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Film Score Monthly | April 9th, 2009

Forgotten Ellis Island is a PBS documentary (shown in the U.S. as part of the “Independent Lens” series) about the immigrant hospital on the famed island in New York harbor. Once just a single building, it soon grew to over 20 structures that extended to other islands near Ellis. The documentary focuses on what the hospital had to deal with in the early years of the 20th Century: from contagious diseases to mental disorders to births. Many people never got off the island—despite having traveled so far and being so close to the new world—because of quarantines and/or their ultimate deaths in the hospital. Producer/director Lorie Conway scoured the archives of the island as well as libraries for the documentary. The resulting film, while somber and depressing in tone, is lifted up by the sheer force of composer Gil Talmi’s melodic and inspiring score.

Talmi, who has worked mainly in television and was nominated for an Emmy for his work on The CBS Evening News With Dan Rather, scores the movie with deep respect for the material. Most archival documentaries rely heavily on the music to help tell the story of their subjects, and such is the case here. Talmi’s gets to the heart of the story with the recurring “Lullaby for America” piano-based theme that works it way throughout the film, while he lifts the spirit in other moments like the wondrous “The Line” and the ragtime-inspired “The Joys of Youth.” Also excellent is the “Arrival” theme, which draws on the wonders of the new world as perceived by the immigrants. This reminds me of John Barry’s excellent score to Across the Sea of Time in scope and feel—and that is a high compliment indeed.


The score is available only as a download for now. If you’re hungry for a lesser-known talent, you should definitely check out this release, as well as Talmi’s download-only score to another documentary, New Year Baby, which has a more Asian influence.


- Cary Wong


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