Surround Sound: The Standalone Experience

[30 April 2008]

By Marco Lanzagorta

Arguably, soundtracks are more than simple music. That is, while music itself can be described in terms of compositions, orchestrations, harmonies, melodies, and performances, movie scores also evoke the rather complex synergy that exists between sound and the cinematic image. As such, a soundtrack can only be rightfully appreciated within the context of the movie it accompanies. But then again, there are a few instances where we can listen to a score and still appreciate all its structural and inspirational beauty. This installment of Surround Sound explores a few recently released soundtracks that guarantee a pleasurable listening experience, even if heard outside the movie theater.

Atonement - Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 10]

Nominated for several prestigious awards around the globe,Atonement (Joe Wright, 2007) is a gorgeous movie that talks about culpability and penitence. Based on the celebrated novel by acclaimed writer Ian McEwan, Atonement is a compelling study about the unbearable guilt felt by one its characters, who, after giving a wrongful accusation that ultimately led to the destruction of several lives, cannot find solace in life. As such, Atonement is about those irreparable loses, that no amount of remorse and regret will ever bring them back. Furthermore, Atonement beautifully reconstructs the serene mid-‘30s on a refined English estate, as well as the dreadful beaches of Dunkirk and the overwhelmed military hospitals in London during the War World II years. Adding to the mix, the movie enjoys the truly exceptional performances of James McAvoy and Keira Knightley. Atonement is, without a doubt, one of the best films of 2007.

Dario Marianelli’s Academy Award winning score for Atonement is truly outstanding. Believe it or not, its most salient characteristic is the use of an old-fashioned typewriting machine as a musical instrument (but then again, the legendary maestro Ennio Morricone did something similar in Il Mio Nome e Nessuno [aka My Name is Nobody, Tonino Valerii, 1973], where he accompanied his orchestra with alarm clocks and automobile claxons). Still, most of the score relies on the English Chamber Orchestra, French classical pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and cello prodigy Caroline Dale to create a majestic, romantic, and dramatic underscoring to the film. Furthermore, the compositional style of this soundtrack is at times reminiscent of Beethoven, and it truly conveys a wide spectrum of emotions. For instance, the track “Elegy for Dunkirk”, a mournful composition accompanied by a solemn chorus, not only is the highlight of the score, but also one of the most beautiful pieces ever composed for a film. From depressing sadness to paradisaical happiness, Marianelli’s score for Atonement is a true masterwork that demands to be appreciated on its own strengths.


Youth Without Youth - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]

Youth Without Youth (2007) marks the return of the illustrious Francis Ford Coppola to the directorial chair after a 10 year hiatus. Unfortunately, in spite of its many highlights, Youth Without Youth falls short of what is to be expected from such a legendary director. Based on a novella by Mircea Eliade, Youth Without Youth takes place right before the first shots of World War II were fired, and Tim Roth plays Dominic, a 70 year old Romanian linguist who is struck by lighting. Instead of killing Dominic, this inexplicable atmospheric event somehow causes his body to rejuvenate. As a consequence, Hitler and his Third Reich want to capture Dominic and study his unique physiological processes, probably with the purpose of building a race of super-soldiers. Full of intrigue and romance, Youth Without Youth succeeds in articulating an intriguing and preposterous idea, providing a satisfying viewing experience.

Acclaimed Argentine classical composer Osvaldo Golijov provides Youth Without Youth with a truly outstanding score. Golijov’s composition gives Coppola’s film a moody atmosphere of mystery, drama, romance, and suspense. Avoiding the gargantuan orchestrations that are popular in modern Hollywood flicks, Golijov’s music feels kind of retro, reminiscent of the scores written by Max Steiner and Franz Waxman during the ‘30s and ‘40s. Furthermore, Golijov’s orchestration uses rare instruments, such as the Kamanche (a Persian stringed instrument played with a bow) and the cimbalom (an Eastern European instrument that looks like a hammered dulcimer). In addition, even though the movie takes place in Romania, Golijov adds some Argentinean flavor to this films score. Indeed, some of his compositions, such as “Love Lost”, have the same rhythm and instrumentation as the Tango. A beautiful soundtrack, Youth Without Youth offers a refreshing approach to movie scoring.

Hitman - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 7]

Over the past decade, films based on popular video games have proved to be problematic. The adaptation of an intrinsically egocentric environment into a narrative structure is far from being an easy step. And still, these movies continue to be produced in spite of negative critical reviews and poor audience reception. Such is the case of Hitman (Xavier Gens, 2007), a violent flick based on the game of the same name. In Hitman, Agent 47 (Timothy Olyphant) is a brutal mercenary who gets embroiled in a complex political conspiracy. A brainless action movie if I ever saw one.

The effective action oriented score for Hitman was composed by Geoff Zanelli, a member of the renowned Media Ventures (nowadays know as Remote Control Productions). As most connoisseurs know, since the late ‘90s, and under the firm direction of the legendary Hans Zimmer, this group has defined the musical structure of the action genre. In terms of compositional style and performance, Hitman does not offer many musical surprises. At times this music brings to mind the incessant percussions and relentless rhythm that characterizes the Bourne scores, and tracks such as “Train Station” offer action driven orchestrations with a spotlight on strings, percussions, and electronics. In a nutshell, the score for Hitman is loud, uses a combination of orchestra and synthesizers, and although structurally simple, it offers extraordinary moments guaranteed to raise our adrenaline levels.

Into the Wild - Original Score [rating: 6]

Allegedly based on a true story, Into the Wild (2007) tells the story of Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), a successful student and thriving athlete, and his trip of self discovery in the Alaska wilderness. A film with a narrative structure clearly cemented on the ideas of Joseph Campbell, Into the Wild shows how Christopher donates most of his possessions to charity, and then hitchhikes his way to the top of the continent, meeting several characters who shape his view of the world. Firmly directed by Sean Penn, Into the Wild is an inspirational and evocative film that questions the cultural traps of modern society and consumerism.

The score for Into the Wild was composed by no less than three artists: Michael Brook, Kaki King, and Eddie Vedder. However, while Michael Brook provided most of the instrumental compositions that underscore the action seen in the film, Eddie Vedder and Kaki King provided a series of songs. Thus prospective buyers should beware that there are two different soundtracks available on the market, and the present review is about the one that includes Brook’s inspiring music. With this score, Brook proves to be a great musician with a good sensibility for film scoring. For instance, the unique location of the film is aptly encoded into the music. That is, most of Brook’s compositions rely on harmonicas and guitars to emulate the wild and rural landscape of Alaska. Overall, the score for Into the Wild is structurally simple, but very melodic and elegant.

Broken English - Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 5]

Zoe R. Cassavetes’ Broken English (2007) is a surprisingly delightful romantic comedy. Parker Posey plays Nora Wilder, a thirty-something single woman who clearly lacks a meaningful personal life. Furthermore, her mother and friends constantly remind her of her loneliness and misery. Under these circumstances, she meets Julien (Melvil Poupaud), a Frenchman who will teach her a couple of lessons about life. In a sense, Broken English tries to poke fun at the complex behavior of single adults who cannot fit within the norm established by a coupled society.

The soundtrack for Broken English mostly consists of a series of pieces composed and performed by Scratch Massive, a techno group created by two famous Parisian Disk Jockeys, Maud Geffray and Sebastien Chenut. The techno music is surprisingly good, featuring rhythmic instrumental tracks that emphasize electronic tonalities and percussions. The track that opens the Broken English album, “In the Dressing Room”, probably is the best on the entire CD and features soft and elegiac female vocalizations. In addition to Scratch Massive’s composition, we also get to hear three good pieces by Juan Trip. The best of them, “A Dreamful of Time”, is mostly based on a rhythmic guitar. Taken as a whole, the soundtrack for Broken English may not be noteworthy in the scoring scene, but nevertheless it provides a good listening experience.

Darfur Now - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 5]

Darfur Now (2007) is a harrowing documentary that denounces the heinous acts of genocide currently taking place in Darfur, Sudan. These terrible and brutal events are portrayed in Darfur Now from the perspective of six different individuals. From a UCLA graduate student to a United Nations humanitarian, this film explores the intractable difficulties of the situation by showcasing the first hand experiences of its protagonists. By any means, Darfur Now is a powerful piece of filmmaking, and its highlight may well be the strong ideological, political, moral, and legal complexities that the movie conveys.

Acclaimed composer Graeme Revell has made a name for himself by making scores with unusual instrumentations that generate a musical atmosphere made of tribal, ethnic, and ancestral sounds. That is, avoiding melodies, themes, and motifs, Revell shines in the creation of overwhelming musical backgrounds. And such is the case for his score for Darfur Now. Indeed, most of the tracks on the soundtrack CD feature guitars and synthesizers accompanied with what appears to be native instruments. Nonetheless, the dissimilar sounds produced by Revell’s distinctive instrumentations blend nicely with each other. Overall Darfur Now is a notch above the average music for a documentary, and deserves to be listened on its own. 

Persepolis - Original Soundtrack [rating: 5]

One should not get fooled by the fact that Persepolis (2007) has substantial animated sequences, as this flick packs a strong political and ideological subtext. A French production directed by the duo Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis is sort of an autobiographical effort exploring the troubled upbringings of Satrapi. Indeed, most of the movie is based on a series of popular graphic novels authored by Satrapi, where she narrates her cultural angst as an inquisitive kid with a love for western culture while living in traditionalist Teheran. Combining comedy and drama, Persepolis succeeds in its discussion of complex themes such as the Islamic Revolution and the difficult cultural conflicts that have troubled Iran over the past three decades.

The score for Persepolis was composed by Oliver Bernet, and smoothly mixes a variety of sounds and styles. Even though traditional Middle Eastern tonalities are heard throughout the entire soundtrack, we also appreciate delightful guitars playing Spanish and Mexican music, and a strong Parisian flavor. At some points during the film this music is used in a fun way, reminiscent of the scores for the classic Warner Bros. cartoons. And at other times the music is rather majestic, bringing to mind Maurice Jarre’s opulent score for Lawrence of Arabia. Furthermore, the soundtrack includes a new envisioning of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” (featured as the main theme in the unforgettable Rocky III). Arguably, the combination of musical styles in the soundtrack of Persepolis further highlights the cultural conflicts featured in the film. 

The Great Debaters - Music Recorded for the Film with Vintage Bonus Tracks [rating: 3]

The Great Debaters (2007) unmistakably shows the many outstanding artistic sensibilities of Denzel Washington, not only as an accomplished actor, but also as a competent director. Based on the true story of Melvin B. Tolson, a farsighted professor at Wiley College in Texas, The Great Debaters succeeds in providing an inspirational and motivating cinematic experience. Washington plays Tolson, and the film is a dramatization of how he created the school’s first debate team, and subsequently challenged the prestigious University of Harvard at a national championship.

 

The instrumental score for The Great Debaters was composed by the versatile James Newton Howard. However, this review is for the accompanying CD that features a generous selection of songs featured in the film. As such, this soundtrack is a mere collection of pieces that appear to combine the gospel, jazz, and blues in a rather rhythmic fashion. Most of these songs are composed and performed by Alvin Youngblood Hart and Sharon Jones. A true mixed bag of goodies, this CD can only be recommended to those die hard fans of these often misunderstood musical genres.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/surround-sound-the-standalone-experience/