Home > Reviews > Under-the-Radar Round Up 2020, Part II

Under-the-Radar Round Up 2020, Part II

With the COVID-19 Coronavirus continuing to decimate the 2020 theatrical movie schedule, as well as the general mood of the world, good music is more important than ever when it comes to getting is all through these difficult times. As such (and as I did last year under much different circumstances) I am very pleased to present the latest installment in my ongoing series of articles looking at the best “under the radar” scores from around the world – this time concentrating on the second quarter of 2020! The titles include an intense action drama from Egypt, a charming romantic drama from Italy, a German version of a classic children’s story, and two titles from the Netherlands – one of which reboots a beloved 1970s British TV series!

THE CHOICE – Tamer Karawan

Every year, during the holy month of Ramadan, much of the Islamic world tunes in to watch one or more of the numerous lavish TV series that premiere during the period. Countries all across the Middle East pull out all the stops to create international quality stories; major actors and directors are involved, and the cream of that region’s film music talent often use the opportunity to shine. In 2020 one of the most acclaimed Ramadan series was Al Ekhteyar, known in English as The Choice. Produced primarily in Egypt, the series tells the true story of Ahmed Saber Al Mansi, an elite commander in Egypt’s Special Forces, who sacrificed his life to save dozens of others during a terrorist attack in the Egyptian city of Rafah, Sinai, in 2017 – an attack which was orchestrated by his former friend and army colleague Hesham Ashmawy. The series was directed by Peter Mimi, stars Amir Karara as Mansi, and has an original score by composer Tamer Karawan.

Karawan has been writing music for films and TV shows across the region for more than 20 years, and is one of the most respected musical voices in contemporary Egyptian cinema. The Choice is a perfect example of why that is. The main theme is a strong, powerful theme for strings and brass that alternates between rhythm and fluidity, underpinned by strident militaristic percussion. There are regional ethnic influences too, including solos for what sounds like an oud and a qanun that weave in and out of the traditional orchestral sounds and add a touch of the exotic. There are some lovely moments of bittersweetness in cues like “Lament” which again feature the oud prominently offset against solemn strings, but often grow to encompass more the of the orchestra, and even a subtle choir. “I Died to Live” takes this further with a haunting vocal performance in Arabic, adding a further layer of tragedy to Mansi’s death.

Conversely, the more action-centric cues have more than a touch of Jerry Goldsmith about them; cues like “The Wrong Choice,” “The Mission,” “Armed Force,” and “Terrorists Training” are a superb combinations of threatening strings and insistent percussion ideas that jump from snares to timpanis. The orchestrations in some of these cues are fascinating too; Karawan often inserts high pitched, twittering woodwinds into the mix to give the whole thing an unusual textural identity, while the brasses low down in the mix pass little motif around between themselves, seemingly independent of anything the rest of the ensemble is doing. Pushing the envelope even further are cues like “Desert Terror” and “Infiltration,” which use ney flutes to convey crippling horror in an unusual way.

The thematic high point of the score is “Victorious,” which begins with a theme for just strings and piano, but eventually grows to encompass the entire orchestra, and reaches stirringly patriotic heights of relief tempered with solemn reflection. The second half of the cue has a folk music lilt (replace fiddles with ouds) and it just gorgeous, warm and appealing. Overall, this is a superbly crafted, intelligent, and creative score for an important event, will appeal to any film music fans who have a penchant for militaristic scores tempered by heart, emotion, and a little bit of Middle Eastern and North African ethnic flair. Unfortunately the score for The Choice has not been released commercially on CD, but the promo album can be streamed exclusively from the composer’s Soundcloud page at https://soundcloud.com/karawan/sets/the-choice.

Track Listing: 1. The Choice Titles (4:05), 2. Lament (5:46), 3. The Wrong Choice (6:29), 4. The Mission (3:08), 5. Triumph (3:51), 6. Desert Terror (4:38), 7. I Died to Live (2:02), 8. Victorious (6:18), 9. Infiltration (2:10), 10. Salute (2:05), 11. Armed Force (2:45), 12. Terrorists Training (4:36), 13. Ops Prep (1:42), 14. The Choice Credits (3:47). Promo, 53 minutes 28 seconds.

 

GLI ANNI PIÙ BELLI – Nicola Piovani

Gli Anni Più Belli – The Nicest Years – is an Italian drama written and directed by Gabriele Muccino. The film follows four friends – Giulio, Gemma, Paolo, and Riccardo – who have been friends since childhood. The narrative follows them over the course of 40 years and examines their respective successes and failures – both in life and love – while simultaneously juxtaposing them against the changes that Italian society as a whole has seen over the same period. The film stars Pierfrancesco Favino, Micaela Ramazzotti, Kim Rossi Stuart, and Claudio Santamaria, and has an original score by Oscar-winning composer Nicola Piovani.

Despite being one of the most respected Italian composers of his generation Piovani never really capitalized on the Hollywood potential his Academy Award for Life is Beautiful offered back in 1997, and his career has continued mostly in his homeland; he has scored almost 100 projects since then but very few of them have been for English language titles, and even fewer of them have garnered much international attention. As such, he is likely to remain one of the most obscure Best Score winners in history, and this is a shame because much of his music is lovely – as Gli Anni Più Belli illustrates.

After a performance of the title song by Italian singer Claudio Balgioni, the score begins with “Gli Anni Belli,” a lovely and sentimental piece for lyrical strings and piano in a sort of lazy waltz style, underpinned with the subtlest hint of an accordion. The brief mid-cue switch to woodwinds is delightful, and the subsequent inclusion of acoustic guitars gives it a summery, romantic tone. Much of the rest of the score unfolds with a similar tone and similar orchestral makeup, with just enough differences in melody and instrumental combination to be interesting. For example, “Gli Anni Di Gemma” concentrates more on different parts of the woodwind section, and has a sort of wistful tone, perhaps illustrating missed opportunities or quiet regrets. “Gli Anni Della Colombaia” is anchored by a duet for solo violin and solo acoustic guitar, and is just gorgeous, a longing romantic melody full of heart and tenderness.

“La Ruota Degli Anni,” which clocks in at an impressive 13 minutes, is a little more cheeky and playful, with a mischievous tempo and dance-like orchestrations which favor pizzicato strings, saxophones, and little woodwind textures over a bed of more sultry, slithery cellos. “Gli Anni Del Canarino” revisits a variation on the main theme with emphasis on bright trumpet solos. “Le Cose Che Ci Fanno Stare Bene” is a sublime variation on the main theme for oboe that reminds of those lovely Morricone romance scores from the 1970s – Cosi Come Sei, for example. The conclusive “Gli Anni Passati” has a touch of remembrance and melancholy, but is still lovely in its own way, and features some especially noteworthy writing for layered strings during its finale.

If nothing else, Gli Anni Più Belli should go some way to reminding people just what a great composer Nicola Piovani has always been, and why it’s such a shame that his American film music career never peaked after Life is Beautiful. Perhaps it’s just as well that it didn’t – only in Europe can you get away with music that is this unashamedly emotional, this traditional, and this sentimental. I love it, and I love the languid pacing of it all, but it might not fly with anyone who prefers a more intense and involving listening experience. The score for Gli Anni Più Belli is not available for purchase on CD, but is available as a digital download from most good online retailers and streaming services.

Track Listing: 1. Gli Anni Più Belli (performed by Claudio Baglioni) (4:31), 2. Gli Anni Belli (4:05), 3. Gli Anni Di Gemma (4:30), 4. Gli Anni Della Colombaia (5:59), 5. La Ruota Degli Anni (13:43), 6. Gli Anni Del Canarino (5:20), 7. Le Cose Che Ci Fanno Stare Bene (4:03), 8. Gli Anni Passati (4:56). Lotus Productions, 47 minutes 40 seconds.

 

LASSIE: EINE ABENTEUERLICHE REISE – Enis Rotthoff

The canine superstar Lassie was a mainstay of American cinema and television for more than 50 years, and was featured in numerous shows and movies dating back to 1943’s Lassie Come Home. The last American production of Eric Knight’s beloved story was in 1994 (a film scored by Basil Poledouris), but despite him apparently falling out of favor in Hollywood he has continued to be popular elsewhere in the world. This new German film, Lassie: Eine Abenteuerliche Reise, is a modern retelling of the story, and stars young Nico Marischka as Florian, a young boy who is forced to give up his beloved dog when his father loses his job and they have to move to a no-pets-allowed apartment. Lassie ends up being taken in by a wealthy widower named Sprengel and his daughter Priscilla, who live hundreds of miles away on the North Sea Coast; however, when the caretaker of the Sprengel estate mistreats Lassie, the intrepid hound sets off on a harrowing journey to be reunited with Florian. The film is directed by Hanno Olderdissen, and has an original score by German composer Enis Rotthoff.

Rotthoff’s music is very much rooted in the classic sound of children’s orchestral adventure scores – there is a charmingly rambunctious main theme heard in the opening cue ,”This is Lassie,” the melody of which runs through much of the rest of the score and acts as a semi-leitmotif for the dog whenever he finds himself at the center of attention. It occasionally becomes big and sweeping – note the performances of it in “Friendship Is A Bond,” “My Best Friend,” and “Dreaming of Lassie” later in the score, which are just superb – but to his credit Rotthoff doesn’t just rely on variations of one melody to carry the work, and is careful to craft several interesting sub-themes and one-off ideas to give the entire score a rounded identity.

Quite a lot of the rest of the score is quite introspective and emotional – cellos in “If You Lose Someone,” woodwinds and harps in “Three Generations” and “We Belong Together,” and so on – which gives the whole thing a sense that the core emotional driving things is loss, specifically that of Florian losing his dog. However, there are also a number of cues that feature folksy guitars and playful melodies as part of overall atmosphere of rural charm, notably “An Adventurous Journey,” “The Reunion,” and the poignant “Handing Over Lassie”. I like the tenderness of the woodwind writing at the beginning of “The Lamb and the Wolf,” and how the cue becomes much more urgent and dangerous as it progresses. The tender interplay between flutes and pianos in “Bye Bye Lassie” is heartfelt, “A New Friend” is playfully cheerful, and cues like “The Stowaway” and “The Liberation” have a lively spirit built around a set of bouncy, but purposeful string ostinati.

Perhaps the only drawback to the score as a whole its presentation, which offers more than 30 short cues over the course of an hour, and as such may feel a little piecemeal and bitty to some listeners who prefer more developed cues. This is a small matter, however, for what is overall a charming and enjoyable children’s adventure score. The main theme is lovely, the buoyant orchestrations are light and eloquent, and Rotthoff’s emotional content is appealing but never overbearing. Unfortunately, the score for Lassie is not available for purchase on CD, but it is available as a digital download from most good online retailers and streaming services.

Track Listing: 1. This Is Lassie (4:21), 2. An Adventurous Journey (3:41), 3. I Miss Lassie (3:16), 4. The Lamb and The Wolf (1:46), 5. Bye Bye Lassie (3:25), 6. I Will Never Give Up (2:56), 7. The Reunion (2:42), 8. Together In Thoughts (3:03), 9. A New Friend (1:22), 10. The Stowaway (1:20), 11. If You Lose Someone (2:53), 12. Three Generations (2:23), 13. Friendship Is A Bond (2:06), 14. The Escape (1:36), 15. The Rescue (1:29), 16. The Circus (1:27), 17. My Best Friend (1:48), 18. I Will Stay Here (2:11), 19. There You Are! (1:20), 20. The Liberation (0:52), 21. Get Out of The Boat! (1:30), 22. On The Roof (1:02), 23. We Belong Together (2:14), 24. Efforts At Persuation (1:25), 25. Priscilla and Flo (1:08), 26. The Search Continues (1:11), 27. Dreaming of Lassie (2:20), 28. Alone At The Ocean (0:36), 29. On The Trip (1:21), 30. Handing Over Lassie (1:11), 31. Flo And Father (0:57), 32. Parents Conversations (1:24), 33. At The Train Station (1:25), 34. Everything Is Going To Be Different (1:40). Scoring Records, 65 minutes 18 seconds.

 

DE PIRATEN VAN HIERNAAST – Matthijs Kieboom

De Piraten Van Hiernaast – The Pirates Down the Street – is a Dutch adventure film for children, directed by Pim van Hoeve from the novel by Reggie Naus. The film stars Matti Stooker as Michiel, a teenage boy who lives in the dull Dutch coastal town of Zandwijk aan Zee. Nothing interesting ever happens to Michiel and his friends – until a family of classic sword-fighting rum-drinking pirates come to town and dock their ship down the street from where Michiel lives, and all manner of shenanigans ensue! The score for De Piraten Van Hiernaast is by the superbly talented young Dutch composer Matthijs Kieboom, who impressed me enormously with his score for Dummie de Mummie en de Tombe van Achnetoet in 2017, received an IFMCA Award nomination for the documentary score Wild in 2018, and continues to impress with his fully orchestral exploits here.

De Piraten Van Hiernaast is clearly one of the best scores of Kieboom’s career to date, but it’s also a tiny bit frustrating. You can clearly see that Kieboom is wanting to channel the great classic pirate scores of the past – Alfred Newman and Max Steiner and Korngold and John Debney – and once in a while you get flashes of that, but for my own personal taste it gets a little too bogged down in low-key mood music, which dominates the first two thirds of the score. Once it all kicks in to high gear the score is much closer in tone to Cutthroat Island than the drunken antics of Jack Sparrow, but Kieboom left me wanting more of that than there actually is.

Having said that, there is still plenty of good music to experience. The “Opening” introduces many of the score’s recurring ideas – folksy fiddles, flamboyant raucous pirate music, contemporary electric guitars, sentimental string laments, mysterious orchestral textures – all of which appear consecutively over the course of just over five minutes, setting the stage for the score to come. Much of the rest of the next half hour is given over to sinister anticipation music, heralding the arrival of the pirates themselves, and conveying the sense of unease and disharmony their presence brings to the quiet town. This is most apparent in cues like “Pirates,” “Cornelius Returns,” “The Quest,” and others, the former of which offers the first major performance of the stirring main theme.

There is orchestral mischievousness a-plenty in cues like “The Blunderbuss Family” and “Cornelius,” as well as some fun ‘ancient-sounding’ orchestrations for dulcimers that earmarks the pirates as relics from the past in a modern world, especially when the sound clashes with the sound of an electric guitar, as it does in cues like “You Cannot Read” and the more dramatic “Everyone Arrives”. Perhaps the only misfire in the score is “A Pirate Is a Threat,” which came as a mighty shock when it revealed itself to be half sea-shanty/half rap song sung in Dutch. Elsewhere, cues like “Sword Fighting” and “Pirates Never Apologize,” tease the listener with the potential for the buoyant sounds of adventure on the high seas, and often use hand claps in the percussion section that reminded me of James Horner and The Mask of Zorro);

However, it’s clear that most people will gravitate to the numerous instances of swashbuckling exuberance, and it is in these cues that Kieboom impresses the most. Once Kieboom finally throws off the shackles of restraint and unleashes his orchestra, as he does towards the end of “Betrayal,” the effect is outstanding, and the subsequent statements in “Gunpowder” and “Pirates Never Fight Fair,” are superb. A jolly and upbeat version ends everything on a happy note in “Rebuilding the Ship,” before the “Credits” reprises the big main theme to end the score on a high.

This is all excellent stuff, but it may not be exactly what people are expecting. The predominantly low-key nature of the score may be disappointing for those hoping for derring-do on the high seas, and as such one may have to temper your anticipation in favor of the more introspective and mysterious shenanigans that dominate the score. The swashbuckling finale is quite superb, though, and is worth waiting for – I just wish there was more of it. The score for De Piraten Van Hiernaast currently only available as a digital download, but a CD version from Moviescore Media (released under its English title, The Pirates Down the Street) is scheduled for release later in the summer.

Track Listing: 1. Opening (5:06), 2. Pirates (2:23), 3. The Blunderbuss Family (3:25), 4. Cornelius (0:47), 5. Norms and Values (2:03), 6. The Admiral (0:45), 7. Sword Fighting (1:17), 8. You Cannot Read (1:44), 9. A Pirate Is a Threat (1:57), 10. The Best Pirate Hunter (2:19), 11. Everyone Arrives (1:52), 12. The Police (1:11), 13. Children’s Party (0:50), 14. Cornelius Comes for Billy (2:25), 15. The Spyglass (0:54), 16. Cornelius Returns (1:47), 17. They’re Here (1:01), 18. Looking for a Job (1:34), 19. Pirates Never Apologize (1:19), 20. It’s in Your Blood (2:41), 21. Shipwreck (1:13), 22. The Quest (3:06), 23. Betrayal (3:18), 24. Ignorant Pirate (0:41), 25. Gunpowder (2:04), 26. Pirates Never Fight Fair (2:46), 27. The Explosion (1:10), 28. Rebuilding the Ship (1:15), 29. Credits (2:03). Moviescore Media, 55 minutes 07 seconds.

 

VAN DER VALK – Matthijs Kieboom

The original Van der Valk was a British television crime drama series about a detective in Amsterdam, based on the novels of Nicolas Freeling. The main character, Piet Van der Valk, was played by Barry Foster, and was a brilliant but cynical detective who regularly found himself solving crimes in Amsterdam’s underworld of sex, drugs, and murder. The show initially ran for three seasons, between 1972 and 1977, but was then off the air for more than 15 years before coming back for two more seasons in 1991 and 1992. This new show, which debuted on TV in the UK in April 2020, essentially reboots the entire concepts, and sees actor Marc Warren taking over the title role.

The theme tune for the original Van der Valk – called ‘Eye Level’ – is one of the most beloved TV theme tunes in British television history. The tune is loosely based on an 18th century German/Dutch nursery rhyme called ‘Jan Hinnerk’ in German and ‘Catootje’ in Dutch, and was written by composer Jan Stoeckart (using the pseudonym ‘Jack Trombey’). The music was so popular that the instrumental recording of the theme by the Simon Park Orchestra reached number one in the UK singles charts in 1973 – an almost unique feat for a TV theme. Naturally, when Dutch composer Matthijs Kieboom was hired to score the reboot, there was much speculation as to whether he would retain the classic original theme. Thankfully, the answer is yes, but there is much more to the new Van der Valk than that legendary melody.

In common with most contemporary television crime dramas, Kieboom’s score offers a series of orchestral-and-electronic cues that functions mostly as mood music. The score is based largely around a series of dark, brooding, sinister textures that blend a small-scale string section with deftly arranged electronic drones, creating an atmosphere of apprehension and tension that makes Van der Valk’s Amsterdam a dangerous place to work. Once in a while Kieboom injects some power and energy into the score, allowing electronic pulses and throbbing string ostinatos to take over. Parts of “Cloovers to the Rescue,” “Trailing & Chasing,” “Rescue Operation Started,” and “Connecting the Dots” are enjoyable in this regard, and offer a side to Kieboom’s music that anyone more attuned to his lush orchestral work might not have experienced before.

Elsewhere, cues like “Lucy Gets Stabbed” and “Brad de Vries” occasionally devolve into moments of hard pulsating electronic dissonance, which is impressive as it is sometimes disturbing. This is counterbalanced by some intimate writing for piano and strings in cues like “Lover’s Confession,” the second half of “Lucy Gets Stabbed,” “Confrontation,” and “Arlette,” all of which bring a much needed emotional aspect to the proceedings. Perhaps the highlights of the score proper are “The Ritual,” which is almost Gothic in nature, and the exciting series of action cues comprising “Museum Shootout,” “Rooftop Rumble,” “Catwalk Catastrophe,” and “Guns, Fists and a Frying Pan,” in which the is tension ratcheted up to the max and the orchestra as a whole plays a much more prominent role.

It’s also very clever how Kieboom manages to insert frequent references to the classic Van der Valk theme throughout the score; sometimes they are obvious (the end of “Lover’s Confession,” half way through “Corruption,” the lovely finale of “Arlette”) but sometimes they are more abstract and hidden, and it’s fun trying to spot the times Kieboom plays musical hide-and-seek as the score progresses. The final flourish of the theme in the conclusive “Dutch Detective [Eye Level 2020]” is in keeping with the tone of the rest of the score, but for my own personal satisfaction I would have loved for there to a big final statement of the full theme similar to the one in “Arlette,” but I guess you can’t have everything. The score for Van der Valk is not available for purchase on CD, but is available as a digital download from most good online retailers and streaming services.

Track Listing: 1. Cloovers to the Rescue (3:04), 2. Body Count Statistics (3:52), 3. Trailing & Chasing (2:59), 4. Lover’s Confession (2:59), 5. Lucy Gets Stabbed (2:42), 6. Right-Wing Art (1:11), 7. Rescue Operation Started (1:20), 8. Don’t Do It (2:22), 9. Confrontation (2:16), 10. Webcam Murder (0:58), 11. Library Visit (2:06), 12. The Ritual (1:44), 13. Connecting the Dots (1:46), 14. Brad De Vries (2:41), 15. Museum Shootout (4:37), 16. You Are Dead to Me (3:16), 17. Rooftop Rumble (3:17), 18. On the Payroll (1:08), 19. Banner Research (1:39), 20. Catwalk Catastrophe (2:29), 21. Guns, Fists and a Frying Pan (4:49), 22. Corruption (1:12), 23. Nighttime Kidnapping (1:48), 24. Arlette (2:41), 25. Dutch Detective [Eye Level 2020] (0:44). All3Media, 59 minutes 49 seconds.

  1. Mike
    July 21, 2020 at 7:24 am

    After listening to the Pirates Down the Street, I realized what a rip-off/copy of the Pirates! Band of Misfits score by Theodore Shapiro it is. The main theme is almost an exact copy.

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