Home > Reviews > LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE – Mychael Danna


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The ‘big movie’ at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, Little Miss Sunshine is the first feature film from acclaimed directors, husband-and-wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who have helmed countless music videos and TV commercials over the years. The film is a road movie comedy with an intellectual heart, and follows the fortunes of a dysfunctional family who are driving cross-country in a VW bus to enter their daughter in the California Little Miss Sunshine pageant: dad Greg Kinnear, mom Toni Collette, Nietzche-loving son Paul Dano, pre-teen beauty queen Abigail Breslin, suicidal uncle Steve Carell, and coke-snorting grandpa Alan Arkin. It all sounds rather contrived, but by all accounts the film is a heart-warming comedy which also has the academic chops to tackle such meaty subjects as philosophy, family values, and the inherent exploitativeness of child beauty pageants.

As the entire project screams ‘indie’, it is perhaps no surprise to see Canadian composer Mychael Danna attached to it to provide the music. While his younger brother Jeff has become firmly entrenched in the Hollywood studio system, Mychael remains a little bit of an outsider, preferring to work with smaller arty studios and more free-thinking directors like Atom Egoyan and Bennett Miller. Like much of his previous work, his score for Little Miss Sunshine draws heavily on ethnic folk music – Danna has long had a fascination for the musical languages and textures of other cultures, even when the sounds have little to do with the geographical locations of his movies. He used Indonesian gamelan music in The Ice Storm, and authentic middle-eastern tones in 8MM, so its perhaps appropriate that Little Miss Sunshine features a great deal of traditional Greek, Slavic and Mariachi music, albeit with a definite modern kick, parts of which were provided by his collaborators, the Colorado-based indie rock band Devotchka.

Danna’s music is an eclectic mix of Thomas Newman/Phillip Glass-style repeated textures, interesting instrumental timbres (accordion, piano, Theremin, tuba, solo cello), almost Morricone-ish spaghetti western rhythms (complete with whistles), and surprisingly modern-sounding percussion beats, which combine to give the score a unique, but somehow enticing sound which screams ‘independent drama’. There’s no real main theme, or any theme at all for that matter – it’s more a consistency of tone and instrumentation which gives the score its coherency, and allows it to flow quite naturally. Danna’s six cues – “The Winner Is”, “First Push”, “Let’s Go”, “No-One Gets Left Behind”, “We’re Gonna Make It” and “Do You Think There’s a Heaven?” – run for a total of just under 13 minutes, but have the right combination of liveliness and pathos to make them a great listen.

As well as Danna’s score, the Little Miss Sunshine album also features a number of original songs written and performed by Devotchka, whose unique world musical fusion has a distinct cult following. Lead singer Nick Urata also plays theremin, guitar, bouzouki, piano, and trumpet, and brings a very unique-sounding mix to their plaintive, mournful, but somehow very appealing songs. Once in a while, but especially in “You Love Me”, he sounds like Roy Orbison reincarnated, which can never be a bad thing. The conclusive “How It Ends” is a vocal version of Danna’s opening cue, and provides a nice sense of circular cohesiveness to the entire project, which is often lacking in song-score combination soundtracks.

The other songs are alright; the remix of Rick James’s “Superfreak” re-awakened unwanted memories of MC Hammer, and I wouldn’t worry if I never heard Tony Tisdale’s “Catwalkin’” again, but the two efforts by contemporary Detroit-based singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens (“No Man’s Land” and “Chicago”) are actually pretty intriguing, in a 1960s psychedelic flower-power kind of way. His vocal delivery is dreamy, his musical style playful and upbeat, and his lyrics are poetic and political at the same time, earmarking him as an artist to watch, especially if his plan to write an album specifically for and about each of the fifty US states comes to fruition.

While I’m sure that Little Miss Sunshine will not be for everyone, I found enough good music within it to keep me interested pretty much throughout, despite me having to reach for the skip button during a couple of the songs. The level of coherency and co-operation between Danna’s score and Devotchka’s song writing, and the creative bleed-through between the two, is commendable in itself, and shows that it’s perfectly possible to have a song/score hybrid soundtrack which do not stand at odds with each other.

Rating: ***

Track Listing:

  • The Winner Is (3:04)
  • Till The End Of Time (written by Nick Urata, Tom Hagerman, Jeanie Schroeder and Shawn King, performed by Devotchka) (3:56)
  • You Love Me (written by Nick Urata, Tom Hagerman, Jeanie Schroeder and Shawn King, performed by Devotchka) (4:02)
  • First Push (1:05)
  • No Man’s Land (written and performed by Sufjan Stevens) (4:47)
  • Let’s Go (3:21)
  • No One Gets Left Behind (1:14)
  • Chicago (written and performed by Sufjan Stevens) (6:07)
  • We’re Gonna Make It (2:32)
  • Do You Think There’s a Heaven? (1:23)
  • Catwalkin’ (written and performed by Tony Tisdale) (1:38)
  • Superfreak – RocaSound Remix (written by Rick James and Alonzo Miller, performed by Rick James) (4:13)
  • La Llorona (traditional, performed by Devotchka) (3:24)
  • How It Ends (written by Nick Urata, Tom Hagerman, Jeanie Schroeder and Shawn King, performed by Devotchka) (5:38)

Running Time: 46 minutes 31 seconds

Lakeshore Records LKS-338652 (2006)

Music composed and arranged by Mychael Danna and Devotchka. Featured musical soloists Mychael Danna, Nick Urata, Tom Hagerman, Jeanie Schroeder and Shawn King . Recorded and mixed by Brad Haehnel. Edited by Josh Winget. Album produced by Mychael Danna, Devotchka, Skip Williamson and Brian McNelis.

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