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PAPER PLANES – Nigel Westlake

February 9, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

paperplanesOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Paper Planes is an Australian family film, directed by Robert Connolly, about a young Australian boy named Dylan, whose passion for flight inspires him to compete in the World Paper Plane Championships in Japan, while simultaneously re-connecting with his father Jack, who is severely depressed following the death of his wife – Dylan’s mother – in a car accident. The film stars Ed Oxenbould as Dylan, Avatar’s Sam Worthington as Jack, has a supporting cast that includes David Wenham and Terry Norris, and has a score by one of Australia’s leading film composers, Nigel Westlake.

Anyone who, like me, was entranced by Nigel Westlake’s beautiful music in the 1990s and early 2000s for films like Babe, its sequel Babe: Pig in the City, A Little Bit of Soul, and Miss Potter, might have wondered where he went. The answer is actually rather tragic: in June 2008 Westlake’s 21-year-old son Eli was murdered when a woman intentionally ran her car into him and a group of his friends, who were standing outside a building in downtown Sydney, and who had apparently just had some sort of minor altercation with the woman. Westlake was so distraught over his son’s death that he feared he may never write music again, but he eventually wrote the cathartic memorial piece “Missa Solis – Requiem for Eli” in 2011, which was subsequently premiered by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Paper Planes is Westlake’s first significant cinematic feature since the death of his son, and it’s clear that this was an intensely personal project for him. Not only does the film feature a redemptive father-son relationship, it also has the car crash death of a family member as one of its major plot elements. It can’t have been easy for Westlake to tackle these themes, considering what happened to him in his private life. Despite this – or perhaps because of it – Westlake’s music is glorious, a genuine delight that celebrates the freedom and exhilaration of flight, and the deep bond between a father and his son.

The score is fully orchestral, performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, with featured solo performances from Hannah Coleman’s recorder, Michael Kieran Harvey’s piano, and Riley Lee’s shakuhachi Japanese bamboo flute. It’s theme-filled, expansive, beautifully orchestrated, and has an unashamedly vivid emotional aspect that connects with the listener on multiple levels. The score runs the gamut, from soaring pieces full of movement and joyous energy, to more introspective and personal pieces for a smaller ensemble. Listeners will likely be reminded of composers like Bruce Broughton, David Newman, or Alan Silvestri at their most florid and expressive: the opening cue, “Paper Planes,” sets the stall out for the score to come with a magical, charming orchestral sweep that is child-like and playful, but not mickey-mousey or unsophisticated in the slightest. Later cues, notably “Dog Fight” and “The Final Challenge,” maintain the sense of juvenile wonder, musically re-imagining Dylan’s paper creations as WWII Spitfires dueling in the skies, or elegant creatures zooming and spiraling through the clouds.

Coleman’s recorder performances anchor cues like “Ready to Launch,” “Flight Research,” and the gentle pair “A Bird That Cannot Fly” and “Do Emus Dream of Flying?”, giving them a sort of nostalgic wistfulness, especially when her playing combines with the light, airy, almost dance-like instrumental textures Westlake employs – harps, high end piccolos, chimes, xylophones and others. However, even in these smaller cues, the orchestra still occasionally rises to wonderfully elaborate heights, notably at the end of the “Ready to Launch”.

Harvey’s piano is showcased in cues like “My Journey Starts Here,” “Pavane,” and “Is There a Movie on This Flight?”, and his contribution generally tends to be concerned with the father-son aspect of the score, and with Jack’s sense of loss. The second half of “My Journey Starts Here” becomes unexpectedly powerful, with surging string runs and brass fanfares, while “Pavane” is an especially emotional piece, with a downbeat but still attractive tone, especially when it develops into a soulful duet with a solo cello. Interestingly, “Is There a Movie on This Flight?” has both the piano and recorder playing alongside each other, a combination of musical ideas and concepts that adds a level of depth to the piece as a whole.

When the movie’s action relocates from Australia to Japan, Riley Lee’s shakuhachi comes into play. Interestingly, in 1980 Lee became the first non-Japanese person to attain the rank of dai shihan grand master in the shakuhachi tradition, and along with Kazu Matsui remains one of the world’s foremost shakuhachi players. His contribution to cues like the abundant “Take Your Positions” and the busy, frantic “Tokyo By Night” is important, although I feel I should note that Lee’s performance never actually carries the melody, and instead simply provides a breathy, ethereal texture underneath the orchestra.

Everything culminates in the thrilling “The Competition,” in which Westlake takes his orchestra and Lee’s shakuhachi, and adds a magnificent set of taiko drums and other assorted oriental percussion items to give it a sense of scale and grandeur. The pounding rhythms underneath this cue are outstanding; bold and dramatic, adding a richness and a geographic specificity to the music, while simultaneously enhancing the tension and anticipation of Dylan’s moment in the sun. It’s by far the highlight cue of the album as a whole, from an enjoyment point of view, but it also expertly demonstrates Westlake’s versatility as a composer, and his capacity to shift between lyrical intimacy and large-scale action sequences within the same cue.

After the sentimental finale, “For As Long As It Takes,” the album concludes with a performance of the song “Learn to Live,” by the Israeli-Australian singer/songwriter Lior, which was a chart hit in Australia in 2014, and was re-recorded especially for its inclusion in Paper Planes. Even though the song was not written specifically for the film, its lyrics are unusually appropriate.

I always get a deep sense of satisfaction when I discover a great score from an unlikely source – Australian children’s movies don’t get much international air play – and an even deeper sense of satisfaction when it’s from a composer I admire. Nigel Westlake has endured so much unimaginable tragedy over the past few years, and I’m absolutely delighted that his return to the film scoring world is with a score as superb as this one. Paper Planes gets an unequivocal recommendation from me, and if you’re not familiar with his earlier work, I recommend both Babe and A Little Bit of Soul too.

Buy the Paper Planes soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Paper Planes (1:57)
  • Ready to Launch (2:53)
  • Flight Research (4:36)
  • My Journey Starts Here (5:20)
  • Dog Fight (1:16)
  • A Bird That Cannot Fly (2:30)
  • Pavane (2:50)
  • Take Your Positions (2:38)
  • Do Emus Dream of Flying? (3:40)
  • The Final Challenge (3:28)
  • Is There a Movie on This Flight? (2:02)
  • Tokyo by Night (1:14)
  • The Competition (9:08)
  • For As Long As It Takes (2:52)
  • Learn to Live (written by Lior Attar, performed by Lior feat. Cameron Deyell and Luke Howard) (3:27)

Running Time: 50 minutes 11 seconds

ABC Music 481-1477 (2015)

Music composed and conducted by Nigel Westlake. Performed by The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by Jessica Wells. Featured musical performances by Hannah Coleman, Michael Kieran Harvey and Riley Lee. Recorded and mixed by Lachlan Carrick. Edited by Emily Rogers Swanson. Album produced by Nigel Westlake.

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