Steve McQueen’s powerful drama 12 Years a Slave is one of the most talked about films of the year. The unflinching true story of a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery in the 1840s, it’s challenging and unsentimental. Like a dose of strong medicine, it’s a film that’s necessary, but harsh. Chiwetel Ejiofor (the Operative in Serenity) is superb as Solomon Northup, the kidnapped carpenter and musician whose 1853 memoir is the movie’s source. If Solomon’s suffering in the film is relentless, the accompanying soundtrack is more a balm to soothe your frayed nerves. More on Music From and Inspired by 12 Years a Slave after the jump.
Largely gospel-inflected blues, the collection is aptly titled “Music From and Inspired By.” Curated by John Legend, the number of tracks from the film that appear here is limited: there’s two pieces from Hans Zimmer’s original score, and two fiddle pieces arranged by Nicholas Britell and performed by Tim Fain. There’s also a soulful gospel rendering of “Roll Jordan Roll” performed by Topsy Chapman and featuring Chiwetel Ejiofor’s own vocals as they appear in a scene from the movie. A diverse set of artists supply the other songs on the album, each of them inspired by McQueen’s film and its subject. John Legend’s contribution is two spare but sinewy songs, the insistent acoustic blues drive of “Move” and the multi-tracked gospel vocals of his soulful take on “Roll Jordan Roll.” The great blues guitar traditionalist Gary Clark Jr. delivers two standout tracks as well, the finger-picking paean “Freight Train” and the slower-than-molasses blues of “(In the Evening) When the Sun Goes Down.” Alabama Shakes prowl through the Max Roach classic “Driva Man” with a lurching, sinister beat befitting the song’s grim evocation of an overseer letting the whip fly. “My Lord Sunshine (Sunrise)” from David Hughey and Roosevelt Credit is simple but memorable, a traditional call and response work song.
Less successful are the songs from artists with more contemporary pull. “Queen of the Field (Patsey’s Song)” from Alicia Keys is fair, her trademark piano accented with more traditional instruments and distractingly reverbed drums. She sings with emotion, but the song lacks the immediacy of the more traditionally infused tracks. The same dynamic affects Chris Cornell’s “Misery Chain,” though the song is more musically interesting, with its walking jazz-blues chord shifts. Joy Williams duets with Cornell, and their harmonies are lovely. UK soul-singer Laura Mvula’s version of “Little Girl Blue” is hushed, restrained and tasteful. With a fast-paced gospel shuffle, the album closes out on a rare upbeat note with Cody Chesnutt’s “What Does Freedom Mean (To a Free Man).”
In the film, director McQueen punctuates Solomon’s painful journey with beautiful images of southern bayous and cotton fields as the music pulses underneath. These elliptical moments are called “pillow shots”, and the soundtrack album is in its own way an extended pillow shot, the music that carries the film’s weighty subject with soulful grace. It’s not the phenomenon that the “O Brother Where Art Thou” soundtrack was for the Coen brothers and bluegrass, but it has found success. Inspired and tasteful, it’s easy to hear why.