Home > Reviews > WENDY – Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin

WENDY – Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

There have been literally dozens of adaptations of the Peter Pan story since it was first written by J. M. Barrie in 1904, as well as numerous sequels and prequels and re-imaginings. Some of the most famous include the Disney animated feature from 1953, Steven Spielberg’s sequel Hook in 1991, and P. J. Hogan’s version from 2003, but now we have possibly the most unusual version of them all – Wendy, from director Benh Zeitlin. The film is a complete re-imagining of the entire story, transposed to the contemporary American South. Devin France plays Wendy Darling, the eldest daughter of Angela (Shay Walker), who owns a diner by the railroad tracks. One night Wendy and her younger twin brothers Douglas and James board a mysterious train, where they meet Peter (Yashua Mack), a free-spirited boy; the train takes them to a river, and eventually they swim to a hidden island where children never age so long as they believe in Mother, the spirit of the island. The children spend their days having adventures but, eventually, reality begins to encroach on their world, causing doubt and regret to creep into their idyllic lives.

Wendy is director Zeitlin’s sophomore film, and comes eight years after his critically acclaimed debut Beasts of the Southern Wild. Much like that film, Wendy is a piece of dream-like magical realism, and is concerned with the way that people on the fringes of American society – especially the poor – use fantasy as a way of escaping the desperate realities of their lives. Also like Beasts of the Southern Wild, the score for Wendy is a collaboration between Zeitlin and his friend, composer Dan Romer. Prior to making his film music debut on Beasts Romer was better known as a producer and singer-songwriter, but in the years that followed he has scored a number of acclaimed indie movies including Beasts of No Nation in 2015, The Little Hours in 2017, and Maniac in 2018, as well as TV series such as The Good Doctor and Atypical. He was even attached to score the upcoming James Bond film No Time to Die for director Cary Joji Fukunaga before being replaced by Hans Zimmer.

I have to admit that I never really ‘got’ the score for Beasts of the Southern Wild, and never fully bought into the acclaim it received, especially from mainstream film critics. With the exception of the lovely and festive final cue, “Once There Was a Hushpuppy,” it all felt a little too airy-fairy, a little too wishy-washy, a little too meandery and intangible for my personal taste, and so I have never really returned to it at any point over the last eight years. As such, my expectations for Wendy were somewhat muted, but I am very pleased – even astonished – to report that the score is actually quite wonderful. In an interview with Indiewire, Romer explained “we set out to create a score that charges straight at you, with all the energy and reckless abandon of a toddler on a rampage. The themes are meant to feel timeless and cathartic, iconic yet dizzying. We wanted to take the ragtag back yard orchestra concept from ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ and explode it to new heights.” As such, the musical ensemble of Wendy is similar to Beasts of Southern Wild,’ but the scope is much broader, resulting in a score which somehow feels epic but intimate, haunted but homespun, joyous and euphoric but with hints of bittersweet regret, all at the same time.

Romer uses a medium-sized symphony orchestra, and augments the standard ensemble with a number of specialty instruments – guitars, dulcimer, hurdy-gurdy, marimba, glass harmonica – plus subtle electronics and a number of voices which play a prominent role in key moments. A lot of the music seems to be inspired by the tones and rhythms of the American south – I heard allusions to everything from country and bluegrass to Louisiana zydeco – but it’s all rendered orchestrally, which gives it a wonderfully open and lively sound. There are three basic ideas running through the score, the first of which is intended to evoke the freedom and excitement of children at play, and it is this music that is likely to appeal to people the most. In these cues Romer’s music never stops moving: it’s a mass of choppy strings, pulsating brass, darting and fluttering woodwinds, and endless trills and embellishments, all overlapping and colliding in a wonderful mass of chaotic joy. Much of the string work is pizzicato, which gives the orchestra a light and buoyant sound, and it combines frequently with harps and jangling guitars. All of this is then underpinned by a restless bed of tapped and rapped percussion, driving the music on, headlong, to destinations unknown.

The score’s softer moments tend to relate to the film’s poetic and philosophical side, and its ruminations on life, aging, and the responsibilities of adulthood versus the carefree independence children enjoy. Here, Romer uses more subdued string textures, often focusing on violins and cellos, and offers a calm, if a little downbeat counterpoint to all the rambunctiousness elsewhere. The final recurring idea relates to ‘Mother’,,the aquatic guardian of the Lost Boys Island, to whom all boys pay homage lest they grow old before their time. To capture the spiritual essence of the concept Romer uses more abstract electronic tones, almost akin to whale-song, but then adds in a vocal element that sounds like an earthy pagan hymn, perhaps rooted in Old Norse or Viking songs, calling to their deity. This is the film’s version of the concept of ‘clapping for Tinker Bell’ from Barrie’s original story – just as believing in fairies gives Tinker Bell life, so too does singing allow the Island Mother to continue working her magic.

There are so many highlights to the score it’s hard to know where to begin. The opening two cues, “Sneak Away” and “Straight On ’till Morning,” are just sensational, full of energy and wonderment and excitement. The first performance of the main theme on brass, 12 seconds into “Straight On ’till Morning,” is a full-tilt explosion of musical joy, rushing breathlessly towards adventure; subsequent statements of the main theme in “Never Grow Up” and the absolutely wonderful “Battle for Mañana” are equally exhilarating.

The first iteration of the Mother Theme appears, appropriately, in “The Mother,” a spectral fantasy of ethereal synth chords and string embellishments. It reaches its peak during “I Love My Mother,” which introduces the vocal element of the theme, a call to nature, ancient, elemental, and reverential. At one point the music sounds like it is being played through a swimming pool – a clever dramatic effect that mimics the muffled way that ‘mother’ would hear the song underwater. By way of comparison, I found the Mother ideas to have strong echoes of the music Carter Burwell and Karen O wrote for Where the Wild Things Are in 2009 – and anyone who appreciated the writing there will likely find this to their liking too.

Other cues of note include “The Haunted Train,” which is a little more abstract and intense, and uses lightly tolling bells and brass whole notes to create an atmosphere of mystery. “Neverbirds” is quietly haunting, and is notable for its increased use of ghostly synths and string phrasings that sound like seabird calls. “The Old Hand” uses steel drums and serpentine strings to create an unusual, dilapidated sound of bitterness and regret. “Where Lost Boys Go” is a soft lament for brass and strings, followed by a duet for harp and guitar, lyrical, emotional, downbeat, but beautiful. “Want To Fly?” underscores one of the key moments where Peter and Wendy take to the skies above the island – whether figuratively or literally – bolstered by Mother’s magical powers. Romer scores the anticipation with nervous, scraping, undulating strings, with tumultuous, rollicking, bombastic percussion, and with energetic brass-led pulses. The moment of flight itself, however, is more of a religious experience than anything else; Romer uses tremolo strings, dramatic chords, the eerie sound of a glass harmonica, and references to the Mother theme to emphasize the rapture.

The conclusion of the score begins with “Counting the Days,” a duet for incredibly high strings and piano that emerges into a beautifully lonely theme, which gradually picks up more instrumental accompaniments, and is full of a sense of longing, perhaps illustrating the indelible pulls of home. “The Story of Wendy” is vivacious, triumphant, and celebratory, and reprises all the score’s main thematic ideas and important instrumental content. There are several rousing performances of the main theme for bold brass and dancing strings, while the increased use of vocals give it a human element that is warm and engaging. The finale of the score, “Once There Was a Mother,” is a martial arrangement of the Mother Theme for heavy brass, staccato strings, dulcimers, and snare drum riffs, and has a similar tone and feeling as the finale from Beasts of the Southern Wild. There is a sense of powerful nostalgia here; Wendy has returned home, but still remembers her childhood, and the adventures she shared with her friends, exploring the wilds of nature with freedom and bravery.

Many people have attempted to capture the musical essence of Peter Pan over the years – Oliver Wallace, John Williams, James Newton Howard, John Powell, Maurizio Malagnini, Joel McNeely – with varying degrees of success. Williams’s Hook will likely remain the Peter Pan gold standard for most, but I have to say that what Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin have achieved here with this score is quite extraordinary. It’s such a bold, innovative take on familiar concepts – childhood innocence, the belief in magic, the indelible pull of the real world as the wild summer of childhood slips into the nostalgic autumnal glow of adulthood – that, although they are essentially the same story, the dramatic rendering is so different that they are almost incomparable. There is so much giddy elation, so much euphoria, so much celebratory joy in Wendy that it would take the hardest of hearts not to be swept up in its optimism and positivity. Against all expectations – including my own – Wendy has quickly established itself as one of the most outstanding scores of the year.

Buy the Wendy soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Sneak Away (1:24)
  • Straight On ’till Morning (2:21)
  • The Haunted Train (2:06)
  • Into the Night (1:40)
  • Neverbirds (1:44)
  • The Mother (2:42)
  • Never Grow Up (3:45)
  • The Old Hand (3:29)
  • Where Lost Boys Go (2:06)
  • Want To Fly? (6:07)
  • To Grow Up is a Great Adventure (1:36)
  • Battle for Mañana (4:23)
  • I Love My Mother (3:15)
  • Counting the Days (2:31)
  • The Story of Wendy (5:13)
  • Once There Was a Mother (1:38)

Running Time: 46 minutes 09 seconds

Milan Records (2020)

Music composed by Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin. Conducted by Shao Jean. Orchestrations by Shao Jean and Joel Sim Shao Chong,/B>. Recorded and mixed by Goisuè Greco. Edited by Phil Palazzolo. Album produced by Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin.

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