THE CHILDHOOD OF A LEADER – Scott Walker
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Any time you have a film based on the work of Jean-Paul Sartre you know you’re in for a challenging time at the movies; so it is with The Childhood of a Leader, director Brady Corbet’s film based on the great French existentialist philosopher’s 1939 short story. It tells the tale of a man named Prescott (Robert Pattinson), an American who grew up in Paris, and who at the story’s outset has already been revealed to be a fascist leader in a far-right European political party in the years immediately preceding World War II. The film then jumps back to his childhood in the years immediately following the conclusion of World War I, and examines both the child’s innate predilection for egotism, as well as the circumstances and influences that caused him to develop his particular identity and authoritarian world-view, drawing comparisons with people like Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and other megalomaniacal leaders of their ilk. The film, which also stars Bérénice Bejo, Liam Cunningham, and Tom Sweet, was the darling of the 2015 Venice International Film Festival, and has been lauded by art-house film critics, who called it “a strange and startling film,” “relentlessly sombre and compelling,” and “a dark, enigmatic piece of work”.
The score for The Childhood of a Leader is by the 73-year-old singer-songwriter Scott Walker, who many may remember from the 1960s when he was the front man of the successful pop group The Walker Brothers, whose hits included “Make It Easy On Yourself,” “My Ship Is Coming In,” “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” “Deadlier Than The Male,” and “No Regrets”. Since drifting away from mainstream pop music in the 1970s Walker has instead embraced a much more avant garde and experimental tone, working on unusual artistic collaborations with different artists, and writing progressive, challenging orchestral classical music. He scored his first film, Pola X for director Leos Carax, in 1999 at the age of 56, but has only worked on a couple of short films and documentaries since then, meaning that The Childhood of a Leader is his sophomore effort.
And what an effort it is; confounding all expectations of what his music may sound like based on his light, sweet 1960s pop compositions, The Childhood of a Leader is an angry, aggressive, stunningly realized orchestral score, one part Igor Stravinsky, one part Karl-Heinz Stockhausen, one part John Cage, and one part Bernard Herrmann. Walker’s music swirls and boils in stark contrast to the staid, almost dispassionate imagery on screen. Corbet’s imagery is glacial like a Merchant Ivory period piece, but Walker’s music is filled with barely-contained rage, a vivid juxtaposition that is purposefully invasive and clearly intended to unsettle the viewer. How can such a small, sweet-looking boy have this going on inside his head? The music scores Prescott’s psyche, the dark and dangerous man he will grow up to be, and the terrible pain he is destined to inflict upon the world.
The centerpiece of the score is the “Opening,” a 5½-minute extravaganza of thrusting, animalistic string writing, cellos and violas circling each other dangerously as violins and, eventually, brass add a level of disquiet, tension, and dissonance. There is a nerve-wracking urgency, and a sense of impending dread, to this music, teetering on the very edge of chaos. It sounds like a Golden Age action sequence, like it should score Janet Leigh or Cary Grant running for their life from a threatening man in a trenchcoat and a fedora, but no; it’s the main title music for a film about a little boy in France in 1919, and its all the more brilliant because of that absurd incongruence.
The rest of the score, after this staggering opening, is inevitably less bombastic, but no less impressive, with Walker and his conductor Mark Warman putting the 62-piece orchestra of strings, winds, reeds, brass, and percussion through its paces in a series of exceptionally challenging cues. Many of them are build around overlapping layers of strings punctuated by brass, woodwind, and percussion, with different rhythmic ideas that collide against each other, resulting in a score which often feels like a battle between different sections of the orchestra.
Several cues stand out. “Village Walk” is a twisted duet between different parts of the string section, accompanied by pizzicato effects which are intended to be light and playful, but which instead come across as a warped satire of themselves due to their relationship with the other textures. “Down the Stairs” and “Up the Stairs” feature trilled exchanges between violins and piccolos and a cacophony of buzzing, insect-like, anguished string textures, which clearly intended to be echoes of Ligeti, Penderecki, and other exponents of 20th century serialism. “Versailles” has a palette of darkly ominous horn clusters.
Later, “Boy, Mirror, Car Arriving” pits high string harmonics against hesitant bleats from the violins, and enraged cellos, amid a militaristic tempo of unstoppable forward motion. “Third Tantrum” is guttural, but is offset by piercing, stabbing string interjections and explosions of noise from the brass, angry, and awkward, but just a little bit slithery and devious, as if hinting at the calculating mind behind what would appear on the surface to be just another childhood hissy-fit. “Printing Press” cleverly uses sampled mechanical sounds, which are later joined by equally industrial percussive rhythms and electronic pulses. Both “On the Way to the Meeting” and “The Meeting” have a militaristic tone, but a bitter and ironic one, as if the fife-and-drum tattoos, frenetic cellos, and low brass clusters are mocking the conventions of typical martial music. The endless see-sawing string textures, overlapping horn phrases, and trilling flutes in the latter cue are insidious, challenging, overwhelming, but quite superb.
Walker continues to build towards the inevitable in “Post Meeting,” which is filled with adrenaline-fuelled, breathless runs for strings, rattling cymbals, shrill woodwinds, and blatting brass; these lead into the brutal, monstrous “Finale,” a devilish celebration of musical grotesquery as chugging cellos, overlapping cascades of trumpets over horns, and rumbling drums lead an unstoppable march towards death and destruction as the Leader’s dreams of world domination are realized through music. This music is harsh, violent, relentless, and terrifying; for a film music comparison, think of Elliot Goldenthal on his most manic of days, and raise the bar. Only in the conclusive “New Dawn” does Walker allow the music to adopt a more lyrical, almost hopeful aspect, with the vaguest tinge of consonance and a major key poetic ending – but this music is merely a synth layout for a cut scene, revealing that the film concludes as bleakly as the score does.
Make no mistake, The Childhood of a Leader is a difficult, challenging film score. There are no recurring themes, no moments of warmth, and barely the merest wisps of hope and positivity in the final cue. Scott Walker’s compositional technique is relentlessly aggressive and belligerent, pushing the boundaries of conventional film music with collisions of sound that are expressly designed to unnerve, unsettle, and get in your face. If you haven’t developed a tolerance or appreciation for that sort of music, then this will absolutely not be a score which appeals to your sensibility. Similarly, if your only previous experience of Scott Walker’s music has been via his sunny and upbeat 1960s pop songs, this score will make you run for the hills. However, for anyone who does appreciate being challenged, even occasionally assaulted by their film music, or who seek out the unashamedly violent writing of composers like Goldenthal or Herrmann, or Penderecki, or Stravinsky, or Krzysztof Komeda, then The Childhood of a Leader is a revelation, one of the most impressive and powerful works of its kind I have heard in years.
Buy the Childhood of a Leader soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Orchestra Tuning Up (0:17)
- Opening (5:32)
- Dream Sequence (2:20)
- Village Walk (1:30)
- Run (0:49)
- Down the Stairs (0:32)
- Up the Stairs (1:07)
- The Letter (0:38)
- Versailles (1:24)
- Cutting Flowers (0:41)
- Boy, Mirror, Car Arriving (1:37)
- Third Tantrum (1:57)
- Printing Press (1:06)
- On the Way to the Meeting (1:05)
- The Meeting (3:36)
- Post Meeting (1:47)
- Finale (3:04)
- New Dawn (Synth Layout for Cut Scene) (1:15)
Running Time: 27 minutes 37 seconds
4AD Records CAD-3620 (2016)
Music composed by Scott Walker. Conducted by Mark Warman. Orchestrations by Scott Walker, Filippo Barbieri, Jeremy Murphy and Chris Parker. Recorded and mixed by Scott Walker, Peter Walsh and Steve Price. Album produced by Scott Walker and Peter Welsh.