Five glorious music cues from movie soundtracks

In September I saw the London Philharmonic Orchestra perform the score live for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), in honour of which I am writing this. Here are my five favourite O.S.T. cues currently playing on shuffle.

5. A Familiar Taste (The Social Network)

In 1999, the Dust Brothers combined industrial effects and unorthodox musical instruments in their multi-layered Fight Club (1999) score, but for The Social Network (2010), an album alike in technique, director David Fincher teamed with Trent Reznor whose work on The Downward Spiral with the Nine Inch Nails yielded several variations of the track “Closer,” the most intense of which, “Precursor,” was used in the title sequence of Fincher’s classic thriller Se7en (1995). These albums are appropriate to “A Familiar Taste” because they establish a context that isn’t immediately apparent in The Social Network itself — a film about a computer-scientist. I flit between cues like “Hand Covers Bruise” (which, for me, stirs memories of lonely Autumn evenings in the city), “Intriguing Possibilities” (a sort of electronic paean to the brittle essence of cyberspace) and “Complication with Optimistic Outcome” (more of a paean to Ridley Scotts Blade Runner (1982)), but I return to the sexier “A Familiar Taste.” The cue appears in its original, longer cut as “35 Ghosts IV” on the Ghosts I-IV double album (which Fincher listened to ritually during the production of Zodiac), but used here in The Social Network it transforms the film’s underscoring into a force.

Chihiro / Sen (voiced by Rumi Hiiragi) in Spirited Away (2001)

4. Day of the River (Spirited Away)

I love Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001). I’m in thrall to its purity — of landscape, of mood and character, of Chihiro’s capricious, flawed and stumbling personality. The moment, animated by Miyazaki, when Chihiro ties back her hair and puts it into a band is so precise it just melts me; and likewise, her plaintive stare across the ocean as, from the bathhouse balcony, she sees a train running along the surface of the water: the exhausted worker, legs aching and eyes burning, indulging for a moment in the wonder of fantasy.

At the outset, composer Joe Hisaishi establishes a celestial mood, a cue designed to interest the imagination before a simple piano melody brings us back again to character. Chihiro has just been reacquainted with her transmogrified parents in a pig-pen, where they are lined up for slaughter; horrified, Chihiro vows to save them, then flees outside into the arms of Haku who cheers her up with a generous offering of rice. Here the melody is swept into full ensemble: a child once again in our eyes, she devours the food before breaking down into a pathetic wail (also an action animated by Miyazaki), the delicate switch back to a few instruments a fleeting reminder of just how much sorrow this girl is bottling up. In this way, the score never indulges in sentiment or whimsy, it always looks forward, it always digs deep down and shares the same spirit. Enthused again to try harder, Chihiro runs across the bridge to the bathhouse, the invisible No Face observing everything.

Then, awakening from slumber, Kamaji the old boiler man reaches across the room to slide a blanket over Chihiro, who has tucked herself into a sleeping ball beside the soot-slaves that shift all the coal. Here, Hisaishi’s cue holds on the lullaby melody, dipping out prematurely, as if to deprive us of closure.

Wong Chia Chi / Mak Tai Tai (Tang Wei) with Mr Yee (Tony Leung) in Lust Caution (2007)

3. The Angel (Lust, Caution)

Though only a short track (at little over two minutes), this one calls upon Lust Caution’s (2007) signature “Wong Chia Chi’s Theme,” the melody for which is brought to the fore in isolation later in the album. “The Angel” is the more deeply felt I think and artfully arranged, and as used both in the film (towards its conclusion) and on Alexandre Desplat’s album it just gets me right where I live. The track begins deceptively warm, a fairytale told as memory; at a little under midway it swells to the romantic vision of Wong’s generic theme, but critically the motif doesn’t hold. It cannot believe in the possibility of love, only love’s inherent contradictions; breathless the theme intones to her friends, to her allies, to us that Wong is well and truly lost. The delayed notes passing over the piano invoke a life that is never meant to be; and thus diminished, closed-in and doomed, Wong embraces her fate, head bowed and with eyes shut.

Sun Woo (Lee Byeong-heon) in A Bittersweet Life (2005)

2. Sky Lounge (A Bittersweet Life)

Perhaps the place to begin this one is with Kim Jee-woon’s key collaborations in recent years. For A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), the Korean director worked with the prolific Lee Byung-woo, in whose great musical care Kim originally entrusted his Three (2000) segment, Memories (2003) (Lee has since scored for such whopping genre movies as The Red Shoes (2005), The Host (2006), Voice of a Murderer (2007), Hansel & Gretel (2007), Mother (2009) and Tidal Wave / Haeundae (2009)); for the positively bonkers The Good, The Bad, The Weird in 2008 (a score so indiscriminate and unshackled that it genrifies for its key setpiece Nina Simone’s touching “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” — quite an ostentatious move), Kim collaborated with Jang Yeong-gyu and Dalpalan, and for their efforts both were nominated in the Composers category at the 3rd Asian Film Awards (they lost out, not unjustly, to Joe Hisaishi). But before this, the pair worked together on Kim’s revenge thriller, A Bittersweet Life (2005), and produced an imitative though not unchallenging score which shouldn’t be so easily overlooked. On this, Jang and Dalpalan were joined importantly by Japanese pianist Kuramoto Yuhki, who recorded the film’s critical music cue entitled “Romance” on the album, and in addition sampled the work of the late classical guitarist Francisco Tarrega, whose performance of “Etude in E Minor” brings a sense of small-scale intimacy and heritage to Kang and Baek’s criminal underworld.

The album’s themes do a fine job of encapsulating different aspects of the film. These include our hero Sun Woo’s loyalty to Kang, the romantic melody for Hee Soo (the girl he shadows), the very culture of femininity which she embodies and which is still unique to Sun Woo, the besieging of Kang by “friendly” enemies, the slapstick fun to be had with Myung-gu and Mikhail, the vengeance theme which pushes the confrontation with Kang in the hotel’s Sky Lounge, and finally, Sun Woo’s relationship with his own reflection and image, a motif which the director endows with great importance. In its simplicity, “Follow” for instance characterises the spark of wonder which initially takes hold of Sun Woo, the purposeful rhythm of it repeating again and again as he drives into the city, the erotic undertone of the theme surfacing towards the close as he observes Hee Soo dancing in a busy club with her lover. The cue “Romance” is based on the source music to which Hee Soo later plays cello accompaniment, and though the motif is never once repeated on the album it nevertheless finds corresponding value in the themes of “Irreversible Time,” its reprise “(Quartet) Irreversible Time” and “Fairness.” So while I cannot deny outright the streamlined elegance that is “Follow” or (a track I haven’t even mentioned yet) the seductive “Escape” which is powered by a detached and utterly primal sense of survivalism, I’m going with “Sky Lounge” for my favourite on the album, the film’s introductory music cue. Vanity is the key theme: virtually every frame in this sequence is gorgeous, the grooming impeccable, and it benefits greatly from the presence of the music: from the eponymous Sky Lounge of the title, where Sun Woo savours one final taste of that exquisite dessert on his table, to the lower levels of the hotel where patrons cross its unblemished marble floors, from the thumping club room where drunken assholes encumber their young mistresses shepherding them away from harm, to an exclusive members’ lounge where Sun Woo has to turf out a trio of petty gangsters, it is all about display, discovery, and absolute assurance in the self.

Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt) in Se7en (1995)

1. The Finale (Se7en)

Unlike the music cues listed above I don’t exactly own this on an album (because New Line Records still has not issued a full score) but this may be the only track on my shortlist that I regard as masterful. Howard Shore combined a range of techniques in the past to generate similar apocalyptic textures (see The Silence of the Lambs, 1991; Philadelphia, 1993; and also Cronenberg’s Scanners, 1991; Videodrome, 1983; The Fly, 1986; Dead Ringers, 1988; and Naked Lunch 1991) but in Se7en, acoustic, percussive, electronic and ambient sounds are given a crucial emphasis, as if the very project of his original composition was to sour the film it supports. And I suppose this is the project of the score. In this world, we as the audience are as much the subject of mistrustful scepticism as the honourable characters we follow onscreen; just as the film throws game-show noise and screaming kids and other hostilities our way, so too does Shore’s industrial score, which though certainly more tonal and less overpowering in the film’s first half, nevertheless tugs us beneath the surface on several occasions in its second and we invariably claw hard for breath. Shore stretches conventional instruments thin and slows them down, he mixes pure electronic sounds with live sounds not recorded in a studio, and he articulates absolute unearthly despair once the film is sucked down into the abyss. It is nothing like, for instance, Bernard Hermann’s score for Taxi Driver (1976), the tumbling routine of which becomes one and the same with the paranoid psychopath himself, dragging and stifling his senses. Se7en frightens by touch, it overcomes everything including the sunlight to trouble and hazard the frame.

We hear reverberation in recordings many times when watching film, but only in unique cases is this intended or does it feel correspondingly appropriate to the drama. In “The Finale” reverberation heightens our awareness of the acoustic space in which the recording has been made; when consumed independently of the dialogue and effects track (see the Special Edition DVD.), the impression is that of a grand church hall. It restates for me an earlier signature which is heard just once in the track “Searching Doe’s Apartment,” a cue which emphasises the serial killer’s religious background (what Amy Taubin called “a particularly American strain of apocalyptic Christianity”) by establishing the appropriate connections to Catholic mass, to the recitation of prayer, to the presence in one giant space of the faithful. These non-diegetic sounds of mass and prayer are there in “Searching Doe’s Apartment,” but they’re not there in “The Finale.” They echo, rather, due to the accidental or intended elements of human agency. That’s a connection I wonder if other people make, but it is one that really sells the existential doom and magnitude of “The Finale”.

4 November, 2010


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