Home > Reviews > ELEPHANT – Ramin Djawadi

ELEPHANT – Ramin Djawadi

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Elephant is the latest feature film from Disney Nature, the subsidiary of the mouse house dedicated to making wildlife-themed documentaries, and whose previous works have included Chimpanzee, African Cats, and Bears. Although I understand that their heart is in the right place, these Disney docs pale considerably when compared to the efforts of the BBC Natural History Unit, and I especially have a pet peeve about how the filmmakers force a narrative onto the animals’ lives, and anthropomorphize them to make them more dramatically persuasive. In Elephants, for example, the ‘story’ follows a herd of elephants “led by their great matriarch Gaia and her younger sister Shani, who has helped keep their family safe. Shani has also been raising her spirited son Jomo, a very energetic young elephant who just wants to play”. How do they know the older elephant is named Gaia? How do they know the young elephant is called Jomo? These are wild elephants. They don’t have human names. The animal kingdom is intense and dramatic already, and doesn’t need to be dressed up and dumbed down with cutesy names and false constructed narratives to be compelling to audiences. Anyway, despite this, the stories have been fairly popular, and Elephants has an added level of public interest due to the fact that it is narrated by Meghan Markle, and is her first media project since she married Prince Harry and became the Duchess of Sussex.

Another thing that has been somewhat hit-and-miss for Disney Nature compared to the BBC and others has been the music. They have certainly hired some decent talent over the years – George Fenton scored Bears, Nick Hooper scored both Chimpanzee and African Cats, and other projects have featured music by the likes of Harry Gregson-Williams and Cyrille Aufort – but by and large the musical elements of their films have been somewhat eclipsed, especially recently with such outstanding scores as Steven Price’s The Hunt and Our Planet, Hans Zimmer’s Seven Worlds One Planet, Nainita Desai’s Untamed Romania, and Panu Aaltio’s pair Tale of a Lake and Tale of a Forest. For Elephant the producers turned to composer Ramin Djawadi, freshly let loose from his eight years composing for Game of Thrones, and they absolutely made the right choice: Elephant is by far the best of all the Disney Nature scores to date, and could easily be in the conversation for being Djawadi’s career best theatrical work.

I suppose the best way to describe Elephant is ‘Lion King light,’ in that it makes use of a large array of bold and joyous African vocal stylings, alongside a great deal of tribal percussion and a large, vibrant orchestra that speaks in expressive, emotionally direct tones to convey the experiences of these splendid pachyderms. There are echoes of other scores here too – Hans Zimmer’s The Power of One, Klaus Badelt’s Beat the Drum, John Powell’s Endurance, for example – and so anyone who has an affinity for the Media Ventures/Remote Control variation on orchestral African music will find Elephant to be very appealing. In terms of construct, the score has no real recurring main theme to speak of, and instead casts its emotional net far and wide, accompanying each scene and each new adventure with a musical vignette that employs similar tones and orchestration, but very little obvious frequent thematic content.

Some pieces stand out as being especially noteworthy. The opening “Elephant Prologue” is filled with joyous, spiritual-sounding songs comprising soulful African vocals, gorgeous lilting orchestral themes filled with magic and wonder, and a sense of playfulness, all celebrating the wild beauty of the Kalahari and these majestic animals. “Pool Party” uses mischievous marimbas, tribal percussion, dancing woodwinds, and vibrant vocals to capture the different personalities within the herd. “Mud Rescue” is a little darker, and uses more urgent percussion ideas, as well as moments of dissonance and tension, to ensure the viewer is aware the constant dangers the elephants face. “Leaving The Delta” is earnest and poignant, with soaring vocals, rhythmic percussion, and searing strings suggesting movement and destiny.

“Stepping Stones” uses breathy vocals and a duduk to create a sense of unease, while “Bones” is awash in heartrending beauty, featuring lovely combination writing for woodwinds and synths, haunting vocals, and a lonely solo piano. “A Thousand Mile Journey” is determined and steadfast, with a warm, welcoming sound. “Caterpillars” has a dance-like energy featuring prominent metallic percussion, before switching to more dramatic emotional content in its second half. “Under The Stars” uses chimes, dulcimers, and effervescent hummed voices to create a magical atmosphere. Perhaps the highlight of the entire score is “Victoria Falls,” which begins with understated exotic woodwinds and percussion, expressive female vocals, and slowly builds before exploding at the 3:00 mark, a mass of soaring brass, string figures, and joyous vocals that capture the majestic visual splendor of one of the world’s most glorious natural features,

There is tension and danger in “Crocodile Crossing,” including a decidedly Jerry Goldsmith-esque slithery descending brass figure to describe one of the elephants’ few natural predators. “Lion Hunt” is an action track featuring intense synths and percussion, abstract woodwind and brass writing, and overall a much more severe and dissonant attitude than most of the rest of the score; the percussion ticks and scrapes, the sound is guttural, and the whole thing builds to a vivid finale with booming, resounding brass. The subsequent “Death of a Matriarch” has a tone of quiet tragedy through its softly cooing voices and dark synth palette, but this all changes in “Floodwaters Return,” which sees the return of the bold African vocals, watery synth ideas, and tribal percussion that feels almost celebratory. “The Final Push” opens with a gorgeous violin solo, and the conclusive “An Unforgettable Journey” is a mirror of the opening cue – warm, melodious, open, and engaging, with rousing African vocals and a vibrant orchestral finale.

As a result of what is happening in the world right now, we’re in a lean time when it comes to new film music, but Elephant could be the one little tonic that everyone needs to raise their spirits, however briefly. Djawadi’s expressive and authentic African-flavored writing is uplifting and triumphant, the vocals are dazzling and rich, and the emotional content is direct and strong – I wouldn’t go so far as to say its inspirational, but it certainly makes you think that if these elephants can survive in the harshest of conditions on the plains of the Kalahari, then maybe we can get through what we’re all going through too.

Buy the Elephant soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Elephant Prologue (6:04)
  • Pool Party (2:42)
  • Mud Rescue (3:07)
  • Leaving The Delta (1:21)
  • Family Reunion (1:49)
  • A Magnificent Bull (1:19)
  • Stepping Stones (1:57)
  • Bones (2:32)
  • A Thousand Mile Journey (2:01)
  • Caterpillars (2:25)
  • Under The Stars (2:09)
  • Victoria Falls (3:49)
  • Palm Island (1:29)
  • Crocodile Crossing (4:43)
  • Angola Rains (4:10)
  • Lion Hunt (4:03)
  • Death Of A Matriarch (2:41)
  • Mourning (1:31)
  • Rival Herd (2:00)
  • Floodwaters Return (2:01)
  • The Final Push (2:38)
  • An Unforgettable Journey (3:57)

Running Time: 60 minutes 29 seconds

Walt Disney Records (2020)

Music composed and conducted by Ramin Djawadi. Orchestrations by Stephen Coleman. Additional music by Brandon Campbell and William Marriott. Recorded and mixed by Chris Fogel. Edited by Paul John Chandler. Album produced by Ramin Djawadi.

  1. April 21, 2020 at 1:48 pm

    Thank you were looking for good nature flix to watch tonight…

  2. April 22, 2020 at 1:22 am

    I still wonder why there was no review for Pacific Rim by Djawadi.

    • April 22, 2020 at 1:57 am

      Honestly, I didn’t find it interesting enough to write about. I saw the movie once and didn’t like it. I listened to the score once or twice, and moved on. I haven’t seen the film or listened to the score since.

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