SWISS ARMY MAN – Andy Hull and Robert McDowell
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
One of the strangest films in recent memory, Swiss Army Man is a surreal comedy-drama written and directed by two ‘Daniels’, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. The film stars Paul Dano as Hank, a depressed young man who has been stranded on an island for an indeterminate length of time, and who has decided to commit suicide. However, before he can end it all, Hank’s life is saved when he finds a dead body (Daniel Radcliffe) on the beach; incredibly, Hank discovers that the gases inside the decomposing body – who he has named Manny – are so powerful and potent, he can literally ride him like a jet-ski, thrust across the water by Manny’s forceful farts. After they wash up on a remote part of the mainland, Hank is even more astounded to discover that Manny is capable of speech, although he has no memory of who he was before he died. So begins the story of an incredible friendship, as Hank discovers that Manny has even more incredible powers, including the ability to vomit fresh water, the ability to shoot projectiles from his mouth, and – best of all – erections which act like a compass guiding him home. In return, Hank begins to educate Manny about life itself, imparting words of wisdom on love and friendship, as they slowly make their way back towards civilization.
There’s a strong indie vibe running through Swiss Army Man, encompassing the low-budget but impressive visual stylistics, the self-consciously quirky toilet humor, the navel-gazing hipster-esque ruminations on life, and the overall tone of it all being somewhat detached from any semblance of reality. This pointedly idiosyncratic mood extends into the film’s original score, written by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell of the Atlanta, Georgia-based indie rock band Manchester Orchestra. Hull, who is the band’s lead singer as well as playing rhythm guitar and piano, and McDowell, who plays lead guitar and keyboards, have crafted one of the most unique-sounding scores in recent memory: one that is performed almost entirely a cappella by the two composers, with additional featured vocal performances by the two lead actors.
Talking about the score’s development, Hull and McDowell said that the directors challenged them to write a score using the protagonists’ “limited resources” as a guide. They were charged with writing a score using only sounds that either existed in the natural environment that Manny and Hank found themselves in, or sounds that a body could make, for the bulk of the story. As such, the score is almost exclusively minimalist and a cappella until it erupts into a traditional orchestration for the film’s final scene. “We knew how to make music with instruments, but it was intriguing to us to conceive orchestral-sounding music with only our voices,” said Hull.
Most of the score is performed by overlapping layers of voices, breathing, humming, and making different vocalizations (“la-la,” “oh,” “da-da,” “diddly-dom,” and the like), with both high pitched whines and bassy grunts harmonizing in unison. It sounds utterly ridiculous, and potentially borderline terrible, but it actually works magnificently: it’s so clever, musically intelligent, technically accomplished in the way the palette of sound is actually created, and it fits the film like a glove, with the heightened sense of peculiarity in the music enhancing the film’s tone of magical realism.
Interestingly, there is a main theme of sorts that runs its way through the score, a seven-note melody for upper-register voices. This melody tends to be associated with Paul Dano’s character Hank, and has a sort of wistful, dreamy air, combined with a darkly deadpan underbelly perfect for a suicidal man who is seriously detached from reality. It appears as a vocalized scat piece in “Intro Song,” with wavering emotion in “When I Think About Mom,” and with intensity and energy in “Talk to Her,” and the melody’s basic chord progression crops up in numerous guises throughout the entire work, but it also develops to include perversely funny lyrics sung to the same tune. “Cave Ballad,” for example, is wonderfully bitter and disappointed, illustrating Hank’s inner feelings: “Crazy/I’m fucking crazy/Maybe just maybe/I’ll make it alone … Rescued/I thought I was rescued/But you’re just a dead dude/And I’m gonna die”.
Cues like “History of the Universe,” “Fetishes,” “The Big Raccoon,” and others, have a more rhythmic, pulsating energy, and tend to be associated with Daniel Radcliffe’s character Manny, capturing both his enthusiastic inquisitiveness, and his ironic ruminations on life, death, and the human condition. Some cues are enhanced with very subtle synthesizers, such as in the aforementioned “When I Think About Mom,” while others feature some very basic percussion, quietly in the background. Everything explodes into life in the joyous “Montage,” a celebratory collision of Hank’s melody, Manny’s rhythmic ideas, hand-claps, whooping and hollering, tropical percussion, and self-aware lyrics set to a new melodic idea which riff on the same concepts that ran through Team America World Police: “Now we killed a raccoon/Now we’re using your body like it’s a machine” … “Now we started a fire/I have to admit I’m enjoying your company” … “All we’ve ever needed is a montage”.
Later, in the excellent “River Rocket,” the composers combine a new lyrical version of Hank’s melody (“Heartless/How were you heartless?/I saw your sadness/And made it my own”), and combines it with a thoughtful variation on the melody from “Montage,” overlapping and echoing back and forth in a collision of ideas and concepts that mirrors Hank’s increasing desperation, and Manny’s confusion about his place in the world. This idea is developed further in “Treetops,” which again blends the two protagonist’s musical identities, but this time with a certain sense of chaos, agitation, and uncertainty that is quite palpable.
In addition to this, Hull and McDowell also include performances of the melody from the old pre-Civil War country/folk camp fire song ‘Cotton Eye Joe,’ notably in “Where Did You Come From?” and in the cue of the same name. Amusingly, there is also a splendid a cappella performance of John Williams’s theme from “Jurassic Park,” sung by Daniel Radcliffe himself, which actually makes perfect sense in the context of the film.
The four conclusive cues, comprising “Goodbye/Hello,” “Don’t Tell Sarah,“ “Run Down the Mountain,” and “Finale,” gradually become quite epic and emotional, with all four men – Hull, McDowell, Dano, and Radcliffe – raising their voices in several larger-scale performances of the various melodies. A piano, an electric guitar, and soft strings enter the fray during “Don’t Tell Sarah,” and continue through the remaining pair, adding some much-needed warmth and color to the score’s sonic palette, but also subliminally informing the viewer and the listener that the outside world has finally encroached upon Hank’s personal fantasy. The conclusive song, “A Better Way,” is an extended variation on Hank’s theme performed by Hull on lead vocals and McDowell on acoustic guitar, and which is quite haunting.
Swiss Army Man is, beyond a doubt, one of the most unusual soundtracks I have ever heard. It’s also bold, refreshing, and conceptually brilliant, an indelible and vitally important part of the fabric of the film itself, which is all one can ever really want from any film score. However, it has a hipster vibe that some may find off-putting, and even a little pretentious, and it certainly will cause some head-scratching among those whose tastes lie firmly in the fully-orchestral mainstream. Nevertheless, despite the fact that I am usually very much in that camp myself, this didn’t stop me from appreciating everything about it.
Quite a few indie-rock musicians have tried to make the jump into original soundtracks over the past few years, with varying degrees of success, but Andy Hull and Robert McDowell can count themselves amongst those who have definitely succeeded. If you’re bold enough to take a leap out of your comfort zone and into the world of a cappella vocal harmonizations, with occasionally bitterly ironic lyrics, Swiss Army Man could certainly open your ears to a whole new musical world. Daniel Radcliffe said recently that he felt the soundtrack for this film deserved an Oscar nomination; if the Academy is daring, and if the film captures some hearts during awards season, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility.
Buy the Swiss Army Man soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Intro Song (2:26)
- Where Did You Come From? (2:41)
- Cave Ballad (1:45)
- Hank Drinks (1:27)
- History of the Universe (2:52)
- Fetishes (0:57)
- When I Think About Mom (2:59)
- Don’t Overthink Things (0:58)
- Loved Back to Life (0:29)
- Cotton Eye Joe (0:58)
- Jurassic Park (written by John Williams) (0:54)
- Talk to Her (1:02)
- Love Love (0:46)
- Montage (3:07)
- Underwater (2:02)
- River Rocket (1:57)
- Liar (0:57)
- The Big Raccoon (2:12)
- Treetops (2:09)
- Goodbye/Hello (2:52)
- Don’t Tell Sarah (4:12)
- Run Down the Mountain (1:33)
- Finale (2:48)
- A Better Way (3:08)
Running Time: 47 minutes 25 seconds
Lakeshore Records (2016)
Music composed and performed by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell. Special vocal performances by Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe. Recorded and mixed by Dan Hannon, Andy Hull and Robert McDowell. Album produced by Skip Williamson, Brian McNelis, Andy Hull and Robert McDowell.