LION – Dustin O’Halloran and Volker Bertelmann
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Director Garth Davis’s film Lion is a warm-hearted real life drama based on the non-fiction book A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley and Larry Buttrose, which stars Dev Patel as a young Indian-Australian man caught between two cultures. As a child in rural India, 5-year old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) eke out a meager living, finding and selling rocks and cleaning trains. One day, Saroo accidentally finds himself stuck on a train bound for Calcutta; completely alone in a megalopolis of almost 15 million people, and with no way home, Saroo lives among the city’s homeless children until he is eventually taken in by an orphanage, who arrange for him to be adopted by an Australian couple, Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). Twenty years later, the adult Saroo has forgotten much of the detail about his childhood, but gradually becomes obsessed with finding his birth parents, spending all his time feverishly searching Google Earth, and alienating his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara). What emerges is a moving story about cultural identity, family, and the strength and dedication Saroo shows in trying to discover the truth about his past.
Lion has been roundly praised by the majority of mainstream film critics, mostly for the emotional performances of Patel and Pawar as Saroo, and for the sterling support provided by Nicole Kidman as the kind-hearted, patient adoptive mother. Also receiving strong critical praise is the score, written by Dustin O’Halloran and Volker Bertelmann. O’Halloran is an American composer, musician, and pianist, whose most prominent work to date has been on the acclaimed TV show Transparent, for which he won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Main Title Theme Music in 2015. Bertelmann, who uses the professional alias Hauschka, is a German classical pianist and composer who specializes in work for a prepared piano; he has been writing for documentaries and short films since 2007, but Lion is his first score with any significant international commercial appeal.
By and large, the score for Lion is quite undemanding, and comprises mainly a series of light classical pieces for strings, piano, and synths, with occasional color and flavor from harp, guitar, and light metallic percussion. The score is built around a main theme, the “Lion Theme,” which is introduced in the eponymous second cue. It’s less of an actual melody than it is a simple, agreeable, undulating texture; it is first heard on piano, backed by a light stringwash, but later in the score the composers shift the melody to different instruments: harp augmented by gentle metallic percussion in “River,” back to piano with a soft, contemplative aspect in “Orphans” and the subsequent “Family,” and so on.
The majority of the other cues build upon the same general stylistics of the main theme, but offer a few subtle variations in tempo and orchestration. The most notable of these include “Train,” which uses lonely, haunted sounding drones overlapped by more agitated, panicky string phrases to capture Saroo’s increasing sense of desperation as he is unwittingly removed from his home; “Escape the Station,” which uses darker piano clusters and scratchy, urgent string writing to underscore the young boy’s frantic flight from the authorities at Howrah Junction Station; “A New Home,” which makes use of curious, magical sounding pianos; and “Falling Downward,” a collision of harsh synth tones and rhapsodic, classical piano flourishes that try to get inside adult Saroo’s state of mind.
The final three cues offer what should be the film’s emotional catharsis but, oddly, O’Halloran and Bertelmann refrain from doing this fully; their only concession to the images of Saroo realizing his life’s dream is to incorporate some slightly warmer, major key string harmonics into the familiar palette from the rest of the score. Nevertheless, these cues are certainly attractive, albeit in a rather understated way. “Home Is With Me” features a performance of the Lion theme on one of Bertelmann’s famous muffled prepared pianos, which gradually grows to include the aforementioned warm violin chords, while “Arrival” and “Mother” are generally soft and poignant. It is something of an odd reversal of expectation in that, the closer Saroo gets to his destination and goal – being reunited with his birth mother – the less emotional the score gets, but that appears to be way of things in film music these days. God forbid a score actually make an audience feel something.
One other point to mention is that, with the exception of a few brief synth tones which have a vague resemblance to the underpinning drone of a raga, there is a complete lack of anything that references traditional Indian music anywhere in the score, which is puzzling and disappointing considering how much emphasis the film places on connecting with your roots and embracing your cultural identity. In fact, the only concession to anything remotely Indian comes in the original song “Never Give Up” by Sia, which appears to use a sitar and a santoor dulcimer in its opening moments, and features tabla percussion throughout the rest of the song’s more pop-oriented core.
I have a friend – a fellow IFMCA member, from Spain – who calls this music ‘gondolier music,’ and he’s absolutely right in his description; it just sort of drifts past serenely, inoffensive and gentle but leaving no lasting impression. It neither adds to nor detracts from the film going experience, and instead just sits on top of the movie like a layer of haze, an innocuous dreamlike ambiance of no real substance. And, really, this is my major criticism of Lion: there’s no depth to it. There’s nothing wrong with it, compositionally speaking, and it’s pleasant enough to listen to as a standalone piece of music, but its so understated and careful, so safe and restrained, and takes so many pains to avoid being manipulative, that it renders itself redundant. The film would be just the same, and would have just the same emotional impact on its audience, if there was no music there at all, which could actually be the worst criticism you can level against a film composer: if the music you’re writing isn’t making your film better, what are you actually achieving? It’s a question to ponder as, inevitably, O’Halloran and Bertelmann accept their first Academy Award nominations.
Buy the Lion soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Never Give Up (written by Sia Furler and Greg Kurstin, performed by Sia) (3:41)
- Lion Theme (1:58)
- Train (1:38)
- Lost, Part 1 (3:06)
- River (1:27)
- Escape the Station (2:25)
- Orphans (1:37)
- A New Home (1:54)
- Family (1:04)
- School (0:38)
- Memories (1:52)
- Lost, Part 2 (2:31)
- Falling Downward (3:05)
- Searching for Home (2:16)
- Memory/Connection/Time (1:40)
- Layers Expanding Time (5:31)
- Home Is With Me (3:15)
- Arrival (4:26)
- Mother (4:28)
Running Time: 48 minutes 43 seconds
Sony Classical (2016)
Music composed and arranged by Dustin O’Halloran and Volker Bertelmann. Recorded and mixed by Jeremy Underwood and Satoshi Mark Noguchi. Edited by Tim Ryan. Album produced by Dustin O’Halloran and Volker Bertelmann.