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IT – Benjamin Wallfisch

September 12, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

It has been one of Stephen King’s most enduring and popular novels since it was first published back in 1986. Conceptually, it covers two bases. Firstly, it’s a terrifying horror story, which takes many of the most basic human fears – death, disease, growing older – and personifies them into a single, unifying threat. Secondly, it’s a classic examination of childhood nostalgia, which looks at very adult themes through a kid’s eyes: friendship, the loss of innocence, blossoming sexuality, and the way the onset of adulthood strips you of your inquisitiveness and imagination. King sets the story in the small town of Derry, Maine, where kids are going missing, and adults seemingly turn a blind eye to the bizarre goings on in the community. Eventually seven friends, who call themselves the Losers Club, realize that the common link between all the disappearances is an evil clown named Pennywise, who re-appears to prey on the innocent every 27 years, and whose reign of terror they vow to end once and for all. The book was originally adapted into an acclaimed TV mini-series in 1990 which featured an iconic performance by Tim Curry as Pennywise; this new version is directed by Andy Muschietti, stars Bill Skarsgård as the clown, and features Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, and Finn Wolfhard as three of the Losers Club kids, all of whom are uniformly excellent.

The film actually has something of a convoluted back story; it was originally developed by writer-director Cary Fukunaga, and was intended to have Will Poulter playing Pennywise, but somewhere along the line there was a disagreement about the direction the film was taking, Fukunaga left the project, and Muschietti came into replace him. With a new director at the helm, Pennywise was re-cast, with Bill Skarsgård taking over the role; usually, this sort of instability results in a disjointed film, but this is not the case with It, which may go down as one of the best King horror adaptations in cinema history. Skarsgård brings a different sort of energy to the role than Tim Curry did, and although Curry’s Pennywise will always be iconic, Skarsgård’s performance is genuinely excellent in its own right: quirky, oddly funny, and quite terrifying. Equally outstanding is the cast of children, who convincingly portray the strong bonds of friendship between the members of the Losers Club, while actually acting and speaking like children, complete with the bad language, terrible jokes, and good-natured teasing teenagers engage in when adults are not around. Muschietti’s direction is excellent, and some of the set pieces are legitimately scary.

Contributing greatly to this latter element is the film’s original score, by the English film music rising star Benjamin Wallfisch. It is Wallfisch’s fourth major score of 2017, after A Cure for Wellness, Bitter Harvest, and Annabelle Creation, and it also might be his most effective and creative score of the quartet. Anyone familiar with Richard Bellis’s Emmy-winning score for the 1990 TV mini-series will immediately notice that Wallfisch’s score takes a very different approach. Firstly, it’s mostly fully orchestral, eschewing the synth elements that were very prominent in Bellis’s original. Secondly, those orchestral ideas are often quite challenging, especially when they make use of highly dissonant, avant-garde 20th century techniques. Third, and probably most important, is the use of voices, specifically those of children, which Wallfisch uses in a multitude of ways, sometimes to spine-chilling effect.

One of the most striking things in the score is Wallfisch’s use of a very old British nursery rhyme, ‘Oranges and Lemons,’ as the lyrics for what the children are singing. It’s a common song known to most British children, but it is apparently not very well-known in the United States, which means that most will be unaware of its origins. The lyrics of the rhyme go as follows: “Oranges and lemons say the bells of St. Clement’s; you owe me five farthings say the bells of St. Martin’s; when will you pay me say the bells of Old Bailey; when I grow rich say the bells of Shoreditch; when will that be say the bells of Stepney; I do not know says the great bell of Bow; here comes a candle to light you to bed, and here comes a chopper to chop off your head.” The most common interpretation of the rhyme is that it is a fictional ‘conversation’ between a group of 18th century churches in London, and that the progression of the conversation relates to the fate of a child who steals produce from a market because they cannot pay for it, who is caught, and is eventually executed. It was intended to serve as a warning for children not to break the law, but the sweet melody of the rhyme was such that it eventually came to convey a general theme of ‘loss of innocence’.

Wallfisch’s choice to use this in his score works on multiple levels. Firstly, the lyrics directly speak to the ‘loss of innocence’ theme of the film. Secondly, the fact that the children are singing the words allows Wallfisch to subliminally reinforce the idea that the spirits or ghosts of the missing children are ever-present in Derry, especially when Pennywise is around. Finally, the actual sonics of the sound – which was highly manipulated in post-production – is often genuinely terrifying. Wallfisch’s music editor Nate Underkuffler explained that a small choir of mostly four and five year old children was hired to perform the rhyme, and they were then recorded singing several different variations on the lyrics over the course of several hours (when they stopped playing with the microphones!) . These voices were then digitally manipulated, overlapped, looped, and processed, until they took on the spine-chilling final timbre heard in the finished mix.

Cues such as the opening “Every 27 Years,” “Georgie, Meet Pennywise,” “Egg Boy,” “Come Join The Clown, Eds,” “You’ll Float Too,” “Shape Shifter,” “Hockstetter Attack,” and many others use the ‘oranges and lemons’ chant with alarming frequency, and the impact on the audience is enormously unsettling and, occasionally, downright terrifying. Hearing a group of children screaming at you, as they do at the end of both “Georgie, Meet Pennywise” and “Shape Shifter,” with processed and overlapping chaos, is quite horrifying. In “Egg Boy” they appear in a mocking la-la sing-song way, while reciting the last part of the rhyme, emphasizing the word ‘chop’ to chilling effect. In “You’ll Float Too,” which underscores one of the most disturbing scenes in the film, the voices are literally laughing at you, right before they try to rip your face off.

To accompany this shocking nightmare of music Wallfisch also created what appears to be a sound effect motif for the appearance of Pennywise, which I am calling the “It Noise”. In reality it’s little more than a sound, a burst of static, but when it appears – as it does at 2:36 in “You’ll Float Too,” 0:47 in “Saving Mike,” 1:20 in “29 Niebolt Street,” and in many other places – it’s a jarring, but very effective aural marker to alert the audience that the monster is near.

Thankfully, to counterbalance all this horror, there are at least three melodic themes representing different human aspects of the story. The emotional core of the score is obviously “Georgie’s Theme,” as it is his death in the film’s opening sequence that provides the catalyst for the entire story. It’s a 7-note motif which moves between piano, harp, and cello, and is elegant but full of longing and regret. It appears in the score frequently, illustrating Georgie’s looming presence over everything, with several clever variations. In “Paper Boat,” for example, it is playful and innocent, redolent of nostalgia and brotherly warmth. In the opening moments of “Georgie, Meet Pennywise” it is tense but with a hint of inquisitiveness. At the beginning of “You’ll Float Too” you briefly wonder whether its appearance means things are going to be OK; they’re not. Towards the end of the score, the performance in “Georgie Found” is hesitantly emotional, but builds to a big climax, while the statement in “Yellow Raincoat” releases a flood of feelings, rendered by piano, strings, and prominent harp glissandi.

The theme for Derry, the town where the film is set, is the theme in the first cue, “Every 27 Years,” a creepy-pretty piano piece that slowly segues to strings, and subtly hints that things are desperately wrong behind the veneer of all-American suburban bliss. Further performances of the Derry theme appear in cues such as “Derry,” a more idyllic statement for dancing woodwinds and warm strings; “Derry History,” which begins in similar fashion but becomes much more sinister towards the end as Pennywise’s omnipresence is revealed; and “Return to Neibolt,” which presents a determined, almost adventurous variation to accompany the children after they have made the decision to save their town.

The final notable melodic idea relates to Beverly, the tomboy and only female member of the Losers Club, whose home life hides a dark secret. Her theme is a pretty piano motif, idyllic, and perhaps a little idealized, as she is often the focus of the teenage boys’ affections. “Haircut” initially provides a poignant performance of her theme, but then as the cue progresses it becomes increasingly dissonant, full of moaning strings, fearsome brass clusters, and guttural vocal effects that sound like demented burping or a clogged sink – a perfect depiction of the terrifying attack she suffers in her own bathroom. The subsequent “January Embers” is hesitantly romantic, with hints of Beverly’s theme on soft strings.

The rest of the score, quite frankly, is an exercise in extended musical terror. Wallfisch’s approach to the action, suspense, and horror sequences is to literally overwhelm the listener with a wall of sound. To achieve this effect the orchestra was manipulated and over-dubbed multiple times in post production, layer upon layer upon layer, resulting in a massive sound that is the equivalent of half a dozen full orchestras playing simultaneously. The strings scream and wail and moan, the brass section explodes into frenzied clusters, the woodwinds screech and yelp, the percussion pounds incessantly, and a further layer of crushing electronic sound design pushes the whole thing to the limit of extremes. It’s a nightmare to sit through and actually listen to – I’m pretty sure nobody actually likes this music – but, by God, it’s tremendously effective.

Cues of special note include “River Chase,” a terrific piece for rampaging strings and raging percussion, accompanying the scene of young Ben (one of the Losers Club) frantically trying to escape from town bully Henry Bowers and his gang. “Shape Shifter” showcases high, impressionistic woodwinds offset by a falling, tumbling string line. “Slideshow,” which underscores the most frightening scene in the film, has to be heard to be believed. “You’ll Die If You Try” employs some distorted carnival sounds as an allusion to Pennywise’s circus origins. “Deadlights” has some truly disturbing and oppressive vocal effects, ranging from ululation to heavy breathing, which headphone-wearers will find especially creepy. “Feed On Your Fear” is a frantic dance, sprightly but frightening. “Welcome to The Losers Club” is a bold, intense action sequence, the best one in the score, with heroic brass, whooping strings, and majestic choral effects.

It’s interesting to see how, without much fanfare or any real expectation, Benjamin Wallfisch has quickly established himself as the new go-to guy for major studio horror films. With Lights Out, A Cure for Wellness, Annabelle Creation, and now It, Wallfisch’s horror credentials have absolutely been cemented, and it’s pleasing to see him succeeding at the highest levels. Horror films have always provided young composers with fertile ground on which to showcase their orchestral chops – Christopher Young, Marco Beltrami, and many others all cut their teeth there – but I hope that Wallfisch doesn’t become pigeonholed as ‘the horror guy’ when he has shown he is more than capable of succeeding across multiple genres. There is only so much screeching and wailing and pounding that I can take and, frankly, I’m sure there’s only so many times he can replicate Penderecki before he gets tired of it himself. At this point, though, scoring hit movies like It can only be good for his career; on the strength of his four 2017 scores to date, plus his additional contributions to Dunkirk, and with the sci-fi sequel Blade Runner 2049 still to come in October, this has truly been his breakthrough year.

Buy the It soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Every 27 Years (2:37)
  • Paper Boat (1:55)
  • Georgie, Meet Pennywise (3:39)
  • Derry (2:24)
  • River Chase (2:10)
  • Egg Boy (2:45)
  • Beverly (1:20)
  • Come Join The Clown, Eds (1:20)
  • You’ll Float Too (3:20)
  • Shape Shifter (1:43)
  • Hockstetter Attack (2:16)
  • Haircut (4:14)
  • Derry History (2:49)
  • January Embers (1:06)
  • Saving Mike (1:15)
  • This Is Not A Dream (2:09)
  • Slideshow (2:02)
  • Georgie’s Theme (1:42)
  • He Didn’t Stutter Once (1:34)
  • 29 Neibolt Street (4:18)
  • Time To Float (3:04)
  • It’s What It Wants (1:20)
  • You’ll Die If You Try (4:39)
  • Return to Neibolt (2:31)
  • Into The Well (2:06)
  • Pennywise’s Tower (1:49)
  • Deadlights (2:05)
  • Searching For Stanley (2:28)
  • Saving Beverly (3:37)
  • Georgie Found (1:54)
  • Transformation (0:58)
  • Feed On Your Fear (2:35)
  • Welcome To The Losers Club (3:06)
  • Yellow Raincoat (1:44)
  • Blood Oath (3:11)
  • Kiss (0:54)
  • Every 27 Years (Reprise) (2:07)
  • Epilogue – The Pennywise Dance (0:37)

Running Time: 87 minutes 22 seconds

Watertower Music (2017)

Music composed by Benjamin Wallfisch. Conducted by Tim Williams. Orchestrations by David Krystal. Recorded and mixed by Joel Iwataki. Edited by Nate Underkuffler. Album produced by Benjamin Wallfisch.

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