Saturday, March 20, 2010

Appreciation of a Score

There is always some confusion about how to appreciate a film score. Should a film score be strongly thematic, high on melody and easily listenable even out of the film? Or is it just enough if it is ambient, a yawn to listen to it as standalone music and shirt-sits perfectly on the visual arm-sleeves of the film? A film score’s primary aim is to functionally work within a film but most often that doesn’t seem to make a film score get its due. The fact is that the criteria differs from one film and score to another.

‘Couples Retreat’ score was unanimously rejected by people in India or elsewhere, not because of quality of music but because Rahman chose to do music for a typical Hollywood rom-com after Oscars and Globes. As for me, I am really happy that Rahman did this score. It still is a very melodic and enjoyable musical ride I take on at least once in a week. Though I haven’t seen the film I like what I hear. In this case, I don’t really care much about how extensively, how loudly or how well it is used in the film. It gave Rahman to write some full length orchestral music pieces and instrumental tracks which we hardly get to listen to in his Indian film soundtracks.

On a more psychological level, the opinions depend on whether one wants to like the score or not. In this case, there are hundred reasons one can list down for not liking the music and of course most of them would be about everything else but the actual music. Will we ever judge music just by it? If one doesn’t like a particular score, does that make the score bad? Or if one likes the score does that make the score great? A score is just what it is.

Filmtracks.com lists Rahman’s Couples Retreat score in third spot next only to James Horner’s ‘Avatar’ in its “Top Scores of the Year 2009” list. ‘Jason and Cynthia Suite’ and ‘Animal Spirits’ are mentioned in the best film cues list. These sensibilities of people behind such Hollywood film score websites are more inclined towards music content than the music’s visual connect.

Here is a high praise ‘Couples Retreat’ soundtrack review by an American.

In Soundtracks.com podcast, a film score critic says that ‘Couples Retreat’ score deserved an Oscar nomination more than ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ did.

And this is the first post on http://www.backgroundscore.com

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Michael Giacchino 'Up' with an Oscar



Reposting a reedited version of one of my old write-ups on Michael Giacchino’s UP score

With swinging rhythms, mute trumpets, clarinets and xylophones in ‘UP with Titles’, Michael Giacchino takes us back in time, sets up a laidback mood and builds curiosity in a listener who just returned from listening to his music at its bombastic best in ‘Star Trek’. The moment the piano hits the first four notes of the gorgeous main (Ellie’s) theme on Piano in ‘We’re in the club now’, it is evident that this is the main theme of the movie that is going to be rechristened itself into various forms; that is going to be played on every single instrument of the orchestra and that is going to be hummed by every single member of the audience who come out of the cinema hall after watching the movie.

The main Ellie motif is packs so many varied emotions - nostalgia, romance, grief, and solitude in it. These are exactly the emotions that Ellie leaves behind for Carl. It is the heart and soul of the score of ‘UP’, which is so evident in the very next track ‘Married life’ where the theme is floated on a waltz rhythm, swaying its way through the emotional highs and lows of the life journey of Carl. Every soloist in the orchestra gets his few seconds of fame by playing the theme for most memorable and also painful moments in Carl’s life. The mood shifts in those 4 minutes of montage masterpiece are carefully underpinned by a shift in the instruments, a shift in the tempo of the theme and a shift in the emotions spilled by the backing arrangements.

It is in ‘Carl Goes Up’, for the first time in the score, the string section wakes up (so does we the listeners, wake up to the sudden appearance of an enchanting string section that sounds refreshing and uplifting after umpteen solo versions of the theme) to a brisk swirling and stirring for Carl who gears up to fly high with his house. Carl attempts to liberate himself from the loneliness and the darkness that has now completely engulfed his life. It is in this piece, the main theme moves on from solo instruments to a group of violins as Carl moves out from loneliness to an adventuresome journey in his life. After the initial hullaballoo created by string section for taking off, a serene peace sets in as Carl’s fly becomes steady and stable. The orchestra descends down in its volume playing its final notes and leaves its way to a solo guitar to play the main theme piece to sound that serene peace when Carl relaxes in his chair looking at Ellie’s portrait.

The full orchestra show up for the first time with a dominant brass section in ’52 Chachki Pickup’ playing an edge of the seat action cue for hiccups he has in floating his house against the storms. ‘Paradise Found’ is an ambient piece with soothing strings cascading one over the other to reveal a picturesque beauty of the place that Carl and Ellie always wanted to visit together. ‘Walkin’ the House’ has a comical rhythm to it and it is setup to the rhythm in which Carl’s pulls his floating house with Russell hanging along.

The moment I heard the pulsating rush in the riff that plays on strings in the beginning of the next track, I thought of Michael Giacchino’s earlier works ‘100 Mile dash’ from ‘The Incredibles’ and ‘100 Rat Dash’ from ‘Ratatouille’ and when immediately saw this track’s name I smiled. Yes, it is another dashing theme; it is ‘Three Dogs dash’ this time. Two of the other dashing themes are my all time favorites in term of orchestration and here is another one. There is at least one scene in every Pixar movie where things dash each other and Michael Giacchino puts a connecting link to all the movie scores through a similar musical riff.

In ‘Kevin Beak’n’ enters the bird Kevin, which is one of the principal characters of the movie. It has got its own beautiful theme which is established here, which sways to its characteristics. The Congo drums adding a unique rhythm to the way Kevin moves, bass clarinets plays the main theme for Kevin’s salient features. Giacchino often uses different drums and Chinese percussions instead of usual Timpani’s in his action cues and such percussions along with the malicious flute melody work well in ‘Canine Conundrum’ that is played when Carl and Co are chased by Muntz’s dogs.

Until I heard ‘The Nickel tour’ I was thinking of the theme that got introduced in ‘Up with Titles’ as a one-off piece. In this track, the theme reprises in its orchestral form and I understood the complete beauty of the theme in this track. In the immediate next track ‘The Explorer Motel’, the same theme turns darker. The first high rush, bombastic action cue arrives in ‘Escape from Muntz Mountain’, and from the name it is very clear that Carl is escaping from Muntz, who wants the bird Kevin. The music slavishly twists and turns according to the visual action, and in spite of the randomness that could easily creep in such action cues the composer maintains coherence with catchy riffs and ostinatos keeping it as a one homogenous piece and easy listen even off the visuals.

‘Giving Muntz the bird’ starts on a happy note with Kevin’s theme and suddenly darkness spreads over as Muntz is chasing to take the bird from Carl. The Muntz’s theme (the theme from the track ‘Up with Titles’) turns completely dark in this track. As Muntz’s devilish intention become clearer, the theme gradually moves on from soothing string section to the darker parts of the audacious brass section.

‘Stuff we did’ made me realize how terribly I missed the main theme of the movie thus far. The theme reappears to evoke nostalgia and the chords and counter melodies helps the theme in bringing the emotion to complete effect.

Don’t believe the negativity in the title ‘Memories can weigh you down’ of this track, the sound is anything but negative. All this while, I was lying on my bed and listening to the soundtrack on my iPod. When I heard the whole orchestra freaking and breaking out playing the reprise of the main theme that we didn’t hear for quite some time, in its most energetic form, I got goose bumps all over. The love theme is played like a fanfare theme in all its glory with brilliant counter melodies and harmonies. It sounds like Carl has pumped up all his energy from his memories of Ellie to fight Muntz. And that glorious streak continues in ‘The small mailman returns’.

‘He’s got the bird’ and ‘The Spirit of Adventure’ follows up with Carl’s high energy and his actions to encounter Muntz to win Kevin. It is a freaking roller coaster ride of action music that alternates between Ellie’s and Muntz’s themes in which the whole orchestra is playing with an adrenaline rush, pumping more and more energy and pace into the music.

‘It’s just a house’ starts with the theme we heard in ‘Walkin’ the house’ and soon moves on to a spirited orchestral version of Ellie’s theme. At the end of all things, Carl understands that the memories of Ellie is more important than the house and leaves the house behind. The theme as it progresses grows weaker and weaker and finally leaves way to the overpowering orchestra to take over Ellie’s theme. In ‘Ellie’s badge’ the theme returns to its original simplistic form.

‘Up with End titles’ is a compilation of all major motifs from the movie. Ellie’s theme, Muntz’s theme, House theme is all connected into one seamless music piece. In spite of having listened to them in various forms all through the soundtrack, when all the major themes from the movie parade one after the other with a new orchestration, it is hard to skip.

The OST of ‘UP’ is one wholesome soundtrack. I can listen to each and every track of this score without skipping. The last Hollywood movie OST that I could say the same about was that of ‘Wall-E’. ‘UP’ music has created a lot of curiosity in me about the movie. I am sure my admiration and liking to this score will be even greater after watching the movie. My only grouse is that the score is not released in CD; it is only available for digital download on amazon.com and on iTunes.

Now, here is one of my favourite cues from ‘Up’ which wasn’t a part of the Original Soundtrack release. It is a dramatic music piece scored for the scene in which Carl Fredrieksen is shown doing his daily chores alone after Emilie’s death. Conventionally any composer would have played the Emilie’s theme on a sober scale in a solo piano to evoke a sense of loneliness but for the way this scene is cut showing the boredom of Carl, this approach works and makes us feel that he has learnt to get on with his life. The grand bangs fit aptly as we witness how the surroundings of Carl’s house have changed for worse.

Michael Giacchino – It’s time for an Oscar. Of course I expect something big from James Horner for James Cameroon’s ‘Avatar’. But considering that it is a sci-fi movie, I doubt if it would outdo the simplistic charm of your score for ‘UP’.