A CURE FOR WELLNESS – Benjamin Wallfisch
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
A Cure for Wellness is the latest film from Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski. It’s a creepy, paranoia-infused horror-thriller starring Dane De Haan as Lockhart, a young and ambitious Wall Street stockbroker who is sent to an idyllic but mysterious ‘wellness center’ in the Swiss Alps to retrieve his company’s CEO, who has been spending time there, and who has sent a troubling letter home to the executives. Upon arrival, Lockhart meets the wellness center’s owner and chief medical officer Heinrich Volmer (Jason Isaacs), some of the patients (Celia Imrie, Ashok Mandanna), and a strange young girl named Hannah (Mia Goth), but when he tries to leave the facility he is involved in a serious car crash. Forced to recuperate at the facility with a badly broken leg, Lockhart soon discovers some troubling information about the history of the place, and quickly comes to believe that things are not as they seem. It’s a visually startling and quite beautiful film which drips with atmosphere, and is very reminiscent of many of the European paranoia-thrillers of the 1970s set in murderous hospitals, especially those by directors like Dario Argento. It’s also completely bat-shit insane in the best possible way, with a denouement that takes grand guignol to violent extremes.
The score for A Cure for Wellness is by the exceptionally talented young British composer Benjamin Wallfisch, who seems to be on the cusp of a major professional breakthrough. If I may engage in a little bit of personal reflection for a moment, I’m absolutely delighted that Wallfisch’s career is finally starting to take off the way it is; as many may remember, for a long time he was Dario Marianelli’s regular conductor and lead orchestrator, and it was not until the mid 2000s that Wallfisch started making an impression as a composer in his own right. In my review of his score for Dear Wendy in 2005 I wrote that Wallfisch was ‘definitely a composer to watch, and someone who film music fans should invest in from the beginning,’ while in my review of his 2008 score The Escapist I said ‘he continues to earmark himself as a composer with a bright future’. Now, having written such excellent scores such as Hours, Summer in February, Gamba, and Lights Out over the last couple of years, and having recently received a Golden Globe nomination for his work with Hans Zimmer and Pharrell Williams on Hidden Figures, it appears that the prediction I made more than a decade ago was correct, and I couldn’t be happier. The film music world needs strong new voices like Wallfisch’s, especially when that voice is capable of writing memorable melodic content and surrounding it with orchestral arrangements of creativity and a flair for the dramatic.
A Cure for Wellness is a rich and varied score for orchestra, chorus, and electronics, performed by the Chamber Orchestra of London, with vocal performances by the Crouch End Festival Chorus, the Trinity School Boys Choir, and boy soprano soloist Sebastian Exall. The opening cue, “Hannah and Volmer,” introduces the score’s two main themes, for the two main central characters that Lockhart meets upon his arrival in Switzerland. The evocative theme for Hannah is the first one heard; it begins with the boy soprano vocalist intoning the melody like a lullaby, before it gradually picks up a piano and some pretty orchestral textures to accompany it. The second theme appears to be a theme for Volmer himself, and his facility’s dark and troubling past; it first appears at 0:42 on solo piano, and receives an especially interesting statement at 3:41, first for bass flute, before switching to solo violin. The whole thing is reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith’s Poltergeist, or of something that Christopher Young might write in a situation like this – music that is beautiful, yet unsettling at the same time. It’s also interesting that Wallfisch’s thematic focus isn’t on Lockhart at all, but on the girl whose backstory proves to be the driving force of everything happening at the Volmer Institute; the film’s protagonist doesn’t have a thematic identity at all.
These two themes form the cornerstone of the entire score. Sometimes they appear independently of each other, but they are also regularly intertwined, illustrating the complicated symbiotic relationship the two characters have. For example, “Nobody Ever Leaves” begins with subtle allusions to Volmer’s theme on slow, restrained pianos, which are themselves juxtaposed with a soprano vocal of Hannah’s theme, angelic but slightly uneasy. Later, “Magnificent, Isn’t It” presents a delicate music box variation of Hannah’s theme, referencing the dancing ballerina that acts as a personal reality totem for Lockhart and allows him to maintain his sanity in the face of Volmer’s organized institutional gaslighting; the passionate piano and string statement of the theme towards the end of the cue is especially lovely.
However, some of the best performances of the themes come when Wallfisch arranges them in an action setting. In “The Rite” Wallfisch uses industrial-sounding electronic dissonances and various liturgical vocal moans and groans – high pitched females, bassy males – with allusions to Volmer’s theme in the choral harmonies, before allowing them to swell into a lush Straussian waltz variation on Volmer’s theme, full of prancing woodwinds, which builds to a frenzied finish. In “Feuerwalzer” the Volmer waltz explodes with sensational orchestral opulence, but quickly turns into a thunderous action sequence full of churning basses, frantic string runs, and vivid settings of both Hannah’s theme and Volmer’s theme on heavy, imposing brass. The way Wallfisch takes the two main themes – often so pretty and innocent – and makes them brutally dominant is quite outstanding; he returns to these ideas later in the score, during “Actually I’m Feeling Much Better” and “Zutritt Verboten,” both of which are chaotic and feverish, and make use of urgent tempi, frantic piano runs, and buzzing electronic textures. The action statement of Hannah’s theme for brass and choir at 1:39 of “Actually I’m Feeling Much Better” is notably superb.
Much of the rest of the score is concerned with tension, apprehension, and confusion. In cues such as “Terrible Darkness,” “Lipstick,” and “There’s Nothing Wrong With You People,” Wallfisch uses violent electronic textures to seemingly represent the ‘madness’ infecting the patients at the institute; there are overwhelming pulsing synth tones, moments of crushing dissonance, and a great deal of electronic wailing, underpinned by piano clusters, insect-like strings, and vague hints of Vollmer’s theme peeking through the choral eeriness. This music is desperate, angry, oppressive, and wholly appropriate in conveying the tone of the film and the increasing sense of terrible paranoia Lockhart experiences, but it’s very difficult to enjoy as music on its own terms, and may cause some listeners to reach for the volume control and/or the off button.
Elsewhere, cues like “Volmer Institut” and “Waiting” feature tick-tock rhythmic percussion textures for marimbas, vibraphones, and glass bowls, which seem impatient and edgy. “Our Thoughts Exactly” is an interesting distraction, a bubbly 1980s style electronic cue of the sort that someone like Jack Nitzsche, John Carpenter, or Tangerine Dream might have written back in the day. Thankfully the conclusive cue, “Volmer’s Lab,” returns to the thematic core ideas, taking both Hannah’s theme and Volmer’s theme and running them through several variations, utilizing light and innocent-sounding piano textures, but offsetting them against deeply sonorous string chords, ragged tremolos, and glassy sounds, to create a sense of simultaneous uneasiness, before concluding with one final, fragile performance of Hannah’s theme by Exall. The last track on the CD is a stripped down version of The Ramones’ classic 1979 punk rock anthem “I Wanna Be Sedated,” arranged for dark strings by Wallfisch, and performed with damaged vulnerability by vocalist Mirel Wagner.
A Cure for Wellness is a quite superb score on all fronts, one which will surely please listeners who enjoy horror/thriller scores which juxtapose the on-screen creepiness with thematic music that often reaches quite beautiful heights. Although some of the more aggressively dissonant and electronically-enhanced sequences of the score may prove to be tough going for those of a more delicate disposition, it all works wonderfully well in context, while the examination of the thematic interplay and the creative orchestrations more than reveals Benjamin Wallfisch’s compositional creativity and storytelling intellect.
Buy the Cure for Wellness soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Hannah and Volmer (4:34)
- Nobody Ever Leaves (1:49)
- Bicycle (1:59)
- The Rite (3:42)
- Feuerwalzer (3:44)
- Magnificent, Isn’t It (2:11)
- Actually I’m Feeling Much Better (1:59)
- Clearly He’s Lost His Mind (2:49)
- Our Thoughts Exactly (1:04)
- Volmer Institut (3:02)
- Terrible Darkness (3:18)
- Lipstick (4:21)
- Waiting (0:56)
- Zutritt Verboten (3:38)
- There’s Nothing Wrong With You People (1:25)
- Lockhart’s Letter (2:12)
- Volmer’s Lab (3:32)
- I Wanna Be Sedated (written by Douglas Colvin, Jeffrey Hyman, and John Cummings, arranged by Benjamin Wallfisch, performed by Mirel Wagner) (3:38)
Running Time: 50 minutes 00 seconds
Milan Records (2016)
Music composed by Benjamin Wallfisch. Conducted by Gavin Greenaway. Performed by The Chamber Orchestra of London, the Crouch End Festival Chorus and the Trinity School Boys Choir. Orchestrations by Benjamin Wallfisch, David Krystal and Matt Dunkley. Featured musical soloists Zigmars Grasis, Tom Bowes and Owen Gurry. Special vocal performances by Mary Laey and Sebastian Exall. Recorded and mixed by Jake Jackson, Alan Meyerson and Benjamin Wallfisch. Edited by Carlton Kaller and Ken Karman. Album produced by Benjamin Wallfisch and Chris Craker.