Home > Reviews > JOJO RABBIT – Michael Giacchino

JOJO RABBIT – Michael Giacchino

November 12, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

I’m trying to imagine the pitch meeting that writer-director Taika Waititi had with the executives at Twentieth Century Fox regarding Jojo Rabbit. “It’s a comedy set in Germany during World War II where the hero is a little boy who’s a Nazi and has an idealized version of Adolf Hitler as an imaginary best friend.” This starting off point is utterly ludicrous but – contrary to every reasonable thought process – the film works. Waititi’s film is not only hilarious and clever and subversive, but it’s also profoundly emotional, and it has some vital and important things to say about racism and the power of propaganda that are just as pertinent today as they were in 1943. 11-year-old Roman Griffin Davis stars in the title role as young Jojo Betzler, who lives in Nazi Germany and has been so affected by the pervasive propaganda that he dreams of joining the Hitler Youth and has a friendly version of Der Führer as his imaginary best friend and surrogate father figure. However, things change enormously in Jojo’s when he discovers that his patient and loving mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is harboring a devastating secret that could have a profound effect on everyone’s lives. The film co-stars Thomasin McKenzie, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, and Stephen Merchant, as well as Waititi himself as old Adolf.

The task of coming up with a musical voice for this peculiar film fell to Michael Giacchino, who has been having a quiet year in 2019 by his standards, with just this film and Spider-Man: Far from Home on his docket. I would imagine that the overwhelming issue with regard to Jojo Rabbit was one of tone. How do you convey the comedy of the situation without trivializing it or making Hitler seem like too much of a joke? Conversely, how do you allow the human emotion and genuine sentiment to come through without making the audience feel uncomfortable at the scenes that are supposed to be viewed as satire? It’s a delicate tightrope to walk, and one that Giacchino has navigated generally successfully, although perhaps in his desire to please everyone at the same time, the score as a whole seems to have lost a little bit of the spark and personality that is usually associated with his works.

In an interview with Tim Gray for Variety, Giacchino says “I didn’t want the music to be funny. The bulk of the movie has this huge heart, especially in the character of Jojo himself, and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t adding to the zaniness. I wanted to underline the emotional component. For me, it’s a devastating story but in the end an uplifting one. With everything we’re going through now, it felt like something important to be a part of.” To this end, Giacchino’s primary concern was creating a main theme that could appear in numerous different guises and mirror the emotional and philosophical journey that Jojo takes over the course of the film. Giacchino relates that “In the beginning, Jojo’s theme is essentially a Nazi march. If you had translated lyrics about what those kids are singing, they seem to be all praising the Hitler Youth paradigm and what is good about fascism. My hope is that by the end of the movie, you would have a completely different interpretation of that song. I wanted to create a transformation of Jojo, who wants to sing the lyrics proudly as a Hitler Youth, but by the end of the film wants to sing as someone who is against fascism.”

As such, Jojo’s Theme is everywhere in the film, charting his progress from unapologetic fascist to enlightened young man. The Nazi March version of the theme is presented in the opening cue, “Jojo’s March,” which is filled with oompah tubas, snare drums, flutes, and features German lyrics by Elyssa Samsel. Most of the rest of its initial iterations are playful and a little carefree: for example, “Adolf Einleitung in Cheek” is a whimsical duet for recorder and guitar, while “Catch the Antelopers” sees the theme underpinned with a sense of cheery adventure. However, as the story develops and Jojo slowly begins to learn more about what is happening around him, the theme changes. “A New Uni-deform” re-arranges the theme as a guitar duet, “A Boy of Letters” deconstructs the theme for recorder, “Mother Joker” is a lovely piece for guitars and piano, and “A Butterfly’s Wings” is an effortlessly attractive piano solo.

The catalyst for this change is the character Elsa, the young Jewish orphan who Jojo’s mother is secretly harboring inside the walls of his house, keeping her safe from the Nazis. Elsa first begins to make her presence known in “The Secret Room,” which is the cue that underscores Jojo’s discovery of Elsa’s existence. There is a great deal of tension and apprehension in this music, reflecting Jojo’s fears when discovering the ‘intruder’ in his home, as well as the multitude of propaganda lies he has been spoon-fed about Jews. Giacchino uses slithery strings, low brass clusters, and stabbing pianos, in what amounts to light horror music, to convey this. However, as the character and personality of Elsa emerges, and as she bonds with Jojo, the music changes, and Elsa’s theme begins to reveal itself too. Cues like “Beyond Questions,” “The Elsa Prophecy,” “A Few of My Shiniest Things,” and “Elsa’s Art Appreciation” contain some pretty and magical harp textures, and expressive violins, but the whole thing is perhaps a little on the restrained side; there is no clear melodic theme representing Elsa, just the instrumental ideas, and this is a bit disappointing.

Also perhaps a little disappointing is the music which tends to relate to Jojo’s increasingly upsetting experiences while attending Hitler Youth camps, and which later extends to his encounters with Gestapo agents in and around his home town. Cues like “Rabbit Got Your Tongue,” “How Jojo Got His Name,” “Jojo’s Infirmary Period,” and “Pickled Pink” feature a series of abstract metallic textures and unusual percussive rhythms, while “Gestapo Making Sense” uses plucked bass strings, manipulated electronics, exotic clattering percussion, and dark piano chords to create a sense of apprehension and barely concealed menace as a group of Gestapo officers invade Jojo’s house. It is effective enough, but perhaps a little under-developed and overly-simplistic, again doing its job without really showing any sort of strong musical personality.

The music reaches its emotional high point in “Rosie’s Nocturne,” a sadly nostalgic piece for strings and piano, which is immediately followed by “The Kids Are All Reich,” an emotionally heightened version of Jojo’s Theme featuring a solo choirboy and a church organ. A few more statements of Elsa’s theme (“Allies Well That Ends Well,” the curiously fragile “What Elsa Is New”), some intentional classical pastiche (“A Game of Names,” “Eye of the Tiger” which sadly has nothing to do with the song from Rocky III), and a significantly heightened moment of tension to address “The Adolf in the Room” brings the score to its conclusion. The statement of Jojo’s Theme in “A World to the Wise” is childlike and sweet when performed by piano and celesta, and it segues into the 4-minute concert version of “Jojo’s Theme”, which runs through several variations on the melody and ends with the hymnal solo choirboy.

The somewhat bitty nature of the soundtrack is driven by the film’s episodic editing, so there’s not a lot Giacchino could do about it from a practical point of view, but the whole thing does feel a little stop-start and scattershot, with many of the score’s 39 cues lasting less than a minute. This is just the final aspect of the score which stops it from being truly top-tier Giacchino. I don’t like criticizing a composer who clearly worked incredibly hard to find the right musical voice for a film like this, which doesn’t have an obvious one, and could very easily have been harmed by a composer who found the wrong one, but overall Jojo Rabbit feels like a score without much of a defining character. The main Jojo theme is strong at the beginning and at the end of the score, when it is heard in choral form, but tends to lose its way in the middle, never really establishing itself as a strong identity for the character in its more subtle iterations. This, combined with the unexpectedly understated musical identities for both Elsa and the Nazis, results in a score which tends to meander quite a bit, and anyone who isn’t paying really close attention could find themselves drifting off along with it during its elongated mid-section.

Not only that, but in the film, director Waititi also makes prominent use of numerous (intentionally) anachronistic pop and rock songs, including a German-language version of the Beatles “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” (“Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand”), Tom Waits covering The Ramones’s “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” and David Bowie’s “Helden,” which is a German-language version of his 1977 song “Heroes”. This also diminishes the impact of Giacchino’s music in context, as all the most memorable musical moments tend to come via this medium instead of his score. Overall, the lack of a strong score-driven personality, combined with the prominence of the songs, results in Jojo Rabbit being an appropriate but oddly dull Giacchino effort that may not resonate with anyone more used to his bold, vibrant efforts in the super hero, action, and sci-fi genres. I absolutely applaud Taika Waititi for taking a risk on a film like this, which had so much scope to be a totally inappropriate and offensive disaster, and turning it into a cinematic success, but I fear that Giacchino’s contribution to the project will not be similarly well-loved within the film music world.

Buy the Jojo Rabbit soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Jojo’s March (1:01)
  • Rabbit Got Your Tongue (1:20)
  • How Jojo Got His Name (0:30)
  • Adolf Einleitung in Cheek (1:02)
  • Catch the Antelopers (0:33)
  • Grenade and Bear It (0:45)
  • Jojo’s Infirmary Period (0:53)
  • A New Uni-deform (1:12)
  • From Poster to Postest (0:25)
  • The Secret Room (5:14)
  • Pickled Pink (0:44)
  • Negotiate Your Heart Out (1:05)
  • Beyond Questions (1:07)
  • No Weak Jews (0:50)
  • The Elsa Prophecy (0:20)
  • A Boy of Letters (0:27)
  • A Game of Names (0:30)
  • Mother Joker (1:16)
  • A Few of My Shiniest Things (1:38)
  • Eye of the Tiger (String Quartet Version) (2:08)
  • Get to the Back of the HQ (0:16)
  • Proving Your Metal (0:49)
  • Elsa’s Art Appreciation (1:55)
  • Gestapo Making Sense (4:01)
  • Don’t Speech Your Pants (1:01)
  • A Butterfly’s Wings (1:16)
  • Rosie’s Nocturne (2:36)
  • The Kids Are All Reich (2:39)
  • Allies Well That Ends Well (0:59)
  • New World Order (0:57)
  • A Few Too Germany (1:10)
  • What Elsa Is New (2:01)
  • Nathan’s Last Letter (0:51)
  • The Adolf in the Room (0:41)
  • A World to the Wise (0:46)
  • Elsa Behaved (0:38)
  • Jojo’s Theme (3:53)

Running Time: 49 minutes 47 seconds

Hollywood Records (2019)

Music composed and conducted by Michael Giacchino. Orchestrations by Jeff Kryka. Recorded and mixed by Dennis Sands and Peter Cobbin. Album produced by Michael Giacchino.

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