Home > Reviews > AN AMERICAN PICKLE – Michael Giacchino and Nami Melumad

AN AMERICAN PICKLE – Michael Giacchino and Nami Melumad

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Something unusual has been happening to Seth Rogen lately: he’s becoming a really interesting filmmaker. The man who started as the guffawing stoner in films like Pineapple Express has, of late, been tackling much more challenging material, blending drama with comedies that have a much more satirical and intellectual undertone. The Interview almost started a political international incident with North Korea in 2014, and Sausage Party was a swipe at organized religion hidden behind raunchy sex jokes, while The Long Shot proved his potential to be a slightly more conventional leading man in a romantic comedy. Now, with his new movie An American Pickle, Rogen is taking a surprisingly deep look at themes relating to loneliness, family, heritage, and Jewishness, in the context of a fish-out-of-water comedy. Rogen stars as Herschel Greenbaum, a Jewish man who emigrates to New York from Eastern Europe with his pregnant wife in 1919. Having secured work in a pickle factory, disaster strikes when Herschel accidentally falls into a barrel of brine, which somehow manages to preserve him perfectly. He wakes up exactly 100 years later to find Brooklyn very much changed; his only living relative is his great grandson Ben (also Rogen), a lonely app developer who no longer considers himself a practicing Jew. However, despite their initial happiness at finding each other, problems soon begin to arise, most of which are exacerbated by Herschel’s old-fashioned attitudes, and Ben’s lack of interest in his heritage.

What I like about this movie is that it doesn’t shy away from difficult topics. Yes, it has some broad and silly comedy as most Seth Rogen movies do, but it also looks at a number of prescient issues in contemporary society. Herschel is devoutly Jewish, devoted to his wife Sara (Sarah Snook), and is determined to live out the American dream. He’s also hot-headed, racist, sexist, and misogynistic, as per the prevailing social demographics in the year 1919. Ben, on the other hand, is clearly depressed, lonely, and isolated from society, working for years on an ‘ethical ingredients’ app while eating meals-for-one and staring at his phone. Ben’s drift away from his Jewish faith, his lack of ambition, and his apparent disinterest in his family and heritage is also a major part of his clash with Herschel, which eventually leads to their estrangement and enmity. It’s rare for a film like this to be so socially, culturally, and religiously self-aware, and it’s to the credit of Rogen, screenwriter Simon Rich, and director Brandon Trost that they were able to balance the humor and sentiment so successfully.

The score for An American Pickle is by two composers. One is the Oscar-winning composer of dozens of massive blockbusters, Michael Giacchino, and needs no introduction. The other, Nami Melumad, is a relative newcomer, and clearly does, as for most people this will be their first experience of her work. Melumad was born in Israel in 1988 and studied at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, before moving to the United States to attend the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California. She has scored numerous short films, indie features, documentaries, stage plays, and TV shows since making her debut in 2009, with her most high profile assignments being the Amazon series Absentia, the comedy feature Miss Arizona, and several of the Star Trek ‘Short Trek’ episodes that were produced as a spinoff of Star Trek: Discovery. An American Pickle is her biggest project to date by some significant margin but, based on the quality of the music, it likely won’t be for long. The official credits for the movie read “Original Themes by Michael Giacchino, Score by Nami Melumad,’ but it’s difficult to know exactly who did what without seeing the cue sheets, so from here on out I’m just going to refer to Melumad in the body of the review.

In a nutshell (in a pickle jar?) Melumad’s score is a combination of traditional East European/Jewish klezmer music featuring prominent clarinets, combined with more expansive and vibrant orchestral writing that veers from light comedy to more bold and robust action. There are stylistic influences from Giacchino throughout the score – obviously – with scores as varied as The Incredibles and Jurassic World cropping up from time to time, but it is the skill and dexterity Melumad shows in blending these ideas together that is most impressive. The Jewish side of the score is anchored by a series of wonderfully expressive clarinet solos performed by Joshua Ranz, and has influences from a number of klezmer-styled scores ranging back to Michel Legrand’s Yentl, the classic musical Fiddler on the Roof, Maurice Jarre’s Enemies: A Love Story, and perhaps even a little bit of Schindler’s List. This music is clearly an illustration of Herschel’s heritage and Jewish faith, being based on the folk music of his homeland. Meanwhile, Melumad illustrates the contemporary Western world by using a large modern orchestral palette, which of course represents Ben and his very modern life.

There are a couple of recurring main themes that crop up throughout the score, but the most prominent is the one which appears to represent Herschel and his journey. This theme is the one that has the most Giacchino in it, having a great deal in common with some of the action ostinatos from The Incredibles and Jurassic World, but the score it actually reminds me of the most is (bizarrely) John Williams’s The Last Jedi, especially the rhythmic idea that forms a major part of the cue “The Spark” from that score. Melumad frequently uses percussive patterns and chord progressions similar to Williams’s, as well as a deconstructed 4-note sub-motif derived from the main idea, and it helps give the score dramatic impetus and weight, but what I really like about it is how malleable it is. It has the capacity to be mournful and dirge-like, cheerful and peppy, raucously upbeat as part of an action scene, and even quite dramatic and intense; it is especially such during the antagonistic scenes between Herschel and Ben, as their vast differences in culture and worldview drives a wedge between them.

Almost every cue features a blend of these ideas in some form or another, and several of them are worth highlighting for their excellence. “Workin’ For Love in All the Wrong Places” introduces a lot of the main instrumental textures – clarinet, balalaika, solo fiddle and violin, some brief whirligig dance interludes – as an evocation of Herschel’s dour hometown shtetl of Schlupsk, and how it all brightens when he meets and falls in love with Sara. The bold and frantic orchestral action sequence at the very beginning of “New World Problems” underscores the Cossack attack on Herschel’s village with screaming brass and bombastic rhythms, which hastens their journey to New York, and brings the Schlupsk textures into contact with more familiar Western orchestra ideas for the first time, transposing the main theme to hopeful strings, guitar, piano, and subtle woodwinds. The dramatic crescendo halfway through the cue follows Herschel’s tumble into the pickle brine, and his fate is sealed like the lid of the vat in which he is submerged.

There’s a lovely statement of the main theme in “A Greenbaum Family Reunion” as Herschel and Ben meet for the first time, and in the second half of the cue Melumad introduces a more contemporary rhythmic cello pattern under the melody that seemingly represents Herschel’s wonderment at the fast pace of the modern world. This idea continues on into later cues like the fantastic “Pickle Your Fancy,” the intricate and propulsive “Revenge of the Ben,” the energetic and powerful “The Pickle Empire Strikes Back,” and the mischievous and darkly imposing “The Fall and Rise of Herschel’s Twitter,” all of which are notable for how they combine the recurring Schlupsk ideas with outstandingly detailed orchestrations – prominent brass, tapped percussion, harp glissandi, chimes, cymbal rings, guitars, and so much more, all getting to contribute to the ‘modern’ version of the main theme with creativity and energy. Conversely, the main theme is performed with a much more introspective and sorrowful feeling in “The Lonely Herschel Club,” while in the subsequent “Who Gives a Boop Bop” and “When the Greenbaum Breaks” Melumad allows the theme to plumb its darkest depths, and reaches peak John Williams intensity, a terrific combination of The Last Jedi and The Terminal.

“Klezmer Fight Club” is a wonderful sequence of raucous action for traditional klezmer instruments and a forthright arrangement of the main theme, accompanying Herschel as he beats up a group of construction workers – who he thinks are Cossacks – to stop them erecting a billboard above his family graveyard plot. A second action sequence begins with “Yes You Canada,” full of movement and potential, and emerges into the brilliant “The Greenbaum Switcheroo,” which accompanies Herschel and Ben as they try to flee from Canadian border patrol officers, and sounds for all the world like a Jewish version of “Chasing the Dragons,” the terrific velociraptor/quad bike chase sequence from Giacchino’s Jurassic World!

“Schlepping to Schlupsk” showcases an especially gorgeous violin solo by Belinda Broughton, and “Joining the Kaddish” is the emotional high point of the score, accompanying the moment when Ben – in a moment of rare openness – attends a traditional Mourner’s Kaddish, reconnects with his faith, and fully comes to terms with the death of his parents. Here, Melumad’s music is somehow sad and uplifting simultaneously, and brings together the main theme, another beautiful Belinda Broughton violin solo, and some reflective, hushed textures for metallic percussion. “Denouement to Be” is warm and sentimental, with strings and guitar underpinned with a subtle balalaika, and which rises to a lovely orchestral conclusion for the main theme as Herschel and Ben finally reconcile their differences and make amends, mirroring the sense of togetherness that Herschel and Sara enjoyed in the same location 100 years earlier. This continues on into “The Silver Brining,” before the conclusive “Pickles, Suite or Sour” offers a final statement of the main theme as a duet for klezmer clarinets and solo violin.

An American Pickle is an unexpectedly outstanding score, especially considering the type of movie it accompanies (broad Seth Rogen comedy) wouldn’t usually elicit this sort of writing. The use of traditional East European-Jewish-klezmer instruments and compositional stylistics is excellent and authentic, the blending of those elements into a modern and vibrant western orchestra is superb, the management of the melodic content is intelligent and well-structured, and the emotional content is high, allowing the viewer to truly connect with both Herschel and Ben and their respective travails. Best of all, this score provides an introduction to another enormously talented young composer in the shape of Nami Melumad, who clearly has the potential to go far. While An American Pickle does have a lot of Michael Giacchino in it, Melumad’s clever and tasteful manipulation and intertwining of those ideas with her own is what makes her score work, and I can’t wait to hear what she does next.

Buy the American Pickle soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Workin’ For Love in All the Wrong Places (4:13)
  • New World Problems (5:52)
  • A Greenbaum Family Reunion (3:35)
  • Seltzer Your Soul (2:14)
  • The Lonely Herschel Club (4:34)
  • Klezmer Fight Club (1:07)
  • Who Gives a Boop Bop (1:38)
  • When the Greenbaum Breaks (0:58)
  • Pickle Your Fancy (3:10)
  • Revenge of the Ben (2:55)
  • The Pickle Empire Strikes Back (5:19)
  • The Fall and Rise of Herschel’s Twitter (5:45)
  • The Herschel You Give (1:12)
  • Yes You Canada (2:53)
  • The Greenbaum Switcheroo (2:45)
  • Schlepping to Schlupsk (3:24)
  • Joining the Kaddish (2:50)
  • Denouement to Be (4:00)
  • The Silver Brining (2:03)
  • Pickles, Suite or Sour (4:06)

Running Time: 64 minutes 33 seconds

Watertower Music (2020)

Music composed by Nami Melumad. Conducted by Marshall Bowen. Original themes by Michael Giacchino. Orchestrations by Jeff Kryka. Recorded and mixed by Dennis Sands. Edited by Paul Apelgren. Album produced by Michael Giacchino and Nami Melumad.

  1. Jacob
    August 11, 2020 at 2:18 pm

    Actually, the last track/suite is credited solely to Giacchino, so not that hard to figure out what material is his.

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