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GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN – Carter Burwell

October 17, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Over the past one hundred years or so since his creation, the character Winnie the Pooh has grown from humble origins to become a worldwide commercial phenomenon, the latter courtesy of the Disney company which purchased the intellectual rights in 1966. A good-natured, honey-loving, perpetually befuddled yellow bear, Pooh and his friends have been beloved childhood staples for generations, but few are aware of his origins. Director Simon Curtis’s period drama film Goodbye Christopher Robin explores them, looking at how British author A. A. Milne created the characters based on the interactions he had with his young son Christopher, whose collection of stuffed animals provided inspiration for his literature. The subsequent popularity of the books ‘Winnie the Pooh’ and ‘The House at Pooh Corner’ turned Milne into something of a household name, and provided a small degree of comfort to an England still dealing with the after-effects of World War I – but, ironically, made Milne’s relationship with his son more difficult. The film stars Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, and Kelly MacDonald, and has an original score by Carter Burwell.

At first glance, Carter Burwell would appear to be an unusual choice for a British period drama about children’s literature. Director Curtis’s previous films, My Week With Marilyn and Woman in Gold, were scored by Conrad Pope and Alexandre Desplat, and Martin Phipps and Hans Zimmer, respectively, who all provided fairly traditional sounding scores for their films; Burwell, on the other hand, is all about subversiveness and irony, digging underneath the surface of the stories he is scoring and uncovering the darkness hidden within. On a film like Goodbye Christopher Robin, one wouldn’t imagine that there was much subversiveness to uncover, but despite this Burwell finds it; rather than scoring the childhood nostalgia, Burwell scores the underlying tension that slowly develops between Milne and his son, as well as the overall feeling of a ‘loss of innocence’ that overcame the country following the war.

That’s not to say that the score is all darkness, because it’s absolutely not. On the contrary, Goodbye Christopher Robin contains some of the most pretty, florid, and summery classical music Burwell has ever written; Burwell himself says that he wrote specifically in an English pastoral tradition, and one can hear echoes of composers such as George Butterworth and, to a lesser extent, Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan-Williams, and Gustav Holst in this music. Instrumentally, the score is very traditional, focusing mostly on strings, piano, harp, and woodwinds, with very little percussion and virtually no brass. The whole thing has a light, idyllic quality, but it is regularly usurped by those unusual, slightly askew chord progressions that Burwell favors – I don’t know how to describe them, in technical terms, but anyone who is familiar with Burwell’s work will recognize them, as he’s been using them since his early work for the Coen Brothers in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

What these chord progressions do is needle in a little sense of uncertainty, a niggling feeling that something’s not quite right. Initially, I thought that this sensibility was wrong for a film like Goodbye Christopher Robin, and that it gave this charming story an odd tone, but the more I think about it, the more I realize what Burwell was actually doing. He’s obviously not scoring Winnie the Pooh, but the strain Pooh put on the relationships of those who created him: between Milne and Christopher, between Milne and his wife Daphne, and especially between Christopher and Daphne, for whom motherhood was a tiresome burden. As such, and with those intellectual underpinnings in mind, I’m coming to think that Goodbye Christopher Robin is actually pitched perfectly.

It helps, too, that the music is quite lovely. Much of the score is drenched in the sound of the English countryside, the gentle musical embodiment of sun-dappled fields, leafy lanes, and quaint cottages under thatched roofs. Although the score is built mostly around instrumental combinations based on the aforementioned strings, piano, harp, and woodwinds, some of the textures are really delightful. From the opening cue, “Tree of Memory,” which has the tiniest echoes of Dvořák, the score features several highlights, including the playfully elegant piano lines of “First Night,” the duet for light metallic percussion and oboe in “Cotchford Farm,” the magical harps and chimes and lilting flutes of “Toys and Stars” and “To the Zoo,” and the more strident and lilting string lines in “Balloons.”

Interestingly, the score’s main theme doesn’t appear until the fourteenth cue, “Drawing Pooh,” the scene in the film where the roly-poly bear is given visual life by Milne’s friend, illustrator E. H. Shepard. It’s a gentle, tender, appropriately child-like see-sawing theme for woodwinds and metallic chimes backed by strings, and as the score progresses on the main theme appears frequently, in cues such as the effervescent “Fame,” and the emotionally heightened conclusive pair “Well, If It Isn’t Billy Moon” and “Home, I Should Think”.

This contrasts with some of the score’s darker material, like the more percussion-heavy “Bear Hunt,” and more introspective, subdued cues like “I’m Billy Moon, and I’ll Be Back Soon,” “The People a Person Loves,” “Tea with Christopher Robin,” and the poignant pair “Keep Your Memories” and “Billy Leaves,” which offer downbeat and occasionally quite dramatic reflections on Christopher’s deteriorating relationship with his family. In these cues, Burwell plays around with more dour keys and chord progressions, and slightly less whimsical sounding instrumental combinations, replacing flutes and oboes with clarinets, replacing violins with cellos, and adding a subtle percussion undercurrent to give the music more bass.

The score album is finished off with two period songs, “The Object Of My Affection” performed by The Boswell Sisters with Jimmie Grier, and “A Man and His Dream” performed by the great South African-British bandleader and crooner Al Bowlly.

It took me a while to properly ‘get’ Goodbye Christopher Robin, and it was all to do with my own preconceptions regarding English pastoral classical music from the Edwardian era, the nature of the story as it relates to the character of Winnie the Pooh, and the fact that Carter Burwell seemed such a peculiar choice to bring this to life in the first place. However, having now fully understood what Burwell and his director were trying to achieve in terms of the music and the emotional beats it accompanies, I now feel that the score is actually quite excellent. Burwell perfectly captures the tone and the sound of the period, but marries it to the conflicting and sometimes antagonistic relationship that develops between Milne and his son as Pooh Bear’s influence and popularity overtakes and, to some extent, dominates both their lives. Goodbye Christopher Robin may not be the Winnie the Pooh score one was expecting, but it’s certainly the one the film needed.

Buy the Goodbye Christopher Robin soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Tree of Memory (4:01)
  • Birth (1:23)
  • First Night (2:09)
  • Cotchford Farm (1:54)
  • The Object Of My Affection (written by Pinky Tomlin, Coy Poe, and Jimmie Grier, performed by The Boswell Sisters with Jimmie Grier) (3:21)
  • Toys and Stars (1:23)
  • Into the Forest (3:00)
  • Bear Hunt (1:58)
  • Goes to Town in a Golden Gown (1:06)
  • To the Zoo (1:55)
  • Balloons (0:50)
  • Snowfall, Snowrise (2:25)
  • A Man and His Dream (written by Johnny Burke and James Monaco, performed by Al Bowlly) (3:21)
  • Drawing Pooh (2:33)
  • I’m Billy Moon, and I’ll Be Back Soon (1:57)
  • When We Were Young (0:47)
  • The People a Person Loves (1:38)
  • Fame (3:37)
  • Tea with Christopher Robin (3:24)
  • Keep Your Memories (3:27)
  • Down the Stairs, Nobody Cares (0:53)
  • Not Another Word (1:31)
  • Private Milne (1:19)
  • Billy Leaves (5:35)
  • Well, If It Isn’t Billy Moon (3:14)
  • Home, I Should Think (2:12)

Running Time: 61 minutes 05 seconds

Sony Classical (2017)

Music composed and conducted by Carter Burwell. Orchestrations by Sonny Kompanek and Carter Burwell. Recorded and mixed by Michael Farrow. Edited by Adam Smalley. Album produced by Carter Burwell.

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