A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING – Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
A romantic comedy-drama based on the novel by Dave Eggers, A Hologram for the King is the latest film from German director Tom Tykwer, the man behind such films as Run Lola Run, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, and part of the ambitious Cloud Atlas. It stars Tom Hanks as Alan Clay, an American businessman who travels to Saudi Arabia in a last-ditch attempt to save his failing telecommunications company, intending to pitch the ‘deal of a lifetime’ to a member of the Saudi royal family. Upon arriving in the country, Clay immediately has to deal with the enormous culture clash between the United States and Saudi Arabia, baffling local customs, a language barrier, and his own contemporary preconceptions about the country and its people. However, with the help of a wisecracking taxi driver named Yousef (Alexander Black), Clay gradually begins to acclimatize to the desert, and even begins an unexpected romantic relationship with a beautiful doctor, Zara (Sarita Choudhury).
The score for A Hologram for the King is by Tykwer and one of his regular co-collaborators, Australian composer Johnny Klimek (oddly, the other usual member of the Pale-3 trio, Reinhold Heil, is missing from the credits, with no indication as to why). Klimek (and Heil) have scored all of Tykwer’s films, with the director as co-composer, mostly with great success – Run Lola Run was a brilliant kinetic fusion of soundtrack and modern dance music, and both Perfume and Cloud Atlas were near-masterpieces of orchestral power, but some of Klimek’s work for directors other than Tykwer has been less successful. It’s clear that Tykwer brings out the best in the composer, and fortunately A Hologram for the King continues the trend by being generally much more on the positive than the negative side of things. The score is written for a full orchestra, the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kristjan Järvi, with additional sequences for electronics, guitar, and choir. It also adopts some ideas from traditional Arabic music, but more as a broad ‘flavor of the region’ rather than anything intended to be truly representative of the country’s musical heritage.
Much of the score is rhythmic and textural rather than being thematic, and is of the kind that someone like Thomas Newman, Theodore Shapiro, or perhaps Mychael Danna would write for a film like this, albeit with far less emotional depth or compositional weight. The score’s 11 cues, which run for a touch under 45 minutes, are energetic and full of movement, but never move beyond that into something truly memorable. It’s almost as though someone put all the right rhythms in place, and provided all the right orchestrations for the genre and the setting, but then just didn’t write any melodic material to go with it. As such, I found the score to have a curious unfinished feeling to it, passing the time with pleasant sonic atmospherics and finger-tapping percussive ideas, but which sort of drift away into nothingness at the album’s end – much like the insubstantial core of a hologram.
That’s not to say that the score has no worth; on the contrary, several cues are solid listens. The opening cue, “Mr. Clay,” is a pleasant track which combines Gregory Johnson’s acoustic guitar with cello textures and a softly humming choir, gradually picking up the rest of the orchestra and a more urgent percussive underbelly as it develops. Some of the choral textures here remind me very much of the choral parts of Perfume, and there is also a throbbing, plummeting string motif that has featured in several Tykwer/Klimek scores in the past.
Cues like “Full Steam Ahead” and “Marching On” have a relentless, hypnotic, almost mechanical sense of forward motion, again showcasing the guitar and drums with a soft string backing. “Voyager” and “Timeless” inhabit the same sonic world, but become warmer and more orchestrally engaging as they develop, bringing in lighter woodwind textures, a more dense bank of strings, and both the humming choir (in the former) and the serpentine string motif (in the latter) from the opening track.
Elsewhere, “Family Business,” “The King is Coming,” and “New Hampshire” use the cellos to create a sort of faux-Middle Eastern timbre, and surround them with tinkling metallic percussion ideas, skittery guitar chords, and glassy electronic textures that create a moody, dream-like ambience. Like I said earlier, these cues never really try to be authentic representations of Arabic music, but certainly go some way to faking it, attempting to place Tom Hanks in a musical environment that is just foreign-sounding enough for Westerners’ ears.
Unfortunately, the wannabe-romantic “Zahra” is a disappointment, an extended sequence of tinkling and droning that fails to capture the blooming relationship between Tom Hanks and Sarita Choudhury. Truthfully, a little too much of the score falls into this trap, doing little more than presenting tonally pleasant, but rather inert and emotionally un-engaging sequences. The final cue, “A Hologram for the King – End Title,” restates much of the material heard in the opening track, as well as some of the textures from within the score proper, and stands as a good all-encompassing suite of everything the score has to offer. In fact, for many listeners, the first track and the last track will be all you ever need to hear.
I’ve never quite been able to figure out the division of labor between Tom Tykwer, Reinhold Heil, and Johnny Klimek when they work together – whether the three of them sit in a room together and really do compose every cue between them, or whether they each take a handful of cues and work on them separately, or whether they are responsible for a different aspect – one does themes, one does orchestrations, one does electronics, for example. Whatever the case may be, there’s clearly some spark missing here, and I can only reflect on the fact that it might be something to do with Reinhold Heil’s absence from the composing roster. I’m not saying that, with Heil on board, the score would have reached Perfume or Cloud Atlas levels of brilliance, but he certainly may have been able to contribute an intangible that would have allowed the score to shine more than it does. As it stands, A Hologram for the King is good enough, but never comes close to being great.
Buy the Hologram for the King soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Mr. Clay (4:28)
- Full Steam Ahead (3:33)
- Family Business (5:59)
- Voyager (3:47)
- Timeless (3:25)
- Marching On (1:48)
- The King Is Coming (3:18)
- Zahra (4:05)
- New Hampshire (3:58)
- A Hologram for the King – End Title (6:10)
- Traveler (3:12) – BONUS TRACK
Running Time: 43 minutes 43 seconds
Lakeshore Records (2016)
Music composed by Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer. Conducted by Kristjan Järvi. Performed by The MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by Gabriel Mounsey, Gene Pritzker, Justin Bell, Dino Herrmann and Jonathan Levi Shanes. Special musical performances by Gregory Johnson. Recorded and mixed by Robert Baldowski. Album produced by Johnny Klimek, Tom Tykwer, Skip Williamson and Brian McNelis.