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BIRDMAN – Antonio Sánchez

December 11, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

birdmanOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Birdman is an unusual dark comedy/drama about the existential crisis of an actor, directed by Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu. In what is possibly the most perfect piece of casting ever, Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thompson, the star of a series of popular 1980s super-hero films, who after a period of career doldrums is trying to reinvent himself as a serious dramatic actor by staging a play in an off-Broadway theater. The play is being produced by Riggan’s best friend/lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis), and stars Riggan’s slightly unbalanced girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough), nervous first-time-Broadway-actress Lesley (Naomi Watts), and critically acclaimed thespian Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), whose genuine talent is almost eclipsed by his raging ego, and who has taken a liking to Riggan’s daughter/assistant Sam (Emma Stone). Behind the scenes, Riggan is taunted by hallucinatory visions of his Birdman character, making him increasingly paranoid and self-critical, while problems with the rest of the production threaten to send it spiraling out of control.

While Birdman certainly has its fair share of positives – the acting being the most obvious, which is across-the-board superb – I found the rest of the film to be horrifically self-indulgent, the worst kind of ‘meta’ film making, and pretentious to the extreme. Iñárritu’s choice to shoot the film as a series of long and apparently unbroken takes, Hitchcock-style, is technically excellent, but distractingly gimmicky, while the ‘immediacy’ of the camerawork often results in the film having bizarre framing, forcing us to experience the film an inch away from Keaton’s nostrils, or having Stone’s already gigantic eyes completely fill the screen. I also was annoyed and a little insulted by the way the film seemingly talks down to its audience, virtually daring them to be bored and restless, taunting them with action sequences, and then berating them for enjoying them. This sneering sense of intellectual superiority got under my skin somewhat, and soured what could otherwise have been an interesting rumination on stardom, relevance, and creative fulfillment.

This sense of strangeness also translates into the film’s score, written and performed by Grammy-winning Mexican percussionist Antonio Sánchez. Sánchez is widely regarded to be one of the world’s premier jazz drummers, who over the years has collaborated with such genre luminaries as Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, Danilo Perez, John Patitucci, Chris Potter, David Sanchez and Scott Colley. While the credentials of the score are not in question, Birdman is almost impossible to review like a regular film score, because it’s not one. It wasn’t “composed to picture” in the way traditional scores are composed; instead it was improvised in the moment by Sánchez as he and Iñárritu watched the film together, with Sánchez reacting to what was happening on-screen and translating these reactions into off-the-cuff drum patterns.

As such, I can’t talk about recurring themes and motifs, because there aren’t any. I can’t talk about the orchestration, because it was written entirely for percussion, and it never changes. There are bass drums, snare drums, cymbals, hi-hats, and a few moments involving more metallic textures, as well as bells, rattles and chimes, but nothing else. Sometimes Sánchez hits things with drumsticks, sometimes he brushes them, and sometimes he shakes them. Sometimes he hits his drums hard, sometimes he hits them softly, sometimes he does both simultaneously. Sometimes he plays fast, sometimes he plays slowly. Beyond that, it’s almost impossible for me to describe the score in conventional terms, because when it comes down to it, it’s a guy hitting drums and cymbals for half an hour. I like some of the cues – pieces like “Dirty Walk,” “Doors and Distance,” “Internal War,” and the six-minute “Anxious Battle for Sanity” are fun and funky, and undeniably creative – but while I absolutely acknowledge the technical excellence of the drumming in and of itself, I can’t help wondering what it’s actually trying to say.

In the CD liner notes, Iñárritu says that he wanted the percussion rhythms to become “a kind of metronome inside Riggan’s head,” but that never actually came across to me in context. Instead, I found the score to be jarring , distractingly in-your-face, and often played at odds with the apparent emotional intent of certain scenes, causing a sort of audio-visual rift between the film and the audience. Worse still, the music seemingly couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be diegetic or non-diegetic; on at least two occasions in the film, one of the characters actually walks past a drummer on-screen, who is playing the score. What is this supposed to imply? That there’s actually a percussionist there in the theater, playing the riffs we hear? Or just in those moments? If it is only in those moments, where is the music coming from the rest of the time? Can the characters hear the music the audience can hear? If not, why not, when he’s there on screen? This breaking of the auditory fourth wall is confusing and ill-conceived, and is another example of something that was supposed to be clever but just alienates the audience further.

The score CD, on Milan Records, contains 16 tracks of Sánchez’s score, running for a touch under half an hour, combined with over 45 minutes worth of beautiful, stirring, fully orchestral classical music from the likes of Gustav Mahler, Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Maurice Ravel, John Adams and Sergei Rachmaninoff, performed by some of the world’s greatest orchestras, under the batons of some of the world’s greatest conductors. These tracks feature in the film as accompaniments to Riggan’s hallucinations of Birdman, and are absolutely stunning on their own terms: the movie bursts into life when these majestic creations are heard. However, despite how good these pieces are, they don’t really mitigate the unwavering weirdness of the music Iñárritu and Sánchez created for their film. In terms of improvisational creativity and Sánchez’s performance technique, I cannot do anything but give it high marks, but as an actual score, in terms of how it works in the context of the film, and how it is used in the film to communicate with its audience, it’s a failure, and I’m left scratching my head regarding the almost unanimous critical acclaim it has received.

Buy the Birdman soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Get Ready (1:28)
  • Dirty Walk (1:34)
  • Just Chatting (0:34)
  • Waiting For What (1:36)
  • Semi Comfortable In 3 (1:08)
  • Strut, Part. 1 (1:16)
  • Doors and Distance (2:18)
  • Night Chatter (1:57)
  • Almost Human (1:23)
  • Schizo (1:51)
  • Internal War (2:51)
  • Kinda Messy (0:34)
  • Strut, Part. 2 (1:19)
  • Claustrophobia (1:10)
  • Fire Trail (0:48)
  • The Anxious Battle for Sanity (6:38)
  • Symphony No.9 in D – 1st Movement: Andante Comodo (written by Gustav Mahler, performed by the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, cond. Alexander Liebreich) (5:35)
  • Symphony No.5 Op.64 in E Minor: Andante Cantabile (written by Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, cond. Claudio Abbado) (12:50)
  • Ich Bin Der Welt Abhanden Gekommen (written by Gustav Mahler, performed by Violeta Urmana and the Wiener Philharmoniker, cond. Pierre Boulez) (7:02)
  • Passacaille – Très Large (written by Maurice Ravel, performed by the Beaux Arts Trio) (7:23)
  • Prologue: Chorus of Exiled Palestinians from The Death of Klinghoffer (written by John Adams and Alice Goodman, performed by the Orchestra of the Opera de Lyon and the London Opera Chorus, cond. Kent Nagano) (8:34)
  • Symphony No.2 in E Minor, Op.27 – II Allegro Molto (written by Sergei Rachmaninoff, performed by the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, cond. Sir Neville Marriner) (7:19)

Running Time: 77 minutes 21 seconds

Milan Records M2-36689 (2014)

Music composed and performed by Antonio Sánchez. Additional music and arrangements by Brian Blade, Víctor Hernández Stumpfhauser and Joan Valent. Recorded and mixed by Gustavo Borner. Edited by Martin Hernandez. Album produced by Antonio Sánchez, JC Chamboredon, Stefan Karrer and Alejandro González Iñárritu.

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  1. December 13, 2014 at 1:49 pm

    I must agree with you. The music by Mahler, Ravel, et al is almost distracting, yet adds an undertone of beauty in this film, while the relentless drumming in the rest of the score is enervating and nearly gave me a headache. Brilliant film, regardless.

  2. December 13, 2014 at 2:31 pm

    It seems like there’s an easy formula for film score acclaim these days: one musician who doesn’t usually write film scores plus one film score that doesn’t sound anything like a film score from Arnold to Zimmer. The implication seems to be that musicians “slumming it” in film scores, especially in a showy way, always blow away the pros.

    …I think it’s clear from the context there what I generally think of that notion 🙂

    • Michael
      December 17, 2014 at 7:06 pm

      God forbid that film music won’t keep expanding with new ways to score films blending different kinds of genres and music styles, and revert itself into the same generic orchestral bombastic or dull electronic droning that Williams and Zimmer made us to believe it’s the only way to score films.

      Especially when before Steiner, most of scores were performed just by a piano solo. No need for a symphonic orchestra or electronics. Why a percussion-only should get the flack (especially one that it’s not just random drumming but it has a complex writing for several kinds of percusive instruments by a professional drummer)?

      • December 17, 2014 at 7:56 pm

        Funny, I didn’t say anything at all about percussion or random drumming 🙂

      • Mr. Big
        February 16, 2016 at 3:06 pm

        The only argument I see in favor of these scores is that they’re “different from that Zimmer and Williams crap!”. Being “different” on its own isn’t enough to make a score good.

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