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THE HOMESMAN – Marco Beltrami

November 24, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

thehomesmanOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Homesman, based on the acclaimed novel by Glendon Swarthout, is the third film directed by the Academy Award-winning actor Tommy Lee Jones. Set in Nebraska in the late 1850s, in the earliest days of the American expansion west, it stars Hilary Swank as Mary Bee Cuddy, a middle-aged spinster from New York, a former teacher who journeyed to the Midwest seeking a new life, and a husband, but who has continually had her marriage proposals rejected. Following an especially harsh winter, three young women – Arrabella Sours (Grace Gummer), Theoline Belknapp (Miranda Otto), and Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter) – begin to show signs of insanity due to the hardships they faced; in an effort to save the women, Mary Bee agrees to transport them across several hundred miles of rugged and dangerous terrain to Iowa, where the women of a church have agreed to take them in. To accompany and protect her on her journey, Mary Bee acquires the reluctant help of George Briggs (Jones), a disheveled claim jumper who she saves from being lynched, but who has a mysterious past of his own.

The Homesman is a bleak, lonely, depressing film, which pulls no punches in depicting a realistic and completely unsentimental portrait of life in the American Midwest during that time period. Life there was tough; food was rare, home comforts even rarer. The work was backbreaking, the weather was unforgiving, and the vast open spaces of the landscape were enough to drive anyone with a predilection for agoraphobia completely crazy. The film is also spectacularly beautiful, in the way an inhospitable wilderness can be beautiful, with Jones and his cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto capturing the harshness of the geography, its massive skies and endless plains, with a painter’s eye. This sense of isolation and exposure is carried over into the score by composer Marco Beltrami, who also scored Jones’s other two films, the Mexican western The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, and the TV drama The Sunset Limited.

Jones gave Beltrami free reign to be as innovative as he liked with the music, and as such the composer responded with one of his most unusual, beautiful, and creative scores. A concept running through the score is that of wind; the movement of air through the grasses, across the plains, capturing the openness and daunting size of an endless horizon. To musically depict this concept, Beltrami and his regular collaborator Buck Sanders built a number of unique instruments, most notably a huge aeolian harp, which they constructed out of an old upright piano with strings stretched 175 feet up the hill outside his Malibu studio, attached to large water tanks. When the wind blew through the canyon, Beltrami was able to literally “tune the wind” and record its sound, either by playing the piano keys, or by capturing the vibrations of the wires through hydrophones placed inside the water tanks.

This was augmented by a type of harmonic slide guitar that Sanders invented, which created unusual wailing, shifting tones that could be bent in eerie ways, and a small orchestral ensemble consisting of a string quartet, various guitars, banjos, and mandolins, and a turn-of-the-century melodeon, most of which Beltrami recorded outside in the sunshine in order to capture the ambient sounds of nature aslongside his music. The resulting score is one of the most atypical, but rewarding works of his recent career, which illustrates the mood and feel of the film perfectly.

Thematically speaking, the only prominent recurring idea is Mary Bee’s theme, which plays throughout the score. An austere, but defiantly musical construct – clearly an allusion to Mary Bee’s own love of music, as seen by her devotion to a cloth piano – it first appears in the “Main Title,” initially performed on the aeolian harp/wind piano, before being picked up by Belinda Broughton’s beautiful solo violin, and eventually a solo piano with string accompaniment. The theme has a folksy, homespun feeling, redolent of the musical traditions of the time, and is very appealing.

Thereafter, it anchors the rest of the score, following Mary Bee and, eventually, Briggs, on their daunting journey across America. Sometimes it is performed straightforwardly, such as in the reflective “Bathtime,” the engaging “It’s Abandoned,” and the gentle and warm “Entering Town”. At other times it is deconstructed, stripped down to just a single instrumental line or a subtle allusion to the theme’s chord structure, most notably in “Onto the Ferry” and the philosophical “Wind Haiku” which rounds out the album. Elsewhere, it combines with a more hopeful, hymnal secondary theme which tries to speak to the honor inherent in the task being undertaken by Mary Bee and Briggs, and can be heard in cues like “Picking Up Arrabella Sours,” “River Crossing,” “Travel Montage,” and the lovely “End Credits”.

Some of the more abstract cues include “On the Plains,” which is a perfect showcase for the peculiar sound of Sanders’s harmonic slide guitar, “Newborn,” and “Bury Doll,” the stark desolation of which throbs and hums and gets under your skin. Later, “Sod Buster” is a bitter, spiky action sequence for strings and banjo; similarly, “Pawnee” and “I’ll Be Back Directly” rattle to threatening percussion rolls and tension filled chords, musically depicting two of the major threats faced by the white settlers of the age: the aggression of Indians, and the indifference of strangers. “Cuddy Lost” is perhaps the most effectively disturbing cue, in which Beltrami offsets bleak string harmonics with dark, dangerous-sounding cello lines, a forlorn performance of Mary Bee’s theme, and the relentlessly blowing wind. At this point I think it’s important to point out that, despite the alien sounds produced by some of these more unusual instruments, there is virtually no synth or electronic manipulation of any kind in the cues that feature them; this is acoustic music through-and-through, creatively crafted and intelligently designed.

I have to admit that, when I first heard The Homesman, I didn’t get it. Too distant, too droney, and – dare I say it – a little dull. It took several further listens, and a viewing of the film itself, for me to truly appreciate what Beltrami was doing with this score, and why it works so perfectly. As a depiction of the loneliness, desolation, and magnitude of the landscape of the American west, Beltrami’s score is a complete success. As an intellectual exercise in trying to musically capture the sound and feel of air itself, it’s a fascinating experiment. However, as pure music, experienced in isolation, I would recommend caution; The Homesman is at times very unusual, and really needs to be understood in context in order to fully grasp its meaning.

Buy the Homesman soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Homesman Main Title (3:53)
  • On the Plains (1:36)
  • Newborn (1:31)
  • Picking Up Arrabella Sours (1:34)
  • Sod Buster (1:33)
  • Bathtime (2:53)
  • Pawnee (2:14)
  • Bury Doll (1:55)
  • River Crossing (2:52)
  • Leaving Home Flashback (1:07)
  • Are You Crazy (1:47)
  • Travel Montage (0:47)
  • It’s Abandoned (1:54)
  • Cuddy Lost (3:13)
  • Where’s Cuddy (1:35)
  • I’ll Be Back Directly (3:03)
  • Entering Town (2:21)
  • Briggs Moves On (2:01)
  • Onto the Ferry (2:11)
  • The Homesman End Credits (3:18)
  • Wind Haiku (2:27)

Running Time: 45 minutes 34 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-7317 (2014)

Music composed and conducted by Marco Beltrami. Orchestrations by Rossano Galante and Pete Anthony. Additional arrangements by Buck Sanders. Special musical performances by George Doering. Recorded and mixed by John Kurlander. Edited by Jim Schultz. Album produced by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders.

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  1. November 24, 2014 at 4:58 pm

    Great review, Jonathan!!!

  2. December 23, 2014 at 4:21 pm

    Jon, have you heard the excellent work Beltrami did on the movie “The Giver”? It’s a more conventional work than The Homesman, with orchestra and chorus, but it’s also extremely beautiful, just like, for example, Soul Surfer. For me, it’s the best score Beltrami did this year.

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