CLOUD ATLAS – Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Trying to write a brief synopsis of Cloud Atlas is an exercise in futility, given that it is one of the most dense, multi-layered, and complicated – but brilliant – films in several years, but I’ll give it a go. It’s based on David Mitchell’s sprawling 2004 novel, and at it’s core is a story about humanity’s continual yearning for freedom in all its forms, the way in which the threads of life are interlinked across time and space, and how the smallest gestures in one lifetime can have enormous and profound effects on generations to come. The film spans six separate time periods across multiple geographical locations, and even different genres. Contrary to appearances, these disparate elements all do connect with each other, having been expertly woven together by directors Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, who worked separately on three segments each, which were then edited together to form the final cut of the film. It stars an ensemble cast including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, Ben Whishaw, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant, all of whom play multiple roles across the different stories, under varying applications of hair, false noses and prosthetic teeth.
Music plays a very important part in Cloud Atlas, forming a great deal of the narrative’s connective tissue, linking themes and concepts across multiple segments and multiple genres. The music is by the composing trio Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil, who have worked together on several of director Tykwer’s films, most notably Run Lola Run, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer and The International, and go by the collective name ‘Pale 3’.
Intellectually and structurally, the score for Cloud Atlas is a masterpiece, with everything being built from its two core elements, the “Cloud Atlas Sextet” and the “Atlas March”. In the film, the Sextet is written by the fictional composer Robert Frobisher in the 1930s segment, but the music contained within it extends its tendrils into at least two other portions of the film, influencing the fate of one character, and coming back in circular fashion as an inspiration for itself in the past by way of a dream about the future. It’s an intentionally classical-sounding piece, emanating from a recurring 7-note melody that swoons and weaves its way around the various parts of the string section, moving from one lead instrument to another, while the orchestra swoops and flies around it in various expressive counterpoints. It’s very beautiful, and certainly fits the screenplay’s notion of it being a work of art whose impact spans many generations, endlessly fascinating those who hear it.
The Atlas March, meanwhile, is a hesitantly romantic piano piece which carries a slight sense of melancholy, and is first heard in the opening cue, but appears in numerous guises thereafter. This piece seems to signify the importance of the recurring relationships within the film, romantic or otherwise; characters whose paths cross in one time period, do so again decades or hundreds of years in the future, and this music that accompanies them on their almost pre-destined encounters seems to suggest a cosmic order to things, of past lives influencing the present.
In an attempt to give each segment its own identity, each one features a slightly different palette of instruments, ranging from modern action scoring and electronic elements to large and vivid statements for the full orchestra, choral textures and much more. The most overtly classical style of music tends to be most prominent in the segments set in either the past or the distant future, while the more contemporary and neo-futuristic scenes draw influence from jazz music and more progressive synthesized textures and colors.
The “Opening Title” underscores part of what is, chronologically, the sixth piece, an action/sci-fi segment set 300 years into a post-apocalyptic future in which the human race has become a band of pidgin-speaking hunter-gatherers tormented by vicious hunting tribes, but whose fortunes change when they are visited by intellectual aliens looking for keys to their own past. The cue features a superb, enticing, almost hypnotic motif for guitar and harp, under which the first subliminal allusions to the Sextet appear on soft, undulating strings. At the other end of the scale, cues such as “Sloosha’s Hollow”, “Won’t Let Go”, “Catacombs” and “The Message” are a dark combination of orchestral, vocal and electronic textures and dissonances which occasionally explode into powerful, vivid action sequences to accompany the rampaging attacks of a cannibal tribe, but which are tempered with more supernatural-sounding choral textures that try to capture the benevolence of the advanced civilization that visits the battered, broken world. These cues often contain recurring echoes of the opening title, especially in the continued use of the guitar motif.
The historical parts of the film – a waterborne drama set in the 1830s on a galleon in the Caribbean featuring a young businessman, a freed slave and a murderous doctor, and a 1930s homosexual romance centered around an English composer trying to write the perfect symphony – is underscored with the pretty pizzicato-cum-scherzo effects of “Travel to Edinburgh”, the slightly skewed performance of the Atlas March on piano underneath the otherwise frantic-sounding cue for Frobisher’s conductor “Kesselring”, and the bold and lush “Temple of Sacrifice”, which presents an effusive, fully-orchestrated statement of the Atlas March. The relationship between the composer Frobisher, his lover Sixsmith, and the elderly composer Vyvyan Ayrs, is the most overly romantic and melodramatic sequence of the film, and also the most musically important, as it is in this sequence that the Cloud Atlas Sextet is actually written on-screen, although its musical influences lie elsewhere in the timeline.
The political thriller segment, which is set in San Francisco in the 1970s and concerns an investigative journalist digging into the shady dealings of a corrupt nuclear power plant, tends to be a little more modernistic in style, and a little more subdued and less florid than the ‘classical’ pieces, but still retain a predominantly orchestral core. Cues such as “Luisa’s Birthmark” and the propulsive “Chasing Luisa Rey” feature light, glassy electronic textures and contemporary, occasionally jazzy orchestral timbres, with the barest hints of the Sextet motif buried underneath. The second half of “Chasing Luisa Rey”, with its dashing rhythms and exciting percussion performances, is one of the album’s highlights, while the hints of the Sextet theme that are cleverly carried on from the 1930s segment musically illustrate the links between Luisa Rey and the elderly Sixsmith.
Later, the modern-day segment featuring the vaguely comedic escapades of the bumbling but likeable Timothy Cavendish, a hapless book publisher trying to escape from a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest-like care home, have an almost circus-esque quality, with hooting woodwinds and Nino Rota or Wojciech Kilar-style rhythms in “Cavendish in Distress” and “Adieu” underscoring his chaotic adventures.
The segment set in the dystopian-totalitarian Korean future, a in which a genetically engineered waitress initiates a rebellion, embraces electronic scoring much more prominently, with cues such as “Papa Song” having an ultra-modern sound design element for the ghastly restaurant where the waitresses work. The largest action sequences occur in this segment too, with cues such as “Sonmi-451 Meets Chang”, the exciting “The Escape”, the powerful “New Direction”, and the gripping “Sonmi’s Discovery” building up a real head of steam, while making some clever allusions to both the Sextet theme and the Atlas March in the string ostinatos. “Sonmi-451 Meets Chang” also introduces an unexpectedly lyrical theme for the forbidden affair that develops between the two unlikely lovers, making their plight that much more moving, and the choral work in this cue is quite excellent.
One or two cues even span multiple styles, notably “All Boundaries Are Conventions”, which presents a superb performance of the Atlas March in various different manifestations; it begins classically, as if re-imagined by Johann Sebastian Bach, but gradually works in the humming male voice choir often heard in the future segments, and builds to a large-scale finale. The final three pieces on the album – “Cloud Atlas Finale”, “The Cloud Atlas Sextet for Orchestra” and the “Cloud Atlas End Title” – take the two central themes and many of the various elements heard in all six segments, and significantly increase their scope and size, presenting concert-worthy performances that stand as some of the best cues heard all year, often incorporating a haunting choral element reminiscent of the best parts of their score for Perfume.
The way in which these two thematic elements cross-pollinate each of the six sections of the film really ties together the core idea that the movie is trying to convey: that, irrespective of location, or time, or race or gender, the hopes and dreams and aspirations of humanity remain the same. There’s also a recurring theme of rebirth and resurrection, whereby the same characters (or ancestors/descendents of the same characters) are destined to re-encounter across the ages. By continually presenting re-orchestrated and re-worked variations of these two themes – either with overt statements, or little rhythmic allusions in the music’s underbelly – the connections that link a freed slave on a ship in the 1830s and a humble tribesman four hundred years in the future become clear.
Scores like Cloud Atlas, which have an important and identifiable structure that relates directly to concepts in the film, intelligent and sophisticated application of thematic elements, and no small amount of beauty, harmony and excitement in the music itself, reaffirm your faith in what film music can be when it’s done right. It’s the polar opposite of the potentially damaging ‘write some basic pieces and see where we can stick them’ school of thought that some composers espouse, and proves beyond a doubt that a talented composer – or, in this case, group of composers – working to actually tell a story through their music, with recurring ideas and narrative-driven specificity, will always make for a more satisfying and fulfilling score. Look for Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil to pick up their first Oscar nominations next spring; this is one of the scores of the year.
Buy the Cloud Atlas soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Prelude: The Atlas March (1:15)
- Cloud Atlas Opening Title (3:47)
- Travel to Edinburgh (1:42)
- Luisa’s Birthmark (3:00)
- Cavendish In Distress (1:23)
- Papa Song (4:15)
- Sloosha’s Hollow (2:59)
- Sonmi-451 Meets Chang (3:34)
- Won’t Let Go (4:09)
- Kesselring (1:54)
- The Escape (5:43)
- Temple of Sacrifice (2:03)
- Catacombs (1:35)
- Adieu (4:15)
- New Direction (1:46)
- All Boundaries Are Conventions (2:38)
- The Message (2:13)
- Chasing Luisa Rey (4:53)
- Sonmi’s Discovery (3:23)
- Death Is Only A Door (3:48)
- Cloud Atlas Finale (4:17)
- The Cloud Atlas Sextet for Orchestra (4:57)
- Cloud Atlas End Title (7:56)
Running Time: 77 minutes 35 seconds
Watertower Music (2012)
Music composed by Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil. Conducted by Gene Pritsker. Orchestrations by Justin Bell, Max Knoth and Gene Pritsker. Featured musical soloists Dan Barrett, Matthew Fieldes, Peter Krysa, Margaret Lancaster, Edmundo Ramirez, Michiyo Suzuki and Keve Wilson. Recorded and mixed by Gabriel Mounsey. Album produced by Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil