HER – William Butler and Owen Pallett
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
It’s difficult to describe Her without it sounding stupid because, basically, it’s about a man who falls in love with his computer – but it’s actually about much more than that. It’s about how loneliness can drive people to great lengths in order to find companionship. It’s about how technology is changing the way humans connect with each other. It’s about many things – but, ultimately, it’s about love. Set in Los Angeles in the near future, it stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore, who is in a deep depression after the ending of a long relationship, but who displays a sensitive side in his job, writing emotional personal letters for other people. When a new computer operating system comes onto the market, Theodore is intrigued – it advertises itself as an intuitive entity in its own right, individual to each user, capable of learning. Upon initiating it, he meets Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), an upbeat and curiously sexy female voice, who immediately begins organizing his life for the better. Quickly, Samantha displays an insatiable desire for knowledge and to understand human emotion, and as Theodore starts to fulfill those needs, the unlikely pair begins to fall in love.
Unlike other movies which look at technology as an encroaching problem driving humans apart, Her is definitely pro-technology, and uses this approach to illustrate how we can connect positively to each other through it. The sweet relationship between Theodore and Samantha has everything that a real relationship has: goofy humor, trust, intellectual compatibility, sexual tension and release, and even arguments and jealousy – in fact, the only thing missing is physical contact (although they try that too, through a surrogate, with not-so-great results). One of the things I love about the movie is how a computer teaches a human to actually be a human again – in an attempt to give Samantha human experiences so that she can grow, Theodore remembers that he likes having human experiences too, and grows along with her.
The story goes in some interesting directions, asking questions about the nature of consciousness and existence (although, oddly, it never explores the fact that, basically, the software company behind Samantha created an entirely new life form, and the ramifications that has for the world), and features an open, emotional lead performance by Phoenix, who has never been better. Having been in a relationship that failed, I understood completely Theodore’s need to re-establish a connection with someone, as well as the allure of online relationships that emphasize the emotional and the intellectual over the physical. Amy Adams, as Theodore’s best friend, has some insightful observations to make about life and love despite her wacky hairdo, and Olivia Wilde is fun in an extended cameo as a date from hell, but Johansson steals the show with her sultry, inquisitive disembodied voice, which makes Samantha a completely real person despite her lack of physical form. Spike Jonze’s writing and direction is top-notch – his depiction of Los Angeles is both futuristic and familiar – and some of the little visual and conceptual touches, like the computer game that talks back to you, the fashion for high-waisted trousers, and the increases in the quality of Southern California’s public transportation system, make his environment a truly immersive experience. It’s a slow, deliberate, introspective and at times sad film, but when it emerges from its own story, it’s wholly positive and life-affirming. I loved it.
The score for Her is by members of the very popular and influential Canadian indie rock band Arcade Fire, who in recent years have been making some hesitant explorations into the world of film music, having scored the 2009 thriller The Box, and written the famous ‘Horn of Plenty’ theme for the Hunger Games movies. William Butler and Owen Pallet are the credited lead composers on this project, and are the named individual recipients of the surprise Best Original Score Academy Award nomination that came their way in the early months of 2014. Arcade Fire as a whole are well-known for being exceptional instrumentalists and bringing an unusual depth of musicality to their song albums, but unfortunately the score for Her – despite the excellence of the film itself – has a lot of problems.
Her is not a film which needed a large scale orchestral work; more moody tones, and a more circumspect approach, was certainly the most appropriate way to tackle a film like this, but even when your score is trying to be unobtrusive, there still has to be something to pique a listener’s interest, and then retain it throughout its duration. Her certainly has moments of genuine musical interest, but it fails to sustain them for very long, retreating much too often into a droning, ambient fog that goes nowhere and offers little in terms of dramatic commentary on the film it is accompanying. According to interviews Butler and Pallett gave regarding their work here, the score was originally envisioned as being much more electronic and harsh, with a Blade Runner edge, but gradually became warmer and more organic when the original voice of Samantha, Samantha Morton, was replaced during post-production by Johansson, and the romantic aspects of the story were emphasized.
The sound palette of the film is predominantly electronic, with soothing synthesized tones and beats, accompanied by various live and sampled solo instrumental textures: a piano here, a cello there, a chamber-sized string section over there. Thematic development and motivic writing is virtually non-existent, so instead we have a series of little musical vignettes, most of which are very pleasant and restful to listen to in an abstract way, but which cannot really be considered part of a “film score”, as there is virtually no narrative structure, and it offers no real indication as to what emotions or concepts the director is attempting to convey.
For me, this is one of the most frustrating aspects of the modern film music philosophy: music for the sake of music, but which can’t really sound like music. It’s as though the director is using the score as another layer of sound design to accompany his dialogue and sound effects tracks, simply because there has to be something there to break the silence, but he doesn’t want the score to intrude in any way on the film. It’s audible, but it says nothing, goes nowhere, and makes you feel very little. I guess Jonze may have been trying to somehow depict his vision of music in 2025, or offer some commentary on the lines between the electronic and the organic being blurred through the fusion of live and electronic instruments, but this is all conjecture on my part, and I may be trying to ascribe some deeper meaning to the score when one doesn’t really exist.
To be fair, there are some quite nice musical moments to be found in the score. The opening “Sleepwalker” has a pretty little central melody in which a guitar and a ground cello play around a synth organ tone. “Divorce Papers” has a minimalistic central piano motif that is quite appealing, and this continues on into the similarly keyboard-centric “Song on the Beach”, which is intended to be one of the pieces Samantha spontaneously composes as a result of her first experience ‘seeing’ the ocean. “Morning Talk” eventually morphs into an instrumental version of the song “Supersymmetry”, which was originally written for the film, but was eventually reworked and debuted on Arcade Fire’s 2013 album Reflektor. “Some Other Place” starts slowly, but gradually becomes a rather nice string piece with more volume and intensity than anything else around it. “Owl” revisits the grinding cello from earlier in the score in a slightly darker manner. Probably the best cue on the album is the lovely, lyrical “Photograph”, which takes the piano and allows it to grow and expand into a florid, undulating classical melody which has a real sense of lightness and effervescence.
Unfortunately, much of the rest of the score adopts a tone with a tendency towards musical narcolepsy, lulling the listener into a trance-like stupor through endlessly repetitive ambiences, extended string sustains and elliptical chords. During cues such as “Milk & Honey”, “Loneliness #3 – Night Talking” and “We’re All Leaving” I found myself wondering whether I had adopted a slack-jawed, vacant look on my face, bereft of stimulation or emotional awareness, much like the hangdog expression Phoenix adopts for most of the first half of the film. I understand that a film score is intended to make you empathize with the lead character, but making you actually act like him is possibly taking it a little too far.
The other aspect of the Her soundtrack is the Oscar-nominated “Moon Song”, written by director Spike Jonze and lyricist Karen Orzolek of the New York rock band Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and performed by Orzolek in her ‘Karen O’ persona. The song, much like the score, is one of those introverted, navel-gazing, slightly hipster-esque pieces, typified by Orzolek’s high pitched vocal delivery and lazy diction, simple guitar chords, and the dreamy lyrics. I didn’t care for it either.
I’m all for different artists trying their hand at film music. Many of today’s great film composers began their careers working in the rock and pop fields, Danny Elfman and James Newton Howard the most prominent among them, so there is no predisposition on my part to immediately dismiss scores by artists such as Butler and Pallett as inferior. Her is, for me, simply too lightweight, with little to pique my interest beforehand, little to hold my attention during, and little staying in my memory afterwards. It’s very rare when my favorite film of a calendar year also has one of its more underwhelming scores, but Her embodies that unusual dichotomy.
The music for Her is not commercially available for purchase at this time, although both the Oscar promo album and the Karen O song can be found fairly easily on the secondary market on sites such as eBay. The rumor is that a proper soundtrack CD will be released at around the same time the film is released on DVD and Blu-Ray.
- Sleepwalker (3:16)
- Milk & Honey (1:29)
- Loneliness #3 – Night Talking (3:27)
- Divorce Papers (3:17))
- Morning Talk/Supersymmetry (4:16)
- Some Other Place (3:39)
- Song on the Beach (3:33)
- Loneliness #4 – Other People’s Letters (1:02)
- Owl (2:24)
- Photograph (2:29)
- Milk & Honey – Alan Watts & 641 (3:19)
- We’re All Leaving (2:32)
- Dimensions (5:42)
- The Moon Song (written by Spike Jonze and Karen Orzelek, performed by Karen O) (3:25)
Running Time: 42 minutes 59 seconds
Watertower Music Promo (2013)
Music composed and arranged by William Butler and Owen Pallett. Additional music and arrangements by Win Butler, Régine Chassagne, Richard Reed Parry, Tim Kingsbury, Jeremy Gara and Eric Gorfain. Recorded and mixed by Mark Lawson. Edited by Marie Ebbing. Score produced by Arcade Fire and Owen Pallett.