Film music has long been a passion of mine, but I’ve realised I don’t really talk about it on Cultural Conversation as much as I would like. 2019 I plan to remedy this, partly with a monthly cluster of recommendations.
The aim will be, similar to my end of year lists, recommend five albums by highlighting a track from them each. The idea will be for this list to drop at the start of the month and concern films to be released in UK cinemas that month, accompanied by a Spotify playlist which goes into a bit more depth about each album.
January 2019 to start, then, featuring tracks from composers including Alan Silvestri, Max Richter and Rob Simonsen…
5. ‘You Are Saved’ (Welcome to Marwen – Alan Silvestri)
You can’t really expect a Robert Zemeckis movie without Alan Silvestri in tow. These two have been largely inseparable as cinematic collaborators since the heyday of 1984’s Romancing the Stone, but arguably Zemeckis has been on a poor streak lately – The Walk nor Allied struck much of a chord, and neither did Silvestri’s scores for those movies to boot, and his latest Steve Carell-starring true story adaptation Welcome to Marwen has bombed powerfully. The film will likely soon be forgotten but the score definitely has some merit.
Silvestri scores Welcome to Marwen with a balance of appropriate bombast and sensitivity, given the story involves Carell playing a fantasist who the audience is meant to approach with sympathy. ‘You Are Saved’, the second track, has a blend of whimsy thrown into the mix thanks to a knowingly silly interjection of militaristic drums and fanfare, in contrast to the central, melancholic theme running through the film, and moments of soft woodwind and violin. It has a catchy central refrain you’ll be whistling for some time afterward.
Given Silvestri delivered the biggest cinematic score disappointment last year (Avengers: Infinity War), this sets him back on track. Fingers crossed for Avengers: Endgame!
4. ‘Master of the Butterfly Knife’ (Vice – Nicholas Britell)
A few years ago, nobody had any idea who Nicholas Britell was in film composing circles. Then along came Adam McKay with his excellent comi-tragic financial drama The Big Short and launched this young musical talent into orbit, before Barry Jenkins sent him stratospheric with his elegant, understated yet classical work on the Oscar-darling Moonlight. He’s teaming with Jenkins again very soon for If Beale Street Could Talk, but first he’s back in McKay’s sphere with Vice.
Truth be told, Britell’s score for Vice is an unusual blend, but it tracks with an orchestral style hard to pin down. McKay’s drama about former US Vice-President Dick Cheney has moments of soaring, epic violin that could pack out a Vienna concert hall, before switching to 70’s echoing funky jazz standards such as my choice here, the swingin’ ‘Master of the Butterfly Knife’. This paradox was also apparent in Moonlight in many ways, with its fusion of mournful strings with r’n’b, and while Vice isn’t as consistent, it does have a sweep to it, and more than a few impressive tracks.
Britell remains one of the most exciting new composing voices out there and Vice does not suggest that will change any time soon.
3. ‘The Hilltop’ (Mary Queen of Scots – Max Richter)
Mary Queen of Scots might be the biggest film Max Richter has scored yet. It certainly feels one of the biggest, a major period drama with Saorise Ronan and Margot Robbie in the lead roles, but it further suggests Richter profile is continuing to grow as he develops a career beyond his origins as producer of minimalist classical albums, even to the point of adapting Vivaldi. The first score that Richter stood out to me was for Tom Hardy-starring BBC One drama Taboo, a piece filled with growling, undulating classical menace.
Though a period piece, Mary Queen of Scots is a very different beast but one which Richter feels very at home with, capturing a rapturous sense of classical British regality. ‘The Hilltop’ is a faster orchestration of the central themes across the album, a soaring mix of woodwind, violin and rapping, cantering drums which move at a gallop. There is a richness to Richter’s score which the film will do well to match, he allowing the music to strongly suggest the 16th century setting without likely ending up too intrusive.
The kind of album which continues to make Max Richter a composer I get excited at seeing on a film score.
2. ‘Can’t Make Kentucky’ (The Front Runner – Rob Simonsen)
I would be lying if before The Front Runner I said that Rob Simonsen was a composer who excited me. For films of those I have seen that he scored, the music felt background; calm, measured, un-intrusive and, dare I say it, quite bland. The Front Runner really surprised me in how powerfully Simonsen’s work stood out for the Hugh Jackman-starring political drama involving a Congressional extra-marital scandal in 1988.
Simonsen delivers a score dripping in ominous, brooding escalation, filled with repeating piano motifs alongside outbursts of brass and mixed in with quiet, eerily melodious strings. ‘Can’t Make Kentucky’ is an early track which uses pulsing keyboard rhythms to create a sense of pace and incident, reflecting the hubbub of a political campaign. Simonsen’s work is again quiet and background but in this case it seems to compliment the broader dramatic ideas in a unique way. Plus, it’s damn enjoyable to listen to and let soak in.
While something tells me The Front Runner as a film won’t be long remembered, Rob Simonsen’s work here I won’t forget in a hurry.
1. ‘Polaire’s Arrival’ (Colette – Thomas Ades)
Colette is the film composing debut of musician Thomas Ades and it is a feat that would only be possible from someone with a grounding in classical music. The score to this Keira Knightley-starring 18th century drama is gorgeous. It reminded me instantly of Dario Marianelli’s beautiful, swirling music to Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina; a sumptuous concoction of instruments that Ades has clearly brought under his command through a long career of operas, choirs and concertos.
‘Polaire’s Arrival’ underscores everything I love about what he does with Colette, deploying a full range of instruments from pianos, violins, booming bass drums to deliver something brief but bombastic, even at times joyously discordant. Ades layers the remainder of the album with beautiful pieces, everything from romantic piano solos to waltzes that put you right amidst the French aristocracy.
One can only hope Thomas Ades continues working in film if the music to Colette, music which will undoubtedly end up in the best of 2019 list, is anything to go by. What a debut!
As promised, below is the full January 2019 expanded movie mix on Spotify for you to delve into for more of these recommended albums. Enjoy!