friend to Ben’s son, Johan (Rowen Elmes), is tortured for no reason by “Special Branch,” the police who operated well beyond the law in South Africa for many years. Ben tells Gordon that there’s nothing that can be done.
Eventually, Jonathan dies a horrible death for no good reason. Gordon simply wants to find out what happened to his son. Special Branch tortures Gordon to death for his troubles but passes his death off as a suicide. This prompts Ben to seek “justice” for Gordon. He approaches human-rights lawyer Ian McKenzie (Marlon Brando), who offers to help but suggests that there is very little he can do in helping Ben to seek justice.
Soon thereafter, Ben loses everything – his job, his family, the respect of his white friends and family. Ben’s very life is threatened in multiple ways. But he vows to continue fighting for what he believes is right. And only his son sticks by his side.
It’s hard to imagine a film with more moving performances than those given here. The two boys, who share a poetically beautiful scene during the opening credits (scored beautifully to Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s moving “Unomethemba”), are magnificent. Surprisingly, according to IMDb, neither has ever done another film.
The adults don’t fare too badly either. Donald Sutherland is such a tremendous actor, doing some of his most convincing work here, that it’s a shame he’s never been given the proper recognition he deserves.
But there are some heart-wrenchingly beautiful performances here from Zakes Mokae (as Stanley, the Ngubene’s lawyer) and Thoko Ntshinga (as Emily, Gordon’s wife) to, of course, Winston Ntshona (as Gordon). Brando’s presence as the lawyer gives some levity – and some much needed humor – to Ian McKenzie, a role that the actor brilliantly makes much more important than it really is. Even the white baddies, Jürgen Prochnow and Janet Suzman, do a commendable job of delivering knowingly ugly performances – which must have been a particular challenge, even for them.
Grusin’s score is mostly on the subtle side. There is no major theme here other than South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela’s mournful flugelhorn passages during the film’s saddest scenes. Masekela had been out of South Africa for nearly three decades at the time he recorded his parts for this film (he finally returned to South Africa after Mandela’s release from prison in 1991). And surely this story resonated very deeply within him. Indeed, he wrote “Soweto Blues” in 1978 for Miriam Makeba, another South African ex-pat, about the very subject this particular film takes on.
The Kritzerland CD appears like some sort of miracle, featuring 15 songs from the film’s soundtrack and four added “bonus tracks” (two alternate takes and two source cues). But for as great as the music it presents is – for the first time ever – it never talks about which of this music was actually used in the film (a small fraction of what is heard here) or why, it also credits neither any of the contributing musicians, including Hugh Masekela, nor includes any of the three Ladysmith Black Mambazo songs used so prominently in the film: the beautiful “Unomethemba,” from LBM’s famed Shaka Zulu album, the song played during the film’s opening credits, or “Umusa” (featured on LBM’s 1990 album Journey of Dreams_, or “Yini Kodwa Yini,” which plays over the closing credits.
Masekela, who is never properly credited on the soundtrack disc as he is in the film, plays briefly on the cues "Aftermath / Dead Children," "He's My Child / I Never Saw Him / Gordon's Arrest," "Wife Waffles / Flashbacks," "Stanley Kills Stoltz" and "Source Music 2" only. “Source Music 2” – which is not audible in the finished film – corresponds exactly to Grusin’s “Dancing in the Township,” a song that is heard to excellent effect on the 1989 Dave Grusin album Migration, a performance also featuring an excellent turn by Masekela.
“Ben’s Death” from A Dry White Season also features the “Dancing in the Township” theme, heard at the film’s end when Johan is riding his bike to the newspaper office. (Masekela is also heard on Grusin’s Migration album on his own theme “Polina,” which Masekela also performed on his 1992 album Beatin’ Aroun De Bush.)
Something about the score presentation, which is undeniably beautiful, and the final film suggests that there was much disagreement about the music for the film. There really is no “main theme” and certainly nothing that stands out as such.
The disc’s first cue, Grusin’s brief “Happier Times,” is a gorgeous symphonic piece that isn’t heard until a full five minutes into the film. Some of Grusin’s music seems misapplied in the film too and much of it on this 36-minute soundtrack seems to be missing completely (“Source Music 2” isn’t immediately audible in the film but a Reggae source cue that plays while Ben and Susan Sarandon’s character, Melanie, meet in a public square, is missing here as well).
Even some of the disc’s best moments (“Demonstrations,” “Monsters Win,” “The Search” and “Garage Explodes”) don’t seem to work very well in the film. Oddly, though, Grusin suggests the militaristic undertones with a greater subtlety and more appropriately South African perfection than one would expect from any other composer – but they just seem misapplied to the film.
Grusin’s score throughout suggests a light touch: nothing obvious and nothing catchy. Unlike so much of the great music that is American blues and gospel or South African Mbaqnga, Grusin isn’t trying to celebrate the triumph of will over adversity. He is underscoring adversity and the will to overcome it.
It doesn’t call for happy music. In fact, it really calls for no music at all. It calls for something else. I believe Dave Grusin recognizes this and is scoring appropriately; allowing the drama to dictate the film’s rhythms. It is a movie that probably doesn’t need music. But what Dave Grusin contributes is beautiful and not at all inappropriate.
Grusin – ever the creative conceptualist – seems to rely a bunch on Masekela’s input, inserting the least amount of musical drama into already dramatically-charged scenes. It’s hard not to well up into tears, even without sound, throughout this horrific story and hugely intoxicating film – and even Masekela’s passages are brief in the extreme – and, not surprisingly, vocalists from the cast of Masekela’s then emerging Broadway musical Sarafina are heard briefly in beautiful ways during several of the film’s passages (none, inexplicably, of which are represented on the soundtrack CD). So the little Grusin contributes is certainly enough.
A Dry White Season probably represents one of Dave Grusin’s better and most least-known scores, even though it will appeal most to the composer’s film music fans.
But if you love what Grusin does in film and you hear the magic that Hugh Masekela blows through his horn each and every time he plays, A Dry White Season is very highly recommended. It is a beautiful late addition to the Dave Grusin and Hugh Masekela discographies and one that Kritzerland did a mostly commendable job in rescuing for our listening pleasure.