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Review by Brad Green:
Remember those ads about how few Australians could name our first PM? Well, itís going to take a lot more PR before Eddy Barton becomes as well-known as Ned Kelly. We might forget our leaders, but we donít forget our outlaws. So how does a thief and murderer become such a national icon? The answer lies in a heady mix of history and mythology. A couple of hundred years of colonial history is a modest resource of culture: and Stringybark Creek; The Jerilderie Letter; the innovative line in headwear; the putative ďsuch is lifeĒ; the Sidney Nolan paintings; the Peter Carey Booker-winner; the notion that brother Dan and Steve Hart might have survived the Glenrowan Hotel fire; and the (arguable) claim to the 1906 Australian production Ned Kelly And His Gang as the worldís first feature film provide us with a fine array of images, aphorisms, scandal and intrigue to mould into home-grown iconology. And if you donít buy any of that you surely canít deny that Australians love a bloke with a ferocious beard; particularly when at least one reading of his story has it all going pear shaped simply because he loved his mum.†

The poser here was whether a German composer, now employed by the quintessentially corporate-American Media Ventures, could tap successfully into nineteenth-century Australian folklore. Klaus Badelt does boast some impressive credentials when it comes to versatility: assisting Media Ventures honcho Hans Zimmer on projects as diverse as Gladiator and Prince Of Egypt and putting together a vastly underestimated solo effort for K19 Ė a completely different template again, with its foundations in the old Russian romanticists. Of course, it has already been demonstrated that a potent chemistry can result from the allure of the Aussie outback introduced to Teutonic tenacity. Consider Ludwig Leichhardt disappearing both metaphorically and literally into the very essence of his obsession, the Australian landscape.†

While Badelt does find the right balance of Australian flavour and dramatic universality here, he doesnít quite find the thematic fire power to bail up our ears. The score is imbued throughout with a folk-like quality, which is fine for atmosphere, but weighs down the central motifs with resolutions as heavy as a home-made helmet. He does show a deft hand with the instrumentation, however, allowing strings to carry us forward, with laudably economical use of flutes to add the folk-like tinges along the way, and some spare low brass creating a sense of both spaciousness and suspense. But the two most successful cues fall at the moments of narrative relief; jauntier, whimsical excursions that append a poignant detour to the arch of the journey.†

The theme of a tragic life is also ennobled in the two songs performed by Powderfinger frontman, Bernard Fanning. In the first he croons his close-miked, vibrato-rich baritone with a pensiveness that evolves to intense emotion. By the time we reach the first bridge, he is employing a pseudo-falsetto that sounds distinctively Bono-influenced, but with enough control to avoid sentimentality. The song itself catches the right chord, although it could probably do with a genuine chorus; and while the minimalism of a simple piano and string instrumentation creates an apt ambience, the arrangement is a tad crude.†

The second song is a necessarily crude, colonial folk-tune. It would probably be cringe conceiving if performed by John Williamson, but again benefits from a subtle performance by Fanning, who in this instance manages a tonal blend of authenticity and contemporary edge.†

For an Australian audience, any telling of the Ned Kelly story necessarily invites identification; and my only gripe with a soundtrack that provides the right atmosphere and some fine melodic moments, is that it doesnít quite scream the legend as it might. However, Iím sure it services the film (which I havenít spied yet) admirably enough, and perhaps we need to look for a further initiative to fully tap into the Ned Kelly spirit. I recall that American publicity distributed masks of the titular actor at screenings of Being John Malkovich; and I reckon a hand out of clip-on beards plus helmet (with expanded visor and ear holes of course) would go a long way to helping audiences be Ned Kelly for a bit. And if that sounds like an uncomfortable way to watch a film, or even listen to this soundtrack, at least be thankful that Mick Jaggerís turn in the role never led to a fat lip catching on as part of the mythology.†

Published April 24, 2003

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TITLE: Ned Kelly
ID: 473 995-2
SCORE: Klaus Badelt

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