Home > Reviews > THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE – Johan Søderqvist and Gustavo Santaolalla

THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE – Johan Søderqvist and Gustavo Santaolalla

October 19, 2007 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

It’s been a popular pastime, of late, amongst film music aficionados, to engage in the new sport of Santaolalla-bashing. Ever since the Argentinean won back-to-back Best Score Oscars, for Brokeback Mountain in 2005 and Babel in 2006, fans of the traditional orchestral score have been up in arms, decrying his popularity and success as both inexplicable and downright appalling. I have to admit, my voice has often joined those criticizing Santaolalla’s scoring techniques. So, let me step back for a moment, and consider things with a more level head. He is an excellent guitarist, of that there is no doubt, bringing a level of delicacy and intimacy to his performances which is quite lovely. He can write a decent enough tune, and he does have enough basic dramatic sense to understand what his films need, and how to provide it.

My criticism, though, is to do with the fact that he is a one trick pony. His scores, while effective in context, are compositionally weak, and rely on nothing more complicated than simple guitar chords over the top of a soft synth and/or string wash. He shows no range, no depth, and exists solely in a self-imposed comfort zone that shows no sign of expanding. He’s a guitarist, and a good one, who happened to get lucky, ride a wave of popular instrumental-minimalism, and found himself the recipient of more Oscars than Jerry Goldsmith, and more nominations than a dozen more worthy composers, of which there are too many to mention here.

Case in point is the new score for director Suzanne Bier’s film, Things We Lost in the Fire, a potent and serious drama starring Halle Berry, Benicio Del Toro and David Duchovny. Berry plays Audrey, a wife and mother struggling to come to terms with the death of her perfect husband, Brian (Duchovny). Brian’s best friend, Jerry (Del Toro), a recovering drug addict, wants to be there for Audrey and the family just as Brian was there for him in his hour of need, and ingratiates himself into the family. The problems arise, however, when Audrey refuses to accept the reality and consequences of Brian’s death, and begins to view Jerry as a surrogate for her husband. Making her mainstream Hollywood debut, director Bier brought most of her previous team along for the ride, including Swedish composer Johan Søderqvist, with whom Bier had worked on the critically acclaimed Brødre/Brothers in 2004 and Efter Brylluppet/After the Wedding in 2006. However, it seems that the film studio didn’t fully trust Søderqvist to work on his own on their investment, so in came Santaolalla to write the ‘themes’ and contribute additional music.

I’ve never heard any of Søderqvist’s earlier scores, so I can’t comment on the quality of his past work, but irrespective of that, this one sounds like a Santaolalla work through and through – and, believe me, this is a not a good thing. Like Babel, and like Brokeback Mountain before it, and like The Motorcycle Diaries before it, and like 21 Grams before it, and like Amores Perros before it, Things We Lost in the Fire is a score written for solo guitar, plucked gently over the top of soft strings and ambient synths. And that’s it. Seriously, that’s virtually all there is to the entire score. It lasts for almost 40 minutes, but it almost never deviates from this core sound; never shows any musical development, never shows any dramatic nuance, never really comments on any given point in the film beyond adding another layer to the sound mix. It’s a score so insubstantial as to be almost not there.

This is, to put it bluntly, terrible film music. At its best, when listened to separately from the movie, a good score guides the listener through the dramatic highs and lows of the narrative, making them feel the emotions the characters feel, allowing them to experience the anger, or anguish, or passion, or excitement as the film dictates. Things We Lost in the Fire does not do any of that. It’s just there, merely existing, with its guitars plucking forlornly away, and its synths and strings see-sawing ambiently behind. Once in a while the music pretends it was written by Thomas Newman – in “Brian Rubs Ear”, or “Harper on Sofa” for example – while elsewhere it sounds like either a Gladiator knock-off or a poor man’s Morricone western. It’s a bad state of affairs when the duduk solos in “After the Shooting”, “Audrey’s Upset” and “Audrey Breaks Down” are three of the score’s limited high points.

Santaolalla’s expressive guitar performances are nice enough, as they always are, and the album has a generally pleasant and undemanding tone, but this is one of those scores which, if you’re not paying rapt attention, simply disappears into the ether. If this was an album entitled “Guitar Moods: Music to Cure Insomnia”, or (perhaps a little less harshly), an album of Santaolalla’s original guitar compositions, I might not be so negative about to all. But this is the crux: prior to writing this review, I listened to the CD four times, and three of those times I actually forgot the music was playing, and went away and did something else. And if that’s not a damning criticism, I don’t know what is.

Rating: *

Track Listing:

  • Opening Montage (1:44)
  • Audrey With Flowers (0:29)
  • Funeral Dinner (1:03)
  • Jerry’s Apartment (0:34)
  • Audrey in Bed (0:47)
  • The Funeral (1:23)
  • Jerry By Window (0:47)
  • Brian Rubs Ear (0:38)
  • Brian Dies (0:46)
  • After the Shooting (2:39)
  • Audrey’s Upset (1:27)
  • Audrey Can’t Sleep (0:50)
  • Jerry Rubs Ear (0:43)
  • Audrey and Jerry in the Study (1:18)
  • Audrey Brings Clothes (0:29)
  • Almost a Kiss (1:00)
  • Jerry Takes Test (0:26)
  • Audrey Throws Out Jerry (0:46)
  • Harper on Sofa (0:52)
  • Will He Die Now? (0:49)
  • Drug Alley (1:59)
  • Jerry and Neal (1:57)
  • Cold Turkey 1 (0:51)
  • Cold Turkey 2 (0:53)
  • The Dinner (3:38)
  • Audrey Breaks Down (2:37)
  • Do They Glow? (1:19)
  • The Cemetery (1:20)
  • Audrey Opens the Letter (0:28)
  • End Credits (2:51)

Running Time: 37 minutes 04 seconds

Lakeshore Records LKS-33955 (2007)

Music composed by Johan Søderqvist and Gustavo Santaolalla. Album produced by Johan Søderqvist and Gustavo Santaolalla.

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