COPPERHEAD – Laurent Eyquem
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Copperhead is the third of director Ronald F. Maxwell’s ongoing series of films examining various elements and aspects of the American Civil War, the first two being the epic Gettysburg (1993) and its sequel Gods and Generals (2003). Based on the novel by Harold Frederic, Copperhead is the story of Abner Beech, a stubborn and righteous farmer from Upstate New York, who defies his neighbors and his government in the bloody and contentious autumn of 1862 by joining the Copperhead movement. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, “Copperheads” were Democrats located in the Northern United States of the Union who opposed Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War, and wanted an immediate peace settlement with the Confederates; they were so named because many saw them as similar to their “poisonous snake” namesakes. The film stars Bill Campbell, Angus MacFadyen and Peter Fonda, and has opened in a small number of theatres in the United States to – unfortunately – generally negative reviews.
One aspect of Maxwell’s films that have been almost universally praised have been their scores, with both Randy Edelman and John Frizzell arguably writing career-best works for Gettysburg and Gods and Generals. For Copperhead, Maxwell turned to a young French composer, Bordeaux-born Laurent Eyquem, whose most high profile works prior to Copperhead were for French-Canadian films: the TV movie Maman Est Chez le Coiffeur in 2008 (for which he was nominated for a Genie Award), the drama Lullaby for Pi in 2010, the comedy French Immersion in 2011, and the thriller La Peur de l’Eau also in 2011, as well as two scores for the “Thorne” series of police procedural movies in the UK. However, having now heard Copperhead, one can only assume that this is the beginning of a long and successful career scoring much more prominent films for Eyquem, because it’s quite wonderful.
In terms of approach, Copperhead is completely classical, written for a large standard symphony orchestra, with extended highlighted performances by violin, cello and piano. The tone, for the most part, is serious and a just little melancholy, but utterly beautiful, highlighting Eyquem’s skill at writing deeply emotional melodies and that capture the location, the time period, and the tragic circumstances surrounding the life of Abner Beech and the way his political beliefs impacted upon his family and his community. There are several recurring themes that wind their way through the score, but they tend to be so similar in tone and orchestration that’s it’s quite difficult to pick them out individually; instead, the standout moments tend to come through distinct instrumental performances and changes in tone, rather than in strong and identifiable thematic identity.
The main title, “Copperhead”, is a beauty, emerging from a passionate piano theme into a soulful oboe-led variation, and a gorgeous violin phrase, which is then picked up by the whole orchestra. The violin/fiddle tones are steeped in vintage Americana that speak of a time and place that is vivid and evocative. Stylistically, the music sounds like 90s era James Horner crossed with the lush lyricism that someone like Georges Delerue might have written for something like this, and as an introduction to Laurent Eyquem’s work – which, for most people, this will be – it’s wholly and unequivocally positive.
There are a couple of minor recurring themes that Eyquem revisits throughout the score. ”The Simple Life” has an earthy, solid, dependable sound, and comes across equally well whether performed on a solo violin in the fourth track, or in its more intimate oboe recapitulation in the sixth. “A Poor Beggar In This World” is more morose and introspective, a downtrodden piano melody that initially plays unaccompanied in the ninth track before being joined by a gorgeous cello, and picks up an equally despondent string accompaniment in the seventeenth. Solo violin and piano again dominates the recurring “A Peaceful Man” theme, which is yet another stunningly beautiful melody, but possibly the most heartbreaking theme is the one first heard in “The World Turned Upside Down”, which switches from solo piano to solo cello and back again, gradually building into a cue of real power and beauty, albeit one borne of desperate sorrow. I love music like this, and the emotions it elicits.
As the score progresses, several other moments of great instrumental beauty stand out. The sprightly and playful “Sunday Morning” has a sense of summery warmth to it, while the more stately duo of “One Room Schoolhouse” and “The Picnic” have a touch of gentle romance, with appealing woodwind textures, plucked bases and harp glissandi that are quite lovely. Later, “Avery’s Porch” revisits the fiddle-led Americana sound in a way that conveys visuals of golden sunsets dipping beneath a rolling horizon, while the first half of “The Enlistment” is all upbeat trumpet-led patriotism that has more than a hint of Randy Newman about it. Conversely, the more brooding “Blessed Are the Peacemakers” takes the piano in a different, darker direction, while the velvety “A Fine Singer” takes the cello to its lushest depths.
The score’s conclusive cue, “Resurrection”, is a 5-minute tour-de-force that re-states several of the score’s main themes in their boldest fashion, bringing the score to a finish with a flourish that is both uplifting, tender, and a little contemplative. Varese Sarabande’s album also includes two source music cues – the traditional piece “The Dev’l Among the Tailors” performed by The Barn Dance Musicians, and Stephen Foster’s classic 1862 lullaby “Slumber My Darling” performed by singer/guitarist Marcus Bently.
Perhaps the one and only drawback of Laurent Eyquem’s score is its slight feeling of sameyness. With little to no action music to alter the mood, Copperhead is essentially an hour’s worth of solemn, very beautiful, very moving, but very similar-sounding music, which I personally love; however, I can easily see a situation where anyone not paying complete attention may find themselves lulled into a musical drama-coma due to the lack of variety, the similarity between the different themes in terms of melody and orchestrations, and the constant pervading mood of introverted melancholy. It’s undeniably lovely, but cutting the album’s running length from just over an hour to around 45 minutes might have given the album a better chance at exploring all its thematic ideas without becoming too monotonous.
Still, at this point in time, where orchestral beauty, strong emotion and thematic identity is considered passé by mainstream Hollywood and mainstream film critics – Neil Genzlinger’s negative review in the New York Times predictably states that Copperhead’s “oppressive musical score makes sure you don’t miss a single emotion or point” – I find it to be a refreshing change to hear a score for an American film that is not afraid to accompany its images with music that seeks to convey a wide range of feelings. The irony is that, yet again, the composer conveying these feelings comes from the European school of thought rather than the American one. Much like Alexandre Desplat, Philippe Rombi, and many of the fine composers working in Spain, Laurent Eyquem is a composer whose talent with an orchestra cannot be ignored, and I strongly hope he continues to work on more high-profile films, and is allowed to write music in a similar vein.
Buy the Copperhead soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Copperhead – Main Title (2:47)
- Sunday Morning (0:48)
- One Room Schoolhouse (2:23)
- The Dev’l Among the Tailors (traditional, performed by The Barn Dance Musicians) (1:41)
- The Simple Life (0:44)
- Avery’s Porch (0:54)
- Blessed Are the Peacemakers (1:01)
- A Poor Beggar in This World/The Mill (3:16)
- The World Turned Upside Down (2:55)
- The Picnic (1:51)
- Jeff’s Decision (1:12)
- The Enlistment (2:59)
- Candle Light Vigil/The Simple Life (1:48)
- Hurley’s Dream/Casualties At the Front (2:12)
- A Peaceful Man (0:54)
- Visiting Esther (0:51)
- No News/A Poor Beggar in This World (2:18)
- Warner’s Return (0:41)
- Missing in Action (1:07)
- A Fine Singer (2:04)
- Ni Goes South (1:04)
- The Ballot Box (0:46)
- The World Turned Upside Down (2:20)
- Tears/A Peaceful Man (1:48)
- They Are Coming Tonight (0:29)
- The Locket (3:45)
- The Prodigal Son (1:09)
- Sharp Shooters On the Ridge (2:27)
- Reunion (1:33)
- Resurrection (5:36)
- Slumber My Darling (written by Stephen Foster, performed by Marcus Bently) (5:08)
Running Time: 60 minutes 31 seconds
Varese Sarabande 302-067-203-8 (2013)
Music composed and conducted by Laurent Eyquem. Orchestrations by Laurent Eyquem and Jeff Atmajian. Recorded and mixed by Sylvain Lefebvre. Edited by Meri Gavin and Lisa Jaime. Album produced by Laurent Eyquem and David Franco.