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VICE – Nicholas Britell

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

How much do we actually know about Dick Cheney? According to director Adam McKay’s new film Vice, the answer is ‘not enough’. The film is a fascinating, hilarious, eye-opening piece of cinema, one part biopic, one part satire, and one part exposé of the way the political machine works in Washington DC, examining how one man can have so many fingers in so many pies that he can fundamentally alter the entire world without us really realizing it. It follows Cheney from his early years as an electrical lineman and violent drunk in Wyoming, his relationship with his wife Lynne, and how he eventually turned his life around and over the course of the next 40 years became a White House staffer during the Nixon administration, the White House Chief of Staff under Gerald Ford, a long-term member of the House of Representatives, the US Secretary of Defense under George Bush, the CEO of the Halliburton oilfield services company, and eventually Vice President under George W. Bush. He was directly involved in Operation Desert Storm, the military response to 9/11, the invasion of Iraq and the ousting of Saddam Hussein, and the drafting of the US Patriot Act – but the film also posits that he was also indirectly involved in the creation of Fox News to act as a mouthpiece for right wing views, advocated for the torture enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, and helped created the circumstances which led to the rise of ISIS. Changing the world indeed.

All this sounds as thought it might be quite mundane and dry, but the film is actually anything but. The cast – Christian Bale as Cheney, Amy Adams as Lynne, Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush, a litany of cameos – inject life and energy and humor into their portrayals; Bale is especially astonishing in the lead role, disappearing entirely into the part and doing such a good impression that you often forget that you are not watching Cheney himself. Adam McKay’s direction is idiosyncratic, creative, and absolutely brilliant, with numerous flashy camera tricks, directorial wizardry, and moments of bold and ballsy misdirection that keep the audience engaged. One particular moment in the middle of the film had me laughing out loud at its audacity, while another – where Dick and Lynne are lying in bed speaking in Shakespearean iambic pentameter – really plays up the Machiavellian aspect of the Cheneys’ political aspirations. All this excellence also transfers to the score, written by composer Nicholas Britell. This is Britell’s second collaboration with McKay after The Big Short in 2015, and is the latest in a string of high profile assignments that include Moonlight, Battle of the Sexes, and If Beale Street Could Talk. It’s also the best score of his career to date, in my opinion, by quite some significant margin.

What you have to realize about Vice is that, by and large, the whole thing is musical satire. Britell isn’t really scoring Dick Cheney’s true life story here; he’s scoring the ironic overkill that Adam McKay has put on screen, and as such the music tends to be larger than life and overstated. This is all completely intentional – the array of musical styles Britell employs are all in the service of selling a hyper-realized caricature of the Dick Cheney story. The story is told in a series of musical vignettes, and so the music tends to be somewhat episodic too, with each scene or series of scenes existing in a sort of musical bubble, but there is still quite a bit of connective tissue between them, in terms of a couple of recurring thematic ideas, and a couple of recurring stylistic tones. Once you understand this creative approach, it’s easy to be impressed with the variety of musical choices Britell made, and how much he excels at all of them.

Britell’s main recurring theme is called ‘The Lineman,’ in reference to Cheney’s first job installing and repairing electrical power lines in rural Wyoming. It’s based around a four note main theme that sounds a little like James Horner’s famous ‘danger motif,’ and has various assorted flourishes and developments that elaborate upon and build from that central core. What I like about the theme is how it follows Cheney throughout most of his life, changing and adapting in both tone and orchestration, depending on what he is doing at that point in time. In the opening cue, “Prelude and Development,” it initially has a nostalgic quality, with gentle woodwinds, wistful strings, and a harp, but it gradually builds to encompass a bolder and more forthright sound for the full orchestra, with the main theme performed on solo trumpet, which to me seems to show Britell hinting at Cheney’s destiny to be a powerful, important man.

This main theme carries through much of the score. In “Vice – Main Title Piano Suite” it is heard on a softly jazzy solo piano. “The Lineman in E-Flat Minor” offers a longer exploration of the brass part of the main theme, dark and commanding, with an excellent solo trumpet performance, and some complex and abstract chord progressions which seem to be commenting on Cheney’s skewed world view. Later cues like “The Other Half Fears Us” and “Major Combat Operations Have Ended” also feature the theme strongly. Interestingly, there also seems to be an ‘election variation’ on the main theme that crops up in scenes of Cheney campaigning for office. This dance-like, almost caper-esque version adds a sort of carnival atmosphere to “James Earl Carter Jr.,” which underscores Jimmy Carter’s defeat of Gerald Ford in the 1976 presidential election, while later in “The Wyoming Campaign” the music expertly combines with some soft, wholesome writing that is phrased like music from a western.

The other recurring theme in the score is what I’m calling the Cheney Family Theme, and it appears most prominently in two cues. The first is “Dick’s Heart Is Healthier Than Ever,” which despite its brevity actually might be my favorite cue on the album; this is the cue from the ‘fake end credits’ that roll in the middle of the film, one of the best laugh-out-loud moments in the entire movie. Here, Britell unleashes a huge emotional orchestral theme, celebratory and rousing, which gets bigger and bigger as it progresses. What’s brilliant about this cue is that it’s used completely ironically; in context, the sweeping and passionate style evokes the massive finales people like James Horner were wont to write, but of course the joke is on us, because Dick didn’t remain in the private sector, Lynne didn’t go on to breed prize-winning golden retrievers, and the Cheney story was nowhere near over at that point in time. Not only that, but from a purely musical point of view the theme is just glorious, and makes me want Britell to score a sweeping romantic drama where that sort of music is required for real.

The second prominent cue where the Cheney Family Theme is heard is “At Death’s Door,” where all irony is stripped away and the theme is used to score the genuine emotion felt by the Cheneys when Dick suffers his most serious heart attack and his family is advised to prepare for his death. This is a moment of real emotional pathos, intimate and touching, and when Britell harmonically links this theme to the Lineman theme in the cue’s second half, the effect is outstanding.

Outside of these two main themes, there are also two stylistic ideas that Britell repeatedly revisits, the first of which is what I am calling ‘Washington Funk’. These cues are intended to evoke the nature of Cheney’s first political life in DC in the 1970s and 80s by using the musical tropes of jazz, funk, disco, and Blaxploitation movies to bring the backstabbing, machinations, and double-crossing to life. Cues such as “Master of the Switchblade,” “Flipping Cards,” “Taking Over the Damn Place,” and “The Washington Game Board” are full of Isaac Hayes-style brasses, wonderful wakka-wakka electric guitars, whistling, contemporary drums, Hammond organs, muted trumpets, jazz xylophones, and light hip-hop beats, all of which are brazen and confident and not taking any bullshit from anyone.

This stands in contrast to Cheney’s second political life in DC in the 2000s, which is underscored with a style that I am calling ‘Bush Administration Classical’. These cues are much more traditional-sounding, with a standard orchestral complement and straightforward emotional directness. These ideas start to emerge in “He Wants to Impress His Father,” which features some slightly devious-sounding woodwinds and sneaky but playful strings, for the scene where Dick agrees to be George W. Bush’s vice president. Later, “My Friend, My Running Mate” is a celebratory fanfare for when Cheney is introduced to a supportive Republican crowd, while “The War in Afghanistan/His Magnum Opus” plays like a fugue, with overlapping layers of violins and cellos offset against hooting clarinets. “The Iraq War Symphony” is a clever cue which, again, plays in ironic juxtaposition to reality, with music that projects strength and optimism while scenes of water-boarding and other assorted Abu Ghraib atrocities, and obvious Halliburton war profiteering, play in montage.

“Conclusion – The Transplant” is the longest cue in the score and is a clever piece which combines both the Lineman theme and the Cheney Family theme together through 7 minutes; the music shifts slowly between statements for both trumpets and violins, features some more intimate writing for layered strings, moments of cello virtuosity, and even has some hints of church music, possibly commenting on the Cheney family’s real faith. The final performance of the main Lineman theme in “Vice – Main Title Orchestra Suite” is lush and classical, and genuinely beautiful.

Writing a film score that is both satirical and sincere at the same time is one of the most difficult balancing acts a composer can undertake. You have to key the audience in to the joke while not overselling it to the point of obviousness, but then also use that same music to score scenes that are intended to be viewed un-ironically; finding that line can be a key element in whether a film is successful or not. Nicholas Britell not only found that line in Vice, but he also made his score genuinely interesting and appealing from a musical point of view – something that many composers fail to do. Moonlight earned Britell his first Oscar nomination, and If Beale Street Could Talk has been the recipient of a great deal of critical praise in 2018, but for me Vice is his standout score of the year, and it confirms to me that this is a composer whose voice will continue to be heard for many years to come.

Buy the Vice soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Lineman – Prelude and Development (2:10)
  • He Saw an Opportunity – Counterpoint in C Minor (2:19)
  • Vice – Main Title Piano Suite (1:51)
  • Master of the Switchblade (1:56)
  • Flipping Cards (1:22)
  • B-Flat Prelude (1:13)
  • The Lineman in E-Flat Minor (1:49)
  • Taking Over the Damn Place (3:26)
  • Scalia (0:19)
  • James Earl Carter Jr. (1:14)
  • The Wyoming Campaign (3:23)
  • The Other Half Fears Us (2:08)
  • Dick’s Heart Is Healthier Than Ever (1:51)
  • He Wants to Impress His Father (2:00)
  • My Friend, My Running Mate (0:53)
  • The Washington Game Board (2:42)
  • The Many Offices of The VP (1:56)
  • The War in Afghanistan/His Magnum Opus (2:34)
  • The Iraq War Symphony (2:48)
  • Major Combat Operations Have Ended (1:53)
  • At Death’s Door (2:40)
  • Conclusion – The Transplant (7:07)
  • Vice – Main Title Orchestra Suite (1:52)
  • Imperium (1:45)
  • G Minor Prelude (2:59)
  • Parade Music (Bonus Track) (2:03)

Running Time: 58 minutes 25 seconds

Decca Records (2018)

Music composed and conducted by Nicholas Britell. Orchestrations by Matt Dunkley, Mark Baechle and Richard Bronskill. Recorded and mixed by Casey Stone. Edited by John Finklea. Album produced by Nicholas Britell.

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  1. February 1, 2019 at 9:07 am

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