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JUNGLELAND – Lorne Balfe

December 4, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Jungleland is a low-budget boxing-themed drama written and directed by Max Winkler, the son of legendary comedy actor Henry Winkler. It stars British actors Jack O’Connell and Charlie Hunnam as Walter and Stanley Kowalski, working class brothers who endure menial jobs to make ends meet, and then spend their evenings in the underground bare-knuckle fight scene of their tough Massachusetts home town. Seeking one last shot at fame and redemption, Walter learns of a bare-knuckle prize fight contest worth $100,000 taking place in the back-alleys of San Francisco’s Chinatown – but they don’t have the money to get there. In desperation the brothers throw their lot in with a local gangster, who agrees to fund their trip, with one proviso: they must transport a mysterious young woman to Reno, Nevada, along the way. The film co-stars Jessica Barden and Jonathan Majors, and was released briefly in cinemas in November 2020 before heading off to streaming services.

The score for Jungleland is by Lorne Balfe, and when you put that composer together with this genre (low-key urban drama) you may think you will be able to predict exactly what the score sounds like before you hear it – small string section, ambient synths, moody atmospherics over identifiable themes and melodies. But I am here to tell you that, if you think that, you’re wrong – Jungleland is actually a surprisingly compelling, intricate, fascinating orchestral score that slowly takes its time to cast a surprisingly absorbing spell. 2019 and 2020 have been, in my opinion, the best two years of Lorne Balfe’s career. Many of his works during this period (Bad Boys for Life, additional music in Ad Astra, two seasons of His Dark Materials) rank for me among his all-time best, and now Jungleland joins that list.

One of the criticisms I often made of Balfe’s music was that it seemed to be unambitious. In my review of Mission: Impossible – Fallout in 2018 I wrote: “I hesitate to use the word ‘lazy’ to describe this writing, because no film composer is ever lazy, but Balfe’s music … never rises much above being ‘generically appropriate’. He never goes the extra mile to make his rhythmic ideas vivid, he never does clever or stylish things with the brass to make it truly memorable. It’s technically accomplished, and gets the job done, but once you’ve heard the same percussion pattern or the same cello ostinato for the umpteenth time, it all starts to feel a bit bland and predictable. It’s like Balfe stopped at a point when it was ‘good enough,’ and he never went on to make it actually ‘good’.” Thankfully I can categorically say that this criticism does not apply to Balfe’s music for Jungleland at all; in fact, one could argue that the final score actually over-achieves significantly, as it is much more complex and instrumentally detailed than one would ever expect a score for a film like this to be.

A word that keeps coming back to me when I listen to Jungleland is ‘clever’. Now, I fully admit that I don’t have the technical musical knowledge to truly appreciate all the little nuances and compositional techniques that a composer or musicologist would, but despite this I can’t shake the feeling the Balfe is doing a ton of really unusual, compositionally difficult, intellectually advanced things with this score. What they are, I couldn’t tell you, but having spent more than half my life listening to film scores I think I’m a pretty good judge when it comes to recognizing cleverness in music, and Jungleland seems to have it in spades.

The score is performed by a highly specific complement of brass, strings, and woodwinds, with some guest appearances from piano, percussion, and vocals. Some reviews of the film have mentioned Balfe’s score in a complementary manner, often name checking Aaron Copland and drawing parallels between Jungleland and Fanfare for a Common Man – Walter and Stanley are, if nothing else, common men. However, considering that Balfe is British, I can’t help but wonder whether he was actually more inspired by the traditional brass band music often associated with the mineworkers of northern England – the famous Grimethorpe colliery band, for example. These types of bands, which are often staggeringly proficient considering their humble origins, were summertime staples of my childhood; they played regular concerts in local parks and regional venues, and offered a touch of culture and sophistication to the heavily blue-collar working class mining towns from which they originated. It could be that Balfe was even inspired by the two lead actors, who hail from those same northern English regions – O’Connell is from Derbyshire, Hunnam from Tyneside – because, even though the film is set in Massachusetts rather than Britain’s industrial heartland, the desire to escape a dreary life is universal.

The warm, inviting, sonorous tones of those types of brass bands dominate the score, which may explain my personal appreciation of it. In cue after cue, Balfe layers the various elements of the brass section against each other in an infinite number of interesting variations; he then applies the strings and woodwinds to offset them, resulting in a series of fascinating textures that ruminate on life, regret, destiny, and hope. Several cues stand out as being worthy of note; the first, “It’s Fate,” contains the first appearance of the bank of horns, solemn and slow, performing a mesmerizing 4-note motif that echoes and reverberates, while subtle supporting strings and pianos add depth and color. “Brothers” introduces the score’s main thematic idea, relating to Walter and Stanley and their dreams of pugilistic greatness; the brass here is warm, hearty, and speaks to fraternal closeness laced with nostalgia.

“Road Trip” contains a number of fascinating combinations for brass and woodwinds, all moving around each other in intricate patterns. “Chasing the Dream” is hesitantly aspirational, almost daring to be hopeful, and offers more intricately layered brass accompanied by lonely, faraway-sounding woodwinds. “Fight” is a sort-of action cue featuring insistent, rhythmic writing for strings and percussion, underpinned with brass accents that contribute to the score’s overall consistency of tone. Perhaps the most unique cue on the album is “Bridesmaid Fun,” a brilliantly-realized renaissance pastiche featuring a host of medieval-styled brasses and woodwinds enlivened by a crystalline vocalist performing a rich, classical motif.

Later, “Yates” offers one of the first examples of what I’m calling ‘colliding tones,’ wherein Balfe has one instrumental section doing one thing (in this case, soothing and calming brass), while another instrumental section does something completely different at the same time (in this instance, shrilly agitated hooting woodwinds). This dissonance gives the score – and the listener – a peculiar sense of it being a mixed message, and creates an uneasy feeling of tension and perhaps even danger. The subsequent “You’re Responsible” does the same thing; dark, guttural tonalities emanate from low strings and low brasses, while a more elegant flute passage quivers daintily alongside it. This is a perfect example of that ‘cleverness’ I was talking about.

“Car Towed” feels resigned, a little dejected, a little deflated, but the return of the Brothers theme in the second half of the cue is a welcome reprise, and offers the merest glimmer of hope. A brand new texture – the merest hint of an electric guitar – gives “Empty Promises” a new life, while the title track “To Jungleland” uses some distinctly Thomas Newman-esque woodwind figures offset against a series of lovely, warm brass harmonies. The final cue, “A Better Life,” is the most upbeat piece of the entire score, coming across like a military fife-and-drum march. The cue’s playful melody for woodwinds and band-style brasses is accompanied by a rapped snare drum tattoo, which ends the score on a positive, unexpectedly whimsical note.

I really can’t over-state how much I enjoyed Jungleland. The musical preconceptions one might have about scores written for working class boxing-themed road movie dramas do not apply here at all; Balfe’s music is elegant, sophisticated, beautifully orchestrated, and tonally fascinating – all of which are things I did not expect the score to be beforehand. I may be predisposed to liking brass band-style scores, considering my own personal cultural heritage, but even without that factor Jungleland remains a transfixing musical experience that will reward anyone with patience and the desire to listen closely.

Buy the Jungleland soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • It’s Fate (3:02)
  • Brothers (1:31)
  • Road Trip (3:35)
  • Chasing the Dream (2:21)
  • Fight (1:52)
  • Protection (2:59)
  • Bridesmaid Fun (2:03)
  • Yates (4:10)
  • Sky’s Room (1:41)
  • Are We That Low (2:10)
  • You’re Responsible (2:49)
  • Car Towed (2:17)
  • Empty Promises (1:48)
  • Come With Us (2:52)
  • To Jungleland (1:01)
  • A Better Life (1:20)

Running Time: 37 minutes 40 seconds

Globe Productions (2020)

Music composed by Lorne Balfe. Conducted by Johannes Vogel. Orchestrations by Shane Rutherford-Jones. Recorded and mixed by Bernd Mazagg and John Chapman. Edited by John Carbonara. Album produced by Lorne Balfe.

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