Home > Reviews > MILLION DOLLAR ARM – A. R. Rahman


milliondollararmOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

There aren’t many films about cricket, especially in the United States, where the sport is viewed as a foreign curiosity with impenetrable rules, archaic terminology and a sense of incredulity that it is the only contemporary competitive sport which builds breaks for meals into its schedule. This is despite the fact that much of the world is obsessed with the sport – especially in the Indian subcontinent – to the extent that legendary players are household celebrities. Disney’s film Million Dollar Arm isn’t likely to put the names Sachin Tendulkar or Muttiah Muralitharan on the lips of the average American, but it at least goes some way to trying to illustrate the importance of the game in Commonwealth countries. It stars Mad Men’s Jon Hamm as the real-life American baseball sports agent J.B. Bernstein, a man down on his luck, who comes up with a radical idea to revitalize his career: after accidentally catching a cricket match on TV while channel surfing late one night, he decides to organize a reality competition to find India’s first professional baseball pitcher. Along with cantankerous scout Ray Poitevint (Alan Arkin) and his business partner Ash Vasudevan (Aasif Mandvi), Bernstein travels to Delhi to search for talent, and is surprised when two young men (Life of Pi’s Suraj Sharma and Slumdog Millionaire’s Madhur Mittal) impress him with their skills. The film is directed by Craig Gillespie, based on Tom McCarthy’s screenplay, and has a score by A. R. Rahman.

It’s interesting how A. R. Rahman is still the only Indian film composer to have expanded his horizons to Hollywood. He’s obviously the biggest name in that country’s industry – he is the Mozart of Madras, after all – and he was the first Bollywood composer to win an Academy Award, but with all the talent within the Indian film music industry, I’m surprised that no-one else has been given a shot at scoring an American film, especially on a comparatively small film like Million Dollar Arm. Until that happens, though, we have to be content with Rahman’s success, and I for one am very pleased that Slumdog Millionaire was not his only foray into American cinema. Rahman is an astonishingly talented man – he’s a singer, songwriter, musician and performer, as well as a composer, not only skilled at writing music in the stereotypical Indian idiom, but also at working with a traditional symphony orchestra, as his too-good-for-the-movie score for Couples Retreat proved in 2009. Million Dollar Arm, as the plot of the film suggests, is a fusion score, blending a traditional Hollywood orchestra conducted by Nick Glennie-Smith with lots of subcontinent influences and specialty instruments, plus several original songs.

The score is good; although there are only nine cues, lasting a touch over 20 minutes in total, they run the gamut from broad Indian beats and rhythms, to lush heroic sports scoring that should please most score fans. Some of it reminds me of the similar-sounding music in scores such as Thomas Newman’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, or Mychael Danna’s Life of Pi, if that provides some frame of reference and basis for comparison. The score is short on thematic ideas, but is generally lovely from a textural and emotional point of view. The opening “Bobbleheads” features a cool rhythmic core and beguiling vocal performance from California-based Indian singer Gaayatri Kaundinya that is quite hypnotic. The Indian influences continue further in cues such as “Lucknow”, “First Tryout” and “Welcome to India”, where traditional instruments such as sitars, tablas and the harmonium blend with the orchestra, to create soothing exotic moods and images of sun-kissed landscapes, or in the case of “Calling Scouts Again”, something much more upbeat and modern.

“Never Give Up” is more melancholy, with a solo piano and a solo guitar moodily contemplating life and failure; similarly, “Farewell” features a sentimental string-and-woodwind combo that occasionally flutters with more striking textures and wordless vocals, again courtesy of the lovely-timbred Gaayatri. The downbeat “Desi Thoughts” showcases a lyrical central performance by Indian electric guitar musician Prasanna. The finale, in “The Final Pitch”, is the score’s big Hollywood moment, starting tenderly with more solo piano, but slowly growing over the course of its five minutes to encompass some lovely emotional swells, and even some moments of great power, with an extended brass section and choir.

As far as the songs are concerned, if you hated the non-score parts of Slumdog Millionaire, or have never been able to tolerate the unique sound of Bollywood vocalists, you will likely have the same reaction to the ones on this album, even though some of them are sung in English by popular contemporary pop artists. Personally, I quite like them; most of them are a fusion of Indian rhythms blended with pop, rap, R&B and even some techno sounds. Australian hip-hop artist Iggy Azalea provides the vocals for the unexpectedly aggressive cricket-themed “Million Dollar Dream”, and has a sound very similar to the Anglo-Tamil rapper M.I.A from the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack. Scottish-born singer KT Tunstall headlines the upbeat “We Could Be Kings”, a fascinating collision between Indian and contemporary country-rock sounds that I really enjoy, while Rahman himself calls out the chants on the superbly infectious “Taa Taa Tai”.

A couple of the songs are from other albums and projects. The upbeat, urban “Makhna”, performed by Sukhwinder Singh, is from Rahman’s score for the film 2006 Rang de Basanti; the pretty, mesmerizing “Unborn Children” is a variation on the song “Thirakkaadha Kaattukkulle” Rahman originally wrote for the 1999 film En Swasa Kaatre, while “Nimma Nimma” was originally written for the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony, and features a rap by former Indian Idol reality show sinner Jaspreet Jasz.

Million Dollar Arm isn’t going to feature on many score fans’ ‘Best of 2014’ lists, purely because it’s so dependant on your tolerance for Indian-inflected sounds, instruments and orchestrations – its quirks and unique stylistics often don’t appeal to western audiences, and I can see that being the case here with a large chunk of the American audience. Similarly, your appreciation of contemporary hip-hop and electronic dance music will determine whether or not you have any liking for the songs. Speaking for myself, I enjoyed it a great deal, precisely because it’s so different, and represents a nice change of pace from so many of the tired mainstream scores we are regularly subjected to. I also want to support it because I think Rahman himself is an incredibly talented man, who is capable of writing excellent fully-orchestral music across different genres, and is far from being the one trick pony too many short-sighted commentators have labeled him following his Oscar win; as such, the score comes with a hesitant recommendation from me, especially for anyone who likes expanding their musical horizons across the world. Howzat!

Buy the Million Dollar Arm soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Makhna (written by A. R. Rahman, performed by A. R. Rahman feat. Sukhwinder Singh) (3:20)
  • Million Dollar Dream (written by A. R. Rahman and Amethyst Kelly, performed by A. R. Rahman feat. Iggy Azalea) (2:44)
  • Unborn Children (written by A. R. Rahman and Vairamuthu Ramaswamy, performed by A.R. Rahman feat. Vairamuthu, Unnikrishnan and K. S. Chithra) (4:37)
  • We Could Be Kings (written by A. R. Rahman and KT Tunstall, performed by KT Tunstall) (3:08)
  • Taa Taa Tai (written and performed by A. R. Rahman) (3:25)
  • Keep the Hustle (written by A. R. Rahman and Olubowale Akintimehin, performed by A.R. Rahman feat. Wale & Raghav) (3:09)
  • Nimma Nimma (written by A. R. Rahman and Jaspreet Singh Kohli, performed by A. R. Rahman feat. Jaspreet Jasz) (2:29)
  • Bobbleheads (1:59)
  • Never Give Up (2:21)
  • Lucknow (1:50)
  • Farewell (2:10)
  • Desi Thoughts (2:51)
  • First Tryout (2:30)
  • Calling Scouts Again (1:39)
  • Welcome to India (2:13)
  • The Final Pitch (5:04)

Running Time: 45 minutes 28 seconds

Walt Disney Records 002014702 (2014)

Music composed by A. R. Rahman. Conducted by Nick Glennie-Smith. Orchestrations by Matt Dunkley. Special vocal performances by Gaayatri Kaundinya. Recorded and mixed by Joel Iwataki. Edited by Jon Mooney. Album produced by A. R. Rahman, Mitchell Leib, Craig Gillespie, Joe Roth, Mark Ciardi and Gordon Gray.

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