Home > Reviews > WHALE RIDER – Lisa Gerrard

WHALE RIDER – Lisa Gerrard

whaleriderOriginal Review by Peter Simons

Despite winning both the World Cinema Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival, Whale Rider is a little known, and even less seen film. Based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera and directed by Niki Caro, it slowly and beautifully tells a mythological story of the Whangara people of New Zealand. Debutante Keisha Castle-Hughes stars as Pai, a young girl from a rural community in modern New Zealand. According to tradition, Pai’s family, the Whangara, are directly descended from Paikea, the legendary leader who arrived in their country on the back of a whale thousands of years ago (in Maori mythology, the whale is said to be a guardian spirit who watches over his people at sea). Every generation, the first born son of the bloodline is destined to become chief of the tribe. However, Pai’s older baby brother died at birth, leaving her the sole heir to the chiefhood, and Pai’s loving but stubbornly traditional grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene) refuses to accept that a girl can be their leader. Sensing that hers is an important position, and acknowledging her heritage, Pai embarks on a quest to prove that she can undergo the rigorous training that will allow her to take her rightful place as head of the Whangara people.

The score for this intimate movie is composed by Lisa Gerrard, who is best known for her work on Hans Zimmer’s score for Gladiator, her own score for the Oscar-nominated The Insider, and her long-standing involvement with the alternative rock group Dead Can Dance. Gerrard is known for her ambient sound design and for her extraordinary voice. Sure, her ethnic-sounding voice is not everybody’s proverbial cup of tea, but I for one like it. A lot even. On Whale Rider, her voice is softer and more mysterious than she is known for. The accompanying synth pads, sounding as breezy and liquidy as the ocean itself, appropriately create an atmosphere of vast, seemingly infinite spaces. In a very subtle way, the score is actually quite epic. Occasionally ethnic and electronic percussion are added to the mix and surprisingly, perhaps, it does not interrupt the hypnotizing mood at all, but in fact enhances the epic atmosphere of the album.

It is hard, if not impossible, to speak of a main theme. Rather, the score is held together by recurring motifs and by its sound design. The album opens with the sound of crashing waves. A voice-over tells the story of Paikea, for those who have not seen the movie and have not read the CD’s booklet. In the tracks that follow, Gerrard creates an almost otherworldly atmosphere using synthesized sounds that sound very organic. It’s quite an achievement to make a fully synthesized score sound so acoustic. The only live instruments that Gerrard has added to the mix are a piano (performed by Phil Pomeroy), her own voice, and chantings by the Ngasti Konghi people.

Almost everyone I know does not like this album. They think it’s too slow, too uneventful and thus too boring. I however love the score for its timeless atmosphere. Through its ambient soundscape the album creates an atmosphere that seems to be beyond time and space. The music gently crashes upon the listener just as the waves on a beach. It’s inevitable. It’s endless. And yes…I could be a lot vaguer than that! At its worst, keeping in mind that Whale Rider is a soundtrack to a movie, it is impossible to tell, if you haven’t seen the movie yet, for what images this music is written. The track titles, though poetic, provide little or no hint. At its best however, the music allows you to dream up your own stories. And for that I embrace this album.

Additional comments by Jonathan Broxton: There aren’t many movies made about the Maori people of New Zealand – the only other which springs to mind is Once Were Warriors from 1994 – but Whale Rider looks to change the opinions of many, and open up this largely unknown culture to a wider audience. Based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera and directed by Niki Caro, Whale Rider stars debutante Keisha Castle-Hughes as Pai, a young girl from a rural community in modern New Zealand. According to tradition, Pai’s family, the Whangara, are directly descended from Paikea, the legendary Maori leader who arrived in their country on the back of a whale thousands of years ago. Every generation, the first born son of the bloodline is destined to become chief of the tribe. However, Pai’s baby brother died at birth, leaving her the sole heir to the chiefhood, and Pai’s loving but stubbornly traditional grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene) refuses to accept that a girl can be their leader. Sensing that hers is an important position, and acknowledging her heritage, Pai embarks on a quest to prove that she can undergo the rigorous training that will allow her to take her rightful place as head of the Whangara people. In its basest sense, Whale Rider is a coming-of-age drama, primarily about Pai’s attempts to communicate and earn the respect of her grandfather. In addition to this, there are insights into Maori spirituality, social commentaries about the way ancient cultures amalgamate with modern living, and the way in which strongly-held traditions are becoming less important to the communities they once supported. It’s an interesting movie in many ways, and is bolstered by Castle-Hughes’s amazing main performance as confused little girl who cannot understand why her family finds her to be so much of a disappointment. The scene in which she delivers a speech dedicated to her grandfather is truly heartbreaking, and convincing in its emotional authenticity. Musically, Whale Rider embraces the sounds of the sea, the live-giving ocean that represents the cornerstone of the Whangara way of life. Composer Lisa Gerrard has written a soothing, ambient, predominantly electronic score that gently washes the listener with calming tones of mood music, often mimicking the natural sounds of whale song. There is nothing to speak of in the way of thematic material, no standout cues, not even an emotional high-point – instead, Gerrard makes her music ubiquitous, always there, like the sea, but never drawing attention to itself. Occasional piano interludes, gossamer vocal performances by Gerrard herself, and gently rhythmic percussion occasionally interrupt the calm, but on the whole this is quiet, mesmerizing stuff. More a collection of tones than a score, but it works nevertheless

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Paikea Legend (3:29)
  • Journey Away (3:43)
  • Rejection (1:43)
  • Biking Home (3:25)
  • Ancestors (1:43)
  • Suitcase (1:04)
  • Pai Calls the Whale (1:32)
  • Reiputa (2:14)
  • Disappointment (2:55)
  • They Came To Die (2:19)
  • Pai Theme (3:49)
  • Paikea’s Whale (4:01)
  • Empty Water (1:40)
  • Waka In The Sky (1:56)
  • Go Forward (5:52)

Running Time: 41 minutes 27 seconds

4AD Records CAD 2304CD (2002)

Music composed, arranged and performed by Lisa Gerrard. Featured musical soloist Phil Pomeroy. Special vocal performances by Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Keriana Thomson and the Wananga Boys and The People of Ngati Konghi, Whangara. Recorded and Mixed by Simon Bowley. Mastered by Jacek Tuschewski. Album produced by Lisa Gerrard.

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