2012 was a fine year for film, but what about film music?
The answer is, well, not bad at all. Although the multiplexes reverberated with nothing quite so stirring, zeitgeisty or pop culture-impacting as, say, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s The Social Network or the Italians Do It Better-centric Drive, there were some very interesting scores on offer. Broadcast’s music for Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio was an obvious stand-out, and one imbued with no small amount of sadness – it was the last project to which the late Trish Keenan contributed before her untimely death.
Over the following pages FACT’s John Calvert highlights seven notable soundtracks from the year gone by, taking in gangster movies, snuff horror, martial arts and new wave sci-fi along the way.
Daft Punk tackled Tron: Legacy and the brothers Chemical opted for Brit spy caper, Hannah. Orbital’s Pusher score differs crucially in that it’s a club act scoring a largely club-set film. Indeed, it’s the first soundtrack of its kind.
Movie rave scenes are usually as authentically clubby as afternoon tea with a catatonic granny. The one in Blade felt pretty real, but then that had vampires and a light blood shower. Here though, Orbital’s keen understanding of the world benefits the film immensely, injecting some much needed realism into Luis Prieto’s campy, glamorized remake of the bitingly raw original.
Their first soundtrack work since horror film Event Horizon, the duo’s original compositions here capture the adrenalised experience of walking into a banging club, or the tang of sweat and lust on the dancefloor, or even just the hot lights and the shadowed corners adjacent. Basically the chaos and sensory barrage often missing in other club scenes. Taken as a whole, though, the score is a thrilling depiction of a modern day London spinning on a chemical beat, all light traces and neon kaleidoscopes.
There’s also the added bonus of some killer, if short, floor-fillers (‘Driving And Clubbing’ with grime artist Lady Leshur is a stand out) as well as a host of dark ambient tracks that tone-set the crime scenes: cinematic electronica sounding exactly how you’d imagine a couple of prog techno masters would interpret the spirit of film noir.
Channeling the pulsing march of capitalism and Plainview’s rather disturbed frontier psychology, There Will Be Blood‘s soundtrack was a rugged adventure score, albeit one as black as crude oil. Greenwood’s second collaboration with P T Anderson deals exclusively in the exquisite, replacing TWBB‘s gothic cellos with orchestral music’s most enchanted tools: a blend of harp, shrill viola, piano and seductively deployed woodwind – most notably flube. Like TWBB, however, psychology, or in this case psychiatry, remains a major theme.
Set in 1950 America, Anderson’s film centres on the story of two men. Firstly the troubled WW2 veteran, Freddie, who having survived an apocalypse of sorts is struggling to re-enter society in an country that seems now a dream-like abstraction. The other is cult leader Lancaster Dodd – self-styled “writer, doctor, nuclear-physicist and theoretical philosopher” and Freddie’s eventual ‘master’. Where Greenwood comes into it is in capturing simultaneously the emerald dazzle of Dodd’s high society habitat, Anderson’s marbled depiction of golden era America, and of course the psychological hold Dodd has over Freddie. All this and more plays through what The Guardian called the “extra-terrestrial strangeness” of Greenwood’s classical score. Though it also holds up as a straightforward, not to mention meticulously observed ’50s period piece. If, that is, you aren’t intentionally looking for the hidden evil.
But if you are, it’s all there, just below the surface. The Devil, or rather Dodds, is in the detail. A dream sequence in a midsummer ballet, ‘Alethia”s harp and strings swoop and feint as the two men compete for the rights to Freddie’s soul, while the theremin sound of kitsch psychiatry instruments alludes to the proto-Scientology rhetoric and hypnotic methods the Hubbard-ian Dodd employs in order to indoctrinate his muse. Much like the There Will Be Blood score, as America changes Greenwood subverts the old timey gaiety with dark ribbons of modernity. Edgy flute track ‘Atomic Healer’ plays like Peter And The Wolf via These New Puritans, while ‘Able-Bodied Seamen’ marries chamber music with a slyly anachronistic variety of twitchy Radiohead-esque percussion – composed from woodblock and plucked strings. On the terrifying ‘Baton Sparks’, meanwhile, stentorian strings descend into horror-movie slides and finally a wailing dissonance. Also dotted around the score are woozy big band jazz ballads from the era. Alongside the knowing inclusion of Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘Get Thee Behind Me, Satan’ is Jo Stafford classic ‘No Other Love’ – in sinister reference to the pseudo-sexual love and psychotic possessiveness cult leaders inspire in their followers. Stafford’s line: “Let no other love know the wonder of your spell” takes on a whole new meaning.
MIKE SHINODA, JOSEPH TRAPANESE
Ok, so it’s Mike ‘Linkin Park’ Shinodo who’s responsible for The Raid‘s soundtrack, but don’t let that put you off – Shinoda’s score is as ground-breaking in action cinema as the film itself, if only for its unprecedented intensity. The Indonesian police story isn’t the first to apply the chemical urgency of western dance music to kung fu. That honour goes to The Matrix. What The Raid is, however, is the first film to apply that formula in the post-brostep era, where rave music is a whole other kettle of frenzy. Just as the nuts and bolts raw-fu takes stunt work to a new level, Shinoda’s score is the millennial big brother to The Matrix‘s big beat techno.
Both nu-metal and its indirect successor, Skrillex’s brand of ‘EDM-step’, have always displayed shades of gamer-dom, so it’s fitting that Gareth Evans’ film is structured like a side-scrolling beat ‘em up, with every new scene heralding the protagonist’s graduation up a level in the tower block setting. Likewise, Shinoda and classical composer Trapanese structure the soundtrack incrementally, building in distinct stages from quiet to frenetic, until by the end the Taico drums, wobble bass and monster kicks are matching the exhausting fight scenes blow for blow in sheer relentlessness. After years of criminally cheap music, Shinoda has finally found a home for the various mindless dance forms he made his name on: the image of a Taekwondo master beating a man with a fridge.
Although the score for the peerlessly unpleasant Hellraiser was originally commissioned to Coil (Clive Barker rejected their submission as too “bowl-churning”), Christopher Young’s synth-infused offering was to become a milestone in horror soundtracking. Pushing the envelope once again with sick boo-flick Sinister, Young enlisted none other than Sunn O))), Boris, Boards Of Canada and a host of black metal bands, in a throwback experiment to the days when prog-rockers Goblin scored Argento films and Tangerine Dream bedded Michael Mann flicks about Zombie-Nazis. The resulting score is the among the most distinctive in the horror genre to emerge in years.
The film’s gruelling first hour is structured around the Super-8 home movies Ethan Hawke’s character finds in the attic: snuff films of grisly family murders dating back years. In the Halloween/Peeping Tom tradition, the camera and by extension the filmmaker is the perpetrator, with us thrillseekers in the audience uncomfortably complicit in the various hangings, drownings, throat-cuttings and uh, unconventional lawn-mowing work. And all the while, the film’s chief ghostie, ‘child-eater’ Bughuul, can be glimpsed subliminally in the background. Fuck yeah, it’s scary.
Heightening the home movie scenes’ voyeuristic menace, Young’s tracks offer a tensile blend of telemetric dissonance, pulsing percussion, glitches and tape loops, recalling both Se7en‘s opening sequence and Alan Splet’s industrial soundtrack on Eraserhead. However, it’s the added element of droning, liturgic instrumentation and slowed religious chants that really press your buttons – the Eyes Wide Shut-style incantations evoking ancient pagan evil and by implication the ever-lurking presence of 4000-year-old demon Baghuul, or ‘Mr Boogie’ to his fated rugrat wards. Poor little mites. Crucially, the music accentuates the Super 8 format’s silence, with the screams of the victims muted. And as every self-respecting horror-junkie knows, a silent scream is far more chiling than a heard one.
Reminiscent of the stalking home-invasion sequences in Manhunter, in the Super-8 entitled ‘Sleepy Time ’98′ a roving camera journeys from room to room in the night, as the operator POV-executes bed-shackled WASPS. In the last room lies the youngest member of the family, at which point Hawke’s character, and thus the ‘non-diagetic’ camera, turns away in horror. The scene is bedded by ‘Sacrifice’, the work of all-girl band Aghast, the queens of the male-dominated Norwegian black metal scene (true to form they were practicing witches). Elsewhere, Young acknowledges Boards Of Canada’s underrated creepiness, with ‘Gyroscope’ no doubt chosen for its children’s voices and movie projector-esque clacking, while Sunn 0)))’s ‘Blood Swamp’ is, ironically, a comparatively pleasant inclusion.
Sunn O))) collaborators Ulver provide the music for the Super 8 entitled ‘BBQ ’79′ (not your standard burger bun deal) with the pant-shittingly creepy ‘Silence Teaches You How To Sing’, while the movie entitled ‘Pool Party ’66′ is backgrounded by the dark ambient of Judgehydrogen, an all-American nutbar whose self-professed “obligation as an artist” is to “capture life tearing itself apart”. The involvement of such marginal characters in a glossy Hollywood film is reason enough to celebrate.
HOWARD SHORE & METRIC
New wave sci-fi, or ‘soft’ sci-fi as it’s also known, is the rarely future-set, modernist, not particularly sci-fi section of sci-fi literature, encompassing the likes of Vonnegut, Burroughs and Ballard. So rather than pump up the space synths Cronenberg knew that adapting Don DeLillo’s anti-capitalist new waver demanded something a little more understated. As such, the longtime synth champion had the idea of hiring Canadian indie types Metric. Co-writing with long-time Cronenberg collaborator and all-round Hollywood music titan Howard Shore, the four-piece composed a brooding and elegant backdrop to this coolly detached film. The highlight though is an appearance from Somali rapper K’Naan, posing as the film’s fictional Sufi rapper ‘Brutha Fez’, on the stellar ‘Mecca’. The lyrics of the song were written by DeLillo himself.
BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO
Well it doesn’t get more meta than this. A 70s-horror-inspired soundtrack composed for a 70s-inspired horror film, about a soundtrack composer losing it on the set of a horror film, in the 70s…the score for Berberian Sound Studio was perfect material for a couple of postmodernists like Broadcast – the cult experimental pop duo with a knack for making the usually calculated art of ‘meta’ seem spontaneous. Not to mention spooky. The pair’s final project before the tragic death of singer Trish Keenan, church organ, blood-curdling screams and the odd bit of pagan flute-playing handle the hammy period detail. But it’s the modernist noise that provide the chills – creepily out of place amongst the fake blood and cardboard sets. A fitting testament to a great British talent.
KILLING THEM SOFTLY
Any gangster film featuring VU’s ‘Heroin’, Cash’s ‘The Man Comes Around’ and bitterly ironic use of Jack Hylton’s ‘Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries’ in scenes of slo-mo violence is likely to be agreeable. However, it’s not the soundtrack to Andrew Dominik’s pitch-black recession comedy that wins the film it’s place here, but rather Leslie Shatz’s remarkable sound design; catnip for movie audiophiles everywhere.
A major admirer of Alan R. Splet’s Eraserhead soundtrack, Shatz learnt his trade under the tutelage of the great Walter Murch on Murch’s Oscar-winning Apocalypse Now score, while in 2005 his work on Van Sant’s languorous meditation on Kurt Cobain, Last Days, won him the Technical Grand Prize at Cannes; a gong usually reserved for directors and cinematographers. However, it’s Shatz’s contribution to Columbine drama Elephant that’s most impressive, the sound editor lining the film’s tortuously hushed tracking shots with far-field spatial cues and random bouts of unsettling musique concrète; a combination of Morricone-esque expanse and avant-garde unease that one reviewer called “the laughter of inner devils”.
Rendering subtly surreal the mundane is Shatz’s forte, but it works especially well in the context of a gritty neo-noir, where in the months following the 2008 crash, and in true noir fashion, the world is dog-eat-dog, the players are doomed and evil triumphs every time. “This is America,” concludes Pitt’s hitman character, “and in America you’re on your own”. Shatz’s manipulative techniques accentuate the depiction of crime life as a state of domesticated insanity, an idea Dominik borrowed from the quasi-fantastical Animal Kingdom and its pervading “atmosphere of accepted dread”, to quote critic Jeffrey Chen.
Shatz’s conjures a remarkably 360-degree dominion, enabling Killing Them Softly to do what all good noir should, and that’s place you right on the streets: either deep in the banal sprawl of New Orleans’ wasted suburbs, or in the mute confines of a rain-lashed car, or in a draughty bar in the harsh November daylight. Meanwhile, the arid, sharp FX sync perfectly with the terse, wry dialogue and the film’s desaturated colour scheme. It is, however, with the pivotal burglary scene, that Shatz really earns his fee. With the entire sequence unfurling without any music, the offending duo make their heart-stopping way to the card game, walking through the varying spaces of a ramshackle gangway. Recalling Elephant‘s walking scenes, Shatz captures the changing geography of the passageway, as the thieves move from brick walled alleyways to under hollow wood archways. As well as acute claustrophobia, the effect is a heightened sensation of movement, or specifically the suggestion of an inexorable current, pulling the thieves towards their fate. The scene’s masterstroke involves the audacious five-second stretch of black screen, during which an oppressive shrinking in the walkway’s dimensions can be sensed. Hey, who needs a camera? Not since the tricycle-mapped Overlook has sound design been as instrumental in a movie’s sense of portent. Contrasting macabrely with the hangdog robbery, Obama and Bush’s televised assurances of prosperity fade into the mix as the duo leave with the swag. Steadily, the soundscape reacclimatizes to the cold night air…