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Surround Sound: Time and Place

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Wednesday, Jun 17, 2009
In this installment, Caprica, Year One, The Informers, While She Was Out, and Sin Nombre

For many, music is about memory. It’s about connecting a specific sound, or a score, to the situations you treasure (or that torment you) most. But there is more to it than that. Melody and its many components create links, undeniable anchors to elements about our life that seem significant and yet could be as mundane as some vague time or place. This is one of the reasons a carefully considered soundtrack is so important for a film. Randomly toss in the greatest hits of an era and you wind up with something dated and derivative. But move beyond the Billboard notion of atmosphere and things get a pick trickier. A composer is commanded to draw out as much mood and ambience as they can from their film work, yet at the same time, they can often undo the narrative or completely change the intent or tone. The careful evocation of location and logistics is a rare skill amongst cinematic tunesmiths, one few can claim as their own.


For this edition of Surround Sound, SE&L will look at five recently released film scores, each one set up to support a specific pragmatic paradigm. One is a prequel to a famous sci-fi series, the standard future shock mixed with a frightening sense of foreboding. Another goes way back in the past - almost prehistoric - before completely forgetting its purpose and turning all Madagascar II on us. From an attempt to recreate the ‘80s without actually dipping into the abundant Time/Life hit tracks of the time to illustrating the journey of one Latin American family to the potential freedoms of America, the music here reminds us that not everything about a circumstance is successfully put across by visuals, dialogue, or directorial flair. Sometimes, the right aural cues can make all the difference, as we will discover with the recently released soundtrack for the Battlestar Galactica set-up:


Caprica: Original Soundtrack from the Sci Fi Channel Television Pilot Episode [rating: 9]


Bear McCreary is slowly becoming the Michael Kamen of giant genre efforts. As the late great composer did for such cinematic luminaries as Terry Gilliam (Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) and David Cronenberg (The Dead Zone), the man behind some of TV’s greatest speculative fiction understands how to make the epic understated - and understood. Perhaps a better way of putting it is that McCreary can create the broadest of sonic scopes with the smallest of auditory signatures. For this backstory on how the Cylons were created and the civil unrest on the title planet where it all happened, the man responsible for several stunning soundtracks outdoes himself here.  As a result, Capirca is as much a work of visual invention as it is a stunning ethereal experience.


Like the pilot film itself, McCreary’s score builds. It adds layers and textures, moving from the basics (“The Graystone Family”) to bombast (“Terrorism on the Lev”) with grace and style. Understanding that any good score is built on themes, he uses main characters (“Zoe’s Avatar”) and certain relationships (“Joseph and Daniel”) to set up unseen conflicts and concerns. For those who have had the pleasure of watching the sensational opening salvo in what will surely be another stellar Sci-Fi Channel series, there is a lot of exposition in Caprica, the necessary filler for what can eventually be an ongoing narrative arc. But thanks to McCreary’s routinely excellent work, we can easily ‘bear’ both the action (“Daniel Captures the Code”) and the philosophical underpinnings (“Monotheism at the Athena Academy”) involved.



Year One: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 4]


Someone needs to get Theodore Shapiro a map…and fast. From all sounds and sonic cues, he is dead convinced that almost all the action in this Harold Ramis comedy takes place in Morocco, or Lebanon, or some other part of the clichéd Middle East. Famed for his work in satires such as Tropic Thunder, Old School, and the recent I Love You, Man, the 38 year old composer is content to convince us of the logistical lunacy of his aural choices. Granted, this is supposedly a “Biblical” comedy, but that doesn’t mean that ever note has to resonate with Arab awkwardness. All throughout the rather derivative and dull soundtrack for the Jack Black/Michael Cera vehicle, Eastern rhythms make a sloppy and often unnecessary intrusion. Sure, the names of the individual tracks (“Meet the Hebrews”, “Welcome to Sodom”) suggest such an Old World way with the backdrop, but there is a big difference between Cecile B. DeMille and aural dullness.


Still, there is some fun to be found here. “The Jackal Dance” makes for a keen bit of mind’s eye merriment (this review is occurring before the film’s official opening), as does “Virgin Sacrifice” and “The Royal Orgy”. And because this is comedy, we can expect the occasional lapses into funny business formula (“Yak Attack”, “Sargon Attacks”). But the biggest problem here is the almost constant repetition of sounds, signatures, and symbolism. It’s almost as if director Ramis instructed Shapiro to watch his film and add aural rim shots to everything he is doing. Comedy scores frequently force the humor, hoping to make you giggle by giving away the jokes within the arrangement. Shapiro is not quite so obvious, but there is a blatant burlesque to his approach. We can easily visualize the half-baked History of the World Part I aspects of the movie from the music presented.



The Informers: Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 7]


Christopher Young is one clever composer. Whether its genre junk (The Grudge, The Uninvited), stellar spook shows (Hellraiser, Drag Me to Hell), or middling mainstream fare (The Country Bears, Swordfish, Beauty Shop), he always seems to find the appropriate dramatics to underscore his cinematic themes. Instead of going for the easy approach, he cleverly compensates for an idea’s inherent flaws by locating the areas where he can provide support and sonically shores up the situation. This is clearly the case in Gregor Jordan’s mishmash mauling of Bret Easton Ellis’ popular novel. The film itself is a dull, loping drive through a Greed decade dimension bereft of anything remotely challenging or cheerful. To his credit, Young avoids all the synth beat silliness of the era and, instead, interjects electronics into his subtle yet stunning score.


From the fascinating title track to amazing moments like “No Wicked Way” and “A Rose is All Things Beautiful”, Young weaves an engaging and elegant aural tapestry. He dots his designs with little nods to the New Wave wonders of the ‘80s, but also recognizes that the film is not built on nostalgia. Indeed, like a sloppier Short Cuts, Gregor is attempting to mix several divergent yet slightly interconnected storylines together. It’s Young’s job to keep the tone in check, to recall the Reagan years without channeling Starship or The Human League. In fact, his score is perhaps the best and most consistent element of the entire motion picture experience, tracks like “Is She Really?” and “Dysfunctional Everything” displaying a convincing complexity the movie itself lacks. While The Informers itself as an exercise in unfulfilled possibilities, Christopher Young’s work in support definitely stands out.



While She Was Out: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]


Flying under the radar when it hit theaters a few months back, this curious crime thriller starring none other than Oscar winning actress Kim Basinger has one of those hoary old exploitation premises (abused woman is confronted and chased into the woods by a gang of gratuitous criminals - on Christmas Eve, no less. She seeks revenge.) and this gives Paul Haslinger some significant compositional fits. Peppering the soundtrack with creepy versions of holiday standards (“First Day of Christmas”, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”) as well as a few choice poptones (Joy Division’s “Day of the Lords”, “In Every Dream a Heartache” by Roxy Music), the motive here is menace. Like any good ‘woman in danger’ title, the former Tangerine Dream member (from ‘86 to ‘90) takes the concept and attempts to bring his own sense of the sinister to the mix - and for the most part, he succeeds. While perhaps not as potent as his work for Turistas or Vacancy, Haslinger can deliver good shivers.


Much of the material here consists of slowburn suspense, mood music in advance of mayhem. This is especially true of the ominous “Main Titles” and the equally effective “Car Chase”. Later on, Haslinger plays with the parameters of such a story set-up by giving us plotpoints (“Looking for Pictures”, “Thomas is Gone”) painted in odd orchestral strokes. As with most of the music made by his former band, the sounds here are spacey and quite otherworldly. Haslinger is going for an undercurrent of evil, not some outright illustration of terror. This is especially true of Basinger’s take on the old holiday chestnut. Given the narrative situation, there is something quite haunting about having a victim (and eventual perpetrator) of violent crime intone such sentiments. As he has shown time and time again, Haslinger is quite capable of creating music that is both meaningful and menacing. That is especially true with While She Was Out.



Sin Nombre: Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 6]


Looks, and listening, can be deceiving when it comes to Marcelo Zarvos backing for this unique immigrant tale. A relative newcomer to the composer game (his first score came for A Soccer Story back in 1999), his choices are usually quirky (Strangers with Candy, You Kill Me) or solidly centered just outside the Hollywood mainstream (The Good Shepherd, What Just Happened). With Cary Fukunaga’s critically acclaimed thriller, however, expectations can be the listeners undoing. When we hear the set-up in the storyline as well as the Latino location where most of the action will occur, we expect a score with lots of Hispanic flavor. Oddly enough, however, Zarvos undermines those stayed stereotypes by delivering a backdrop that’s part local color, party heavenly helpings of Hitckcock.


Indeed, the late great Master of Suspense gets a far number of sonic shout outs all through Sin Nombre‘s crucial musical cues. Zarvos channels such past luminaries as Bernard Herrmann and Franz Waxman with his efforts here, enlivening basic backings like “Ride into the Storm” and “The Attack” with a solid sense of the cinematically sinister. Equally adept at bringing some native flair to the mix, tracks like “The Journey” give us the rhythmic routines such a South of the Border scenario typically provides. But Zarvos never overplays his hand, relying instead on true compositional clarity to make his many points. As we move through “Sayra”, “Guatemala Crossing” and “She Is Gone”, we hear a craftsman completely in tune with his subject’s strengths (and potential weaknesses). Though it grows a bit derivative toward the end, the score for Sin Nombre is solid.


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