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THE SHELTERING SKY – Ryuichi Sakamoto

October 22, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Sheltering Sky is an epic romantic drama film directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, based on the 1949 novel of the same name by Paul Bowles. It stars Debra Winger and John Malkovich as married American couple Kit and Port Moresby, who arrive in Algeria in 1949 on a holiday which they hope will rekindle their failing marriage. However, the harshness of the Saharan environment, coupled with Port’s jealousy and his suspicions that Kit is having an affair with their friend and travelling companion George Tunner (Campbell Scott), only makes things worse, leading to tragedy, death, and madness. The novel is one of the most acclaimed works of the twentieth century, and has been described by many commentators as one of the most compelling explorations of alienation and existential despair ever written, but the film was less successful; although praised for its visual magnificence, some critics called it “insufferably dull,” and a film which “dries up in that symbolic desert sun, the victim of its own pretensions” that “gets stuck in the sand right at the start.”

One of the more universally acclaimed aspects of the film is its score, by Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. Sakamoto won an Oscar in 1987 for Bertolucci’s previous film, The Last Emperor, and despite having the pressure of trying to emulate hat score’s success, Sakamoto made The Sheltering Sky a worthy follow-up. After a brief, scene-setting muezzin-like chant in Arabic – “The Sacred Koran” – Sakamoto unleashes his main theme: and what a theme it is! “The Sheltering Sky Theme” is a sweeping, emotional piece for a massive bank of strings, accompanied by the subtlest amount of electronic percussion. The theme is certainly beautiful, speaking to the spectacular desert vistas of the Sahara, but has a significant amount of tragedy to it too, with a weeping, cascading effect running through it all, lamenting for Kit and Port’s doomed relationship. The layers of sound that Sakamoto builds up are at times quite overwhelming, with the entire string section climbing to at times quite huge proportions.

The Sheltering Sky theme forms the cornerstone of most of the score. It receives noteworthy restatements in several subsequent cues, but what’s clever is that Sakamoto often finds interesting ways to subtly change them to convey different thoughts and emotions. For example, the quite stark and disquieting “Belly” adds woodwinds to the tonal palette, while in “On the Bed (Dream),” the theme is twisted and tortured and layered amid a series of eerie string figures. The slow and hesitant “On the Hill” overflows with a sense of despair and anguish, and slowly grows to incorporate Arabic vocals into the strings as it develops; this sense of haunting isolation and loneliness continues on in the subsequent “Dying”. “Grand Hotel” offers a final rich blast of orchestral beauty before the theme is reprised for the final time as a lovely, intimate piano-only version in the conclusive cue.

Other cues of note, which do not feature the main Sheltering Sky theme as prominently, include the avant-garde, dissonant “Port’s Composition,” which is spiky and aggressive, and uses piano and brass in subtle ways to make the strings sound richer. Later, “Loneliness” is a piano solo which mixes jazz-like chord progressions with subtle allusions to Sakamoto’s Japanese heritage. “Kyoto” is hesitantly romantic, with added emphasis on harp and woodwinds alongside the strings. Perhaps the most original Sakamoto cue of all is “Market,” a dramatic piece featuring heavy synth percussion, bold strokes from both strings and brass, and a palpable sense of danger and chaos that perfectly captures Kit’s tormented mental state, having endured so much over the course of the film.

Supplementing Sakamoto’s score are three cues by composer Richard Horowitz, who some may know from his work scoring Oliver Stone’s film Any Given Sunday in 1999, and who specializes in blending Arabic and other Middle Eastern sounds with a western orchestra. His three cues – “Fever Ride,” “Marnia’s Tent,” and “Night Train” – are much more intense than Sakamoto’s calmer textures, and blend regional vocals and local string and woodwind instruments with a vast array of percussion ranging from drums to hand claps to chains, often alongside vibrant synth textures.

There are also a handful of traditional African chants, although the geographic specificity of them is a little mixed-up: “Chante Avec Cithare” is from Burundi, “Goulov Limma” is from Algeria, and “Happy Bus Ride (Nari Ala Zarzis)” is Tunisian. There are also two songs, “Je Chante” performed by the great French vocalist Charles Trenet, and the period specific “Midnight Sun” by Lionel Hampton.

The score for The Sheltering Sky won the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Music in 1990, but was completely overlooked by the Oscars, which instead favored John Barry and Dances With Wolves, leaving this score without even a nomination. It’s not hard to understand why the Hollywood Foreign Press found The Sheltering Sky so effective, though; the way Sakamoto is able to capture the sense of desperation and tragic destiny in the main characters is notable, while the regular allusions to Arabic culture throughout the score give it a sense of place and a touch of the exotic. However, the main theme is the star of the show, and for me it’s one of Sakamoto’s career best. The way he uses it to expertly evoke both the magnificent desert landscape and the epic emotional turmoil of the protagonists is a powerful testament to his skill as a dramatist. Fans of Sakamoto’s large-scale orchestral works like The Last Emperor, or later works like Little Buddha and Silk, will find The Sheltering Sky to be very much to their taste, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Buy the Sheltering Sky soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Sacred Koran (performed by Ibrahim Canakkeleli, Fevsi Misir, Yusuf Gebzeli, and Aziz Bahriyeli) (0:40)
  • The Sheltering Sky Theme (5:19)
  • Belly (1:27)
  • Port’s Composition (1:23)
  • On the Bed (Dream) (1:37)
  • Loneliness (1:30)
  • On the Hill (6:10)
  • Kyoto (1:04)
  • Cemetery (1:25)
  • Dying (3:30)
  • Market (1:42)
  • Grand Hotel (2:06)
  • The Sheltering Sky Theme (Piano Version) (4:16)
  • Je Chante (written by Charles Trenet and Paul Misraki, performed by Charles Trenet) (2:44)
  • Midnight Sun (written by Lionel Hampton, Sonny Burke, and Johnny Mercer, performed by Lionel Hampton) (3:14)
  • Fever Ride (written Richard Horowitz and Nizar Ismael) (3:50)
  • Chant Avec Cithare (traditional) (0:44)
  • Marnia’s Tent (written by Richard Horowitz) (3:02)
  • Goulov Limma (written and performed by Cheba Zahouania) (5:47)
  • Happy Bus Ride (Nari Ala Zarzis) (traditional, performed by Naama) (1:41)
  • Night Train (written by Richard Horowitz) (1:57)

Running Time: 55 minutes 08 seconds

Virgin Records (1990)

Music composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto. Conducted by David Arch. Performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Orchestrations by John Altman and David Arch. Recorded and mixed by Matt Howe. Edited by Dina Eaton. Album produced by Ryuichi Sakamoto.

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