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Surround Sound: Soundtracking (Part 1)

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Thursday, Jan 3, 2008

When we think about soundtracks, it is impossible to avoid bringing up the names of the giants in the field: Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, John Barry, Ennio Morricone, and Bernard Herrmann, to name just a few. Unfortunately, such a bias tends to affect our listening habits, and we often ignore the new voices that emerge from the film music community every year. And this is a real shame, as truly innovative and high quality scores have recently been made by newcomers who may lack the fame, but have the talent necessary to create blissful music. In an attempt to correct this situation, the current installment of Surround Sound will review some recently released soundtracks that feature sublime music made by relatively new talents.


30 Days of Night - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]


In spite of its detractors, the cinematic adaptation of the groundbreaking graphic novel by Steve Niles proved to be an entertaining and intriguing horror flick. Directed with a good sense of pace by David Slade, 30 Days of Night offers a truly nightmarish situation. As the title suggests, in the small town of Barrow, Alaska, the longest night of winter lasts 30 days (in reality it takes 65 days, but I guess Niles thought that 30 made a better title than 65). This long period of time without sunlight is used by a clan of vicious vampires to kill and feed with equal gusto. As a handful of survivors manage to take shelter in a claustrophobic attic, the movie turns suspenseful and ominous. Featuring gruesome visual effects, an absorbing storyline, awesome cinematography, and decent characterization, 30 Days of Night is one of the best horror offerings released in 2007.

The creepy music for 30 Days of Night by Brian Reitzell nicely fits the onscreen horrors and mayhem. Even though this is only Reitzell’s third score (following Friday Night Lights [2004] and Stranger than Fiction [2006]), he magnificently knows how to provide an aural atmosphere that will support the development of the narrative. A former drummer with rock bands, Reitzell followed a truly unusual approach to create the eerie score for 30 Days of Night. Indeed, besides using traditional digital instrumentations, Reitzell produced unsettling noises by manipulating a fast spinning pottery wheel that he bought at the local Home Depot. The result is a cacophonic, non-melodic musical soundscape that aptly captures the violence, otherness, and gruesomeness of the terrifying blood suckers. It may not have sophisticated compositions, instrumentations, or musical structure, but nevertheless the soundtrack of 30 Days of Night remains original and effective.


In the Shadow of the Moon - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 7]


A beautiful documentary that showcases probably the greatest achievement of mankind, In the Shadow of the Moon narrates the dramatic events that culminated with astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the lunar surface. The film not only uses stunning materials from NASA archives, but it also brings together some of the astronauts that participated in the Apollo program. Some of the legendary astronauts featured in the movie include Jim Lovell (Apollo 8 and 13), Dave Scott (Apollo 9 and 15), Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11), and Gene Cernan (Apollo 10 and 17). Unfortunately, the recluse Armstrong does not provide his personal reflections of such a groundbreaking event. As this flick confirms, even after nearly 38 years, the landing on the moon continues to be an awe-inspiring and breathtaking accomplishment.


The beautiful music for In the Shadow of the Moon composed by Philip Sheppard reflects the epic magnitude of the conquest of the moon. Composed for full-sized symphonic orchestra, choirs, and electronics, this soundtrack is heroic at times, and enigmatic at others. The track “The Eagle has Landed”, for instance, uses overwhelming Americana sounds that bring to mind the frontier mentality. On the other hand, “X-15 Jet” uses minimalist arpeggios that reveal the tenacity of mankind to understand the universe. The second soundtrack commissioned to Sheppard, In the Shadow of the Moon showcases his eclectic education and sensibility for classical music. A respected cellist, Sheppard heavily uses the ominous sounds of this instrument on his compositions and orchestrations. Overall, even though the soundtrack for In the Shadow of the Moon is not as majestic as Bill Conti’s The Right Stuff (1983) or James Horner’s Apollo 13 (1995), it still delivers a beautiful musical background for unforgettable images of human endurance and perseverance.


Lust, Caution - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 9]


The latest film by acclaimed director Ang Lee, Lust, Caution is a charged thriller set in an exotic-looking Shanghai, and takes place during the torrid years of World War II. This film tells the story of a woman who is swept into a dangerous situation with a prominent political figure. Espionage, intrigue, eroticism, and romance characterize Lee’s movie, which is based on the short story written by the highly praised Chinese author Eileen Chang. Featuring the histrionics of Tony Leung and Tang Wei, stunning cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, and incredible production design by Lai Pan, Lust, Caution is an elegant flick that brings to mind the alluring works of Kar Wai Wong.

Perfectly matching the delicacy and exoticism of Lust, Caution is the gorgeous score composed by Alexandre Desplat. Even though Desplat has been composing film scores since the early 1990s in his native France, he only came to international prominence very recently, with his work for English-language movies such as Birth (2004), Syriana (2005), Firewall (2006), and The Queen (2006). Desplat’s inspired orchestral compositions for Lust, Caution prominently use a melodic piano to underscore the drama and the romance, while a solo violin and accompanying strings are used to convey the suspense and scorching political landscape of the locale and time period. The musical duality of Desplat’s score is very expressive, features elegant instrumentations, and manages to provide a pleasing listening experience on its own.


Reservation Road - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]


Upon its original release, this film was celebrated as an effective dramatic thriller directed by two-time Academy Award writer and director Terry George. Reservation Road tells the heartbreaking story of two fathers and their families, and how their lives suddenly converge after a tragic car accident claims the life of a young child. This is a moody movie that deals with some of the darkest feelings from the human heart such as resentment, retribution, grief, hatred, and unbearable guilt. Featuring an outstanding cast led by Jennifer Connelly, Mark Ruffalo, Joaquin Phoenix, and Mira Sorvino, Reservation Road is a truly emotional flick.

Composed by the celebrated Mark Isham, the soundtrack for Reservation Road is as bleak and gloomy as the movie itself. For some strange reason, even though Isham has scored over 100 movies, he has never achieved the stratospheric levels of popularity that characterize Williams or Goldsmith. Still, Isham’s work for Reservation Road shows what a great musician he is. For this movie, Isham uses a small instrumental ensemble as well as keyboards and other electronic gadgets. Incessant electronic percussions, a sax, an oboe, and a clarinet offer an aural soundscape that conveys sorrow. Placing mood and atmosphere over melody, Isham delivers a haunting score that faithfully reflects the anguish and distress of the characters.


Superman: Doomsday – Original Soundtrack Recording [rating: 7]


Based on the bestselling series of comic books from the early 1990s, Superman: Doomsday presents the tragic story of the death, funeral, and resurrection of the indefatigable Man of Steel. Of course, as it was eventually revealed, this milestone in the history of the comic book industry was more a calculated ploy to increase sales than an artistic compulsion to explore a world without Superman. But nevertheless, not completely faithful to the original source, this animated movie tells how Lex Luthor’s LexCorps accidentally releases an intergalactic creature aptly named Doomsday. The ensuing battle between Doomsday and Superman reaches epic proportions, and culminates with the death of the quintessential American hero. Featuring the voices of Adam Baldwin, Anne Heche, and James Marsters, Superman: Doomsday is fun escapism if not much else.


The composing duties for Superman: Doomsday fell in the able hands of Robert J. Kral, who already had shown sensitivity for dramatic and action oriented scores with his work for the popular TV series Angel (1999-2004). Perhaps the greatest challenge confronted by Kral in scoring Superman: Doomsday was to follow the giant footsteps left by Williams with his unforgettable music for the original Superman (1978). To this end, Kral created a new heroic theme for the Man of Steel, which, even though it lacks the acoustic strength of Williams’ composition, it still delivers a musical punch. Kral’s score combines high and minor chords, and aptly balances action, suspense, and pathos. Quite unfortunately, Kral performed his music with electronics and synthesizers instead of a real orchestra, and the limits of the technology are often revealed during his more majestic compositions.


Things We Lost in the Fire - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 5]


In this dramatic film, Audrey Burke (Halle Berry), a widow, befriends Jerry Sunborne (Benicio del Toro), the troubled best friend of her recently deceased husband. As Jerry finds his way back in life, he also helps Audrey and her two sons to cope with their grief and confront their loss. Directed with flair by Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier, and featuring powerful performances by the leading stars, Things We Lost in the Fire presents a heartbreaking story of great sorrow and unbearable anguish, but also of immense hope.

The bleak soundtrack for Things We Lost in the Fire was composed by Gustavo Santaolalla and Johan Soderqvist. However, in spite of the alleged collaborative effort, the musical structure feels rather similar to Santaolalla’s Babel (2006) and Brokeback Mountain (2005). That is, the music for Things We Lost in the Fire is minimalist and mostly made of guitar snippets with infrequent harmonies provided by a small orchestral ensemble.  Lacking major themes and melodies, the lonely guitar in the score effectively provides an atmosphere of lamentation and sorrow. However, while the music is effective within the context of the film, those detractors who have questioned in the past the musical abilities of two-time Academy Award winner Santaolalla are not likely to change their mind after listening at his work for Things We Lost in the Fire.


Hollywood’s Greatest Hits: Classic Music From the Movies [rating: 6]


Arguably, the big problem with “Best of” compilations of film music is that, more often than not, we get the exact same pieces. Indeed, most of these collections feature nearly identical excerpts from John William’s Star Wars (1977), Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Miklos Rozsa’s Ben Hur (1959), Ernest Gold’s Exodus (1960), and Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek (1979). And even though these are undisputable landmarks of the genre, even casual fans probably already own the original releases. Therefore, Hollywood’s Greatest Hits: Classic Music From the Movies is highly commendable because it offers an eclectic selection of high quality film music that is rarely brought together in this type of compilation.


Hollywood’s Greatest Hits offers awesome film music that most casual fans probably have not had a chance to hear before. Some excerpts found on this outstanding 2-CD collection include John Addison’s A Bridge Too Far (1977), Ron Goodwin’s Battle of Britain (1969), Franz Waxman’s Taras Bulba (1962), Mario Nascimbene’s The Vikings (1958), Bronislau Kaper’s Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), and Nino Rota’s Roma (1972). Unfortunately, these are not original recordings, but re-recordings played by the Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra. And even though the performance of the orchestra is top-notch, some instrumentations and arrangements may sound a bit off the mark for those connoisseurs who are familiar with the original recordings. But nevertheless, featuring 47 tracks this compilation is likely to offer something new for everybody, and perhaps inspire the search for the original recordings. Personally, listening to the excerpt from Geroges Delerue’s Viva Maria (1965) was a true revelation to a beautiful score I was not familiar with.


The Nanny Diaries - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 1]


The stunning Scarlett Johansson may well be the only reason to watch The Nanny Diaries, an uninspired comedy directed not by one, but two directors, Shari Springer and Robert Pulcini. In this flick, Johansson plays the role of Annie Braddock, an aspiring anthropology student who has to work as a nanny for an obnoxious wealthy family to support herself.

The soundtrack for the Nanny Diaries is made up of popular songs, and quite frankly, it is thought provoking. Indeed, after listening to it, one wonders how a major film would be accompanied by such a lame compilation of uninspired songs. Perhaps with the sole exception of WAR’s timeless classic “Why Can’t We Be Friends”, all the other songs are not that good. As such, it is very difficult to envision why anybody would like to purchase such an insipid soundtrack.


The Ten - Film Soundtrack [rating: 3]


David Wain’s amusing comedy is made of 10 vignettes, each of them telling a story of what happens when different characters break each of the Ten Commandments. Even though it brings to mind the wacky situations and narrative structure that characterized Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983), The Ten feels refreshingly original. As an added incentive, The Ten features three of the hottest girls from Hollywood, Jessica Alba, Femke Janssen, and Winona Ryder. Towards the film’s end, rather bizarrely, all the interwoven stories culminate with a climatic song and dance cavalcade in the inimitable style of 1940s Hollywood musicals.

The soundtrack for The Ten was composed by Craig Wedren, who also composed the music for Wain’s previous flick, Wet Hot American Summer (2001), and the short lived TV series The State (1993). The music is fitting for the film, and equally multifaceted. From an epic opening in “Fanfare”, to Latin rhythms in “Mexico” and country-style music in “Goof/Prison”, Wedren shows a noteworthy musical background and sensible artistic inspiration. Unfortunately, some of the songs featured on the soundtrack CD are interrupted with snippets of dialogue from the movie. Overall, in spite of its underscoring achievements, The Ten may prove to be a soundtrack that is difficult to be listened on its own.

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