Various Artists - "Dead Man Walking" Soundtrack (Legacy Edition) 
Music Disc Reviews Audio CD
Written by John Sutton-Smith   
Saturday, 01 July 2006

format:    CD + DVD
performance:    8
sound:    8
release year:    2006
label:    Columbia/Legacy
reviewed by:    John Sutton-Smith

“Dead Man Walking,” the 1998 biopic based on Sister Helen Prejean’s book, which virulently opposed capital punishment, was an Oscar-winning epic movie which attracted a stellar group of like-minded artists to provide an equally compelling soundtrack.

Many of these musicians, in particular Eddie Vedder and Steve Earle, are as passionate as director Tim Robbins about ending the death penalty in the U.S., and in the wake of the movie’s popularity headed up a benefit concert (“Not in Our Name”: Dead Man Walking – The Concert), bringing both the soundtrack and the issue to life. The new “Dead Man Walking” Legacy Edition CD/DVD set is a welcome revival of an extraordinary collection of songs, plus the first-time ever release of the concert.

The soundtrack disc is led off by Bruce Springsteen, with the Academy-award nominated title track, and Johnny Cash, two of the most gravelly voices of gravitas one could hope to take up a cause, and continues with insightful and emotional performances from informed songwriters like Lyle Lovett and Tom Waits, Suzanne Vega and Mary Chapin Carpenter, Michelle Shocked and Patti Smith, all commissioned by Robbins to write their pieces.

It is Earle and Vedder, however, whose sensibility and passion provide the backbone of this collection. Although Earle contributes only one song, “Ellis Unit One,” it is the movie and the album’s most powerful signature work, graphically yet elegantly dramatizing the horror of legislated murder.

Vedder performs two of the most important pieces here and injects an essential emotional chord into the argument through his inspired collaborations with the late great Pakistani qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, on “The Face of Love” and “The Long Road.” There is also an unreleased bonus track of Eddie’s own “Dead Man.”

All credit goes to Tim Robbins for his astute musical sensibility in approaching artists with the emotional power and intellectual heft that lend just the right tone to such a torturous and delicate subject. In so doing, he has created a truly compelling musical document in its own right.

“Not In Our Name”: Dead Man Walking – The Concert elegantly captures the March 1998 event at L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium, supporting a reinvigorated campaign to end the death penalty that had been fueled in part by the issues raised in the movie. Hosted by Robbins and Sister Prejean, the two main musical figures on stage were inevitably Earle and Vedder. Earle, with his obvious passion and empathy for the issue and the people behind the issue, made for a powerful and persuasive presence, and opened up with “Ellis Unit One.” Vedder book-ended the show with a gorgeous take on Cat Stevens’ underrated “Trouble,” before joining Pearl Jam colleague Jeff Ament for “Dead Man,” and a band including the Doors’ John Densmore to lead mesmerizing vocal takes of his two soundtrack meditations with Nusrat’s nephew, Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

In between, the canny country poet Lyle Lovett, drier than the Texas sand, replicated his “Promises” from the movie soundtrack and joined with Earle for a duet on “Lungs,” followed by a three-song set from the always-fiery Ani DiFranco, which included the telling “Crime for Crime.”

Well shot, without the prevailing desire to cut away at every moment, the performances are captured respectfully and elegantly, the stage is lit for mood and emotion and the atmosphere in the house is the respectful excitement of a crowd inspired by a crucial cause and the music that carries its message.

While not covering the soundtrack song for song, the concert more than encapsulated the spirit and sense of mission in “Dead Man Walking,” both the movie and the music.

With almost every track recorded individually by the artists in different studios with different producers, it is remarkable how cohesive the soundtrack sounds as a whole. Part of this is certainly due to the common sensibility found in the material and the approach towards it, and part is undoubtedly due to the craft and professionalism of the artists and their uniformly top-name producers. There is a prevailing sense of darkness and foreboding, defined perhaps in Nusrat’s sublime wailing on “The Long Road,” that courses through the soundtrack and the film itself. It is the sound of a soul in pain and a cry for mercy and forgiveness; it is the soundtrack of a dead man walking.

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