The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Hey Obama, name that tune!

November 6, 2008 |  5:59 pm

When we were all gathered around the TV Tuesday night, watching Barack Obama on stage in Chicago's Grant Park, basking in the glow of his historical victory, with the returns in and the election safely in the bag, the only question that remained unanswered was: What was that music playing that served as the underscore to Obama's big moment?

It was obviously a movie score, but what movie? The first guess, from someone who figured the campaign was going for uplift, was "Chariots of Fire." Wrong. One of my Chicago pals suggested "The Untouchables," figuring (1) it had a nice local angle and (2) it was about Eliot Ness cleaning up the mob, which has a certain resonance for die-hard Democrats after eight long years of Bush rule. Wrong.

TitansThe answer: Obama's triumphant music was from "Remember the Titans," the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced film from 2000 that stars Denzel Washington as a tough-minded coach of a newly integrated high school football team. The movie's composer, Trevor Rabin, was at home, watching the speech with his wife when the music began to swell. "We almost didn't get through the thing, because the phone started ringing and it didn't stop," he told me today. "I must've gotten a couple of dozen calls from friends and such. After about the fifth caller, I stopped picking up the phone because I wanted to watch Obama all the way to the end."

Rabin reacted to the way his work was displayed the way most film composers do. "I have to say I was surprised," he says with a laugh. "They played it louder at the rally than they did in the movie. They really cranked it up."

Hearing his music accompany Obama's victory celebration was especially moving for Rabin, who was born in South Africa and whose  family has a long involvement in the anti-apartheid movement. His cousin, Donald Woods, was a newspaper editor who spoke out against apartheid and fled the country after the death of his friend, Steve Biko, who was immortalized in Peter Gabriel's song, "Biko," as well as in the film "Cry Freedom," where Woods is played by Kevin Kline. Sydney Kentridge, another one of Rabin's cousins, prosecuted the South African government on behalf of the Biko family.

"We were a very politically active family," Rabin says. "My father was one of the first lawyers in South Africa to have a black partner, so I grew up very aware of the struggle going on. Coming from that background, it really gave me chills to have my music be a part of the election of the first black American president." As it turns out, Rabin wasn't entirely surprised to hear his score playing at an Obama event. The Obama campaign also used the score after his outdoor speech at the Democratic National Convention, playing it, Rabin says, "at the volume level you'd expect at a KISS concert."

Why did Obama--or someone in his camp--pick the music? I have no official word, though the obvious theory would be that it provided a nice fit for the Obama campaign's theme of inclusiveness and openness to change. "In the movie the football players triumph over adversity, so that's obviously part of it," says Rabin, who's written scores for dozens of films, including "Armageddon," "National Treasure" and "Get Smart." "But I'm guessing the music feels hopeful and stirring, or as my wife would say, invigorating. I guess it represents some of the optimism that Obama reflects."

An Obama supporter, Rabin says he'd happily make himself available if the president-elect needs any musical assistance for his inauguration. "I'm just happy to be associated with him in any way," he says. "One of my friends who called on Tuesday said, 'Wow, you've been immortalized!' But for me, it's just nice that anyone recognized the music. Obama didn't need any help. I thought his speech was great. He was uplifting, but he also said--let's get down to business. He seems to know what he's doing." 

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