THE RIGHT TO LOVE: AN AMERICAN FAMILY – Edwin Wendler
Original Review by Craig Lysy
In The Right to Love: An American Family director Cassie Jaye, along with support from her sister and mother, sought to chronicle a family’s story of courage during the highly charged, divisive and controversial California Proposition 8 election in 2008. Bryan and Jay Leffew, a Californian married gay couple and their two adopted children Daniel and Selena chose to fight against the ballot initiative whose passage would end marriage equality. They decided to put a human face on this important issue by posting their home videos on their YouTube channel, “Gay Family Values”. It was hoped that these videos would break down stereotypical misconceptions and reveal that in the final analysis the sum of our similarities exceed the sum of our differences. Despite their heroic efforts the proposition passed and marked the first time in the history of the United States that a majority of citizens voted to strip fellow citizens of equal rights under Law. The film earned one Silver and three Bronze awards during the 33rd Annual Telly Awards.
The music for The Right to Love: An American Family is by Austrian-born composer Edwin Wendler. Since moving from his native Vienna to Los Angeles in 1999, Wendler has written music for dozens of short films, web series and features, and worked with composers such as Paul Haslinger, John Ottman and Stephen Trask on projects such as Turistas, Into the Blue, Unknown, The Losers, and Little Fockers. His solo feature film projects prior to this film include Christmas With a Capital C and Escape, but The Right to Love: An American Family is likely to bring him a new level of recognition due to its beauty and intimacy.
Wendler’s approach with the score was to not provide a strong thematic identity, but to instead support the film with a more textural, organic and ambient approach. His soundscape supports the film’s narrative and speaks to the film’s imagery, but does not yank the emotions out of you. His approach is subtle, nuanced, and never intrusive, achieving a beautiful synergy with the film. Wendler correctly understood that this was a story of love, hope and family, and so chose to capture this intimacy with a small ensemble of instruments. A solo cello and piano usually carried the music’s melodic line, but he also infused the score with modern pop songs and ballads so as to provide a contemporaneous vibe. I must say he succeeded on all counts.
In their fantasy retreat Jay and Brain relate their common interest in Star Wars and as they show off their amazing collection of memorabilia in “Common Interest”. The music is bright, up beat and carried by a violin ostinato and solo cello. The melodic line is embellished and alight with chimes and sparkling glockenspiel. It is a wonderful piece that speaks to the child-like wonder of this amazing room. “Tears and Rain” is an interesting dichotomous cue where Jay and Bryan discuss their relationship. We open in an up beat pop music mode on acoustic guitar, strummed bass, electric piano and drum brushed cymbals and the world seems bright. However, at 0:10 a violin sustain and twinkling piano transition us to a mystical tonal piece adorned with chimes, the sound of rain, and rumbling electronica that fades as a discordant diminuendo. This really is an interesting and well-conceived cue. The cue is reprised in the film in the segment where Jay relates his struggle to come to terms with being gay. He speaks of his torment of playing straight, his impending marriage to a woman and how is despair led to a failed suicide attempt by jumping off a bridge. “Two Lovers” displays Brian and Jay revealing that special moment following the film “Love, Valor and Compassion” when they first realized their love for each other. Wendler uses this song by Lindsay Ellyn to support the scene. The song is a folksy ballad that speaks to universality of love. Carried by acoustic guitar and subtle percussion the song is perfectly attenuated to the film’s narrative.
“The Initiative” reveals news reports of a rising support for marriage equality that includes an uncomfortable interview of John McCain on the Ellen show. The cue begins tentatively on guitar that is soon joined by a twinkling piano line from which rises a beautiful lyrical contrapuntal melody by solo cello. This gorgeous duet abruptly shifts gears at 0:44 when we see Sarah Palin and Joe Biden both declaring during a debate their opposition to gay marriage. We hear the tone of piano line and guitar accompaniment take on an air of sadness, accentuated now with a tonal and dark solo cello. The cue ends with a discordant diminuendo. This is expertly attenuated to the film’s imagery. “Spin” was dialed out of the film and features the twinkling piano motif, this time with plucked harp, woodwinds and sparkling percussion. The cue concludes again with a discordant diminuendo. The music is devoid of any emotion and speaks to the relentless efforts by supporters of Proposition 8 to alter the narrative from a discussion of equality under Law and instead play to fear.
“Seven” by Daniel Kamas, is a pop song carried by Dan and back-up vocalist Christiana Speed, which supports a montage of Jay and Bryan’s marriage ceremony. A lyrical acoustic guitar is prominent with banjo, bass and drums providing the rhythm. The lyrics speak of hope for a brighter future. The music is perfectly attenuated to the film’s imagery and serves to endear us to Jay and Bryan. “Spreading Fear” reveals a montage of scenes where opponents use fear tactics to turn people against the purported ‘Gay Agenda.’ Wendler underscores this with a subtle textural cue. We open with xylophone twinkling atop a string sustain. Soon a solo cello joins and is followed by a string ostinato, which together interplay with the xylophone line. I appreciate the subtlety of this approach. In “Election Day” we see people going to the polls as the opposing camps continue to voice their irreconcilable positions. The cue speaks of an impending abiding sense of loss, sadness and despair. Wendler perfectly captures these emotions not with a sumptuous virtuoso display which yanks the emotions out of you, but instead with a restrained yet never the less stirring interplay of Jakub Mayer’s solo cello work and piano. The cue completely succeeds on all counts.
“For and Against” is a stark tonal cue with ambient electronica textures. We hear a piano attempt to gain voice, yet it is engulfed by a deep and dark bass resonance. We feel a sad desolation, which speaks to Jay’s travails. Yet “Hummingbird”, a song by Trey Lockerbie lifts our spirits. The song supports a montage that features the Leffew family enjoying being together and celebrating life in many settings. We are treated to a fine lyrical, upbeat and hopeful pop song carried by acoustic guitar, bass and electric piano, which flow with a steady percussive rhythm. Its lyrics speak to “eventually getting what we are after”, which is what underpins the efforts of the Leffew family and LGBT community. The selection of this song was well conceived. In “Tradition” we see opponents of marriage equality speaking against it and validating the decision of the majority to uphold traditional marriage. This cue is a score highlight, which features beautiful cello work. We open with a repeating four-note statement by cello doloroso adorned with a piano echo. From this duet arises an exquisite solo cello line augmented with counters by woodwinds. This piece speaks to tension caused by the collision of traditionalist and modernist values.
“Voting on Rights” is also a score highlight that features just exquisite writing for strings. It reveals a montage of Brian, Jay, Rachael Maddow and many others speaking to the rights of people to Equality under Law. We open with plaintive line of viola, celli and bass, which are joined by contrapuntal textures of violin and harp. From this joining arises a sumptuous solo cello line that signals a deep pathos. This flowing line of strings is one of uncommon beauty, which elicited a quiver and tears as I listened. Cues like this offer testimony as to why I love film music. Bravo! “The Playbook”, reveals the tactics used by marriage equality opponent Maggie Gallagher, who opines a biblical and procreative underpinning for marriage in a number of interviews. The narrative speaks to the clash of cultures between modernists and traditionalists catalyzed by Proposition 8. We open once again to a solo cello doloroso adorned with twinkling piano and rumbling bass. Once again Wendler expertly weaves these two instruments together into a stark, yet never the less beautiful duet tragico. Next we come to the adoption montage, which reveals Jay and Brian’s efforts to adopt Selena and Daniel. “Crayons” by Matthew Woolfrey was specifically written for Jay and Bryan’s daughter Selena and supports their journey on screen. It is a hopeful pop song sung by Matthew with only solo piano accompaniment. It clearly espouses diversity, with its lyrics using crayons as being emblematic of society itself, full of all the colors of the rainbow.
For “In Time” by Wendell Lee we are provided another pop song carried by acoustic guitar, bass and electric keyboard. We see Bryan and Jay speaking to younger gay viewers of the validity of them as human beings. They relate that love is love and that it is in no way less worthy or less valid than the love between a man and a woman. There is a folksy vibe here with the sensibility of a ballad. The song speaks of commitment, caring and belonging. We conclude the film with Jay filming Bryan giving a heartfelt speech to other gays that speaks of hope and a brighter future. A reprise of the song “Hummingbird” plays through the scene, which also features the End Credits roll. .
This is an intimate score that features excellent writing for solo cello, which is often paired in beautiful synergy with sparking piano. Indeed, the cello playing by Jakub Mayer is sublime and demonstrates his mastery of his instrument. The inclusion of pop songs and ballads that feature acoustic guitar was well conceived and perfectly attenuated to the film’s narrative. This score offers you the road less traveled. If you like small ensemble intimate scores infused with solo cello statements, piano and acoustic guitar carried pop songs, then this is a score worthy of your consideration. I believe that I am better for having taken this journey and highly recommend this score for inclusion in your collection.
The soundtrack for The Right To Love: An American Family is not available from the Movie Music UK Store. The soundtrack CD is currently available exclusively from Jaye Bird Productions. Proceeds will help the Leffew family attend upcoming screenings of the documentary.
- Common Interest (0:46)
- The Initiative (2:24)
- Voting on Rights (3:21)
- For and Against (2:33)
- Spreading Fear (1:31)
- Tradition (2:41)
- Spin (1:46)
- Tears and Rain (1:09)
- Election Day (2:36)
- The Playbook (3:44)
- Hummingbird (performed by Trey Lockerbie) (3:26)
- Seven (performed by Daniel Kamas) (3:26)
- Crayons (performed by Matthew Woolfrey) (3:53)
- In Time (performed by Wendell Lee) (5:31)
- Two Lovers (performed by Lindsay Ellyn) (3:35)
Running Time: 37 minutes 56 seconds
Westwood Music Group (2012)
Music composed and conducted by Edwin Wendler. Orchestrations by Edwin Wendler. Featured musical soloist Jakub Meyer. Recorded and mixed by Jan Holzner. Album produced by Edwin Wendler.