October 20, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Climate change is real, and it is mostly driven by the activities of human beings. The fact that this remains a political and controversial statement in some parts of the world – mostly the United States – is utterly shameful, but that’s a conversation for another place and another time. From my point of view, all the scientific evidence points to the fact that human activity since the peak of the industrial revolution has harmed the Earth: it has poisoned the water and the air through the use of unsustainable fossil fuels, and raised temperatures in some places while lowering them in others, almost to the point where some places will be virtually uninhabitable before long. Innumerable animal species have been driven to the brink of extinction, and too much essential plant life in the jungles and forests of the world have been cleared to feel the endless appetites of the population – both for food, via agriculture, and for money, via greed. All this is brought into sharp focus in this new Netflix documentary, David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet. In it, the venerable British broadcaster and naturalist takes a look back on his 93 years of life, his career making nature documentaries for the BBC, and the things he has learned about the world as a result. He calls the film his ‘witness statement,’ and it is a vital and compelling story told by a man who is perhaps the most respected voice on Earth when it comes to issues concerning the natural world. It may be the most important documentary I, or anyone, will ever watch.

I could write reams and reams of text about climate change science, how important it is, and how far too much of the global political discussion about it still argues about whether or not it is true, much less what we do about it… but that’s not what this website is about. This website is about music, and it’s important to acknowledge that, throughout his career as a filmmaker, music has played a major role in Attenborough’s films. Beginning with the groundbreaking Life on Earth in 1979, which was scored by the pioneering electronic music composer Edward Williams, Attenborough has used music to add emotion, drama, and context to his footage of the animal kingdom, drawing viewers in and encouraging them to empathize and connect with all the exotic creatures he shows. Most of the subsequent major series were scored by George Fenton – The Trials of Life, Life in the Freezer, The Blue Planet, Planet Earth, and so on – but over the last decade numerous other composers have joined the roster, from UK-based artists like Murray Gold and Sarah Class, to Hollywood royalty Hans Zimmer and the Bleeding Fingers team on Planet Earth II, Blue Planet II, and Seven Worlds One Planet.

For A Life on Our Planet the producers turned to Oscar-winner Steven Price, whose previous work in the genre includes The Hunt in 2015, Our Planet in 2019, and the DisneyNature feature Dolphin Reef. This score is very different from his others, though, because rather than celebrating the natural world – its majesty, its scope, the excitement and beauty – it instead laments it. This is a score about how much of the natural world has been lost, to humanity’s stupidity, recklessness, and greed. It’s almost funereal in tone at times, with a soft and solemn air of regret and profound sorrow. That’s not to say that there are no moments of epic majesty, because there are, and it’s also extremely beautiful at times, especially when one or more of the solo instruments is spotlighted. But, for the most part, Price concentrates on the seriousness and insightfulness of Attenborough’s grave message, before making a surge in its final third as the venerable host pleads for change, progress, and hope.

Several cues stand out as being especially noteworthy. The opening cue, “Mistakes,” places Attenborough’s narration from the movie against Price’s slow, elegiac writing for strings and subtle, dreamy electronics = this is one of the few instances where movie dialogue actually belongs on a soundtrack album. “To Have Adventures “ has a beautiful, rolling, quintessentially English piano motif accompanied by a lovely sonorous cello, dancing flutes, and lively strings, an evocation of the countryside that inspired Attenborough’s love of nature.

Later, “Evolution Undone” has an unusual 2-note repeated cello idea running through it, which gives the piece a sense of it being stuck; I can’t quite place my finger on it, but it’s very effective. “Life’s Talent For Change “ has a rolling, dance like feel that riffs on the main title theme, and features a gorgeous violin solo. “A Devastating Impact” has, as one would expect, an attitude of solemnity verging on the tragic. This continues on into the equally striking “My Witness Statement,” which uses brass to emphasize Attenborough’s emotional rhetoric.

The tone of the score changes somewhat in “We Must Rewild The World,” which is where Attenborough begins to outline his philosophy for saving humanity. Here, Price embraces a much more optimistic tone, taking the cello ideas from the earlier cues and surrounding them with more sweeping and upbeat orchestrations, including livelier string ostinatos and cymbal clashes. “A Greater Opportunity” has a sense of pretty elegance through it sparkling writing for woodwinds, harps, and dashing strings. “Eternal Energies of Nature” has a superb solo trumpet to give it a soft, quiet nobility and authority. “Saving Ourselves,” as one would expect, has an urgency to the underlying string figure that runs through the entire track, but it also as a sort of searching quality in the phrasing that is anxious, but also somehow hopeful – a difficult balancing act to convey, but which Price does well.

The final four cues – “Imagining the Future,” “This Is My Witness Statement,” “We Need To Rewild The World,” and “Imagining the Future (Instrumental)” – feature much more of Attenborough’s narration, encouraging humanity to change its ways and ‘restore the wonderful world we inherited’ – and here also Price realizes all his themes at their most emotional, most sweeping, most instrumentally rich, and most compelling. The writing for strings and brass here is especially poignant, and rises to some beautifully touching crescendos that really help to underscore the documentary’s important, potentially life-changing points.

As I mentioned earlier, this score is not in the same vein as Steven Price’s other nature documentary works like The Hunt or Our Planet; it doesn’t have the variety of approaches, and contains no action music. But, of course, the intent is wholly different. Rather than underscoring the dynamic inter-species relationships of life on earth, Price’s remit here was to capture the essence of Sir David Attenborough message – that we run the risk of losing the very things we love the most, if climate change does not become a global priority. And, from my point of view, he had done that excellently.

Buy the David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Mistakes (4:54)
  • To Have Adventures (2:22)
  • Evolution Undone (5:06)
  • The Wild Is Finite (2:55)
  • The Whole of Humanity (2:27)
  • The Process of Extinctions (2:55)
  • A Shared Conscience (1:37)
  • Nothing To Stop Us (2:12)
  • Life’s Talent For Change (5:03)
  • An Unknown World (1:47)
  • A Devastating Impact (3:19)
  • A Place Beyond Imagination (4:52)
  • My Witness Statement (2:51)
  • I Would Feel Guilty (1:18)
  • We Must Rewild The World (2:19)
  • A Greater Opportunity (2:27)
  • Eternal Energies Of Nature (2:01)
  • Within Our Power (2:30)
  • More From Less (2:46)
  • Saving Ourselves (4:34)
  • With Or Without Us (2:11)
  • Imagining the Future (1:56)
  • This Is My Witness Statement (2:35)
  • We Need To Rewild The World (2:21)
  • Imagining the Future (Instrumental) (1:40)

Running Time: 71 minutes 10 seconds

Decca 882860 (2020)

Music composed by Steven Price. Conducted by Geoff Alexander. Orchestrations by David Butterworth. Recorded and mixed by John Barrett and Gareth Cousins. Edited by Bradley Farmer. Album produced by Steven Price.

  1. October 22, 2020 at 10:36 am

    Jonathan, thanks again for all the effort. Really, so inspiring all these reviews. As a composer it also helps me to approach cinematic music in a certain way…

    Price did a great job imho, keeping it so transparant with the orchestra. It did remind me of the music of John Adams at times and a bit of the Vivaldi re-arrangement by Max Richter.

    By the way; I like how you managed to shift more towards liking the music of Tom Holkenborg. More of these kind of experiences?

    All the best,
    Jeff Hijlkema

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