SOUL SURFER – Marco Beltrami
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Soul Surfer tells the true story of Bethany Hamilton, a champion youth surfer from Hawaii who, while out on an early morning surf with her best friend, had her life forever changed when her left arm was bitten off by a tiger shark – she was just 13 years old at the time. Despite suffering this horrific injury and hovering close to death, Bethany recovered enough to be able to return to competitive surfing just months later with only one arm, and went on to win the National Scholastic Surfing Association National Championships in 2005. The film, which is directed by Sean McNamara, stars Anna Sophia Robb as Hamilton, features Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt and Carrie Underwood in supporting roles, and has a superb and highly original score by the versatile Marco Beltrami.
Despite still being best-known for his work in the horror and science fiction genres, Marco Beltrami has written several excellent works for conventional dramas, most of which show a keen emotional and thematic sensibility which rarely gets an airing. Soul Surfer is one of those scores, but is different again, as it gave Beltrami the opportunity to work traditional Hawaiian mele chants into the fabric of the score, representing not only the setting of the film, but giving something of a flavor of the spiritual element that runs through Hawaiian society, and ultimately gives Bethany the strength to recover from her terrible ordeal. These mele are the emotional cornerstone of the entire score, not only in terms of their purely musical value, but also in terms of the meaning of the lyrics (English translations for which are available from Beltrami’s website), which intelligently echo the intent of the scenes they accompany.
The opening cue, “Main Titles”, is a charming vocal celebration of Hawaiian life and culture, rendered almost timeless by Beltrami’s calm orchestrations, and which features the first performance of the two-note central motif that re-occurs throughout the score, before rising to a sweeping denouement. This is a side of Beltrami we don’t often get to hear – in which beautiful melody and harmony are front and center – and Soul Surfer shows us what we have been (for the most part) missing all these years. There have been flashes of thematic beauty in unlikely places – parts of Mimic, the finale of Scream, the finale of Knowing, and some of his lesser-known works like I Am Dina for example – but for the most part, this is new territory.
After the free-spirited and ebullient action in “Turtle Bay Surfing”, which also incorporates an expansive statement of the main theme, the score’s darkest moment comes during the “Shark Attack” cue, in which Beltrami’s loud and vivid orchestra throbs, growls and presents a thoroughly terrifying and quite brilliant musical depiction of the horror emerging from the depths. When the gravel-voiced Hawaiian singer starts intoning about ‘a terrible spouting from the deep sea, from the purplish-blue sea of Kane’, accompanied by Beltrami’s threatening percussion slams, whining strings and brutal horn calls, it’s almost as though the voice of the shark itself has risen to the surface. I’m coming to get you. You might as well stop paddling. There’s nothing you can do about it.
The Hawaiian choir from the opening cue appears later in “Half Pint Boards”, a pivotal scene in the film in which Bethany realizes what a profound effect her bravery is having on others, and the effect of the chant is flipped on its head. Beginning with a mesmerizing hula-like guitar performance of the main theme, the vocalists return to chant “the bud buds, the leaf opens, the warrior is consecrated and surfs gracefully” in counterpoint to the main theme, accompanying Bethany as she accepts that the legacy of her injury – however much she suffered at the time – can be used for good.
The purely orchestral parts of the score are no less impressive, making excellent use of a large and refined orchestral palette, as well as solo performances for piano and Hawaiian guitar. The emotional “Alana Visits Bethany” is lovely; the tender “Homecoming” features a lovely piano performance of the main theme accompanied by warm, inviting chants; “Dark Day” uses guitars, piano and strings to invoke the struggle of Bethany’s recovery, accompanying her through her lowest ebb. Later, “Back in the Water” is a soaring, full-throated orchestral celebration of triumph over unbelievable adversity, while “Bethany and Dad” illustrates the two protagonists’ relationship with an intimate and elegant solo piano performance of the main theme. The “Hymn for Bethany” is especially beautiful, gradually emerging from a solo guitar melody into a lush orchestral anthem accompanied by a soft wordless chorus and a stirring string accompaniment.
Two dashing and optimistic action cues appear in “Big Drum Competition” and the outstanding “Paddle Battle”, both of which feature energetic orchestral performances underpinned by all manner of tribal shakers and rattles, and the eponymous big drums. In the “Paddle Battle” cue the vocalist from the shark attack cue reappears, this time intoning a totally different set of lyrics – instead of “I’m going to rip your arm off”, these words are all about the freedom of the open ocean, and the intimate relationship between wave and surfer. As was the case in the earlier “Half Pint Boards”, there’s a wonderful sense of closure here, as though Bethany has finally overcome the legacy of the shark. You may have taken my arm, but you haven’t taken my soul. Things come to a stirring conclusion in “Bethany’s Wave”, in which the vocalists recapitulate the mele from the opening title, once more celebrating the spirit of the islands, accompanied by a full-orchestral performance of a rousing theme, and a notable cello solo.
It’s always extremely gratifying when great film music emerges from completely unlikely places, and if you had asked me at the beginning of the year to predict which scores would turn out to be amongst 2011’s best, a film about a surfer who gets her arm chewed off would have been nowhere near the top of my list. But, ultimately, Soul Surfer is one of those unexpected gems, a creative and accomplished work by an exceptionally talented composer which mixes traditional Hawaiian fare with well-constructed orchestral performances, and – much like the subject of the film – overcomes the odds to emerge triumphant. The score is only available as a digital download from iTunes and as an Amazon CDR on demand, but it’s more than worth exploring.
Buy the Soul Surfer soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Main Titles (2:34)
- Turtle Bay Surfing (2:12)
- Fireworks (0:35)
- Shark Attack (6:22)
- Alana Visits Bethany (1:18)
- Homecoming (1:59)
- Dark Day (3:38)
- Back in the Water (2:38)
- Trying to Get Out (2:03)
- Bethany and Dad (2:20)
- Phuket (1:20)
- Half Pint Boards (2:53)
- Hymn for Bethany (2:24)
- Welcome to the Nationals (1:28)
- Big Drum Competition (3:09)
- Paddle Battle (1:51)
- Bethany’s Wave (3:26)
- Awards (1:59)
- Bethany Gives Thanks (1:25)
Running Time: 46 minutes 21 seconds
Madison Gate Records Digital Download (2011)
Music composed and conducted by Marco Beltrami. Additional music by Marcus Trumpp. Featured musical soloists Daniel Ho and Randy Chang. Special vocal performances by Sylvia Punani Edgar, Punani Grace Edgar, Bernard Keal’i Ceballos, Randy Chang, Puanani Tom King, Pili Aloha Christiansen, Maxine Wright and Jeff Santiago. Recorded and mixed by John Kurlander. Edited by Jim Schultz. Album produced by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders .