Home > Reviews > MANK – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

MANK – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

December 8, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Herman Mankiewicz was one of the most important and influential Hollywood screenwriters of the 1930s and 40s. As the oldest member of the Mankiewicz filmmaking family that also included brother Joseph (The Philadelphia Story, All About Eve) and nephew Tom (Superman, several Bond films), Herman’s main contribution to the cinematic pantheon was the screenplay for the 1941 film Citizen Kane, which many still believe to be the greatest movie ever made. David Fincher’s film Mank tells Herman Mankiewicz’s life story, and is a lusciously nostalgic look back at the heyday of old Hollywood, using the making of Citizen Kane as a framing story. The film was written by the director’s father Jack Fincher, and was originally supposed to be filmed in the 1990s with Kevin Spacey in the lead role, but the project was shelved for more than 20 years, and sadly Jack never lived to see it made as he died in 2003. Instead of Spacey, Fincher eventually cast Gary Oldman to play Mankiewicz, and surrounded him with a superb supporting cast, including Amanda Seyfried as actress Marion Davies, Lily Collins as his secretary Rita, Arliss Howard as producer Louis Mayer, Tom Pelphrey as his brother Joseph, Tuppence Middleton as his wife Sara, Tom Burke as Orson Welles, and Charles Dance as William Randolph Hearst, upon whom the character of Kane is reportedly based.

The film is tipped to be a major player at the upcoming Academy Awards, and has been roundly praised by critics, with Pete Travers notably writing in Rolling Stone that “Mank is the most gorgeous piece of cinema you’ll see anywhere. Brilliantly shot in black-and-white, with costumes to die for, and a period-authentic score that somehow isn’t defeated by the retro mono sound”. That period-authentic score, as has been the case on each of Fincher’s last three films, is by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who won an Oscar for their debut score for The Social Network in 2010, their first collaboration with Fincher. Anyone who has read any of my writing here will know that Reznor and Ross had entirely failed to impress me with anything they had written to date. I thought their award for The Social Network was entirely undeserved, I thought their scores for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl were utterly risible, and I have often felt that they lacked a basic understanding of the nature of film music, what it does, and how it works in musical storytelling. I have also been of the belief that their success was down entirely to Reznor’s genuinely excellent legacy from Nine Inch Nails, and that had his basic, simplistic synth-and-string music been written by literally any other composer it would have been ignored, because it wasn’t especially groundbreaking and wasn’t especially interesting.

So, when I say now that the score for Mank is good, you know what a concession this is for me. In fact, there are times when Mank is actually *really* good, approaching brilliant. It’s a score awash in moody Herrmannesque string writing and delicately hewn passages for pianos, and which then regularly erupts into sequences of raucous big band jazz which perfectly encapsulate the mood and musical preferences of the film’s period setting. However, there has been a lot of film music scuttlebutt surrounding Mank which has focused on the fact that Reznor and Ross brought in a ton of heavyweight musical talent to help them realize the score. It is conducted and orchestrated by Conrad Pope, who has worked with almost every major composer in the industry over the last thirty years and is a tremendous composer in his own right. The big band arrangements are by the legendary Dan Higgins, who plays saxophone for John Williams and is a master in that field. The ‘foxtrot band’ arrangements are by Tim Gill, whose own website describes him as “a vocalist, composer, and multi-instrumentalist specializing in high-octane jazz, swing, and vintage pop”. And then there are a bevy of additional orchestrators including the veteran Larry Rench, Pope’s wife Nan Schwartz (a Grammy-winning musician and composer herself), and people like Edward Trybek, Henri Wilkinson, and Jonathan Beard, all of whom have recently worked with composers ranging from Bear McCreary and Danny Elfman to Tom Holkenborg, Henry Jackman, and Ludwig Göransson.

So, what does this mean? For some people, it means that the success of Mank is entirely down to Pope and Higgins. They suggest that they essentially took over the score and made it work; that Pope’s genius is what makes the orchestra as good as it is, and that Higgins’s genius is what makes the jazz as good as it is. For other people it is a vindication of their admiration of Reznor and Ross; that this sort of music was always within them, and that it took a director like Fincher to force them out of their musical comfort zone and allow them to play in an unfamiliar sandbox. Personally, I fall somewhere in the middle of those stances. Film music is never created in a vacuum; every composer in the history of the genre has used orchestrators, arrangers, and ghostwriters at some point, because at the end of the day that’s sometimes what it takes to get the job done. Not only that, but these sorts of criticisms have been leveled at people making the switch from popular music to film music for decades; when Danny Elfman stopped concentrating on Oingo Boingo and started working with Tim Burton in the 1980s, no-one knew that he had a score like Batman inside him, and even now some scallywags continue to insist that Elfman’s success as a composer is due entirely to the intervention of the late great Shirley Walker. In the end, the score for Mank has Reznor and Ross’s names on the credits, and so I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt, and the majority of the plaudits. While I’m sure that Pope and Higgins and everyone else played their part and made significant contributions, this is a Reznor and Ross score, just as Batman is a Danny Elfman score.

The opening cue, “Welcome to Victorville,” sets the scene with a series of dark, Herrmannesque passages for strings, piano, trilling woodwind reeds, and muted horns, painting Mankiewicz’s life in the deserts of Apple Valley with a wash of Vertigo. These Herrmannesque orchestral textures re-occur frequently throughout the score; many of them are slightly off-kilter and intentionally dissonant, and leave the listener with a sense of peculiar anxiety similar to the way in which Herrmann used to put his audience on edge and feeling uneasy. There’s a curious woodwind-led playfulness to “Trapped,” and a smoky romantic ambiance to the piano-and-bass duet and sultry clarinet melody in “All This Time”. There’s a sense of quirky inquisitiveness to the delicate writing for harps, woodwinds, and pizzicato strings in cues like “First Dictation” and “All This Time (A White Parasol),” the former of which accompanies Mankiewicz as he begins to unravel the story of Kane to his faithful assistant. The tremolo strings and low woodwind chords in “A Respectable Bribe” really allow that sense of tension and sinister drama I mentioned earlier to kick in, and this continues on into the equally threatening “I, Governor of California,” as well as much later cues like “Look at What We Did”.

The “San Simeon Waltz” shows Reznor at what is probably the most conventionally romantic he has ever been, a low-key and intimate piano solo which touches the key relationships in the story; the piece really fills out nicely once the strings and woodwinds come in, rendering the cue perhaps the highlight of the entire thing. Elsewhere, the addition of brass to the subsequent “Mank-heim” gives it a sense of scale. The elegant bass woodwind performances in “An Idea Takes Hold”– a variation on the ‘writing motif’ from earlier in the score – is hesitant, moody, and just a little downbeat, but tonally compelling, while its recapitulation in “Marion’s Exit” gets more than a little frantic at the end. “Election Night-mare” sounds exactly like you would expect – stark, shrill, a little wild, a touch of a carnival. “A Rare Bird” and “Forgive Me” both call all the way back to the opening Victorville cue, taking the intimate two-note motif from there and re-arranging it for softer, more beguiling woodwinds.

The duet for electric cello and harp in “Final Regards” is unexpectedly emotional, the tick-tock pulses in “The Organ Grinder” and “The Organ Grinder’s Monkey” are hypnotic, and the underpinnings of the “Costume Party” make it feel more like an encounter with something surreal and horrific than a fun evening out on the town. The conclusive pair, “All This Time (Happily Ever After)” and “A Rare Bird (Reprise),” offer some rich and sweeping orchestral flourishes, warmly sentimental arrangements, callbacks to earlier themes, and occasionally even a tiny hint of John Williams’s low-key drama scores in some of the piano and woodwind phrasing, especially things like Stanley & Iris.

However, for me, the highlights of the score are the big band jazz and swing pieces, which are so authentic sounding that it’s almost astonishing that these are not original jams by Count Basie, Benny Goodman, or Cab Calloway. The energy and sprightliness of the rhythms underpinning “A Fool’s Paradise” and “Once More Unto the Breach” are intoxicating and reminiscent of the great Buddy Rich; the choice to use an old typewriter and its ‘ding’ carriage bell in the percussion section is brilliant. Many other cues are equally superb, toe-tapping grooves which leave a wholly positive impression. Listen to the fantastically sexy wah-wah muted brass in “Glendale Station,” the rollicking drumbeats in “Cowboys and Indians,” the boisterous can-do spirit and memorable four-note woodwind motif in “MGM,” the effortlessly cool brushed snares in “Lend Me a Buck” and “You Wanted to See Me,” the interplay between the brasses (and the return of the four-note MGM motif) in “Scenes from Election Night,” and so much more besides.

Reznor does some interesting things with the sound mixing and recording style on several cues too, digitally manipulating them to revert to mono and sound like accurate vinyl records from the period; this is very evident in tracks like the ballroom foxtrot pastiche “Every Thing You Do,” the dreamily sentimental “In Your Arms Again,” and the bright and effervescent “Way Back When,” where the crackle and hiss is clearly audible. The authenticity of the writing and arranging on these cues is also worth mentioning; this is music perfect for warm Los Angeles nights at the Cocoanut Grove, where men in tuxedos and women in lace and mink stoles and with feathers in their hair dance gaily to these jaunty tunes. I don’t quite know what fans of ‘Closer’ and ‘Head Like a Hole’ will make of this jolly new side to Trent Reznor, but I like it a lot.

There’s even an original song, “(If Only You Could) Save Me,” performed by R&B/soul vocalist Adryon de León in a rich period style that is clearly trying to emulate Ella Fitzgerald and the other groundbreaking black female singers of the 1930s. It’s actually a really lovely song, romantic and tender, with a slick slow jazz arrangement, and more of that ‘old fashioned sound mixing’. Reznor and Ross are putting this up for Academy Awards consideration too, and if they end up winning Best Song for this it will be both hilarious and well-deserved.

Perhaps the only real criticism I can make of Mank is the lack of truly memorable recurring thematic material to tie it all together. The consistency of sound and tone throughout the score is a step in the right direction, and there are a couple of small motifs here and there which do crop up more than once – the four note motif from “MGM” and “Scenes from Election Night,” for example – but there still seems to be a real reluctance on Reznor and Ross’s part to really embrace themes-and-variations film scoring, as if writing a strong repeated melody would somehow lead them too far down a path towards film music conventionality. From my point of view, for a film like this, a memorable melodic idea associated directly with Mankiewicz might have given the film a more solid narrative backbone, especially when you consider the clear desire the filmmakers had to approach the thing like Bernard Herrmann, who would have sat down and written his main theme first. But… baby steps.

Even with that one criticism in mind, the score for Mank remains a top-notch experience. Seeing Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross out of their comfort zone – way, waaaaay out of their comfort zone – and succeeding in the way they have here is both pleasing and genuinely surprising. The way they adopted both the compositional stylistics and dramatic impetus of Bernard Herrmann, and did it so convincingly, is impressive indeed, while the big band jazz and swing tracks are just remarkable, faithfully rendered and wonderfully arranged and performed.

Despite all this, some people will still ask whether is this Reznor and Ross’s true voice, and if this more of a Conrad Pope and Dan Higgins score. Well, frankly, at this point who cares? The score works in the film and succeeds admirably as a standalone experience. In my review of Gone Girl in 2014 I wrote that “the absolute bare minimum standard a film score must attain is ‘working in the film’. 99% of all film scores ever written ‘work in the film’ on some level, and so at this point my next question is “what else does it do?” Well, the reason the score gets high marks from me is because Mank’s answer to that question is “a lot”. It’s compositionally interesting and intellectually stimulating, dramatically apt, thoroughly enjoyable from a purely musical point of view, and shows a rich new side to their musical personality that I hope continues to evolve over time. It is, by an order of magnitude, the best score of Reznor and Ross’s career to date, and is likely an absolute lock for an Oscar nomination.

Buy the Mank soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Welcome to Victorville (2:16)
  • Trapped! (1:18)
  • All This Time (2:02)
  • Enter Menace (0:49)
  • First Dictation (2:24)
  • A Fool’s Paradise (1:34)
  • Once More Unto the Breach (2:06)
  • About Something (0:55)
  • Glendale Station (1:17)
  • What’s at Stake? (0:54)
  • Every Thing You Do (3:02)
  • Cowboys and Indians (1:21)
  • Presumed Lost (1:10)
  • (If Only You Could) Save Me (written by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, performed by Adryon de León) (3:19)
  • Means of Escape (0:50)
  • All This Time (A White Parasol) (0:35)
  • M.G.M. (2:52)
  • A Respectable Bribe (1:04)
  • I, Governor of California (1:33)
  • A Leaden Silence (0:55)
  • San Simeon Waltz (4:56)
  • Time Running Out (0:45)
  • Mank-heim (1:25)
  • Lend Me a Buck? (1:21)
  • You Wanted to See Me? (1:04)
  • In Your Arms Again (3:19)
  • The Dark Night of the Soul (1:10)
  • Clouds Gather (0:14)
  • Way Back When (3:20)
  • An Idea Takes Hold (3:41)
  • Marion’s Exit (3:19)
  • Absolution (1:06)
  • Scenes from Election Night (4:24)
  • Election Night-mare (1:32)
  • All This Time (Dance Interrupted) (1:02)
  • All This Time (Victorious) (1:13)
  • I’m Eve (0:33)
  • A Rare Bird (2:11)
  • Look at What We Did (2:31)
  • Menace Returns (0:34)
  • Forgive Me (2:16)
  • Final Regards (1:12)
  • Where Else Would I Be? (1:05)
  • The Organ Grinder (1:53)
  • All This Time (Not No More) (1:14)
  • Costume Party (1:11)
  • Dulcinea (0:38)
  • Shoot-out at the OK Corral (1:43)
  • The Organ Grinder’s Monkey (2:25)
  • An Act of Purging Violence (0:39)
  • All This Time (Happily Ever After) (4:46)
  • A Rare Bird (Reprise) (2:27)

Running Time: 93 minutes 05 seconds

The Null Corporation/Universal Music (2020)

Music composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Conducted by Conrad Pope. Orchestrations and arrangements by Conrad Pope, Dan Higgins, Tim Gill, Liz Finch, Larry Rench, Nan Schwartz, Edward Trybek, Henri Wilkinson, Jonathan Beard and Jordan Cox. Recorded and mixed by Brendan Dekora, Timmy Simpson, Nick Chuba, Scott Michael Smith, Alan Meyerson and Rich Breen. Edited by Sally Boldt. Album produced by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

  1. Marco Ludema
    December 8, 2020 at 10:47 am

    Maybe this trend will continue with their work on Soul later this year.

  2. Leandro Cerqueira
    December 9, 2020 at 10:11 am

    it will get an oscar nom, and win perhaps

  3. Will
    January 5, 2021 at 11:16 am

    Thanks for an interesting review!

    Two thoughts:

    1) Did you/anyone else feel that there was in fact _too much_ music in “Mank”? I thought so. It kind of robs the effect from of a lot of the acting – and from the music itself.

    2) Was the exaggerated reverb on all the voices a part of some retro period imitation? It really annoyed me in a way that Hollywood films from 1930-1940 rarely does, they don’t have such weird sound mixing… Even “Citizen Kane” itself was better in that regard (of course with a couple of glaring exceptions, like when Thompson the reporter went to read the diary of Walter Parks Thatcher in the library. But hey, they didn’t have digital reverb plugins. 🙂 ).

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