Home > Reviews > DOWNSIZING – Rolfe Kent


January 10, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Downsizing is the latest film from director Alexander Payne. It has a fascinating premise; in a research lab in Norway a team of scientists led by Dr. Jørgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård) finds a way to shrink a human being from full size, down to about five inches tall – perfectly safe, no side effects, but irreversible – as a way to halt humanity’s over-consumption of the planet’s natural resources . Within a decade the new technology – known as ‘downsizing’ – has become incredibly popular, with hundreds of thousands of people undergoing the procedure and moving to brand new, specially built communities for small people, which offer every luxury imaginable. Into this world comes Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), who agrees to undergo the downsizing procedure with his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) as a way to escape from their dull life in the real world. However, before long, Paul finds that the ‘small world’ has its own set of problems, and after he meets a Serbian playboy businessman (Christophe Waltz) and a former Vietnamese political activitist (Hong Chau), his life changes in more ways than he could have ever anticipated.

Downsizing is a flawed film which has a big idea but doesn’t know where it wants to go with it. It starts out as a fairly gentle social satire, but as it develops it touches on numerous different topics, ranging from environmentalism, human trafficking, and poverty, to the way in which new technologies can be abused by corrupt regimes. This abrupt change in approach may be jarring for those expecting a much lighter film, but I personally enjoyed it. Matt Damon is becoming excellent at playing world-weary everymen, and Christophe Waltz has a ball playing against type as a perennially upbeat and charming party boy, but the breakout star is Vietnamese actress Hong Chau, who gives her character Ngoc Lan Tran a determination, a forthrightness, and an inherent goodness, and who has all the best comedy moments thanks to her unfiltered bluntness.

The score for Downsizing is by English composer Rolfe Kent, who has scored several of Alexander Payne’s previous movies, including Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways. It’s nice to see Kent back scoring major releases after a lean few years – his last truly significant score, in terms of prestige and box office, was probably Up in the Air in 2009 – because he’s a great composer who always finds unique, interesting ways to score his films. True to form, the score for Downsizing is a mixed bag of multiple styles and influences, built around a core set of orchestrations, and an array of recurring thematic ideas that represent Paul, Ngoc, the positives and negatives of the ‘downsizing’ experience, and the Norwegian community that started it all.

The opening cue, “A Lab in Norway,” straight away shows that this score is not going to do what you expect, by presenting a piece of music that combines the traditional Scandinavian vocal performance known as kulning, with elegant orchestral lines for dancing strings and flutes, and a set of marimba–based percussion ideas that play like a cross between Thomas Newman’s American Beauty and Hans Zimmer’s True Romance. This music relates to the altruistic, egalitarian ideals that led the Norwegians to discover downsizing technology in the first place, and the orchestrations introduced here tend to dominate much of the rest of the score. This leads in to the second cue, “The World Is Amazed (Main Title Theme),” a lush, optimistic, quirky piece with a memorable string theme and notable brass fanfares, parts of which reminds me of Michael Gore’s score for the 1991 comedy Defending Your Life.

Initially the downsized world is played mostly for laughs, a highly stylized and over-produced set of ideas that almost seem to be parodies of themselves. . “Leisureland,” for example, has a hustle-and-bustle energy which is conveyed with faster tempos, and an electric guitar pulse under the orchestra. “Inching Toward the Downsizing Procedure” takes the rhythmic percussion ideas, and adds a sense of playfulness through harps and pizzicato textures, but also contains a slight sense of trepidation in the strings, and a wistfulness from the woodwinds. This all comes to a head in “The Downsizing Waltz,” a pretty, florid, classical piano melody in waltz time, which is accompanied by wavering strings, more pizzicato and harp, and metallic percussion tinkles. At the outset the piece plays up the comedy angle, and the ridiculousness of the concept, with a slight edge of surreality, but it rises to embrace a surprisingly large scale in the second half, especially when the sweeping strings take over. It’s one of the best things Kent has written in quite some time.

The theme for Matt Damon’s character Paul is introduced in “Paul’s Theme/Visiting Leisureland,” a pretty piece for light, prancing strings, with a melody carried by a recorder augmented by a plucked harp. Paul’s theme has a belabored, sort of world-weary edge to it, which captures his character well. This is counterbalanced by “Ngọc’s Theme,” written for the Vietnamese activist and unwilling downsizing victim who meets Paul as she cleans his apartment. Belying the outward brusqueness of the character, Ngoc’s theme is warm, soft, gentle, and intimate, and is often rendered for woodwinds and piano, accompanied by light synths. It speaks to her good heart and her caring nature, but is also just a little sad, capturing the essence of the flipside of the downsizing experience.

Once Paul and Ngoc meet, the music changes and becomes more serious and emotional. “Five Inches Tall and All Alone” opens with some darker, more abstract textures, and with rhythmic orchestral ideas that seem frantic and disjointed, while still staying in the same tonal world as the rest of the score. The second half of the cue presents several re-imaginings of Paul’s theme – as a lonely lament, as an unexpectedly beautiful operatic aria sung in German, and then as a piece for accordion – with a melody that becomes the basis of the end title song. “Ngọc Guides Paul Upriver and to the Other Side of the Tracks” is a set of variations on Ngoc’s theme which allow the depth of her downsized experience to become clearer, through some vaguely Spanish arrangements, as well as some more of the operatic vocals.

Eventually, Paul and Ngoc leave Leisureland and travel to Norway to meet Dr. Jørgen Asbjørnsen, the inventor of the downsizing technology. “Thank You Special Time/Paul Tends to Ngọc’s Needs” accompanies them on the journey with lovely cello writing, and gently romantic variations on both Ngoc’s theme and Paul’s theme to underscore their blossoming relationship, before climaxing into a stirring finale which sees a reprise of the Main Title Theme as Paul and Ngoc travel up the spectacular Norwegian fjords. “A Dock in Norway: The Originals” revisits the kulning vocal ideas, primal and proud, before the turning point comes in “Exodus, Farewells, Lost Luggage and Reunions” which offers a set of determined-sounding pizzicato beats overlaid with lush strings and operatic vocals, as well as several tender statements of Ngoc’s theme on recorder, before rising to an emotional finale as Paul finally decides what his destiny will be.

The final cue, “The Aeroplane Home/The Rain,” is a little downbeat and introspective, but the conclusive song “A Little Change In the Weather” ends the album on a high note. The song is a sweet and gay little ditty based on the variation of Paul’s theme heard in “Five Inches Tall and All Alone.” It’s light, airy, whimsical, and beautifully old-fashioned, filled with gorgeous a cappella vocal harmonies courtesy of the British vocal group The Swingles, who also co-wrote the playful lyrics. A little piece of trivia: one of the members of The Swingles, Edward Randell, was a child actor who played Justin Fletch-Finchley, the Hogwarts pupil menaced by the snake in the dueling sequence in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets!

Downsizing got some strongly negative reviews after it opened, with many criticizing its uneven tone and lack of clear direction; as such, the score has been somewhat overlooked. This is a shame because, for me, this is one of Rolfe Kent’s career best works. Comedy music is always difficult to judge, and satire is even more difficult because you run the risk of over-egging the pudding if the music is too manipulative, or telegraphs the jokes with a lack of subtlety. For me, Kent has successfully navigated this minefield and made Downsizing a little gem: it’s pretty, appealing, appropriately poignant and emotional, thematically strong, instrumentally interesting, and even makes room for a song.

Buy the Downsizing soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • A Lab in Norway (0:46)
  • The World Is Amazed (Main Title Theme) (1:47)
  • Paul’s Theme/Visiting Leisureland (3:02)
  • The Tiny City Beckons/Estate Sale (1:31)
  • Ngọc’s Theme (1:53)
  • Inching Toward the Downsizing Procedure (3:45)
  • The Downsizing Waltz (5:37)
  • Five Inches Tall and All Alone (4:43)
  • Ngọc Guides Paul Upriver and to the Other Side of the Tracks (5:09)
  • Thank You Special Time/ Paul Tends to Ngọc’s Needs (4:11)
  • A Dock in Norway: The Originals (2:31)
  • Exodus, Farewells, Lost Luggage and Reunions (7:18)
  • The Aeroplane Home/The Rain (4:01)
  • A Little Change In the Weather (written by Rolfe Kent, Edward Randell, and Joanna Goldsmith-Eteson, performed by The Swingles) (3:30)

Running Time: 49 minutes 51 seconds

Watertower Music (2017)

Music composed and conducted by Rolfe Kent . Orchestrations by Geoff Stradling. Recorded and mixed by Greg Townley. Edited by Richard Ford. Album produced by Rolfe Kent.

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  1. February 1, 2018 at 10:00 am

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