Saturday, February 7, 2009

Film Music: Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a wonderful film. The accolades it is receiving this year are well deserved. Alexandre Desplat (pictured) wrote the score and matched the tenor of the film very well. There were elements in the score of the roaring twenties, the war years, into the sixties and then to modern day. Occasionally there are touches of extraneous music to add authenticity to the scene (such as the Beatles appearance on Ed Sullivan), but for the most part it is all Desplat's treatment that keeps the score in touch with the film.

This had to have been a difficult challenge, writing a piece that sounds cohesive and yet spans over 80 years of music. Each age needs to sound true to the time and yet the overall piece needs to hang together. Desplat does this with amazing dexterity. While we as viewers pass through each of the early eras, the music seems to fit with the scene. There are numerous references to New Orleans style jazz of the 20's (with a nice touch of ragtime, which fits in with what you might hear in an old folks home). As the film moves into the Balanchine era of dance, the pastiche is equally as fitting.

Where the score unravels is during the second world war when the film doesn't necessarily suggest big band. So much of the music up to this point was period specific and jazz related, that not to include something reminiscent of Glenn Miller seems odd. Later in the film, as the characters race through the 70's there was nothing in the music to suggest the time frame. If the concept was to stick to jazz idioms, acid jazz was exploding in the smokey night clubs on the East Coast during the 70's. Images and sounds of the Beatles were used to place the movie in the 60's, and while this worked, it might have been nice to explore the bebop jazz elements of New York's SoHo district. Toward the end of the film and modern day, time is referenced by news reports. We could have heard the trumpet of Wynton Marcellas or the crooning of Harry Connick Jr. and jazz lovers would have known the era immediately. Perhaps, as one ages, the shifting of music isn't so important as we tend to stick to the music of our youth. However, in this film, the period music was critical to suggesting the time - generally Desplat did this well, but not always.

Desplat could have taken the score in another direction, a more modern/timeless approach to the score. Thomas Newman did this with Revolutionary Road and Nico Muhly did this with The Reader. If he had chosen this approach missing some time periods wouldn't have been so crucial, but then the themes would needed to have shown a sense of aging and I'm not sure how he could have accomplished this with a modern score. I think the direction he headed was the right one. He just didn't take it quite far enough.

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