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THE BOOK OF LIFE – Gustavo Santaolalla

October 26, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

bookoflife-scoreOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Book of Life is an animated film with a Mexican influence, directed by Jorge Gutierrez and co-produced by Guillermo Del Toro. It tells the story of two gods – La Muerte and Xibalba – who rule over two different realms of the spirit world, and who make a bet with each other when they realize that two young brothers, Manolo and Joaquin, are in love with the same young girl, Maria. Manolo grows up to be a bullfighter, but dreams of being a musician, while Joaquin becomes a soldier, defending his village from a bandit. Eventually, a terrible turn of events requires Manolo to journey from the real world and into the magical, mythical and wondrous spirit world in order to rescue his one true love and defend his village. The film, which has a spectacular visual style based on Mexican Día de Muertos iconography, has an interesting voice cast that includes Diego Luna, Channing Tatum, Zoe Saldana, and Ron Perlman, and features music from composer Gustavo Santaolalla and songwriter Paul Williams.

Gustavo Santaolalla gets a fair amount of flak from film score fans. His back-to-back Oscar wins, for Brokeback Mountain in 2005 and Babel in 2006, are generally considered to be amongst the worst decisions the Academy has made in recent memory, while his other high profile scores – which include titles like The Motorcycle Diaries, North Country and last year’s August: Osage County – have generally failed to elicit much of a positive response. Many critics have considered him to be something of a one-trick pony, with little range or versatility beyond his recurring guitar-and-strings style. As such, I’m sure it will come as something of a surprise to learn that The Book of Life is a rich, varied, lively score for a full orchestra, augmented by a plethora of regional instrumentation, ranging from guitars, solo trumpets and accordions to marimbas and ethnic flutes, as well as solo vocalists and even a choir. In terms of scope and ambition it is, by far, the best score of Santaolalla’s career to date.

The score is built around three recurring main thematic ideas; the first, “The Book of Life Theme,” is a soft, gentle theme for guitars and orchestra, with clear Spanish inflections that are quite inviting. The second, the “Lullaby Theme,” is a lilting, dream-like piece for soothing vocals and wistful guitars, and contains a pretty, music box-like melody full of charm and innocence. The vocals in this piece are performed by Israeli-born singer Ayana Haviv, whose tones are quite evocative and beautiful; her more operatic performance later in “Sanchez Bullfighting History” is gorgeous. The third theme, the Matador theme, is more heroic and swashbuckling, representing Manolo’s prowess as a matador, and later going on to form the centerpiece of “The Apology Song.”

Each of these three themes are present in many cues throughout the score, including pieces like “Visiting Mother,” in which the lullaby gets a lovely introduction; the tenderly emotional “Reunited With Mother,” one of the high points of the album of a whole; and the flamboyant “Traveling to the Cave of Souls,” in which the Book of Life theme gets a galloping, valiant makeover.

Some of the more bombastic action music has a touch of Mickey-Mousing about it, following the action, but they all tend to have a larger scale and scope than we are used to hearing from Santaolalla, often increasing the brass performances significantly. The more expressive and florid “The Tale Begins,” for example, jumps around from style to style, interpolating performances of two of the main themes, but surrounding them with more vibrant rhythmic ideas and instrumental performances. Later, “Manolo vs. Joaquin,” “Ole!” and “Sanchez Bullfighting History” are excellent examples of traditional Spanish ideas and rhythms; the latter pair also contain grand instrumental performances of the Matador theme. Cleverly, the Matador theme also appears later in the darkly powerful action sequence “The Maze,” where Manolo’s cape-twirling shenanigans save him from a terrible fate.

Elsewhere, “The Medal” and “They Gave Him the Medal” have more than a touch of Ennio Morricone about them, with their bright trumpet fanfares and electric guitar chords, while “A Lover’s Tango” and “A Wager” clearly draw upon Santaolalla’s Argentinean roots. “The Banditos Are Coming!” is much more dramatic, heavy with threatening percussion and deep brass clusters, whereas “Going to See La Muerte” is a vibrant celebration, accompanied by a children’s choir and a touch of the carnival.

The score’s big finale begins with the shockingly different but undeniably effective “Chakal” and “Victory/Don’t Forget Me,” which combine traditional Hispanic ideas and performances of the Matador theme with great big dollops of speed metal (yes, speed metal!), before the conclusive emotional thematic flourish in “Manolo is Alive.”

In addition to writing the score, Santaolalla collaborated with the legendary singer-songwriter Paul Williams on two original songs, the aforementioned “The Apology Song,” and “I Love You Too Much,” both of which are in the running for Best Song Oscar nominations next year. “The Apology Song,” in the context of the film, is a song of penance, in which Manolo offers up a long-overdue beg for forgiveness from a bull, recognizing the years of senseless slaughter that matadors have engaged in over the centuries. “I Love You Too Much,” on the other hand, is a song about the pain of unrequited love, and drips with poetic regret. Williams won an Oscar for A Star is Born in 1976, received further nominations for Cinderella Liberty, Phantom of the Paradise, Bugsy Malone, and The Muppet Movie, and was something of a celebrity in the 1970s and early 80s before disappearing from public view in a fog of alcoholism. His return to the forefront of movie songwriting is long overdue, and here he contributes meaningful, intelligent lyrics to the songs, giving them an uncommon depth and sentiment that has been missing from a lot of movie songs in recent years. The cuts that feature on this album are the demo versions of the songs, and are actually sung by Santaolalla himself, who proves to have a decent singing voice!

bookoflife-songsA companion album to the score release features a couple of cues from Santaolalla’s score, and the movie versions of “The Apology Song” and “I Love You Too Much,” performed in character by actor Diego Luna, once in English and once in Spanish. There are also a number of Mexicanized cover versions of popular songs, which are included in the film as pop-culture in-jokes for the audience. Hearing songs like Radiohead’s “Creep,” Mumford & Sons’ “I Will Wait,” Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” and Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy,” in this context is pretty amusing. There’s even a fabulous contemporary remix version of Ennio Morricone’s “Ecstasy of Gold” from the score for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which I shouldn’t like, but I really do. And, of course, no album of Mexican-inspired music would be complete without a brief refrain of “Cielito Lindo” (the ‘Ay-Yi-Yi-Yi’ song), performed in this instance by the world-famous tenor Placido Domingo.

When compared to some of 2014’s other outstanding animation scores, like How To Train Your Dragon 2, The Boxtrolls, or even something like Fredrik Weidmann’s Son of Batman, The Book of Life is a fairly slight score; enjoyable, but not at the same level as its contemporaries. However, in the wider context of Gustavo Santaolalla’s film music career, it represents a significant step forward in terms of the type of music the composer is capable of producing. While much of the score is still based around his familiar guitar/strings style, the larger orchestral forces in play in a large part of the score prove that he is capable of marshaling more substantial ensembles, while the multiple recurring themes show a deeper understanding of structure and development. All in all, it’s an impressive and encouraging step forward, and I hope the upward trajectory continues.

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

Track Listing:

  • Special Tour (1:02)
  • The Book of Life Theme (2:48)
  • The Tale Begins (3:00)
  • Visiting Mother (1:41)
  • Lullaby Theme (2:12)
  • The Medal (1:08)
  • A Lover’s Tango (0:37)
  • Manolo vs. Joaquin (0:51)
  • The Boar (0:22)
  • Ole! (0:50)
  • The Apology Song [Demo] (written by Paul Williams and Gustavo Santaolalla, performed by Gustavo Santaolalla) (2:52)
  • Sanchez Bullfighting History (2:54)
  • The Banditos Are Coming! (1:26)
  • Maria is Gone (1:02)
  • El Aparato/Land of the Remembering (written by Ruben Issac Albarran Ortega, Emmanuel Del Real Díaz, Enrique Rangel Arroyo, Jose Alfredo Rangel Arroyo and Gustavo Santaolalla, performed by Café Tacuba) (1:46)
  • The Sanchez Clan (0:31)
  • Reunited With Mother (1:21)
  • I Love You Too Much [Demo] (written by Paul Williams and Gustavo Santaolalla, performed by Gustavo Santaolalla) (2:36)
  • Going to See La Muerte (0:58)
  • Maria Agrees to Marry Joaquin/Traveling to the Cave of Souls (2:29)
  • The Maze (1:10)
  • Welcome to the Cave of Souls (0:55)
  • The Book of Life Theme 2 (2:03)
  • He Gave Him the Medal (1:50)
  • A Wager (1:02)
  • Chakal (1:31)
  • Victory/Don’t Forget Me (2:51)
  • Manolo is Alive (2:44)
  • The Apology Song [Latino Americano] (written by Paul Williams and Gustavo Santaolalla, performed by Diego Luna) (2:31)
  • Live Life (written by Jesse Eduardo Huerta Uecke, Tirzah Joy Huerta Uecke, Nate Campany and Allan Grigg, performed by Jesse & Joy) (3:05)
  • The Apology Song (written by Paul Williams and Gustavo Santaolalla, performed by La Santa Cecilia) (2:32)
  • No Matter Where You Are (written by Michael Alvarado and Carissa Alvarado, performed by Us The Duo) (2:58)
  • I Love You Too Much (written by Paul Williams and Gustavo Santaolalla, performed by Diego Luna) (2:35)
  • I Will Wait (written by Marcus Mumford, Winston Marshall, Ben Lovett and Edward Dwane, performed by Diego Luna feat. Joe Matthews) (1:55)
  • Más (written by Gilberto Cerezo, Ulises Lozano, Carlos Chairez, Omar Góngora and Cesar Pliego, performed by Kinky) (4:20)
  • Cielito Lindo (traditional, performed by Placido Domingo) (0:25)
  • Creep (written by Colin Greenwood, Jonny Greenwood, Philip Selway, Thom Yorke, Mike Hazlewood and Albert Hammond, performed by Diego Luna) (1:20)
  • Can’t Help Falling In Love (written by George David Weiss, Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore, performed by Diego Luna) (0:52)
  • Ecstasy of Gold (written by Ennio Morricone) (2:05)
  • Do Ya Think I’m Sexy (written by Rod Stewart, Carmine Appice and Duane Hitchings, performed by Gabriel Iglesias) (0:20)
  • Just a Friend (written by Marcel Hall and Freddie Scott, performed by Cheech Marin with Biz Markie) (2:49)
  • El Aparato/Land of the Remembering (written by Ruben Issac Albarran Ortega, Emmanuel Del Real Díaz, Enrique Rangel Arroyo, Jose Alfredo Rangel Arroyo and Gustavo Santaolalla, performed by Café Tacuba) (1:46)
  • Visiting Mother (Gustavo Santaolalla) (1:43)
  • The Apology Song (written by Paul Williams and Gustavo Santaolalla, performed by Diego Luna) (2:52)
  • No Matter Where You Are (written by Carissa Alvarado and Michael Alvarado, performed by Diego Luna) (1:37)
  • Te Amo y Más (written by Paul Williams and Gustavo Santaolalla, performed by Diego Luna)< (2:36)/LI>
  • Si Puedes Perdonar (written by Paul Williams and Gustavo Santaolalla, performed by Diego Luna) (1:44)

Running Time: 49 minutes 04 seconds – Score Album
Running Time: 34 minutes 51 seconds – Song Album

Sony Classical (2014) – Score Album
Sony Masterworks 501323 (2014) – Song Album

Music composed by Gustavo Santaolalla. Conducted by Tim Davies. Orchestrations by Jeremy Levy, Susie Bench, Ryan Humphrey, James McWilliam, Devin Roth and Tim Davies. Special vocal performances by Ayana Haviv. Recorded and mixed by Casey Stone. Edited by Charles Martin Inouye. Album produced by Gustavo Santaolalla.

  1. October 27, 2014 at 7:25 am

    I completely agree with you when you say that the Academy made a mistake when giving the statuette to Gustavo Santaolalla for Brokeback Mountain in 2005. But I do think that he deserved at least a recognition for Babel in 2006. I consider orchestral film music to be far more beautiful than this kind film music, and I rarely purchase score albums with no violins on it. If you take the time to carefully listen to Babel you will find beautiful ambiances and moods. For example, the song when the deaf girl goes clubbing with her new friends is called “Walking In Tokyo” and it has a deep muted and distorted melody that gives you the idea of the sounds and beats a person like her is able to perceive. Others, like that ones that accompany the American couple in Morocco, have a oppressive sense of solitude. So it’s not as bad as you portray it.

    Now, talking about The Book of Life. Yes, it is a humongous improvement to his repertory and I hope he gets to show this side of him more often.

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