Home > Reviews > THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON – Alexandre Desplat


December 26, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

A film by David Fincher based on the 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the tale of a man who is born old, and gets younger as his life progresses. Set in Louisiana in the late 1800s, it stars Brad Pitt as the titular Button, who is born with the physical appearance of an 80 year old man, much to the shock and embarrassment of his parents. As the years pass, Button gets younger and younger, fighting in wars, attending college, and falling in love – but backwards, and with the knowledge that, the longer time passes, the closer he is to losing everything and everyone around him. The film also stars Cate Blanchett, Julia Ormond, Jason Flemyng, Elias Koteas and Tilda Swinton, and is tipped to be a major player at the 2009 Academy Awards.

All of David Fincher’s films to date have been dark, brooding works with dark, brooding scores by composers such as Elliot Goldenthal, Howard Shore and David Shire. For The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a lighter and more elegant touch was required to capture the life of the protagonist, and as such the project came to French composer Alexandre Desplat. As regular readers of this website will know, over the last 5 years or so, Desplat has become one of my favorite working composers, and each new score he writes is an eagerly anticipated event for me. Somewhat predictably, I thought The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was magnificent; it’s a stylish, slightly melancholic score which beguiles and encapsulates the listener from beginning to end with its subtle, emotional themes and gossamer orchestrations.

Desplat’s performance ensemble comprises 87 members of the Hollywood Studio Symphony Orchestra, with special emphasis on strings, piano and light percussion, and with notable solos for of cimbalom, harp, baritone saxophone, bass harmonica, electric organ, and accordion. Listening to the score, two words continually spring to mind: clarity, and precision. Desplat is a composer whose work is never muddy, never a ‘wall of sound’. Every single instrument has its place, has its moment in the sun, and when they come forth, they shine. Whereas other scores are simply content to present layers of music that come at you in a big blob of overkill, in a Desplat score you can hear every note, every nuance, every inflection, and that’s a large part of what makes his music such a joy to experience.

Another word which springs to mind when listening to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is ‘intimacy’. This isn’t a score which beats you over the head with its powerful themes; instead, it’s a score which whispers softly in your ear, forcing you to actually listen to what’s being presented. This is not a score you can simply play in the background while you’re absent-mindedly doing something else. It takes a little bit of effort from the listener to consciously sit and experience the music, to take it all in, and to let it work its delicate magic.

As is often the case with Desplat’s music, the main theme is in waltz time, and has a precise, steady rhythmic element around which the ornate instrumental elements dance. Harps, piano, and high strings form the cornerstone of “Postcards”, the beautiful but slightly despondent opening, before it moves off into the slightly more upbeat “Mr. Gateau”, which has the same particular rhythmic center, but is augmented with a slightly bolder tone, with more emphasis on brass and bass, and a touch of John Barry in the percussion writing.

Muted horns, softly lilting flutes and prancing violins come to the fore in “Meeting Daisy” in a more light-hearted and innocent setting of the main theme; “A New Life” introduces a romantic solo cello and a jazzy baritone saxophone in to the proceedings, underpinned by the now-familiar dancing flutes from Birth; “Love in Murmansk” adds a tinkling cimbalom to bring a touch of geographic specificity (and another acknowledgement of John Barry) to the light, lyrical orchestra. When the full complement of the string section rises during “Meeting Again”, the result is utterly beautiful.

And so the score continues, presenting cue after cue of wonderfully sophisticated, gracefully rendered film music. At times the score is reminiscent of some of his earlier works, notably The Luzhin Defence and the aforementioned Birth; as a listener becomes familiar with a composer’s history one unavoidably notices compositional traits unique to him, but this simply earmarks his stylistics, and should in no way be taken as an accusation of repetitiveness. There are one or two darker moments, notably the frenetic “Mr. Button”, the stark “Submarine Attack”, the unexpectedly dark and dramatic “The Hummingbird” (which twists the main theme into a disjointed version of itself), and the bubbly, slightly chaotic-sounding “The Accident”, but these are few and far between, and actually add a welcome change of pace and tone to the album.

As the score reaches its conclusion, there is more than a little hint of sadness in Desplat’s music; much like Button’s life, as the inevitable tragedy of the central character becomes more apparent, Desplat’s score seems to mourn with him. “Nothing Lasts” has a sense of quiet acceptance tinged with a certain moodiness, most noticeably through the use of clarinets, while “Some Things You Never Forget” sees Desplat using his piano in a more introspective, reflective way to excellent effect. “Dying Away”, as one might expect, has an enhanced emotional content of loss and resignation, as Desplat acknowledges Button’s desperate plight as he watches his life, his love, and his accumulated experiences drift into nothingness.

These moods are lightened by cues such as “It Was Nice To Have Met You”, which occasionally border on the realms of gentle comedy with their light plucked strings and whimsical tone, or the hypnotic “Children’s Games”, which contains a harp duet so feather-like, so crystalline, that it almost seems to float on air. Elsewhere, “Sunrise on Lake Pontchartrain” brings the cello and the saxophone back to the fore in a deliciously warm and enticing setting, while the finale cue, “Benjamin and Daisy”, contains a piano solo that simply makes you melt.

A regular criticism of Desplat’s work is that it is “boring” or “too slow”, and his detractors will be disappointed to learn that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button could easily be described in similar terms by those who don’t appreciate his style. If you listen to film music for the flashy action writing and the big themes, I can see how Desplat’s music could be construed as such. Some people just don’t see the appeal; I understand that. My opinion just happens to be the exact opposite of that.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button proves once more that Alexandre Desplat is one of the most exciting young composers working in film music today, and is well on his way to becoming one of the greats. He is clearly the heir apparent to John Barry and Georges Delerue, both of whom wrote mesmerizing romantic scores of great beauty and clarity, and whose penchant for simple, elegant orchestral writing is very much in evidence in Desplat. The effortless grace in his work never fails to enchant me, and has done so again. This is easily one of the best scores written in 2008, and could very be a major contender for awards when the season rolls around.

Note: the second disc of Concord’s 2-CD soundtrack release contains dialogue clips from the film and source music from the period by artists such as Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong and Perez Prado; it adds to the overall experience in terms of reflecting the true mix of music the film, but pales in comparison to the score. Kudos should go to the album producers, however, for recognizing that the two styles of music are incompatible as a listening experience, and breaking them up in this way.

Rating: ****½

Buy The Curious Case of Benjamin Button soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Postcards (2:51)
  • Mr. Gateau (3:02)
  • Meeting Daisy (1:22)
  • A New Life (3:39)
  • Love in Murmansk (3:53)
  • Meeting Again (2:41)
  • Mr. Button (2:05)
  • Little Man Oti (2:02)
  • Alone At Night (2:33)
  • It Was Nice to Have Met You (1:43)
  • Children’s Games (4:10)
  • Submarine Attack (2:40)
  • The Hummingbird (2:35)
  • Sunrise on Lake Pontchartrain (3:33)
  • Daisy’s Ballet Career (2:03)
  • The Accident (2:38)
  • Stay Out of My Life (1:44)
  • Nothing Lasts (2:54)
  • Some Things You Never Forget (4:36)
  • Growing Younger (2:14)
  • Dying Away (2:58)
  • Love Returns (1:44)
  • Benjamin and Daisy (2:32)

Running Time: 60 minutes 54 seconds

Concord Records CRE-31231-02 (2008)

Music composed and conducted by Alexandre Desplat. Orchestrations by Alexandre Desplat, Conrad Pope, Clifford Tasner and Philip Klein. Featured musical soloists Clayton Haslop, Andrew Schulman, Dan Higgins, Marsha Dickstein, Katie Kirkpatrick, Tommy Morgan, Frank Marocco, Randy Kerber and Brian Pezzone. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Joe E. Rand. Album produced by Alexandre Desplat.

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