About this time of year, when awards are looming in the mind of every marketing agent, attempts are made to woo the critical community. There are junkets and special perks, packages containing screeners and other movie-related merchandise regularly arriving at a journalist’s doorstep. The goal of each one of these items is clear - leave an impression. If they can do that, perhaps the individual inspired will say something nice about them in a column, or better still, cast a vote that winds up winning the item a place on some year end Best Of list. Then the studio can advertise such an acknowledgment, pushing the product ever closer to a chance at Oscar (or at the very least, Golden Globe) glory. Soundtracks are not immune from this approach. Every year, dozens of discs come traveling over the SE&L transom, each one hoping to motivate some aesthetic appreciation, and as a result, a quote-worthy comment or two.
For the high profile titles like Frost/Nixon, Revolutionary Road, Slumdog Millionaire, and Milk, there is frequently no need to flaunt their importance. The media, mindful of jumping on any bandwagon before it hits full stride, always wants to be the first to taut any soon to be phenom, so there are many instances where the hype machine simply sits back and fuels itself. Between Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, Ain’t It Cool and Movie City News, there’s enough pre-release publicity to render most post-experience analysis moot. Take the three titles being discussed today as part of this installment of Surround Sound. Both The Reader and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button have been lauded as ‘tough to beat’ Academy faves. Yet few talk about the work of Alexandre Desplat or Nico Muhly, respectively. In the case of Last Chance Harvey, the two main actors - Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson - have garnered all the talk, leaving composer Dickon Hinchliffe out of the conversation all together.
While it may be too late to save their trip to the podium come 22 February, what’s clear about the three efforts discussed here is that they have every right to be considered among the year’s finest. While perhaps not 100% awards worthy, they still show a tremendous amount of musical breadth and aural atmosphere, beginning with:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 7]
As Brad Pitt vehicles go, this David Fincher masterpiece of modern filmmaking has its narrative issues. Frankly, screenwriter Eric Roth seems impervious to the forced melancholy that made his take on Forrest Gump so syrupy. As a result, he adds just as much pap here. But thanks to the man who made Se7en, Fight Club, and Zodiac so memorable, the movie more than stands on its own. It also helps that Alexandre Desplat handled the aural backdrop. Nominated for his work on 2006’s The Queen, the Frenchman has spent the last two decades dreaming up slightly idiosyncratic scores for many important movies. Benjamin Button, with its unusual narrative and timeless title character, requires a balanced aural perspective to keep things from becoming outrageous or simply unbelievable. Desplat does this magnificently. Along with a collection of era-appropriate songs (available on a second CD), we end up with a perfect sonic buffer.
Starting with “Postcards” we get the basics of Desplat’s approach - a careful combination of harmony and discord, with strings used to smooth out some of the rougher edges. It’s a conceit he will carry on throughout much of the score’s first half. You hear it in tracks like “Meeting Daisy”, “A New Life”, and “Love in Murmansk”. By the time we get to “Mr. Button”, we sense a shift, Desplat going for a more plaintive, studied ideal. With “Alone at Night” sounding like a hymn or prayer and “Nice to Have Met You” providing a new recognizable theme, the composer definitely creates a remarkable canvas. Toward the end, things start to get overly gloomy, however. Pieces like “Growing Younger” and “Dying Away” overstate their sympathies, while “Benjamin and Daisy” makes a nice, if unnecessarily soapy, finale.
The second disc, steeped in all kinds of amazing New Orleans jazz - “That’s How Rhythm Was Born”, “Freight Train Blues”, “If I Could Be With You (One Hour a Night)” - is a thoroughly enjoyable trip through the ages. We get wonderful classic tracks, a couple of Louis Armstrong masterworks, and snippets of movie dialogue, reminding us of what’s responsible for this embarrassment of riches.
Last Chance Harvey - Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 8]
Even for those well versed in the comings and goings of current Cineplex releases, the arrival of Last Chance Harvey seemed like a shock. Writer/director Joel Hopkins was not some Tinsel Town face to watch. His last big screen effort was 2001’s Jump Tomorrow. Huh? Right. Granted, costars Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson carry four Oscars between them, but their latest thespian doings don’t normally draw the kind of press that flailing no name TV stars seem to earn. Besides, this is a romance for aging adults - the title even suggests same - so Tinsel Town must understand the demographical concerns. No matter the film festival recognition or independent awards nods, many just didn’t know this was arriving on their year end radar. Even composer Dickon Hinchliffe is something of an unknown quantity. While his efforts have graced such divergent fare as Forty Shades of Blue and Married Life (both for director Ira Sachs), many more probably know the musician as a founding member of the UK pop band Tindersticks.
Such a background really shows throughout the Last Chance Harvey score. “The Brief Encounter” is like the instrumental version of a beautiful ballad, while “Parallel Lives” uses lilting piano lifts to create an atmosphere of longing and loss. “Kate” gives Thompson a wonderful theme, building on the melodies heard before, while “Taxi to the Airport” is another lovely piece with a melancholy edge. About halfway through, we get the song “I’m a Mean, Mean, Mean Son of a Gun”, and along with the closing number “Where Do We Go?”, it sticks out like a sore thumb. Neither track was composed by Hinchliffe, and the juxtaposition between his melodious trills and each song’s stomping staginess just doesn’t work. Why they were included is anyone’s guess. Frankly, more of the musician’s tiny tone poems would have been just fine.
The Reader - Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 7]
Slow, loping, and laconic, Mulhy’s work on The Reader is more ambient than aggressive. There is no solid repetition of themes, no attempt to remind the audience of action or individuals via certain sonic cues. Instead, the combination of piano signatures, lazy string streams, and occasional dramatic flourishes provides an even soundscape for the films many flaws to flow within. Mulhy doesn’t make the mistake of over-romanticizing the material. She’s not out to turn Hanna and Michael into some manner of star-crossed lovers. Instead, the entire score stays securely within a serious, almost strident ideal. This plotline needs to be respected, says Mulhy’s melodies, and for the most part, the listener acquiesces. Even toward the end, the score stays understated, avoiding outward melodrama and schmaltz to keep the sentiments real.
Beginning with minor moments like “The Egg” and “Spying”, things don’t really take off for the score until “The First Bath”. For those who know the film, this is also the beginning of Hanna and Michael’s elicit relationship. By the time we get to “You Don’t Matter”, Mulhy has done a good job of creating a compelling backdrop for their love. “Go Back to Your Friends” turns the tide, setting up the setting half of the film and the realization of our heroine’s troubled, inexcusable past. From then on, “Handwriting”, “The Failed Visit”, and “The Verdict” all accentuate the narrative with little bits of instrumental brilliance. Like the best movie compositions, The Reader supplements the tale. It doesn’t try to technically stand on its own or provide a wholly iconic counterpoint. Instead, Mulhy sees her role as coc-onspirator, not main attraction. It’s a role she and her score essay very well indeed.