As the year comes to its mid-point, so too does arise the critical impulse to “sum up” what has happened thus far. Better critics than myself may be able to resist the Buzzfeed-driven feeling to encapsulate what is essentially an arbitrarily delineated period of time with a numbered list—but, for better or for worse, that day is not today for me. (I can at least promise that there will be no cat gifs.)
However, as most critics will likely admit, doing lists of any kind, even at the end of the year, usually comes down to coin-flips rather than definitive answers. Even when a particular album stands out above the others, gradient rankings can usually be differentiated by inches rather than miles. With that in mind, this edition of Notes on Celluloid is dedicated to mentioning some of the noteworthy soundtracks of 2014 thus far, in no particular order.
US: 11 Mar 2014
There’s one score I can say that stands out above the rest: Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurrianns’ unsettling, unforgettable collection of Penderecki-inspired pieces composed for Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy. There’s not much more I can say that hasn’t already been said in my review of the score, but I can add that the music has continued to thrill even months after I gave it the first spin.
Deborah Young of The Hollywood Reporter argues that Bensi and Jurrianns’ “lugubrious” music “obsessively control[s] the mood of virtually every scene,” which for many will likely be the case. Creaky cellos, shrill strings, and malevolent ambience dominate the foreground of the album’s compositions. Even if you haven’t seen Villeneuve’s jaundiced cinematic take on the José Saramago novel, its paranoia is plenty evident in Bensi and Jurrianns’ pieces. There are instances, however, where the dominant mood is disrupted: the whimsical, vintage thriller clarinet of “Control” is one case, as is the gorgeous, cathartic string part at the end of “I Think You Know”. Undoubtedly, Enemy‘s soundtrack does note make for an easy ride; anyone who gets panicked by the sound of footsteps in the wee hours of the night probably shouldn’t give it a spin. But for anyone looking for a challenging venture into the sonic level of the psychological underworld, Bensi and Jurrianns have the ticket.
On the other end of the spectrum, plenty of soundtracks from 2014’s first stretch fell flat, and not for lack of opportunity. Despite being yet another unnecessary sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire did leave the chance for composer JXL (née Tom Holkenborg) to capitalize on one of the first film’s few successes, Brian Tyler’s muscular score. Some of Tyler’s compositions from the original 300 have gone on to become backing music to trailers the world over.
While 300 suffered from being obsessed with its own glitzy surface, Tyler’s music made sure the blood soaked proceedings were propulsive rather than mind-numbing which, unfortunately not even he could prevent at times. But while like Tyler, JXL creates his sonic backing for 300: Rise of an Empire with an interest in amping up the battle scenes, he does so in a way far less interesting than his predecessor.
The cacophonous climaxes of the score tend toward texturelessness, with each instrument—usually brass, strings, and distorted electric guitar—forming a noisy, unappealing mush of intensity. More ethereal passages such as the choir-driven “A Beach of Bodies” are a lovely respite, but on the whole JXL’s technique is to oscillate between the tranquil, percussionless moments and the war-driven peaks. Just as it was with the visuals in 300: Rise of an Empire, the appeal of clanging swords only lasts for so long.
Where JXL’s work for 300: Rise of an Empire hits too high in volume levels, Rolfe Kent’s understated score to Jason Bateman’s equally understated directorial debut, Bad Words, sits too cozily in the background. As one commenter recently notified me, the purpose of music is to enhance the cinema that it supports—and this, of course, is true. Additionally, though, there is one thing that can make a score even greater in such a way that one will want to listen to it even beyond the red velvet seats of the theatre.
With compositions like Bensi and Jurrianns’ Enemy OST, the music is so compelling that it functions both in and out of the context of cinema. Kent’s Bad Words OST, unfortunately, falls limp when not serving as a supplement to Bateman’s dark comedy. It’s possible to make a low-key, superficially unassertive score and have it be able to be engaging on its own terms—Eef Barzelay’s charming work on the 2007 indie comedy Rocket Science is a good example—but in Kent’s case, Bad Words calls for something a little humdrum. Often enough, a film limits the range of a composer in being able to construct something that transcends the screen. Kent’s light compositional hand is perfect for Bateman’s cinematic vision, but in CD form the images don’t come as easily.
For however many flops there may have been in this first part of 2014, there are plenty of scores that worked well. The four below represent the sharpest compositional contributions to the cinematic world in 2014—thus far.
Like Enemy, The Face of Love tells the story of a strange double. In this case Tom (Ed Harris), is a double for a man he never even met named Garrett (also played by Harris), the late husband of Nikki (Annette Bening). Nikki runs into Tom at an art gallery one day, whereupon she is struck by just how much he resembles her departed husband. A friendship is struck, followed then by a romance.
The tumult of falling in love with someone who in every moment reminds one of a past love is tricky material, but one that storied actors such as Bening and Harris are more than capable of bringing to life. Fortunately, they and director Arie Posen are joined by the capable musical mind of Marcelo Zarvos. The Face of Love OST is a romantic score, but it does so without being overly weepy or sentimental. The strings do their thing at all the right moments—the tranquil piano of “Tom Checks Out Nikki” forms the background for some obvious emotive swells—but Zarvos keeps things from veering too far into John Williams territory.
Most importantly, however, is the range of stylistic variations Zarvos uses. “Crashing Waves” incorporates a two-note ostinato figure on the violin with a legato piano passage, which is then interrupted by another violin passage in a strange rhythm. “Painting Montage” builds layers of strings into a lush, sentimental middle passage accented by flutes. The spaces between the notes in “Breaking Bread” are done in such a way to emphasize the otherwise mezzo-piano pizzicato. (For those intrepid historians of film music, let the record show that The Face of Love OST is the rare case where a track entitled “Car Chase” is not propulsive and loud.)
Piano and strings are Zarvos’ primary tools, and he uses them well, creating an ambiance that’s troubled and nostalgic; even in the tender moments, a sense of hurt lingers. The Face of Love depicts complicated and at times contradictory emotional states; it’s fitting, then, that Zarvos takes the listener through a whole host of emotions, never letting one build up too much.
The Right Kind of Wrong doesn’t do a great deal in terms of making the rom-com genre feel fresh. It doesn’t help that its storyline reeks of white male entitlement, either. Leo (Ryan Kwanten) falls in love with Colette (Sara Canning) after a less-than-amicable divorce. Sounds harmless enough, until the attention-grabbing catch hits: he falls in love with her on her wedding day.
Naturally, he pursues her and tells her that her husband “doesn’t deserve her”—going any further in describing the plot, as is probably evident, would elicit groan after groan. But in spite of all the superficial problems with the movie, composer Rachel Portman has done what it takes a very skilled musician to do: make a fantastic score out of unimpressive cinema.
Portman has already shown her ability to astound in a secondary role. David Nicholls underrated adaptation, One Day (2011), featured a few pieces of hers; the Original Soundtrack (OST), though largely a compilation, concluded with four scored pieces of hers. Though many might view these as simple bookends, they are actually quite stunning, rising above the Elvis Costello and Corona tunes they cap off.
It’s unsurprising, then, that Portman is as impressive as she is here. From the sound of The Right Kind of Wrong OST, she took the recording studio and maximized it to its full potential, in the process creating a soundtrack that bounces between cartoonish zaniness (“Flying”), stroll-in-the-garden charm (“Leo Leaves the Wedding”), and even Mission: Impossible percussion (“Spark it Up”). The main motifs of the score are usually performed on acoustic guitar, giving the music a kind of optimism that one is likely to hear out of any (500) Days of Summer-inspired indie band.
Alas, there are places where Portman can’t escape the overbearing cheese of the movie she’s writing for: “Colette Comes Back” is every bit the rom-com ending it sounds like. Overall, however, The Right Kind of Wrong OST is a knock out of the park, and an indication that Portman is a composer that should be on everyone’s radar.
Young’s comment about the pervasive moodiness of Bensi and Jurrianns’ Enemy OST is actually better applied to Mica Levi’s nerve-tingling minimalist soundtrack for Jonathan Glazer’s thriller Under the Skin. Opening cut “Creation” sets the mood that never lets up: as a foul wind blows, buzzing, rapid strings build to a tense, brittle peak—and then things just fade away, leaving a question mark rather than a conclusion.
In a recent interview with Pitchfork, Levi described the purpose of the film’s opening music: “[It’s] complex and slightly sophisticated; it’s supposed to feel like a life form you can’t quite understand, but it’s carrying on relentlessly, like a beehive.” Her words fit like a glove; the string arrangements on Under the Skin OST arouse feelings similar to hearing a cloud of bees off in the distance: you can’t see them, but you know they’re there, and the thought of an impending attack sends waves of terror down your spine. In Under the Skin, however, the beehive has a brief allure: an alien takes the body of a woman (Scarlett Johansson) who then seduces them, only to kill them and harvest their bodies.
The overall color of Levi’s work is best described by one of the song titles: “Lonely Void”. Even at their loudest, these tracks don’t feel full; there’s a real sense of endless space that Levi creates behind the jittery strings. The image of Johansson’s sterling visage on the LP’s cover art is a reminder of why the space is there: it’s her character’s home. On the aptly titled “Death”, the notes sound like cries of distress from the deep space from which she came.
Like Enemy OST; this isn’t easy stuff to listen to; in fact, it’s even more difficult. This is tonal music, but more often than not it feels atonal. One could try to casually listen to the score, but the music of Under the Skin crawls out of the speakers and inches its way across your central nervous system, all the while you think the sound is only affecting your ears. Otherworldly, unnerving, and uncomfortable in the best way possible, Under the Skin OST is every bit as terrifying as Glazer’s cinematic vision. This is a score that can’t help but conjure up images in the head.
The names Darren Aronofsky and Clint Mansell are synonymous with film music excellence. Beginning with 2000’s Requiem for a Dream, the duo has built upon every achievement they’ve made, changing genres and styles with each successive movie. “Lux Aeterna,” the centerpiece of Requiem for a Dream’s score, is what Mansell is most well known for; it’s the background for innumerable trailers, even spawning a popular Lord of the Rings mashup.
His finest achievement, however, is the chamber quartet/post rock collaboration Mansell arranged for The Fountain, Aronofsky’s 2006 tome on thanatophobia. The Fountain OST is a marvel of an album, and it cemented Mansell’s status as a premier film composer. (It was also the subject of Notes on Celluloid’s inaugural Great Scores column.)
The Kronos Quartet, one of the groups that contributed to the excellence of that score (Scottish post-rockers Mogwai being the other), are now back with Mansell for Noah, and the creative energies are as ambitious as the story of Noah itself. Whereas The Fountain OST is an intimate 46 minutes, Noah OST runs well over an hour, vividly depicting the tumultuous journey of a man called by God to ensure the world’s biodiversity following a massive flood.
There are a lot of reasons a story like that lasts through the ages, and Mansell knows the weight of the story he’s been assigned to tell through notes on a staff. And, as always, he rises to the challenge with aplomb.
The trailer for Noah was an odd thing to see upon its initial release; Aronofsky has never been known for gargantuan battle epics, which is what the trailer made it seem like the movie is. While there are plenty of the philosophical flourishes that Aronofsky is known for, Noah is as big as big-screen entertainment goes by his stylistic standards, and Mansell follows him in his large ambitions. The opening passages of the score, “In the Beginning, There Was Nothing” and “The World Was Filled With Violence,” are punctuated by resounding percussion. In The Fountain, the strings are mournful and reserved; Noah quite often bears similarities to Hans Zimmer’s action scores.
Out of all of soundtracks released this year, this is undoubtedly the most massive beast to wrangle; where Mansell’s best work arrests primarily at the emotional level, Noah drowns the listener in its lofty musical expanse. By the standards of a composer as renowned as this one, this is a major work in construction but not in success; The Fountain OST and the overlooked Last Night OST represent Mansell at its most grabbing. Nevertheless, this is still a work by a preeminent musician working with a director with whom he always succeeds. For that reason and several others, it’s worth getting swept up in Noah‘s storm.