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SUBURBICON – Alexandre Desplat

November 17, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The idea of taking a peek behind the white picket fences of American society is not a new one, but few have taken it as far as director George Clooney in his new film, Suburbicon. It’s a highly stylized, bizarrely comical drama set in the 1950s in a planned community, the epitome of white middle class utopia, a fantasy of manicured lawns and pristine shopping malls. However, things start to change in Suburbicon when a quiet African-American family moves in; despite them doing literally nothing to provoke any sort of reaction, the town erupts into a frenzy of racially-driven anger and violence. Against this backdrop, the story of Gardner Lodge unfolds – to the world, he is a mild-mannered middle class husband and father, but in private his life is falling apart in an increasingly nightmarish spiral of betrayal and murder. The film stars Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, and Oscar Isaac, and was co-written by Clooney and Grant Heslov with Joel and Ethan Coen. Despite this star lineup, the film was roundly panned by critics, who couldn’t fathom its uneven tone, heavy handedness, and odd mix of genres.

Personally, I thought the film was great. Yes, the social and racial overtones of the film are driven home with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, but you can see the point that Clooney was trying to make, especially considering the political climate in the United States today. The entire film is intended to be a satire of the American Dream, intentionally up-ending the nuclear family dynamic that appears in the art of Norman Rockwell, or the classic films of Frank Capra and Douglas Sirk. It’s so much fun seeing Damon and Moore playing characters against type, and the absurdity of the humor in the film when juxtaposed against scenes of real, sickening violence makes for a jarring but interesting study in contrasts. Everything is hyper-realistic and exaggerated, from the visual style of the pastel neighborhood, to the increasingly absurd racist actions of the townsfolk, and this extends to the score, by composer Alexandre Desplat.

This is Desplat’s third film working with Clooney as director, after The Ides of March in 2011 and The Monuments Men in 2014 (he also scored the Clooney-produced Syriana in 2005 and Argo in 2012). More than anything, Desplat’s score is a pastiche of those wonderfully syrupy social drama scores written by composers like Frank Skinner, combined with the insidious lurking anxiety and horror of Bernard Herrmann. It mines the same musical vein that Philippe Rombi’s score for Angel did in 2007 by playing contrapuntally to the visuals on-screen; despite the subterfuge, despite the sexual deviance, despite the nightmare, Desplat scores the image that Suburbicon wants to present to the world, rather than the reality of life behind its closed doors, but as the film unfolds the rotten core can’t be contained, and it all erupts into a symphony of suspense and violence.

This stage is set by the opening cue, “Welcome to Suburbicon,” a sickeningly sweet homage to the idyll of the 1950s, replete with prancing strings, overly optimistic xylophones, and deedle-dah choir, the musical embodiment of a TV commercial for washing powder that recalls the pastel sheen of Danny Elfman’s Edward Scissorhands or Randy Newman’s Pleasantville. The second cue, “Friends,” continues this idea with warmly intimate woodwinds, strings, and piano, underscoring the hesitant and innocent friendship between the white boy and his black next door neighbor, bonding over baseball. It’s beautifully melancholy, with subtle hints of Elmer Bernstein’s score for Far From Heaven.

However, before long, cracks start to show in the veneer of cookie-cutter perfection. “A Prayer for Rose” introduces the theme for Julianne Moore’s characters, twin sisters Rose and Margaret, a sinewy-smooth theme for jazzy woodwinds and dark string textures, which again has echoes of Bernstein, but is bitter and regretful. The Sisters theme appears in several cues thereafter – at the beginning of “Bud Cooper” on sultry clarinets, at the beginning of “A Sweet Aroma,” and in “Basement Games,” which features a slightly off-kilter and twisted version of the theme for purposeful strings and lazy woodwinds, but builds to a dramatic and revelatory conclusion.

Building off this thematic idea, much of the middle of the score is focused on suspense and action, and it is here that Desplat excels. The cues from “7000 Apples” all the way through to “Sunday in Suburbicon” offer a master-class in orchestration out of the Bernard Herrmann playbook, a deft musical portrayal of the utter collapse and destruction of an all-American family. Desplat takes the basic building blocks that he used to create the idyllic main Suburbicon theme – strings, piano, woodwinds, light metallic percussion – and completely devastates them, turning them from a depiction of wholesomeness into something filled with terror and dread. The complexity of the instrumental combinations, the way he moves the focus of the music around the orchestra, the way he uses the different sections in highlighted solos that feel completely organic… it’s absolutely wonderful. Virtually no-one working in film music today is as adept at bringing out vibrant, interesting orchestral colors as Desplat, and special praise should be heaped on him, his orchestrators Conrad Pope, Jean-Pascal Beintus, Nicolas Charron, and Sylvain Morizet, and his recording mixer Peter Cobbin, for doing yet another stellar job.

Several cues stand out as being especially noteworthy. “7000 Apples” introduces the agitated, nervous pizzicato strings and delicate, deliberate piano textures that dominate the score, providing the recurring base from which everything else in the score builds. It’s like music played through gritted teeth, and is filled with a quiet sense of desperation that is just palpable. “Men in the House” is an extended suspense sequence for menacing textures, Herrmannesque to the fullest. Most everything plays at the lowest possible end of the register – deep piano chords, growling brass – and is deliberately paced so as to eke out the last drops of dreadful anticipation from the audience. A specific motif for piano and woodblock – a recurring idea for death – is introduced here, which recalls the best suspense writing of James Horner, while the increased use of timpani and horns in the cue’s action-packed second half gives it a sound similar to The Ghost Writer.

“Bud Cooper” features an unusually elegant tango-style cello theme for Oscar Isaac’s charismatic insurance agent character, who unsettles his suspects by backing them into a corner with disarming charm, and then going in for the kill. “The Line Up” features a fraught middle section for especially prominent muted trumpets and churning string figures, conveying terrible anguish and confusion, before concluding with an unexpectedly beautiful duet for guitar and piano.

“We’ll Go to Aruba” is surprisingly gentle, a soft and tender passage for piano and strings, and “What Did You Do?” begins similarly, but becomes darker and more aggressive in a turnabout half way through the cue; all the same instruments suddenly take on a menacing air, underpinned by descending string lines that conceal a simmering, barely-controlled anger. “Mrs. Lodge Called” opens with a cascade of Herrmannesque strings passing around a suspenseful three-note motif, while the “Closet Conversation” is deeply unsettling, featuring a second statement of the piano/woodblock death idea, and some vivid action rhythms during its conclusion.

The music for the film’s finale begins in “Unlucky Bud,” a thrilling explosion of action and carnage featuring boldly dramatic chords for alternating brass and percussion, trilling horns, and boiling strings that would not have sounded out of place in a score like Rear Window or Sunset Boulevard. “Falling Apart” is the musical embodiment of a man trying to hold himself together in the face of utter chaos, where agitated pianos and stabbing cellos are juxtaposed against almost ridiculously calm and smooth violin lines, depicting two polar opposite emotional states fighting for supremacy over the other.

“Nicky Trapped” is the score’s most explosive action cue, and is yet another example of Desplat’s astonishingly detailed orchestrations; he uses low, growling cellos in combination with serpentine descending woodwind motifs to create a sense of impending doom and desperation, but frequently allows them to erupt into sequences filled with enormous stabbing strings and blasts of noise, reminiscent of the best Bernard Herrmann action scoring. The knife-edge tremolo strings explode into frenzied agitation at 1:43, and again at 2:52, each time underpinned by the alternating brass and percussion hits from earlier in the score. It’s all in the same ballpark as the action music from scores like Hostage, The Golden Compass, Firewall, and Valerian, and is just superb.

The “Aftermath” is given a religioso feeling with tolling bells under darkly-hued orchestral lines, solemnly beautiful oboes, and the piano/woodblocks death motif; there is a sense of catharsis, but it’s all underwritten with tragedy. “Sunday in Suburbicon” is a bitter reflection of the chaos, surveying the ruins of innocence with elongated cello chords and sorrowful horns, before “Playing Catch in the Sun” reprises the idyllic Friends theme, and “Suburbicon Good Night” reprises the Suburbicon theme from the opening cue without a trace of irony. Despite all the madness, the status quo and the myth of the American Dream persists in white society.

I know I keep writing stellar reviews of Alexandre Desplat scores – Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets got one earlier this year, and The Shape of Water will get one too when I hear the album – but, with the possible exception of John Williams, I truly feel that no-one else is writing film music on the same level as the 56-year-old Frenchman right now. He truly understands cinema on a fundamental level; he somehow manages to capture the intellectual and emotional heart of every film he scores, and he then writes music which is thematically strong, compositionally challenging, fascinating from an orchestration point of view, and always has something interesting to latch onto and absorb. It’s been my absolute privilege to have gone on this journey with him since I first discovered his music via The Luzhin Defence some 17 years ago, and Suburbicon is yet another addition to his already overflowing list of outstanding works.

Buy the Suburbicon soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Welcome to Suburbicon (2:04)
  • Friends (3:07)
  • When I Fall In Love (written by Victor Young and Edward Heyman) (2:05)
  • A Prayer for Rose (4:54)
  • 7000 Apples (2:15)
  • Men in the House (7:08)
  • Bud Cooper (1:54)
  • The Line Up (4:23)
  • A Sweet Aroma (2:31)
  • We’ll Go to Aruba (1:47)
  • What Did You Do? (1:29)
  • Mrs. Lodge Called (1:53)
  • Something Sad (1:56)
  • Blonde (1:31)
  • Basement Games (2:04)
  • Closet Conversation (3:20)
  • Unlucky Bud (2:00)
  • Falling Apart (4:12)
  • Nicky Trapped (5:48)
  • Aftermath (3:16)
  • Sunday in Suburbicon (3:39)
  • Playing Catch in the Sun (3:36)
  • Suburbicon Good Night (0:39)

Running Time: 67 minutes 42 seconds

ABKCO Music & Records (2017)

Music composed and conducted by Alexandre Desplat. Performed by The London Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by Conrad Pope, Jean-Pascal Beintus, Nicolas Charron and Sylvain Morizet. Featured musical soloists Carmen Lauri, David Arch, Huw Davies and Riccardo Del Fra. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin. Edited by Peter Clarke. Album produced by Alexandre Desplat.

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