Mark McKenzie is one of the most gifted film composers working right now, and yet a proper new score from him is only heard once in a blue moon. Aside from the synthesized Dragonheart scores from 2017 and 2015, his last released fully orchestral film score was for El Gran Milagro from 2011, and another from 2006 before that. With a gift as singular and unique as his, these long stretches of seeming silence are deafening. These days, his mind almost always produces music that is simply phenomenal, staggeringly beautiful. He has a knack for achingly gorgeous melodies, soaring string writing while also utilizing light choir and soloists, and many of those elements that made El Gran Milagro shine are also present here in Max and Me.
Max and Me is a Mexican animated film about a Polish priest named Maximilian Kolbe and his heroism and bravery at a Nazi labor camp during WWII. A writer and a friar, Kolbe worked at a monastery where care was provided to refugees in Poland which included thousands of Jews. He wrote several anti-Nazi articles and thus the authorities shut down his monastery and arrested him. He eventually ended up at the infamous Auschwitz labor camp where he volunteered to die in place of a Jewish prisoner and as a result suffered a truly horrific, harrowing fate. The story is told from the perspective of an elderly man in modern times counseling a rebellious teenager. All across the world today similar decisions are being made by people unwillingly thrust into all sorts of terrible situations. Stories like Maximilian Kolbe’s are truly relevant in many ways to modern times, forcing you to look inward and ask the question: would I have the strength of character, of conviction, to go through such harrowing torture and then death for the sake of another human being? The film itself is clearly a religious statement of faith, but its real-life story transcends religion and hits right at the core of humanity itself.
Much like El Gran Milagro before it, McKenzie’s score certainly sounds like a labor of love. Tender, heart-felt, soaring and often crushingly sad. That sadness never lasts for too long, though, as the film and consequently its music choose instead to primarily focus on hope and a positive message. There are all sorts of recurring motifs throughout the score, but it is the score’s gorgeous main theme that will remain in the memory. First introduced on soaring strings in ‘Two Crowns Vision’, listeners will notice that it is tonally and structurally similar to his main theme for El Gran Milagro but a little more long-lined, dramatic, and flowing as opposed to Milagro’s more propulsive tone. It is upbeat and positive in the best of ways, and reaches truly stunning heights when combined with that signature McKenzie choir (provided by the Libera Boy’s Choir). It is dotted throughout the score both in quiet/contemplative modes and also receives a few staggeringly huge performances which bring in the horn section in ‘Dare to Dream Bigger’ and the conclusive ‘Heaven’s Welcome’.
McKenzie has also opted to utilize some truly talented soloists throughout the score. The most high-profile is violinist Joshua Bell, whose gorgeous performances dot the score, but is perhaps at its most tear-inducing in ‘I Love You’. The two other credited soloists are vocalists Clara Sanabras and Isaac London, whose performances enhance the score at key moments. London’s performance in ‘You Could Be Anything’ is more ethereal and whimsical than when both soloists come together in ‘In the Trenches’ when their performances are more grounded and serious but no less gorgeous. These vocal performances serve to further enhance music that is on its own already exceptional and stunning.
McKenzie’s style of dramatic scoring is at times very similar to James Horner, and that is only a good thing (in fact, all throughout the score McKenzie seems to have been inspired at least in some part by Horner). Horner fans will most recognize his style in cues like ”In the Trenches’, ‘Nazi Brutality’, and ‘Auschwitz Cries’ in which the entire string section performs sad and slow yet turbulent melodies reminiscent of cues like ‘Off to War’ from Legends of the Fall. Many more similarities come in a few of the low-key dramatic moments. In ‘You Could be Anything’ the piano performance as well as the way in which the orchestra interacts with the piano are all quintessential Horner, and in the introductory moments of ‘Dare to Dream Bigger’ you could be forgiven for believing that Horner has literally been resurrected from the grave. And some of the more brassy moments that occur in cues like ‘Heaven’s Welcome’ will also remind of some of Horner’s more soaring dramatic material later in his career. Keep in mind, I do not point out these inspirations as a knock against the score or Mark McKenzie as a composer, nor am I saying that this is a Horner score in disguise (far from it). Rather, these are points in the score’s favor if anything, since the ability to draw inspiration from the best and develop those inspirations into something of your own creativity is essentially what makes the best music, and McKenzie’s music here certainly qualifies as amidst ‘the best’ among his peers.
All of the aforementioned elements combine to form an astoundingly gorgeous score of the kind only McKenzie could write. Literally every cue is important, and there is not one wasted note. Because of this Max and Me is the kind of score that rewards repeat listens. That McKenzie has only written a small handful of scores within the past decade is almost a crime against humanity given his considerable talent demonstrated by scores like Max and Me. While perhaps not quite El Gran Milagro’s equal, Max and Me is score of the year material, gorgeous, soaring, and emotionally moving to the highest degree. If you haven’t heard this yet, go now as fast as you can. What are you waiting for? Buy with confidence, this one comes highly recommended.
Mark McKenzie’s Max and Me is score of the year material, gorgeous, soaring, and emotionally moving to the highest degree. Highly Recommended!