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DISTRICT 9 – Clinton Shorter

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Each cinematic year seems to produce a “sleeper hit”, a little film which comes out of nowhere, captures the public’s imagination, and strikes box office gold, often as a result of creative marketing and positive word of mouth. Sleeper hits over the years have included little films like The Terminator, The Blair Witch Project and The Full Monty; if the early buzz is anything to go by, 2009’s sleeper hit looks likely to be District 9, a South African science fiction allegory written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, and executive produced by Peter Jackson.

The film is a damning indictment of the apartheid regime which blighted South Africa for almost 50 years, dressed up as a science fiction action movie. It takes place in an alternate reality in which an alien species made contact with Earth 20 years ago in a huge spaceship hovering over Johannesburg; since then, the aliens – who are not especially threatening – have been forced to live in isolation in District 9, an alien ghetto on the outskirts of the city, in appalling conditions and under strict martial law from MNU, the security company in charge of controlling the district. Into this volatile situation comes Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), an MNU field worker assigned the task of relocating the 1.8 million aliens to a new “District 10” camp away from the city. However, as Wikus delves into the underbelly of District 9, he discovers much more sinister things about the situation, and MNU itself.

The music for District 9 is by Canadian composer Clinton Shorter, who worked with director Blomkamp previously on some of his short films; I don’t know much about him, except that he was born in Vancouver in 1971, has written music for various independent movies, straight-to-DVD movies and TV projects in his native country, and is making his mainstream, high profile debut here. In broad terms, Shorter’s score is a three-way amalgam of a fairly large symphony orchestra, a heavy dose of electronic effects and percussion loops, and a male African vocalist. The idea behind the score is that it is a musical representation of three worlds colliding – the orchestra and live instruments representing humanity, electronics and synthesized elements for the aliens, and the vocals representing the geographical location. It’s not exactly groundbreaking stuff in terms of concept and execution, but it’s at least nice to know that Shorter has valid reasons for doing what he’s doing and making the score sound the way it sounds.

If one was to resort to sweeping generalizations and unfair comparisons to other works, one could say that District 9 is similar in tone and style to some of Hans Zimmer and company’s world music-inflected scores, like Tears of the Sun, or Beyond Rangoon, mixed with some of the action elements of scores like The Dark Knight and The Da Vinci Code. However, please don’t think that Shorter’s work is a cut-price Zimmer knock off, because it isn’t – it inhabits the same sonic world as several of Zimmer’s scores, but also has a great deal in common with the best work of urban orchestral hybrid ‘atmosphere’ composers like Mark Snow, Graeme Revell and Simon Boswell.

The synth tones are for the most part light and soothing, providing a solid, almost dream-like textural base on which the rest of the music is built. The prominent African vocals in cues such as the superb opening “District 9”, and later in the mysterious “A Lot of Secrets” and the conclusive “Prawnkus” are strong and dignified, echoing the music of the old Soweto townships the film allegorizes, and clearly rooting the film in a world away from Hollywood, which makes a nice change for a film of this type. It’s nothing we’ve not heard before, and in other circumstances could almost be seen as a cliché, but on this occasion the familiarity of the sound is somehow comforting and appealing, and when the performance is this good one should never complain. It also helps that District 9 is actually an African film, made by Africans and set in South Africa, and so you don’t begrudge the filmmakers reflecting their own musical heritage in this way.

The orchestral textures, which appear forcefully during the end of “District 9” and elsewhere throughout the score, are also generally very good indeed, making excellent use of strident string runs, throaty brass chords, and occasionally erupting into full-on action rhythms in cues such as “I Want That Arm” and the tremendously exciting “Exosuit”. Some of the action and suspense moments also incorporate tribal drums and some regional ethnic string instruments used percussively, which adds a level of exoticness and mystique to cues like “Back to D9” and the kinetic “Wikus is Still Running”.

Really, the only thing lacking from the score is a main theme, and although it would have been nice for the film to have a memorable musical element to take away, ultimately it doesn’t detract from the score enough to drop it’s rating much. Usually, I shy away of these kinds of ambient action scores (like The Dark Knight), and I shy away even more from them when are more textural and percussive rather than theme-based, but for some reason District 9 entertained me from beginning to end. Perhaps I’m just being kind to a newcomer and cutting him some slack – in truth, other than the African vocals, there is absolutely nothing new or innovative about District 9 that makes it stand out from the crowd, and had it been written by Klaus Badelt or Zimmer himself I may have been a little more scathing. Perhaps another factor is the fact that the album (available as a digital download from iTunes and Amazon) only runs for 30 minutes and as a result didn’t outstay its welcome. Whatever the reason, I enjoyed District 9 for what it is, and hope that it affords Shorter the opportunity to take his career further as a result.

Rating: ***½

Buy the District 9 soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • District 9 (6:28)
  • I Want That Arm (2:13)
  • She Calls (1:35)
  • Exosuit (3:15)
  • Harvesting Material (1:46)
  • Heading Home (1:14)
  • A Lot of Secrets (2:27)
  • Back to D9 (1:45)
  • Wikus is Still Running (2:57)
  • Got Him Talking (2:05)
  • Prawnkus (4:00)

Running Time: 29 minutes 50 seconds

Sony Music (2009)

Music composed by Clinton Shorter. Conducted by Adam Klemens. Orchestrations by Clinton Shorter, Jeff Toyne and Aiko Fukushima. Recorded and mixed by Vince Renaud. Edited by Steve Gallagher. Album produced by Clinton Shorter.

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