A confession: I haven’t seen Cosmopolis yet. I would have loved to have made the flight to Cannes to catch David Cronenberg’s newest film so I could have been able to have seen it long before its August release here in the States, but I figured the festival had already filled its quota of critics aspiring for the big leagues. Still, now that I’ve listened to Cosmopolis’ soundtrack, I wish I would have made the trek. Anyone else who has heard it likely feels the same way, since this was released a whopping month and a half before the movie’s actual release date. The soundtrack, composed by Howard Shore and Canadian indie rockers Metric, is a sonic landscape much different than I imagined it being. The trailer to the movie depicts an L.A-style metropolis being torn apart by bloodthirsty protestors, all the while Robert Pattinson drives around in a limo making love to various women and staring out at the protestors with existential dread. I imagined something like a more atonal take on the electronic music Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross wrote for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. What I got wasn’t quite in that arena, but there are some traces of doom.
Cosmopolis joins the trend in electronic film scores that’s been playing out in the past few years. When Reznor and Ross won the Oscar for The Social Network, I nearly fell out of my seat. The same Academy that denied David Fincher’s masterpiece the Best Picture nod for the Merchant Ivory-aspiring The King’s Speech, a choice that will no doubt be lamented as the years go on, made a progressive choice in awarding an all-electronic score, giving it preference over traditional works by Alexandre Desplat and John Powell. (And if you’re wondering why the Academy often fears the bold, avant-garde choices, the answer is: old white dudes.) Yet for all of the attention electronic soundtracks have gotten, it’s easy to forget some of the most popular composers of today got their start in the genre. Hans Zimmer’s career began with synthesizer music, and Clint Mansell once played in the alt rock group Pop Will Eat Itself.
Howard Shore is no stranger to bolder compositions. His contribution to The Departed was one of the best works of movie music in the last decade, sounding like a fuller realization of Eric Clapton’s guitar score for Stephen Frears’ 1980’s gangster flick The Hit. Plus, having worked with Cronenberg on nearly all of his films, he’s no doubt attained a familiarity with the director, despite his chameleonic shifts in subject matter. The decision to pair up with Metric isn’t unique, but it is smart; Cosmopolis’ critique of the modern world is one that would benefit from the participation of musicians trying to live on the cutting edge. Like Mogwai’s union with Mansell on The Fountain, both can play to their strengths whilst creating a unified mood.
The product of this union, however, is rather disjointed. Half of these songs are moody instrumentals that are a variant on one theme, echoing the two-note motifs from Philip Glass’ Koyaanisqatsi. The other half is a varied set of tracks with vocals, many of which take a lot from post-rock. “I Don’t Want to Wake Up,” in particular, mirrors Mogwai’s use of the vocoder circa Happy Songs for Happy People. A lot of the instrumentals never really get off of the ground, and in turn they clash with the vocal compositions. The mood created here is something unlike the one in the film’s trailer; there’s a near sunniness on tracks like “Long to Live”. Admittedly, trailers aren’t guaranteed to accurately represent the movies they’re advertising, but given what’s been said about Cosmopolis in various interviews and plot descriptions, it’ll be interesting to see how these songs play out in the course of the film.
Still, some of the pieces here do play out like the trailer indicates.”Rat Men”, where the key motif is introduced, is appropriately tense, although the other iterations of the melody aren’t as engaging the third and fourth time around. The coolest of the vocal contributions, “Mecca”, performed by K’naan, is driven by an excellent percussive background and cynical urban observation, accented with a nicely placed jazz flute. In moments like these, the signs of what could have been a great collaboration are shown. One of the beautiful things about modern film scoring is how it’s become a genre prone to morphing just like any other; composers don’t merely have to rely on big orchestral sweeps to make their point anymore. But what the results of Cosmopolis show is that this innovation is likely to have plenty of growing pains along the way.