Home > Reviews > BREAKING DAWN, PART I – Carter Burwell

BREAKING DAWN, PART I – Carter Burwell

December 8, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The fourth of the projected five Twilight movies, Breaking Dawn Part I is the first of a two-part series concluding the cinematic saga based on Stephanie Meyer’s massively popular horror-romance novels. Teen heartthrobs Robert Pattinson, Kristin Stewart and Taylor Lautner return as Edward, Bella and Jacob, the three protagonists in the never-ending love triangle between a vampire, a werewolf and the human object of their desires. The story revolves around Edward and Bella’s marriage and her subsequent pregnancy with a half-human half-vampire baby; not only does she have to contend with the implications of this hybrid, but Jacob’s werewolf clan – mortal enemies of the Cullen vampires – are planning to kill Bella and her unborn child before it becomes a threat to them. The film is directed by Bill Condon, and features the usual supporting cast – Nikki Reed, Peter Facinelli, Elizabeth Reaser, Kellen Lutz, Ashley Greene, Jackson Rathbone – as well as Michael Sheen as the leader of the enigmatic vampire clan, the Volturi.

Returning to the fray is composer Carter Burwell, who scored the original first blockbuster, but was replaced by Alexandre Desplat on the second film, New Moon, and by Howard Shore on the third film, Eclipse. Burwell’s return to the series was at the behest of director Condon, with whom Burwell worked on Gods and Monsters in 1998 and Kinsey in 2004, and which resulted in two of Burwell’s career-best works. Regular readers will know that I didn’t care a whole lot for the original Twilight score, finding myself “not part of this score’s target demographic”. Both New Moon and Eclipse were distinct improvements for me, moving away from the harshness of Burwell’s original score and embracing a more conventional classical style, so when I heard that Burwell was coming back for the finale, I have to admit it didn’t fill me with any great sense of anticipation. More fool me.

The first thing you notice about Breaking Dawn Part I is how, for the most part, it’s quite conventionally romantic. Carter Burwell is a composer whose usual approach to film is to underplay everything, to not wallow in emotion, to not telegraph the audience’s reactions with his score, and he was clearly asked to do the exact opposite here by director Condon. As a result, the emotions come through quite clearly and vividly, and based on this music, I wish he did it more often.

Throughout the score the familiar Burwell chord progressions, harmonies and key changes that have dominated the sound of his scores for 25 years are still very much in evidence, but whereas in a lot of his scores they tend to become the dominant feature of the music (as opposed to, say, themes or action sequences), and drown out the melodic elements in a sea of groaning bass, on Breaking Dawn Part I they actually play a subservient role to straightforward thematic writing, which from my point of view is a appreciated change of direction.

Burwell uses pianos, gentle strings, lilting woodwinds, expressive acoustic guitars, and a much larger orchestral complement than usual to illustrate the developing relationship between the good-hearted vampire Edward Cullen and the object of his desires, Bella Swan, through a series of generally quite attractive cues. “The Kingdom Where Nobody Dies”, “Cold Feet”, the second half of “What You See in the Mirror”, the pastoral “Goodbyes”, the lovely “The Threshold”, and the quintessentially Burwellian “Honeymoon in Eclipse” are all really quite delightful, and allow audiences to feel the love between the two protagonists in a real, tangible way. There have been hints of a more thematic side to Burwell in several of his earlier scores, notably things like Rob Roy, the finale of Conspiracy Theory, and parts of Fargo among others, but never has this aspect of Burwell’s musical personality played such a large and consistent role throughout a score, and it’s a welcome development.

Standing at odds with these lovely tender pieces are a few moments of grunge-rock dissonance, such as in the opening part of “What You See in the Mirror”, which leap out and remind the listener that Edward and Bella’s romantic idyll is not all flower petals and silk sheets. These cues are direct descendents of the occasionally quite brutal tone of part of his first Twilight score, notably the sequences which dealt with Bella’s once-typical life as a teenager in Washington state, and are replete with growling electric guitars, rock-inflected percussion writing, and a contemporary tone. “A Nova Vida” is a variation on this theme, taking the rock elements but giving them an almost Latin twist, allowing the guitars and drum kit to combine with a soft-voiced vocalist and gentle woodwinds and develop into a light, upbeat modern rock/romance piece.

Elsewhere, there are some more tribal, almost Native American-inspired moments for ethnic flutes and percussion in cues such as “Wolves on the Beach”, “Pregnant”, “Morte”, “Don’t Choose That” and “Playing Wolves”, which seem to act as a recurring leitmotif for the Quileute wolf pack to which Jacob belongs, and as a motif for the actions of Jacob himself. On several occasions these two styles come together, resulting in an interesting hybrid sound, most notably in the excellent “A Wolf Stands Up”, one of Burwell’s most majestic and powerful action cues, probably ever.

Towards the end of the score, things become darker and more ominous, before emerging into some of the most passionate and emotional music I have ever heard Burwell write. “It’s Renesmee” gradually builds into a pounding, ethnic action sequence, while “The Venom” introduces something I don’t remember ever hearing in a Burwell score – the deep, brooding tones of a Gothic male voce choir. The sweeping lyricism in the first half of “Biting” is a wholly new sound for Burwell, as is the eardrum-crushing horror of the cue’s second half, while Jacob’s Native American motif reaches its powerful and melodramatically heroic zenith in “You Kill Her, You Kill Me”. There’s some astonishing brass and percussion writing going on down in the depths of this latter cue, and the finale is a wonderful example of major-key brass-led heroism such as we’ve never heard from him.

Appropriately, the score concludes with a restatement of the recurring theme for Edward and Bella’s relationship that Burwell wrote for the first film, “Bella’s Lullaby”. The theme doesn’t feature that much in this score – there are brief reprises in “Don’t Choose That”, “Hearing the Baby”, and later in “Let’s Start With Forever”, but that’s pretty much it – but the film’s finale, which is effectively the culmination of the courtship which began in the original movie, and results in a marriage, a child, and Bella’s eventual transformation into a vampire, receives a more prominent musical acknowledgement here, which is very effective in context.

While I find the Twilight movies themselves to be rather trite and predictable, and while I find the enduring popularity of the original novels to be completely mystifying, and while I didn’t care so much for Burwell’s initial music efforts on the first film, the franchise’s sequel scores are fast becoming the most engaging parts of the entire series for me. I don’t think it would be an overstatement to say that Breaking Dawn Part I has the potential to become one of my all-time favorite Carter Burwell scores, and it’s mainly down to the increased sense of romance and lyricism that he brought to this project. He’s said, again and again, in interviews down the years, that he hates the emotional manipulation that a lot of scores provide, but that’s one of the main reasons I love film music so much – to feel that connection, that pull at the heartstrings. After all this time, and although he was effectively forced to do it by his director, Burwell has finally made that emotional connection with me.

Rating: ****

Buy the Breaking Dawn Part I soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Kingdom Where Nobody Dies (1:36)
  • Cold Feet (2:44)
  • What You See In the Mirror (3:04)
  • Wedding Nightmare (1:09)
  • Wolves on the Beach (1:59)
  • Goodbyes (2:26)
  • A Nova Vida (2:57)
  • The Threshold (1:25)
  • Pregnant (2:09)
  • Morte (1:36)
  • Honeymoon in Eclipse (2:21)
  • A Wolf Stands Up (3:20)
  • Two Man Pack (0:32)
  • Don’t Choose That (2:23)
  • O Negative (3:37)
  • Hearing the Baby (2:25)
  • Playing Wolves (3:15)
  • Let’s Start With Forever (0:59)
  • It’s Renesmee (2:29)
  • The Venom (1:04)
  • Hearts Failing (1:13)
  • Biting (2:25)
  • Jacob Imprints (1:13)
  • You Kill Her, You Kill Me (2:11)
  • Bella Reborn (3:05)

Running Time: 53 minutes 50 seconds

Summit/Atlantic Records (2011)

Music composed and conducted by Carter Burwell. Orchestrations by Carter Burwell and Sonny Kompanek. Recorded and mixed by Mike Farrow. Edited by Adam Smalley. Album produced by Carter Burwell.

  1. Craig Lysy
    December 8, 2011 at 8:59 pm

    I completely agree Jon. There have been fleeting moments when I have connected, but this is the first sustained effort where I have really felt Burwell and made an emotional connection. I long for such moments for every composer and I am very happy.

  2. Christopher
    December 8, 2011 at 10:20 pm

    Wow. Thanks for this review, Jon. Like you, I had supposed that this score would not be worth listening to. I’m glad you did, for now I shall also give it a try. Looking forward to it!

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