Monthly Archives: June 2012

Film and Score Review: Moonrise Kingdom

The Movie:

I’m not the first person to say this, but Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom might be the most Wes Andersoney Wes Anderson movie that Wes Anderson’s Wes Andersoned yet.  Wes Anderson.  It’s hard to imagine a fan  of the director not adoring it, just as it’s hard to imagine a non-fan being won over (in other words, I can’t imagine that anybody who hated Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums is going to see this film and say, “This is great!  You know, I think my problem with Anderson’s previous movies is that they just weren’t precious enough!”).  All of Anderson’s hallmarks are present: intricately realized storybook settings, miniature worlds that seem like life-sized dollhouses, deadpan dialogue that mixes irony with melancholy, disappointing parent figures, and children who are as gifted as they are troubled.  If you found these elements charming and strangely moving in the past, you’re unlikely to feel differently with this film.

That said, Moonrise Kingdom differs from Anderson’s earlier films in at least one significant way – it places the story firmly in the hands of the children, rather than the adults.  With the possible exception of Rushmore, most of Anderson’s films are primarily about adult disappointment.  Films like Tenenbaums, Life Aquatic, and Fantastic Mr. Fox all have a storybook aesthetic, but that aesthetic ultimately works as a sad counterpoint to the arrested development and wasted potential of the films’ adult characters.  Moonrise Kingdom‘s intricate fantasy worlds, conversely, are a pure extension of the film’s child heroes’ imaginations.  The story itself is simple: two pre-adolescent misfits – geeky orphan Sam Shakusky and sheltered bookworm Suzy Bishop  – fall in love and decide to run away together.   Armed with Sam’s preposterously meticulous wilderness skills and Suzy’s collection of records and young adult novellas, the two set off into the pristine forests of New Penzance, Anderson’s fictional New England island.  As adult authority figures search the island for the young runaways, Sam and Suzy set about turning the island setting into their own private universe.  Everything element of the film is devoted towards realizing that universe.  Moonrise Kingdom‘s world follows the logic of a child’s daydream – it exists in a world  where 12-year olds earnestly speak like characters in a 1940s melodrama, record players can get jerked across rocky terrain and still play perfectly when it’s time for a slow dance, and lighting can strike a child and leave him with no other injury than the ash that appears on Yosemite Sam’s face after an explosion.  It’s the same signature whimsy that we always find in Anderson’s films, but it’s unsoured by adult disappointment.  The film certainly contains plenty of sad, disillusioned adult characters, but the film doesn’t belong to them or their half-hearted attempts at redemption.  The grown-ups either take the children’s lead or they fade in the background – Sam and Suzy own the movie, and they dictate its terms.  It’s perhaps for this reason that while the film has its melancholy undercurrent – Sam and Suzy are drawn to each other in part because they’ve both had such lonely unhappy childhoods – the overall tone is optimistic.

The Score:

An enormous part of the film’s impact of course comes from the film’s soundtrack.  Music plays a remarkably foregrounded role in Moonrise Kingdom, even by Anderson’s standards.  Like Tarantino, Anderson is famous for his jukebox scores, assembled from the obscure corners of his record collection.  His soundtracks are typically unified only by their eclectic nature –  you’re just as likely to hear songs from forgotten ’60s French New Wave films as you are famous hits by Bowie, and even the most popular songs tend to come in the form of obscure covers (i.e., the harpsichord arrangement of “Hey Jude” in Tenenbaums).  Yet the song choices never feel arbitrary – they emerge directly from his characters.  Anderson films tend to render the distinction between diegetic and non-diegetic music moot, because characters in his films constantly provide their own soundtracks.  We rarely hear music that the characters don’t hear as well, because Anderson’s characters go to great extremes to make sure that they can always listen to the soundtrack (i.e., Jason Schwartzman brining portable iPod speakers into the Indian desert in The Darjeeling Limited).  In Anderson’s films, part of expressing an identity comes through providing one’s own soundtrack, and his characters often communicate more about themselves through their song choices than they do through dialogue.

This is true of Moonrise Kingdom as well, though Anderson introduces a remarkable change of pace with his music selections.  Apart from the occasional period-establishing Hank Williams song or French doo-wop ballad, the bulk of the soundtrack consists of grandiose orchestral selections by mid-twentieth century English composer, Benjamin Britten.  It’s about as sharp a left turn from Portuguese Bowie covers as Anderson could have taken.  It’s a refreshing change of pace, as there’s nothing particularly hip, flashy, or even retro-chic about the composer’s music.  While enormously respected in the pantheon of 20th century composers, Britten’s qualities are generally too subtle to find much life outside of the concert hall world.  Influenced in equal measure by English composers from centuries past and his contemporaries in Russia and America, Britten’s music tends to walk a delicate balance between English tradition and contemporary modernism.  It’s perhaps for this reason that we rarely hear Britten’s music quoted or referenced in film, mainstream Hollywood or otherwise.  When filmmakers want beautiful British pastoral music, they tend to turn to Britten’s more immediately accessible contemporary, Vaughan-Williams.  When they want something more violent and menacing, the tend to turn to more overtly dissonant modernists like Shostakovich and Stravinsky.  Britten tends to sit in the middle of the two extremes, and his in-betweenness rarely suits filmmakers who need quick extremes.

It’s that in-betweenness, however, that seems to speak so much to the young characters in Moonrise Kingdom.  In what might be the film’s best running gag, nearly every child in the film seems to vehemently love Britten’s music.  They listen to his music constantly, and it never comes across as classical music imposed on them by their parents; the kids seem to have taken ownership of Britten’s oeuvre for themselves.  And they often go to extreme lengths to continue listening to the music: Suzy caries her brother’s record player across the island’s terrain largely so she can keep listening to Benjamin Britten, and her brothers are outraged when they discover that their record player – their sole apparatus for listening to Benjamin Britten – has been taken from them.  While the notion of 12-year old children obsessed with a concert hall composer is funny, it’s also strangely perfect for the characters.  Just as Sam and Suzy struggle to balance their sad family lives with their attempts at creating something beautiful for themselves, Britten’s music frequently struggles to  find melodic beauty from a backdrop of tumultuous dissonance.  This quality is most prominent in the composer’s “A Young Person’s Guide to Orchestra,” which Anderson uses as the film’s musical centerpiece.  Designed as a primer to teach children about orchestral music, Britten’s piece breaks a fully orchestrated melody down to its individual instrumental lines.  Britten’s purpose is ostensibly to illustrate the way that the various pieces of orchestral music come together to form a whole.  But while the piece seems designed to make orchestral music more accessible to young people, Britten does not soften any of the darker edges that come with his concert pieces.  The piece is based on a somber minor-key melody from 17th century composer Henry Purcell, and Britten’s massive orchestral variations are frequently ominous and tumultuous.  The music holds beauty as well, but it’s a dark beauty that never simplifies unpleasant emotions for the sake of sentimentality.  This music, which is supposed to make the adult world of orchestral music simpler for children, ends up exposing children to heavy adult emotions that conflate overpowering bleakness with beauty.  For Sam and Suzy, that music is a fitting illustration of their own relationship with the world around them.  Their outlook seems simple and naïve, yet their innocence does nothing to weaken their capacity for depression or euphoria.

Augmenting Britten’s music is Alexandre Desplat’s original score.  Desplat’s music occupies a fairly limited running time in the film, but it makes a strong impact.  I don’t believe he wrote more than 15 minutes of material, but that’s a lot when you consider that those 15 minutes consist of nothing but variations on two chords.  The music represents minimalistic layering at its most extreme – Desplat establishes those chords as a foundation, and then uses them to build solo lines for seemingly every major instrument in the Western musical lexicon music (from strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion, to ukulele, banjo, and B3 organ).  While the music initially seems much smaller and quainter than Britten’s imposing orchestral forces, Desplat’s score gradually reaches epic proportions of its own.  By the time we get to the last act, Desplat is bringing male singers and tubular bells into the mix, signaling the apocalyptic urgency of the storm that bears down on the island during the climax.   It’s extremely effective film scoring, and it serves as a fitting reflection of the world that Sam and Suzy build in Moonrise Kingdom – built from simple whimsical pieces, but fully capable of snowballing to enormous and menacing proportions nevertheless.  The score’s biggest treat comes at the end credits, however, where the film turns the score into Desplat’s own “Young person’s Guide to the Orchestra.”  In hommage to the child narrators in Leonard Bernstein’s recording of Britten’s “Guide,” Anderson has a series of young child narrators identify each instrument that appears in Desplat’s suite.  I don’t think a director has ever treated his composer’s music more generously, and the effect is both charming and amusingly redundant (“16 Baritone-Bass singers,” a child announces at one point, as though this needed clarification).  Like Britten’s piece, the end credit suite manages to break the music down into its core components without reducing its affective impact.  It brings things full circle in a way that, like the film itself, is simultaneously charming, funny, and affecting.

Final Thoughts:

Moonrise Kingdom is probably Anderson’s best film since The Royal Tenenbaums, and its youthful exuberance often acts as a counterbalance to that earlier film’s series of adult disappointments.  And Anderson, Desplat, and their collaborators have built a score for the film that is witty, powerful, moving, and innovative – all qualities that have grown increasingly rare in today’s filmmaking climate.  It’s a rare soundtrack that actively encourages the audience to notice its presence and observe the way that the music interacts with the narrative.  That the music manages to do so without taking us out of the story or hindering its emotional impact on the characters is extremely impressive.  Anderson detractors are unlikely to find anything new to sway them, but the film comes highly recommended to everybody else.  If nothing else, the film seems poised to achieve something that previously seemed completely impossible: inspiring a new generation of hipsters to start listening to Benjamin Britten.

Film Rating:  * * * * 1/2 out of  * * * * *

Score Rating:  * * * * 1/2 out of * * * * *

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Music for Ray Bradubry

When Ray Bradbury passed yesterday, I know I’m not the only one who felt that the world lost one of its greatest treasures.  Bradbury was one of the rare artists whose books could all but force you to love life.  Though he primarily wrote novels and short stories, his prose was saturated with a poet’s love of language.  Read any given passage from one of his stories, and it’s clear that each word has been chosen for its own distinct flavor, each phrase meticulously crafted to trigger the reader’s tenderest memories.  Fahrenheit 451 will probably always be his most famous work, and it’s an undeniable masterpiece.  But somebody who only knows Bradbury through that book might have a skewered perception of the author.  Though he frequently wrote of rocket ships, Martian colonies, and future societies, Bradbury was not a typical science fiction author.  And though Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles both warn of future disasters for human society, Bradbury was not typically a dystopic writer.  He was a fantasist, one capable of finding magic and wonder in the far reaches of space, but one just as capable of finding it the small towns of his youth.   While he had great reservations about mankind’s worst impulses, his biggest fear seemed to be of mankind somehow losing its boundless childlike imagination.  My favorite Bradbury books find the fantastic in the author’s personal memories, whether as a young boy savoring the supernatural rituals of summer (Dandelion Wine) or as a young screenwriter absorbing the mythic culture of an impoverished Irish town (Green Shadows, White Whale).  He was rarely one for big narratives – apart from Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes, most of his “novels” are actually collections of short stories and smaller fragments.  But his ability to bind short stories into a larger whole, to create something personal and vividly felt through fragments, was exceptional.  Upon reading Dandelion Wine, even the most cynical and heard-hearted bastard is going to feel compelled to strap on a new pair of sneakers and run into the forest, grinning like a maniac.  He knew both the value of youth and the pain of its loss, and his best writing walked that fine line between exuberance and melancholy beautifully.

Many people were deeply affected by this author’s passing, and I’m sure that in the next few weeks you’ll see many retrospective pieces and lists of reading recommendations.  Rather than add more suggestions to that list, I thought I’d take some time to look at several significant works of art that Bradbury’s books inspired.  That’s perhaps an obscure way of saying that I’ve found yet another way to make a blog post about film music.  But Bradbury – perhaps more than any other 20th century author – managed to inspire some of the most colorful and evocative pieces of orchestral music of the past 100 years.  Some of these pieces indeed originate from films, but the best are worthy of concert halls.

Because Bradbury’s stories are generally more focused on vivid sensations and affects than they are on linear narratives, film adaptations have rarely been successful.  Francois Truffaut directed one of his few misfires with his awkward adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, while Disney’s big budget attempt at Something Wicked This Way Comes went through such a troubled post-production process that the end result was a mess (albeit, a mess that featured a handful of truly great scenes and performances).  But while the adaptations themselves rarely fare very well, they’ve also been responsible for some of filmdom’s most inspired film scores.  The same qualities that don’t translate well into concrete images translate beautifully when rendered as expressive music.  About a decade ago, I started compiling what I called my Bradbury Compilation – a collection of music suites from films, television series, and other media that the author’s work inspired.  Divorced from their films, these scores form tone poems that capture different aspects of Bradbury’s spirit.  Below, I’ve included some of the highlights, along with my thoughts and links to score suites on YouTube.  I encourage anybody interested in remembering Bradbury to give these score suites a listen – if you, like millions of others, plan on taking some time in the next few days to re-read your favorite Bradbury stories, this music might make the ideal background accompaniment.

Farenheit 451 – Bernard Herrmann.  Francois Truffaut’s 1966 film was a disaster in nearly every respect except for its score.  As the composer of films like Citizen Kane, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Vertigo, Psycho, and Taxi Driver, Herrmann is frequently lauded as the greatest film composer of all time.  With that in mind, saying that Fahrenheit 451 ranks as one of the composer’s absolute best works is no small praise.  For Fahrenheit, Truffaut wisely hired Herrmann to create music for Bradbury’s dystopic future.  Herrmann did so, not by imitating the 12-tone serial music that was popular with his contemporaries, but by developing a musical language that might feasibly emerge from a society that outlaws reading.  The end result comes somewhere between impressionism and modernism, a score that alternates beautiful and mysterious passages with long stretches of cold dissonance.  Herrmann builds a unique ensemble – consisting primarily of strings, harps, xylophone, and glockenspiel – that can by turns sound passionate, mysterious, or clinical.  The score closes with one of Herrmann’s most achingly beautiful pieces, a coda for Bradbury’s underground “book people.”  A rare instance of Herrmann evoking hope rather than dread, the piece embodies Bradbury’s message about the value of literary heritage.  The finale cue begins at 6:41 of this suite, though I’d highly recommend listening to the entire thing:

Something Wicked This Way Comes – Georges Delerue/James Horner.  Production troubles plagued this 1983 adaptation of Bradbury’s novel.  The story centers on the travails of two young boys as they take on an evil traveling carnival that ensnares its customers by catering to their most vulnerable desires.  Disney apparently balked at the darkness of the film’s initial cut, and spent considerable time in post-production attempting to re-edit and re-score the film for a more family-friendly audience.  As a result there are actually two scores for this one, both of which have much to offer.  Georges Delerue (who, to bring this full circle, was Francois Truffaut’s composer of choice in the ’60s and ’70s) wrote one of his greatest masterpieces for the film, a score that captures both the bombastic menace of Mr. Dark’s carnival with the painfully bittersweet sentiment of the boys’ waning childhood.  Perhaps the score’s most ingenious device is the flute that leads the score’s lyrical sections and speaks to the boys’ threatened innocence.  The instrument is especially mesmerizing at the 7:12 mark of the suite below – with the simplest gestures, the music simultaneously captures the dangerous alure of the carnival and the tragedy of innocence about to be lost.   But even more incredible is the finale (starting at 8:53) – this, for me, is the closest that anybody has come to capturing Bradbury’s spirit in music.  Abandoning all restraint, Delerue lets loose a sentimental powerhouse that seems to capture everything beautiful and heartbreaking about childhood and its memories.

The studio (inexplicably) rejected the score late in production, however, and hired a then-young James Horner to write a replacement.  While nowhere near the perfection of Delerue’s, Horner’s score has much to recommend it in its own right.  Horner restrains himself where Delerue went for broke, but his melody for the boys has its own wistful summery appeal.  Horner does even better with the darker aspects of the story, and his atonal choral work for the malicious Mr. Dark is a chilling evocation of pure despair.

The Martian Chronicles – Stanely Meyers.  Stanley Meyers’ score for this 1980 miniseries honestly isn’t quite up to the caliber of the above-mentioned scores.  Meyers was primarily famous for his pioneering electronic work, but synthesizers in The Martian Chronicles tend to come in the form of comically cheesy disco beats.  These moments are fun in their way, but the (now severely dated) pop music compromises the grandeur of Bradbury’s world severely.  That said, the score also features a handful of sensitively expressive cues.  The gentle woodwinds for the Martian world itself are particularly evocative, a delicate musical portrait of a culture that seems both alluring and unknowable.  You can hear this quality in the main title, arguably the best piece of the score:

The Illustrated Man – Jerry Goldsmith.  I’ve focused so far on the more sentimental and personal aspects of Bradbury, but it should be said that he was just as adept at macabre horror stories as he was at wistful nostalgia.  Perhaps the best musical evocation of this side of Bradbury is Jerry Goldsmith’s score for the Bradbury anthology film, The Illustrated Man.  The film is comprised of four short films, each based on one of Bradbury’s short science fiction/horror stories.  Goldsmith responded with that might be the most challenging of all the Bradbury scores.  Discordant serialism screeches through the most abrasive synthesizers that 1969 had to offer – the result is very effective, but it makes for extremely difficult listening.  However, Goldsmith also gave the film an eerily lyrical vocalise to serve as a bookending piece, which is much more affecting.  You can hear it at the 1:54 mark, and I actually recommend skipping straight to it if the prospect of atonal synth textures doesn’t sound particularly appealing:

Christus Apollo – Jerry Goldsmith.  Goldsmith’s greatest work for Bradbury, however, was not a film score.  In 1969, the same year that he scored The Illustrated Man, Goldsmith composed one of his very rare forays into concert music, a cantata set to Bradbury’s poem, “Christus Apollo.”  Bradbury’s sonnet imagines a universe in which Christ’s mission extends past our planet, expanding infinitely throughout the universe.  The poem merges the author’s passions for both science fiction and spirituality, and it inspires some of Goldsmith’s most outlandish music.  Following up on the poem’s darkest suggestions, Goldsmith seems to carry Bradbury’s verse through the most sublime and apocalyptic regions of the cosmos.  But while the music’s violent 12-tone passages and oppressive choral cacophony can be overwhelming, Goldsmith also finds a clear beauty in author’s vision.  The cantata is rich with mesmerizing moments of choral harmony that fluctuate between terror and grace, and the music ultimately carries the emotional impulses of Bradbury’s poem to their natural conclusion.

I’m ending the post here, with the second movement from this concert piece.  Listen when you have a chance, both for the beauty of Bradbury’s language and the music that it inspires.  Christus Apollo serves as a testament both to the raw power of Bradbury’s words and the rare ability that those words had to inspire other artists’ wildest visions.  Because ultimately, this is was the effect that Bradbury had on his readers.  He sent our imaginations hurtling into the most fantastical regions of the universe – from the farthest reaches of the cosmos, to the dandelion patches in our parents’ backyards. In the process, he reminded us that living is its own sensory experience, one that always merits taking the time to savor.

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