Max And Me: Music Composed By Mark McKenzie

By Steve Vertlieb: Maximillian Kolbe was a Franciscan priest in Poland during the invasion and occupation of his county by Germany during World War Two.  While many of his Franciscan brothers understandably fled the monastery that Kolbe had founded, the priest was among the few who had remained.  He continued to minister to the sick in the temporary hospital that he’d set up for his ailing, often injured Polish brethren. Proud and defiant, Kolbe refused to sign the Nazi Deutsche Volksliste which, he knew, might have given him the rights of a German citizen in tacit recognition of his own German ancestry.  During their often besieged tenure at the occupied monastery, Kolbe and his fellow monks offered shelter to 2,000 Jews hiding from persecution from the Nazis at the friary in the Polish community of Niepokalanow.

The Germans finally closed down the monastery on February 17, 1941.  Kolbe was arrested and sent to Pawiak prison. He was transferred to Auschwitz on May 28, 1941, as prisoner #16670. At the end of July, ten prisoners escaped from the notorious prison camp.  In retribution, Deputy Camp Commander SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Karl Fritzsh chose another ten men to be starved to death in their place in a Nazi underground bunker.  It would serve as an example to those prisoners remaining in cruel captivity. Among these tragic figures was Franciszek Gajowniczek, a condemned captive who screamed “My wife!  My children!” in utter despair.

Kolbe heroically volunteered to take his place in what he knew was a prolonged, agonizing death sentence.  The priest continued to lead and conduct prayers for his fellow inmates in the secluded bunker. Following two weeks of starvation and dehydration, only Father Kolbe remained alive.  The German guards needed the bunker emptied and so, on August 14, 1941, they gave Maximillian Kolbe a lethal injection of carbolic acid.  The priest was said to have raised his arm in recognition of his fate, while waiting calmly and at peace for the soldiers to have administered the fatal dosage.  Kolbe was canonized and made a saint in the Catholic Church by Pope John Paul II on October 10, 1982, at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Now, producer Pablo Jose Barroso and Mexico’s Dos Corazones Films, creators of The Greatest Miracle, have reunited to create a new animated screen adaptation of this emotional true story entitled Max And Me.  With voice performances by Ashley Greene, Hector Elizondo, and Piotr Adamczyk as Father Maximillian Kolbe, the production has been designed and directed by production designer (and art director) Marec Fritinger.  While a noble endeavor, the production has been plagued by difficulties and setbacks, delaying its promised release interminably. IMDB shows its release date now will be October 2023.

For the musical score to this most difficult, ambitious animated production, the producers turned once more to composer Mark McKenzie who had written the highly acclaimed music for their previous production of The Greatest Miracle.  Praised by many in the motion picture music community as the finest film score of 2011, The Greatest Miracle was a haunting, ethereal work reminiscent in its thematic texture of the glory days of Hollywood composition, recalling the work of Alfred Newman in particular.  McKenzie, an unabashed, unapologetic melodist and compositional romanticist, stands among a handful of present day film composers who continue to write thematic melody and classical structure.  McKenzie, along with Lee Holdridge, James Newton Howard, Bruce Broughton, David Newman and, of course, John Williams, are seemingly the last of the traditional symphonists working actively within the Hollywood film music community today.  

McKenzie’s scoring philosophy and textured presence are deeply imbedded within the Hebraic roots of such legendary film composers as Alfred Newman, Miklos Rozsa, Bernard Herrmann, Dimitri Tiomkin, Franz Waxman, Victor Young, Hugo Friedhofer, Max Steiner, Elmer Bernstein, Alex North, John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, John Barry, and David Amram, as well as innumerable other composers who created what has come to be known as “The Hollywood Sound.”  As Jerry Goldsmith was losing strength in his valiant battle with Cancer some years ago, he asked McKenzie to help orchestrate his final seven film scores, calling Mark “My Godsend.”  No less a musical presence than Sir Paul McCartney referred to McKenzie as “brilliant.”

Working in the film community as a trusted, skilled orchestrator for decades, McKenzie began trying his hand at creating his own unique original stylings with sole scoring credit on such films as Death In Granada (1996), The Ultimate Gift (2006), Saving Sarah Cain (2007), The Greatest Miracle (2011), The Ultimate Life (2013) – Sammy Film Music Award, Dragonheart: Battle for the Heartfire (2017), and now Max And Me (2018).

Recorded at the famed Abbey Road Studios with large orchestra, The London Boys Choir (“Liberia”), and acclaimed solo concert violinist, Joshua Bell, Mark McKenzie’s truly remarkable score for this deeply moving motion picture has been released by Sony Classical on iTunes.  While Sony’s decision to record and release the score is commendable, its decision to allow the music to be experienced only through iTunes is lamentable, if not tragic.  McKenzie’s confidence and talent as a film composer have been gaining momentum with each new assignment, and his score for Max And Me is easily his most satisfying work to date, as well as the finest film music of 2018.  McKenzie’s startlingly beautiful music reaches layers, depths and textures of ethereal redemption and spiritual ascension stunningly realized and performed.  Joshua Bell’s superb virtuoso violin, along with the sublime vocal performance by The London Boys Choir, elevates the force and majesty of McKenzie’s remarkable score to unimagined heights of tearful grandeur. McKenzie’s faith filled musical portrait of Maximillian Kolbe’s humanity and ultimate sacrifice is both rapturously sacred and deeply moving, an inspirational testament to the indomitable human spirit, and to the overcoming power of humanity and spiritual goodness.

Listening to Mark McKenzie’s score without tears is virtually impossible.  Among the notable highlights of this deeply moving score are “Prayer For Peace” (track #15) … hauntingly expressive in its plea for life and for the dignity, nobility, and preservation of the human soul.  “Auschwitz Cries” (track #16) is utterly searing, a plaintive, devastating wail…remembering the six million Jews imprisoned, tortured, and decimated by Adolf Hitler and his abominable Nazi machine. “Triumph Over Fear” (track #19) is, perhaps, the score’s finest hour.  Building to a shattering emotional crescendo from utter loneliness and desolation, McKenzie’s use of orchestra and choir bring hope filled ascension and spiritual redemption out of captivity, desperation, and mind numbing fear… a prayer to Jehovah that love and humanity will ultimately triumph in the face of overwhelming degradation and despair. “I Believe In You” (track #21) is a life affirming summation of the overcoming power of faith, while the concluding piece, “Heaven’s Welcome” (track 22), becomes an overwhelming orchestral testament to the divinity and spiritual ascension of the mortal soul … a symphonic, choral celebration of the joyous moment when God and Man conjoin, becoming as one as mortal life reaches its consummate, enduring summit.

Mark McKenzie’s score for Max And Me is a triumphant, ravishing masterwork … a glorious, infinitely exquisite tribute to the overpowering faith and inherent goodness alive within the human soul.  It is a work of extraordinary beauty and dramatic power that cries out from the ashes of the concentration camps for recognition, for a voice, and for a legitimate CD release.  Perhaps time and justice will ultimately prevail. Until then, the composer’s musical vision and ethereal artistry shall continue to prevail…while the charity and sacrificial nobility of men like Maximillian Kolbe will forever inspire the world.  

++ Steve Vertlieb,  March, 2018  

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