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BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN – Gustavo Santaolalla

December 9, 2005 Leave a comment Go to comments

brokebackmountainOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

When I first read the plot summary of Brokeback Mountain, I half-wondered whether it was a joke at the expense of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, specifically the episode of South Park where Cartman attends the Sundance film festival and loudly complains that “every fucking independent movie is about gay cowboys in Wyoming!” This is because Brokeback Mountain is, in fact, a movie about gay cowboys in Wyoming. It also happens to he a very, very good one, and is fully deserving of all the critical praise it has been receiving. Adapted from Annie Proulx’s short story by Lonesome Dove writer Larry McMurtry, and directed with sensitivity by Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, two young men – a ranch hand and a rodeo cowboy – who meet in the summer of 1963 while working on a sheep farm in rural Wyoming, and unexpectedly embark on a brief, but passionate, homosexual encounter with each other. Once their night together has passed, the two men agree never to speak of it again and return to their families – Ennis to his wife-to-be Alma (Michelle Williams), and Jack to rodeo queen Lureen (Anne Hathaway). However, as time passes, and despite the latent homophobia that exists in the communities in which they live, both men find it difficult to forget their night together on Brokeback Mountain. Eventually, the depth of longing and the need to embrace one’s inner soul despite the pressures of social conformity bring the two lovers back together – with serious, dramatic repercussions for all.

While I fully understand and appreciate the amount of positive press the film has been receiving, I have to admit I am totally flummoxed by how successful Gustavo Santaolalla’s score seems to be. In fact, the meteoric rise of Santaolalla over the last few years is one of film music’s greatest mysteries because, by and large, I have been totally unimpressed with virtually everything he has ever written. Santaolalla actually has an interesting background – he’s a massively successful and highly respected record producer, guitarist and song-writer in his native Argentina, whose roster of artists first broke into the US market in the late 1970s. He himself moved to Los Angeles in 1999, and has since then has somehow become the “in” composer for art house films in Hollywood. However, I found his work for director Alejandro González Iñárritu on both Amores Perros and 21 Grams to be little more than mediocre electronic soundscapes, and I didn’t even care that much for his score for The Motorcycle Diaries in 2004, which inexplicably won the BAFTA Award for Best Original Score in its year. As far as Brokeback Mountain is concerned, people have been calling it ‘haunting’, ‘deeply felt’, ‘ethereal’, ‘subtly evocative’, ‘emotionally powerful’, and various other positive adjectives. True to form, I found it to be somewhat boring.

The seven cues on Verve’s album are pretty much identical: soft, unassuming acoustic guitar melodies, backed by an ambient wash of synthesisers and a small string section, accompanied by various country accompaniments – a slide guitar here, a dobro there, and so on. And that’s it. Really, that’s all there is to the entire score. There’s no real recurring melody, no change in texture, no indication of the dramatic intent of the scene the music is scoring. It’s just a series ambient, pseudo-intellectual textures which want to paint a sonic portrait of the richness of the landscape, illustrate the depth of feeling between the protagonists, and acknowledge the musical conventions of the setting, but in actual fact are little more predicable, facile guitar noodlings which any composer worth a grain of salt could have written in their sleep. Only during the conclusive “The Wings” does the score reach any kind of emotionally satisfying height, but by then it’s far too late to make any kind of impact. If one was to resort to comparisons, it’s sort of like the slow parts of Marty Stuart’s All the Pretty Horses crossed with the droning parts of Angelo Badalamenti’s The Straight Story and the down-home guitars of a Ry Cooder score, but with none of the life, energy or beauty of any of them.

Of much more interest to album-buyers are the numerous country and western songs by artists as varied as Willie Nelson, Rufus Wainwright and Linda Ronstadt, some of which are classics, some of which were written by Santaolalla specifically for the film. Wainwright’s cover of Roger Miller’s 1964 classic “King of the Road” is fun, and Ronstadt’s version of Buddy Holly’s “It’s So Easy” has always been a fun song since it first came out in 1977. Two of the songs, “A Love That Will Never Grow Old” and “I Don’t Want To Say Goodbye” were written by Santaolalla in collaboration with Elton John’s long-time lyricist Bernie Taupin, the former of which was nominated for a Golden Globe, and is actually rather good, but to be perfectly honest if you don’t have an affinity for country ballads, you are unlikely to derive any enjoyment from them.

Ultimately, until Gustavo Santaolalla does something other than play a guitar and/or program a synthesiser to make some kind of monotonous droning noise, I will remain firm in my belief that his has been one of the most inexplicable rises to fame of any composer currently working in the upper echelons of the Hollywood film music business. Brokeback Mountain is a good and worthy film, with noble aspirations, and it deserves all the success it achieves. It’s just such a shame that it has such mediocre music, and that the music is being carried along on the awards show bandwagon at the expense of better, much more deserving scores.

Rating: **½

Track Listing:

  • Opening (1:31)
  • He Was A Friend Of Mine (written by Bob Dylan, performed by Willie Nelson) (4:42)
  • Brokeback Mountain 1 (2:32)
  • A Love That Will Never Grow Old (written by Gustavo Santaolalla and Bernie Taupin, performed by Emmylou Harris) (3:20)
  • King of the Road (written by Roger Miller, performed by Teddy Thompson and Rufus Wainwright) (2:53)
  • Snow (1:18)
  • The Devil’s Right Hand (written and performed by Steve Earle) (2:34)
  • No One’s Gonna Love You Like Me (written by Gustavo Santaolalla, performed by Mary McBride) (3:06)
  • Brokeback Mountain 2 (1:59)
  • I Don’t Want To Say Goodbye (written by Gustavo Santaolalla and Bernie Taupin, performed by Teddy Thompson) (3:12)
  • I Will Never Let You Go (written by Gustavo Santaolalla and Jeremy Spillman, performed by Jackie Greene) (1:55)
  • Riding Horses (1:24)
  • An Angel Went Up In Flames (written by Gustavo Santaolalla, performed by The Gas Band) (2:36)
  • Its So Easy (written by Buddy Holly and Norman Petty, performed by Linda Ronstadt) (2:27)
  • Brokeback Mountain 3 (2:14)
  • The Maker Makes (written and performed by Rufus Wainwright) (3:50)
  • The Wings (1:52)

Running Time: 43 minutes 25 seconds

Verve Forecast/Universal B0005604-02 (2005)

Music composed by Gustavo Santaolalla. Conducted and orchestrated by David Campbell. Featured musical soloists Gustavo Santaolalla, Bob Bernstein, David Mansfield, Greg Morrow, Dean Parks, Carmella Ramsey, George Recile, Richard Ruttenberg, Garry Tallent, Mike Turner, Gabe Witcher, Matthew Johnson, Jeffrey Hill, Mickey Raphael, Mike Clarke, Dan Dugmore, Tony Garnier, Bob Glaub, Ray Kennedy and Anibel Kerpel. Recorded and mixed by Larry Klein. Album produced by Gustavo Santaolalla.

  1. May 8, 2015 at 11:06 am

    Santaolalla, what can I say? I have lived in Argentina; a third-rate cleptocracy. In Argentina, there are lots of “ghost” music composers. If you listen to what Santaolalla did in his country, it’s all pentatonic-kind, simple music. While he was in Arco Iris, he was greatly helped by an Egyptian jazz musician and arranger called Ara Tokatlian, which now is still playing in Los Angeles and is very much talented. But Santaolalla is not; how much he penned of the Oscar-winning score…the way Taylor Swift comes up with a good song but it is her arranger that finishes the song. In Santaolalla’s case, the arranger may have done MOST of the job.

  2. July 8, 2016 at 8:24 am

    and he won the Oscar for this shit score…

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