Home > Reviews > Best Scores of 2017 – United Kingdom, Part II

Best Scores of 2017 – United Kingdom, Part II

December 31, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

The third installment in my annual series of articles looking at the best “under the radar” scores from around the world returns to the United Kingdom, with a look at a half dozen or so more outstanding scores from films made in Britain. This set of scores from comprises comedies, dramas, and even a horror movie, and includes one by an Oscar-winner, one by a well-loved multiple Oscar nominee, and one by one of the most impressive newcomers to emerge in 2017.

THE DEATH OF STALIN – Christopher Willis

The Death of Stalin is a British black comedy written and directed by satirist Armando Iannucci. The movie is based on the French graphic novel by Fabien Nury & Thierry Robin and chronicles the chaotic days leading up to former Soviet premier Joseph Stalin’s funeral in 1953, which was marked by fierce infighting for the supreme power amongst those deemed to by worthy of succeeding him. It’s a timely look at power and corruption through a comedic lens – appropriate for the man who brought us In the Loop and Veep – and features an all-star cast including Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, Andrea Riseborough, Paddy Considine and Olga Kurylenko.

The score for The Death of Stalin is by the young British composer Christopher Willis, who has collaborated with Iannucci’s team before while co-writing the score for the HBO series Veep, while working on numerous films with composer Rupert Gregson-Williams (including Click, Grown Ups, and You Don’t Mess With The Zohan) and composing additional music for films like X-Men First Class, Prince Caspian, Shrek Forever After, and Breaking Dawn. However, for all intents and purposes, The Death of Stalin is his solo cinematic debut – and it’s a smash.

Standing in contrast to the rather talky style of Iannucci’s TV projects, The Death of Stalin has a much wider canvas, and Willis’s music reflects that. The style he adopts is intentionally similar to the great 20th century Russian master composers – mostly Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich – and is presented in huge, bold, sweeping fashion for the full orchestra. The music is martial, dramatic, and full of pomp and pageantry, which adds a sense of scope and drama to the shenanigans unfolding inside the Kremlin. Every piece of the ensemble is used to the absolute fullest range, resulting in a score which feels and sounds massive.

Every cue is outstanding. The bold fanfare main theme idea (which is coincidentally similar to John Barry’s theme for Born Free) is introduced in the first cue, “Moscow 1953,” and recurs frequently throughout the score – it heralds the beginning of “We Cry For You,” features strongly in the superb “Removal Men,” the more florid “Let the People Come,” and the darkly propulsive “Staging a Coup,” as well as the two conclusive pieces “A Comedy of Terrors” and the “End Credits”.  Elsewhere, “Special Delivery” is a more elegant piece for classical pianos, while “Back from the Gulags” is a brilliant duet for two colliding pianos that is impressionistic and avant-garde and reminds me in places of Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé, especially in the unexpected use of sleigh bells.

Willis says that there’s a “manic quality to a lot of music from that time,” filled with movement and grand gestures, which he incorporated into the score . As such, when the fanfares and themes are not being blasted in earnest Willis uses a great deal of almost Tchaikovsly-esque rhythmic writing; you can hear the sort of stuff I mean in the second half of “We Cry For You” and later in cues like the aforementioned “Removal Men,” “Setting the Trap,” parts of “Stagiing a Coup,” some of which have the hallmarks of action cues and at times remind me of John Williams and Star Wars – and if that’s not a compliment, nothing is.

The Death of Stalin is a short score – not quite 30 minutes – but is absolutely recommended for lovers of great big, bold Russian music. This outstanding music evokes a sense of inevitability, and unstoppable forward motion that can only lead to conflict, and is filled to the brim with all the grandiose orchestral textures, richly detailed arrangements, and grand Soviet-era propaganda that people love in Prokofiev and Shostakovich to this day.

Track Listing: 1. Moscow, 1953 (2:31), 2. Beria’s Plan (1:39), 3. First on the Scene (0:45), 4. We Cry for You (2:03), 5. Special Delivery (0:30), 6. Removal Men (1:54), 7. Pall-Bearers (1:48), 8. Back from the Gulags (1:21), 9. Politburo (1:16), 10. Let the People Come (2:31), 11. He Looks so Small (0:43), 12. Setting the Trap (1:46), 13. Staging a Coup (2:31), 14. Flowers (0:42), 15. A Comedy of Terrors (End Titles) (2:13), 16. End Credits (4:58). MKVA Records, 29 minutes 18 seconds.

 

THE EXCEPTION – Ilan Eshkeri

The Exception is a British romantic drama film directed by David Leveaux, adapted from the popular novel ‘The Kaiser’s Last Kiss’ by Alan Judd. The story follows Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney), a captain in the German Army during World War II, who is tasked with finding out whether Dutch spies have infiltrated the home of the exiled Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer). However, as his investigations continue, Brandt finds himself falling in love with Mika de Jong (Lily James), one of the Kaiser’s maids, who also happens to be Jewish, which causes Brandt to question not only his personal opinions about race and religion, but also his loyalty to the entire German cause.

The score for The Exception is by composer Ilan Eshkeri, whose time spent working as a protégé to Michael Kamen allowed him to develop a rich classical style, and whose outstanding scores for films like Stardust, The Young Victoria, and last year’s Swallows & Amazons, showcase his talent for beautiful theme-writing and powerful drama. The score is built around a single main theme, a soulful lament for solo cello, solo violin, solo piano, and string orchestra which is first heard in the opening cue, “Waking Up”. It’s a piece full of longing, romantic anticipation, and bitter regret, all rolled into one, capturing the conflicted and tormented situation Brandt finds himself in – follow his heart and betray his country, or follow his order and consign his lover to death. But you’d better like the theme, because it’s in virtually every cue thereafter in one form or another.

There are several notable outstanding restatements of the theme, in cues such as “Stefan Prepares Himself,” “Chopping Wood,” and the luxuriant finale “Last Kiss,” many of which showcase one of the solo instruments in graceful, romantic settings. A secondary theme representing the relationship between Stefan and Mika, intimate and refined, first appears on solo piano in the beautiful “Feeding Ducks,” and continues on into the cello-led “Stefan’s New Room” and the heartbreaking “Mika’s Promise.” Other cues of note include the emotionally heightened “Apology,” and the more insistently dramatic and classically heightened “The Kaiser Sees the Truth”.

Interestingly, musical depictions the war itself are mostly absent from the score – there are only a couple of action-like sequences with notably faster pacing, including “Mika’s Message” and “The Ambulance,” but nothing that really convey the impending scourge of the Nazi holocaust, save for a few martial drumbeats here and there in cues like “Himmler Arrives”. There are also no musical depictions of Mika’s Jewishness in any of the phrasings of the instruments, but that might be intentional considering that she herself is trying to hide her heritage from those around her. Instead, for almost its entire running time, The Exception is a master class in how to score contemporary romance; Eshkeri’s lush solo instrumentals, the heartfelt longing he brings to his thematic ideas, and the overall sense of hidden passion, makes this score one for the tragic lovers.

Track Listing: 1. Waking Up (4:22), 2. Stefan Prepares Himself (2:34), 3. Chopping Wood (2:32), 4. Feeding Ducks (1:31), 5. Stefan’s New Room (1:14), 6. Apology (1:42), 7. Restoration (1:34), 8. Seize the Day (1:31), 9. Himmler Arrives (1:52), 10. Private Conversations (2:03), 11. The Kaiser Sees the Truth (1:55), 12. Mika’s Message (3:41), 13. The Ambulance (4:04), 14. Escape (1:15), 15. Mika’s Promise (2:10), 16. Return to Berlin (2:41), 17. The Kaiser’s Theme (2:42), 18. Last Kiss (2:12). Varese Sarabande, 41 minutes 44 seconds.

 

THE JOURNEY – Stephen Warbeck

The Journey is a fascinating Anglo-Irish drama directed by Nick Hamm and written by Colin Bateman. The film is, essentially, a crash course on ‘The Troubles,’ the social and political upheaval that gripped Northern Ireland for much of the 20th century – the short, short version of which is that the Protestant Unionists wanted Northern Ireland to stay part of the United Kingdom, while the Catholic Republicans wanted Northern Ireland to re-join the independent Republic of Ireland. It posits an idea that, during the 2006 peace talks, Sinn Féin party leader Martin McGuiness and Democratic Unionist party leader Ian Paisley are forced to travel by car together, and the film then charts the social, political, and religious conversations these two strongly opinionated men have over the course of the journey. McGuinness is played by Colm Meaney, and Paisley played is by Timothy Spall.

The Journey is the second of the two major Stephen Warbeck scores of 2017 (the other being Hampstead), and this one couldn’t be more different. It’s a much more textural score, with emphasis on rhythm and mood more than melody and theme. There is a vague – and I do mean <I>vague</I> – Irish influence on the score through the use of what appear to be prominent <I>bodhrán</I> drums in the percussion section, but anyone expecting <I>uilleann</I> pipes and fiddles and pennywhistles will be disappointed at the score’s overall lack of stereotypical Irishness.

Beyond the persistent percussion and droning textures, a few cues do stand out for moments of melodic consonance: “Ian Paisley,” “Outside,” “In the Car,” and the emotionally haunting “Remembering Enniskillen” use more traditional string lines to add a touch of humanity and warmth to the score. Elsewhere, a few other cues use different instrumental textures to give the score a little depth: “Into the Park” uses electric guitars, and “Collapse” uses acoustic guitars, for example. However, for the most part, Warbeck stays out of the way, allowing the passionate political and social conversations between Paisley and McGuinness to take center stage. The conclusive song, “Are You Getting Through,” was written and performed by Irish singer-songwriter Glen Hansard, and is earnest and heartfelt, but nowhere as near as memorable as the songs he wrote for Once.

Anyone who is used to Stephen Warbeck’s more lyrical and traditionally thematic works may not find The Journey to be to their taste, but for some reason I found the subdued, rhythmic textures to be unexpectedly hypnotic. There’s nothing especially groundbreaking about it, and nothing that really stands out as being a moment of grandeur or power; instead, it’s a tastefully appropriate accompaniment to a serious, important film about the issues that shaped the contemporary political landscape of a troubled province.

 Track Listing: 1. The Beginning (1:53), 2. Ian Paisley (1:34), 3. Talks (2:18), 4. To the Car (1:48), 5. The Journey Begins (1:01), 6. Flashback (1:35), 7. Outside (1:51), 8. Into the Park (1:48), 9. McGuinness (1:26), 10. The Church (2:41), 11. In the Car (1:30), 12. The Pulpit (2:24), 13. Collapse (1:09), 14. Remembering Enniskillen (3:05), 15. So It Is (1:39), 16. To the Plane (1:09), 17. No Apology (3:10), 18. The Handshake (1:12), 19. The Flight (1:10), 20. The End (1:25), 21. Are You Getting Through (written and performed by Glen Hansard) (3:42). IM Global Music, 39 minutes 39 seconds.

 

THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM – Johan Söderqvist

The Limehouse Golem is a British horror-mystery film directed by Juan Carlos Medina and written by Jane Goldman, adapting Peter Ackroyd’s 1994 novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. The film stars Bill Nighy as John Kildare, a police inspector in Victorian London investigating a series of brutal murders that the frightened populace are attributing to a ‘golem,’ a mythical creature from local folklore. As he investigates further, Kildare begins to find links between the Golem murders and the case of Elizabeth Cree (Olivia Cooke), who is due to be hanged for killing her husband John, specifically the fact that there has not been a Golem murder since the night John Cree died. It’s an atmospheric period film in the same style as popular TV shows like Penny Dreadful and Ripper Street, and has an original score by Swedish composer Johan Söderqvist.

Söderqvist’s score is orchestral, but rooted in the ‘dark and brooding’ corner of the genre, making use of moody instrumental textures, and Gothic atmosphere to tell its story of murder and mayhem in Jack the Ripper’s East End. Low brass clusters, sinister string sustains, and melodramatic crescendos are the order of the day for much of the score, while tinkling metallic percussion, harp glissandi, and the vaguest hint of a choir gives the score a sense of mystery and the supernatural.

The score is light on thematic content, but Söderqvist does inject some melody in the score, cutting through the darkness with moments of bittersweet beauty. Marx as the Golem” features an elegant syncopated piano line, “Aveline and Lizzie” features a pretty but shadowy duet for oboe and harp, “Dan Offers Lizzie a Job” is hesitantly romantic, and “The Theatre” is sparkly and magical, while “Lizzie and John” is bittersweet. Several additional cues also impress with their moments of anticipatory suspense, thrilling action, and out-and-out horror, notably “Misery Junction,” “Gissing as the Golem,” the menacing “Chasing the Manuscript,” the cataclysmic “Race to the Gallows,” the nimble “Following Gissing,” the revelatory “The Golem,” and the conclusive “Ratliff Murders” prior to the elegant “End Credits”.

Some of the music has the appearance of live performance, with audience applause and narration being heard over the music in cues such as “The Opening”. Lead actress Olivia Cooke performs a bawdy musical hall song titled “What Did She Know About Railways?” in-character as Elizabeth Cree, while the conclusive “I’m Waiting For Him Tonight” is performed with honeyed enticement and theatrical exaggeration by actor Douglas Booth.

In many ways this is the sort of score that one can easily imagine someone like Marco Beltrami or Elliot Goldenthal writing for a film like this; the delicious darkness, the sense of the macabre, and the oppressive atmosphere are all very impressive, but the score never resorts to the crash-bang-groan dissonance of too many horror scores – Söderqvist’s writing has an elegance, and an inherent musicality, which makes it stand out from the crowd.

Track Listing: 1. The Opening (1:00), 2. John is Dead (2:11), 3. Marx As The Golem (1:26), 4. Aveline and Lizzie (2:03), 5. Misery Junction (2:38), 6. Dan Offers Lizzie a Job (1:31), 7. Dan Leno As The Golem (3:07), 8. The Theatre (1:06), 9. Give the Public Blood (2:00), 10. The Rape (1:26), 11. Gissing As The Golem (1:38), 12. Dan and Lizzie (3:01), 13. What Did She Know About Railways? (performed by Olivia Cooke) (1:26), 14. Cree As The Golem (2:37), 15. Lizzie and John (1:06), 16. Chasing the Manuscript (1:30), 17. Uncle’s Secret Room (1:13), 18. Race to the Gallows (2:26), 19. Mother and Daughter (1:41), 20. Following Gissing (3:11), 21. The Golem (2:10), 22. The Hanging (1:06), 23. Ratcliff Murders (1:55), 24. The Limehouse Golem End Credits (4:16), 25. I’m Waiting For Him Tonight (performed by Douglas Booth) (2:02). Varese Sarabande, 49 minutes 57 seconds.

 

WHISKY GALORE – Patrick Doyle

Whisky Galore is a broad comedy film directed by Gillies Mackinnon, and is a remake of the 1949 Ealing Comedy film of the same name. The film is set in Scotland during World War II and follows the humorous misadventures of a group of lovable rogues who are trying to get their hands on 50,000 cases of whisky from a ship which has run aground off the coast of their island. The film stars Gregor Fisher, Eddie Izzard, and James Cosmo, and has a fun and lively original score by Scottish composer Patrick Doyle.

Doyle has mined the depths of his Scottish heritage before, through scores like the 2012 Disney animated film Brave, the 2011 documentary Jig, and the 1993 children’s fantasy Into the West (the latter of which is more Irish than Scottish, but shares some sonic similarities). However, Whisky Galore may be the most overly Scottish score Doyle has ever written – fiddles, whistles, accordions, bagpipes, and sprightly melodies abound in this score, which is dynamic and energetic, and a whole bunch of fun, even if it is a little insubstantial in terms of dramatic resonance when compared to his more acclaimed works.

Some cues, notable the opening “Whisky Galore,” the second half of “New York Whisky,” “Hiding the Whisky,” and “Officer Arrives” enhance the traditional orchestrations with a modern percussion drum kit and a contemporary rhythmic undercurrent. Some cues have that sense of bittersweet longing and romantic nostalgia that is often associated with Scottish music, especially cues like “Life Without Whisky,” “Whisky Down Below,” the tender “Fear a Bhata,” and especially the gorgeously haunting song “Gairm Na h-Oidhche” performed in Gaelic by Mairi MacInnes. Elsewhere, the film gave Doyle the opportunity to write a few period-appropriate soft jazz pieces, including “Lipstick Swing” and the foot-tapping “Sweetheart Shuffle,” and even some wonderfully old-fashioned authentic Gaelic dances and reels, including “Smugglers Shanty,” “Fairy Dance,” “The Todday Jig,” and “MacDougall’s Jig”.

Once in a while Doyle does get to engage in some more substantial dramatic scoring, including the unexpectedly aggressive “Thick Dense Fog,” the plaintive first minutes or so of “New York Whisky,” or the moody “Macroon Stays Silent,” but these moments are few and far between, and generally take a back seat to the more lighthearted, whimsical, gently comedic sounds of the Highlands. If you have previously enjoyed any of those Doyle scores I mentioned, or any of the Scots-Irish scores penned by composers like James Horner over the years, then Whisky Galore has a lot to offer.

Track Listing: 1. Whisky Galore (Dedicated to Sean Scanlan) (1:53), 2. Life Without Whisky (1:30), 3. Lipstick Swing (0:55), 4. Sweetheart Shuffle (1:41), 5. Sergeant’s Homecoming (1:53), 6. The Drought (3:03), 7. Thick Dense Fog (1:03), 8. New York Whisky (2:28), 9. Fifty Thousand Cases (0:45), 10. Odd Surprise (1:49), 11. Midnight Raiding Party (1:34), 12. Gairm Na h-Oidhche (feat. Mairi MacInnes) (3:12), 13. Whisky Down Below (1:42), 14. Starting to Sink (1:46), 15. Hiding the Whisky (2:06), 16. Raise the Alarm (1:41), 17. Free Gratis Jig (1:36), 18. Smuggler’s Shanty (0:57), 19. Macroon Stays Silent (1:23), 20. Silk Stocking Stomp (0:34), 21. The Reitach (1:20), 22. Sláinte (1:28), 23. Cock o’ the North (1:29), 24. Fairy Dance (0:37), 25. The Todday Jig (0:24), 26. Cutter Ahoy (2:10), 27. Officer Arrives (1:26), 28. Customs Search (0:53), 29. To the Cave (4:15), 30. Blocking the Road (1:17), 31. MacDougall’s Jig (1:06), 32. Fear a Bhata (2:18), 33. Mrs. Macleod of Rassey (1:51). Air Edel Records, 54 minutes 07 seconds.

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