Solving Agatha Christie's Classic “Who-Sung-It?”
By Sir Kenneth Branagh • December 27, 2017
For the end credits to his 2017 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, director Kenneth Branagh sought a musical complement to the story’s thrilling twists and turns. The result was “Never Forget,” a haunting ballad - with lyrics by Branagh himself, and music by his longtime collaborator (and fellow PRS/ASCAP affiliate) Patrick Doyle - that captures the emotional and musical core of the film. Branagh shared with us the back story of the creation of “Never Forget."
The many delicious plots twists in Murder on the Orient Express show Agatha Christie at her most masterful. In our new film of the classic novel, we determined to offer a new movie audience some surprises of our own. One of the most pleasing occurs as the credits begin to roll. A beautiful and poignant melody with which the audience have become familiar, starts to play, and an ethereal and delicate female voice begins to sing.
Movie audiences are often swift to leave at the end of the story proper, but in this case we've noticed a slowly growing phenomenon. It’s been reported to us by cinema owners all over the world. People about to leave, interrupt their departure, and instead, stay to listen to the lyric, and very particularly they stay to work out, "Who sung it?” And thereby hangs a tale.
At the centre of Christie’s thriller is a human tragedy. It is slowly uncovered by the events of the murder case and at its heart lies the death of a child. The loss of the innocent, and the pain that springs from it permeates the entire mood of the story, and brings a violent desire for revenge to the surface. The civilised becomes primitive, and in an isolated train carriage, trapped perilously in the snow, anything is possible. What we hear ringing in our ears is a cry of pain, and a violent death. An avenger has struck but the loss remains. What now, to purge what Shakespeare called “the poison of deep grief?”
Music. “Music for a while, will all your cares beguile.” Those lines of Purcell spoke loudly to Patrick Doyle and I as we sought musical closure for this story, with a song that could play as the passengers of this train reflect on their fates and the movie concludes. The key aim was simplicity. A lyric with an uncluttered appeal from the singer, to be heard by their lost love, and to “come home.” A tension in the lines, between acknowledging that the request was illogical - the person was gone - and still the necessity to be present in that musical grieving, and to therapeutically relive the loss, with the goal of consolation.
When I was a boy in Belfast, my Irish granny would sing “Danny Boy” at most family gatherings. She had lost her own brother Danny, she cried every time she sang, and yet every single time she needed to sing this haunting folk classic once again. To acknowledge the loss again, to move on just that little bit more. It was that quality of need in the singing that we wanted to find. Patrick’s beautiful theme could be observed as musically as possible, but it was a “feeling” for the music and the meaning that we wanted above all.
There turned out to be an obvious choice and the only choice. It’s the one that has all those cinema goers standing in the aisles to discover whether their instinct is right, until the confirming credit at last appears, and from Phoenix to Falmouth the cry goes up, “Of course, it’s Michelle Pfeiffer!” And to our great good fortune it really was.
I asked her by email if she would consider it. She replied instantly “send.” She listened to it, and 20 minutes later, rang to chatter a little about why we should ask Rihanna, how many voice lessons she would need, before I simply said, “Are you going to sing it for us?” to which she replied without hesitation, “The music is from the heart of the film, the message is from the heart of my character. It completes her journey. It completes the story and lets the people move on, in the story, and in the cinema. Of course I’m going to sing it.”
Boy were we ever glad she did. She didn’t merely sing (although that she did beautifully - she “experienced” the song for the listener, with honesty and without ego. Rawness and fragility are part of its beauty. She carried the openness we hoped to achieve from the song and with a professionalism that was exquisite.
Michelle, thank you.
Patrick and I will “Never Forget.”