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THE TREE OF LIFE – Alexandre Desplat

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Terrence Malick is a most unusual director. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he seems wholly unconcerned with narrative, plot, and incisive dialogue, and instead seems completely obsessed with visual beauty. He’s like a painter, but instead of using canvas, he uses film, and his subjects move and speak. His films are deep, intimate ruminations on life, love, nature, and the human condition, full of existential narration and long, lingering shots of Mother Nature at work. His latest film, The Tree of Life, is only the fifth theatrical film of his entire career, following on from Badlands in 1973, Days of Heaven in 1978, The Thin Red Line in 1998 and The New World in 2005. It stars Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain and Fiona Shaw, and follows the life of a twelve year old boy from American Midwest named Jack, whose world view is shaped both by his optimistic and idealistic mother, and by his pessimistic father, and who must make a choice on how to live his life in an ever-changing, confusing world.

Terence Malick is also a notorious perfectionist and micro-manager on set, insisting on total control on every aspect of production, including the music. Prior to this film Malick had only ever worked with three major composers – Ennio Morricone, Hans Zimmer and James Horner – and messed around with Horner’s score so much on The New World that great swathes of it were replaced by classical music, and what was left was invariably chopped and changed and edited beyond all recognition in the final cut. Alexandre Desplat provided the music for The Tree of Life, and in response to the film wrote a score which adopts a similar dreamlike and contemplative tone, enhancing Malick’s imagery with a subtle, almost minimalist sound that reflect the analytical and introspective tone perfectly. Some of the cues, especially towards the middle of the album, provide some examples of Desplat’s contemporary classical style at its very best. Unfortunately, for long periods of time, the music is also exceptionally dull.

Written for a small symphony orchestra and recorded in London, The Tree of Life has all the credentials to be a success, but seems to flounder under the pressure of its own weight, importance and Oscar-bait status. For long time listeners to Desplat’s work, there are subtle echoes of scores like Birth, Girl With a Pearl Earring, and especially The Painted Veil, but without the unique personality of any of them. In fact the whole score is quite a frustrating experience; it’s like listening to a dozen or so cue intros, build-up pieces, waiting for a melody which never properly emerges.

Desplat has a habit of picking one musical phrase, style, or instrumental texture and repeating it ad nauseum for up six minutes at a time, so that even though you thought it was interesting and unusual at the beginning, you are begging for it to change by the end of the cue. The orchestrations are clearly steeped in Desplat’s oeuvre, from the light and airy xylophone and glockenspiel runs, harp glissandi, delicate woodwind phrases, and even the familiar synth pulse that has appeared in virtually all his scores to date, but thematic content is almost entirely lacking, giving the score a pleasing tone for its entire running time, but virtually no memorable content with which the listener can connect.

The opening cue, “Childhood”, is little more than a series of bare piano chords over a bed of whining strings. The merest hint of an emerging theme peeks through occasionally, but it’s so understated as to barely be there. Later, “Awakening” is also as stripped down as it is possible to be, barely registering much more than repetitive piano chords and a subliminal string wash. In “Circles”, Desplat’s endlessly oscillating tones are given weight by staccato bass chords, floaty violin accents, and fluttering flute lines, and the tempo and energy of the piece does pick up towards the middle of the cue, but at over 11 minutes in length the appealing moments are overshadowed by the amount of time you spend waiting for them to appear. “Circles” is actually a very apt name for the cue, as it returns to the same minimalist textures at the end.

The piano chords are replaced by gentle harps and warmer, more inviting strings in “Clouds”, while in “River” Desplat provides a virtuoso piano element, churning and swirling with Philip Glass-style syncopated rhythms, illustrating the endless movement of water. Later, the all-too-brief “Motherhood” is a more upbeat and prominent dance-like piece with undulating, hesitant string and piano writing, harp glissandi, and more elegant and romantic tone which is quite appealing. The flipside of motherhood – appropriately – is “Fatherhood”, in which the piano has a similar rhythmic core, but a much darker aspect, clearly reflecting the ying-and-yang positive-and-negative influences young Jack has thrust upon him by his parents. These four are probably the best four cues on the album.

At the other end of the scale, however, cues like “Emergence of Life”, “Light and Darkness”, “Good and Evil”, “City of Glass” and “Temptation” are little more than shifting chords, bare-bones instrumental textures and synth pulses that rumble ceaselessly for ever, with “Light and Darkness” lasting for nigh on nine minutes, and “Temptation” for almost eight. I’m loathed to call these cues boring, because I completely understand and appreciate the attention to detail and level of skill required to create mesmerizing soundscapes such as these, but I still found my attention wandering during each of them. The finale, “Skies”, ends the score with a whisper, returning to the repetitive gossamer-like textures of the opening cue, this time featuring harps, woodwinds, glass bowls and high end pianos.

In an interview with Variety, Desplat explained Malick’s instructions were for the music to be “like a river flowing through the film, something that flows and never stops, very alive and fluid”. He also said that the score was “meditative and trance-like” and that that Malick’s aim was to integrate Desplat’s score seamlessly alongside the classical works by 19th century romantic composer Hector Berlioz and modern composer György Ligeti which also feature in the film. On a conceptual basis, I understand why Desplat wrote the score in the way he did, and I can appreciate the technical mastery and compositional excellence in writing music such as this. Ultimately, though, emotional reactions are what draw me to film music, and for the first time in a long time my emotional reaction to this Desplat score was to wish that it would hurry up and finish.

Rating **½

Buy the Tree of Life soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Childhood (3:41)
  • Circles (11:23)
  • Clouds (2:59)
  • River (3:35)
  • Awakening (3:29)
  • Emergence of Life (3:55)
  • Light and Darkness (8:17)
  • Good and Evil (3:15)
  • Motherhood (2:04)
  • City of Glass (3:36)
  • Fatherhood (2:49)
  • Temptation (6:47)
  • Skies (5:18)

Running Time: 61 minutes 08 seconds

Lakeshore Records LKS 342172 (2011)

Music composed and conducted by Alexandre Desplat. Orchestrations by Conrad Pope, Jean Pascal Beintus and Sylvain Morizet. Recorded and mixed by Stéphane Reichart. Edited by Peter Clarke. Album produced by Alexandre Desplat .

  1. chris
    May 11, 2011 at 12:15 am

    Great review ! I’m usually not very fond of Desplat’s scores even if I must admit some elegance in his work and fine orchestrations. Anyway it seems that LA FILLE DU PUISATIER released on Varese records is one of rich thematic content.

  2. David
    May 11, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    It seems like Desplat’s score needs to be listened in the film, not in the album. I liked your review, Jon.

  3. May 11, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    I wonder how much of it is actually in the film, David! Time will tell.

    Anyway, this is an excellent review, though I don’t find myself agreeing with the conclusion. I’m on my third listen in two days and can tell it’s going to take a long time to sink in – there’s a lot going on in it, despite the minimalistic nature of the composition.

  4. tar
    May 12, 2011 at 1:20 am

    Actually, I find this review rather poor. The problem is, that the review is so focused on the listening experience, that it completely ignores any other aspects of Desplat’s music. Moreover, it presents the same approach that is used to comment on blockbuster scores – look at the arguments used: lack of themes, dull, lack of emotions… And that’s it. You can write a review, let’s say, of Thor or Harry Potter like that, focusing on some basic ingredients that mainstream film music consists of (themes, action music, underscore, lyrics), but hey, we are talking about a score to the probably most important ARTHOUSE film of this year! So why Jon doesn’t even try to make any interpretation of the music? Why there is no attempt in the review to understand the MEANING of the music? Its actual PURPOSE? Its FUNCTION in terms of film’ themes, its symbolics? Why an arthouse score is treated on so basic level, considering only listening experience and some technical details? I think the whole methodological approach of this review is a mistake, which makes this review very misleading. I’m afraid that what happens, when you try to write a review of an arthouse film before its premiere, and before every other reviewer – next time, please, be more patient, try to analyse such kind of music in more intelectual way, don’t hurry so much with publishing! PS. I haven’t listened to TToL yet, have no idea about what Desplat prepared here – the point is that from the review above I don’t know anything particular about the concept of the score, just the technicalities. Hope it’ll be better next time, cheers!

    • May 12, 2011 at 1:48 am

      I haven’t see The Tree of Life, and I don’t intend to since I generally find Malick’s movies to be pretentious and self-indulgent insomnia cures. So I reviewed it as an album of music, and presented my thoughths of it in that way since this is most likely the only way I will ever experience the music.

  5. May 12, 2011 at 1:24 am

    Finally a Desplat review where we see eye to eye! Other than “Circles” and “River”, most of this score is a pretentious arthouse bore to me. It’ll win an Oscar anyway (and it’s light-years better than “The Social Network”) but I doubt I’ll be returning to this anytime soon. And I think I’ll avoid the movie unless it gets really good buzz…Oscarbait tends to irritate the hell out of me, for some reason, which is part of the reason why I didn’t enjoy the score too much.

  6. July 4, 2011 at 1:36 pm

    Whilst I value Jon’s opinion enormously, I believe this is a score that doesn’t so much require repeat listening as demand it (and again and again after that). It’s Desplat at his most uncompromisingly intellectual and not a score that should be used to win over potential new fans but the way it takes on the attributes of a musical ‘river’ (as the composer himself describes), with minimalist motifs and orchestrations weaving in and out of the score, is astonishing. It conveys exactly the melancholy ebbs and flows of Malick’s vision, irrespective of how much score is actually left in the film

  7. July 19, 2011 at 1:51 pm

    I finally got round to reviewing this myself. Hope Jon doesn’t mind me posting the link:


  1. June 6, 2012 at 8:34 pm

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