Home > Reviews > DOWNHILL – Volker Bertelmann

DOWNHILL – Volker Bertelmann

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Downhill is an English-language remake of the Swedish film Force Majeure, which was written and directed by Ruben Östlund and was nominated for a Golden Globe for best foreign language film. The remake, which is directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, stars Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Pete and Billie, a married American couple on a skiing vacation in Austria with their children. One day, while the family is having lunch at an outdoor restaurant, a controlled avalanche takes place on a nearby mountain; the snow comes perilously close to their table, to such an extent that Billie genuinely believes she is going to die. Pete, however, grabs his phone and runs away, apparently abandoning his family to save himself. Everyone survives, but this one incident proves to be the trigger for a different kind of avalanche – where simmering tensions in the marriage suddenly come roaring the surface. The film is a perfect blend of comedy and drama, and is anchored by winning performances by both Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus, who somehow manage to make the film’s potentially jarring tonal shifts seem natural.

The score for Downhill is by German composer Volker Bertelmann, who usually works under the pseudonym ‘Hauschka’. Bertelmann is an Oscar nominee, for Lion in 2016, and has scored several fairly high profile films over the last few years, including Hotel Mumbai and Adrift in 2018, and The Art of Racing in the Rain last year. I have never been particularly drawn to his music – he always felt like one of those minimalist, cello-drone composers whose music sits on top of a film doing very little – but this has all changed with Downhill, which is an absolute delight, and has immediately become my favorite score by him to date.

The most interesting thing about Downhill are the vocals. In order to capture the spirit of the film’s Alpine setting, Bertelmann has saturated his score in unusual vocal ideas ranging from humming, breathing, and doo-doo noises, to full on yodeling. They are often layered together in fascinating combinations, so that you hear several vocal styles simultaneously, with the end result being a sort of ‘orchestra of voices’ that create a wonderfully evocative, wholly unique sound. Much of the vocal work is from one person: the German-Turkish singer-songwriter Alev Lenz, who has released several popular albums in her homeland, and has worked as a guest vocalist on scores by composers such as Niki Reiser, Johan Hoogewijs ,and Martin Phipps. Her unique tones give the score its soul, and appear in every cue.

Lenz’s vocals are augmented by a number of varied orchestral string textures, ranging from plucked pizzicato textures and jazz-inflected doubles basses to warm violin washes, and thrilling runs that capture the freedom of the mountains and the exhilaration of hurtling down the side of them on skis. There is a main theme that appears in several cues, but this is not really a strict themes and variations work with identifiable leitmotifs – it’s more of a score that offers a broad feeling across the entire work. The main theme has three main variations; the first one is a representation of the film as a whole, and appears as a bouncy and comedic little scherzo with prominent vocals in cues like “Snow” and “Morning Prep”. Later, “File Complaint” introduces a very unusual ‘yelping’ sound into the mix, while “Restroom” really cranks up the prominence of most unusual vocal ideas – the doo-doos and the breathing – while offsetting them against an ostentatious solo violin.

The second variation tends to accompany Pete and Billie while they are actually enjoying their vacation; cues like “First Family Ski Run” and “Second Ski Run” are vivacious and energetic, with a lively attitude and some fun moments featuring what sounds like a harpsichord or a dulcimer. Later, “All Skied Out,” “Rescue Me,” and “Leaving Hotel” present the theme a somewhat different vibe, as Bertelmann obscures the theme with some distorted with unusual synth textures, which are clearly intended to be representation of how broken Pete and Billie’s relationship is at that point in the film.

The third variation on the theme is a sort of ‘action variation’ which tends to underscore the increasing recklessness of Will Ferrell’s character as he tries to come to terms with how his actions have altered his marriage. “Bobsled Run” underscores the scene where Pete intentionally rear-ends his son while they are on a children’s bobsled/luge track, while “Pete Wiped Out” underscores a scene where Pete intentionally skis off-piste on a dangerous part of the mountain, and almost falls to his death. Both cues are quite intense and feature flashing strings, rapid pizzicato ideas, wonderful cascading effects, and overall a highly classical sound.

The other theme in the film is one which tends to underscore the more subdued, dramatic moments of conversation and revelation between the family, and uses a more intimate combination of piano, dulcimer, strings and electronics. Cues like “Bathroom Mirror,” “Aftermath,” and “It’s Black and White” feature this sound prominently, while “Until You Got Kicked Out” is a bittersweet piece for multiple dulcimers. The conclusive “Roof Snow Dump” is a 5-minute summation of the score which runs through several of the different variations, and provides a highly satisfying coda to the whole thing.

I have to admit to being very surprised by how good Downhill was, considering the nature of the film, and the composer writing the music. Low-key comedy-dramas like this don’t often lend themselves to much musical innovation, but Volker Bertelmann’s work here is the exception to that rule. It’s quirky, cheerful, charming, and makes excellent use of a very unique palette, especially with regard to the vocals, and is short enough that it never outstays its welcome. Downhill is never going to feature in anyone’s best-of-year lists, but it’s certainly well worth exploring for anyone who sometimes enjoys a complete change of pace, and maybe has a soft spot for yodeling!

Buy the Downhill soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Snow (1:58)
  • First Family Ski Run (1:11)
  • Morning Prep (1:19)
  • Second Ski Run (0:34)
  • Bathroom Mirrors (0:58)
  • File Complaint (2:16)
  • Aftermath (1:37)
  • Bobsled Run (1:47)
  • Restroom (1:22)
  • Until You Got Kicked Out (0:43)
  • Pete Wiped Out (1:00)
  • All Skied Out (2:42)
  • It’s Black and White (2:04)
  • Rescue Me (2:19)
  • Leaving Hotel (1:55)
  • Roof Snow Dump (4:52)

Running Time: 28 minutes 37 seconds

Hollywood Records (2020)

Music composed and arranged by Volker Bertelmann. Special vocal performances by Alev Lenz. Recorded and mixed by Daniel Kresco. Album produced by Volker Bertelmann.

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