Home > Reviews > Under-the-Radar Round Up 2020, Part IV

Under-the-Radar Round Up 2020, Part IV

As the year winds down and the COVID-19 Coronavirus continues still to decimate the 2020 theatrical movie schedule, it appears that yet again a lot of the best film music released comes from smaller international features not as reliant on massive theatrical releases to make their presence felt. As such (and as I did last year under much different circumstances) I am very pleased to present the fourth installment in my ongoing series of articles looking at the best “under the radar” scores from around the world – this time concentrating on six of the best scores from the fourth quarter of 2020! The titles include a moving Chinese-Israeli holocaust documentary, an emotional Italian drama, a wonderful Christmas themes score from the Netherlands, a score for a modern LGBTQ love story, a powerful documentary score from Spain, and a children’s animated film about a crazy chicken!

 

THE CLAUS FAMILY – Anne-Kathrin Dern

The Claus Family, or De Familie Claus, is a Belgian seasonal family adventure film directed by Matthias Temmermans, starring Jan Decleir, Mo Bakker, and Stefaan Degand. It follows a Christmas-hating teenage boy named Jules who moves with his recently-widowed mother to a small town, when she gets a job in a cookie factory. However Jules’s world is turned upside down when he discovers that his beloved grandfather – his late father’s father – is the real Santa Claus. When grandfather is unable to deliver presents on Christmas Eve due to an illness Jules is forced to step into the real family business. The movie is a fun festive adventure, and is enhanced enormously by its score by German composer Anne Kathrin Dern.

Dern’s work over the last few years, on scores like The Jade Pendant, Lilly’s Bewitched Christmas, Hilfe Ich Hab Meine Eltern Geschrumpft, and The Legend of The War Horse, raised her profile internationally, while her superb work in 2020 alone – on Fearless and Sprite Sisters – has put her in the frame to be considered Composer of the Year. The Claus Family is her third and final score of the year, and it’s just superb.

It has a fair amount in common with her earlier festive works, and also takes inspiration from holiday themed scores by composers like John Williams, James Horner, Danny Elfman, and Alan Silvestri, which may give you a good idea of what it sounds like. Dern blends her full orchestra with a light, frosty choir and a beautiful piano solo in the gorgeous opening cue “The Claus Family,” creating a wonderful sense of wintry magic. The main theme that is introduced here is prominent throughout the score, in a much more fulsome and exciting arrangement in “Travel Far and Wide,” the moving “Ancestry,” the wondrous “Santa’s Hall of Gifts,” the haunting piano-led “Learn to Let Go,” and the stunningly beautiful and hopeful “The Final Gift”.

The voices are prominent in several other cues, including the ethereal “Of Loss and Isolation” and “The Snow Globe”. Meanwhile, the music for “Elves” and “The Cookie Factory” is pretty and fanciful, making use of prancing strings and shimmering metallic percussion. In fact, much of the score is awash in Christmas bells, glockenspiels, and other seasonal specialist instruments, which gives the whole thing a wonderfully appealing texture. A few darker textures do creep into a couple of cues to illustrate the loss of Jules’s grandfather, and his reluctance to inherit the family mantle, but overall this is a score filled with wholesome, sentimental yuletide goodness that is almost impossible not to like.

The final two cues are songs – “Have a Merry Christmas Time” is a delightful original Christmas carol, while “Still Here” is a seasonal ballad performed by Dutch actress and singer Pommelien Thijs. The score is available from MovieScore Media, which has now been championing Anne Kathrin Dern’s work for years, and comes with a hearty recommendation from me; The Claus Family is lovely, warm-hearted Christmas classic waiting to be discovered.

Track Listing: 1. The Claus Family (1:25), 2. Of Loss and Isolation (2:45), 3. Travel Far and Wide (3:17), 4. Elves (2:40), 5. Ancestry (3:19), 6. The Cookie Factory (1:31), 7. Missing (2:51), 8. Revolution (2:23), 9. Santa’s Hall of Gifts (2:25), 10. Bring Daddy Home (5:39), 11. Wish List (1:49), 12. Memories (2:45), 13. The Snow Globe (2:34), 14. Learn to Let Go (3:42), 15. The Heir (1:36), 16. The Letter (2:13), 17. The Final Gift (2:55), 18. Color the Dark Times (2:33), 19. Have a Merry Christmas Time (2:00), 20. Still Here (performed by Pommelien Thijs) (3:15). Moviescore Media, 53 minutes 46 seconds.

 

LA GALLINA TURULECA – Sergio Moure

An animated film for children, La Gallina Turuleca is the big-screen debut of a popular chicken character from Spanish culture. The whole thing started as a children’s song by Brazilian musician Edgard Poças; this song was then popularized by a trio of famous TV clowns called Gaby Fofó y Miliki in the 1970s, and became a sort-of nursery rhyme helping children to count. This new film, directed by Eduardo Gondell and Víctor Monigote, expands to tell the story of a hen who is unable to lay eggs, but finds her life changed when she is sold to a music teacher.

The score for La Gallina Turuleca is by the great Spanish composer Sergio Moure de Oteyza, who many will likely remember from his work on Inconscientes in 2004, or the long-running TV series Seis Hermanos. Despite its childish origins, La Gallina Turuleca is actually much more sophisticated than one would ever expect, offering a series of playful and tuneful pieces for the full orchestra (actually the Macedonian Symphony Orchestra), augmented by some playful country-western orchestrations including banjos, fiddles, and accordions, as well as some brief moments of rock-inflected action.

Much of the music has a light, dance-like feel, beginning with the effervescent “Isabel Lleva a Casa a Turu,” and running through “Interior Camion Gallinas,” “Lio en la Caravana,” and “Matias Descubre Que Turu Habla”. There’s a lot of pizzicato plucking, whimsical chiming, vaguely jazzy piano writing, a broad sequence of outstanding Gershwin-esque clarinet performance, and more than a little bit of comedy mickey-mousing, but it’s all done with a great deal of charm and complexity, on a par with some of the best children’s animation scores. “Matias Descubre Que Turu Habla” even features a brief moment for a choir!

The extended “Matias Sube Tambien a la Carpa” has a spy caper vibe to go alongside it’s pleasant orchestral textures and hooting clarinets, and is a ton of fun, while “Persecucion Por La Ciudad” actually becomes quite serious in places, before finishing with a final flourish of rock percussion licks and upbeat orchestral shenanigans (including some space age sound effects, which make me wonder what the hell might be going on the film at this point!). The conclusive “Turu Anima a Todos” is sentimental and sensitive, with some tender writing for strings and piano, before returning to the county-flavored ‘down on the farm’ music from the opening cue. Perhaps the only thing missing from the score is a statement of Poças’s stupidyly catchy original La Gallina Turuleca song (which you can hear here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l8UmmPK6J8w) , but other than that this is an enjoyable but of children’s fun that I would love to hear more of.

Unfortunately Moure’s score for La Gallina Turuleca is not available for purchase – this promo was produced by the composer for awards consideration purposes – and as such I encourage one of the indie labels to consider picking it up for release. The composer himself should at least put some samples up on his official website!

Track Listing: 1. Intro Turuleco (0:33), 2.Isabel Lleva a Casa a Turu (1:10), 3. Interior Camion Gallinas (1:22), 4. Lio en la Caravana (1:08), 5. Matias Descubre Que Turu Habla (1:50), 6. Matias Sube Tambien a la Carpa (3:04), 7. Persecucion Por La Ciudad (3:30), 8. Turu Anima a Todos (1:50). Promo, 14 minutes 27 seconds.

 

HARBOR FROM THE HOLOCAUST – Chad Cannon

A moving documentary from director Violet du Feng, Harbor from the Holocaust is a film that tells the story of the nearly 20,000 Jewish refugees who fled Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II, eventually settling in the Chinese city of Shanghai. The PBS website of for the film describes how it “explores the extraordinary relationship of these Jews and their adopted city, through the bitter years of Japanese occupation from 1937 to 1945, and the Chinese civil war that followed it, while celebrating the exceptional artists, statesmen and authors, as well as ‘ordinary’ people, who survived and continued their Jewish traditions in difficult circumstances.”

The score for Harbor from the Holocaust is by the exceptional young composer Chad Cannon, who impressed enormously with his previous works including the historical drama Cairo Declaration from 2015, and other documentaries such as Paper Lanterns, CyberWork and the American Dream, and American Factory, the latter of which was produced by Barack Obama’s Higher Ground Productions for Netflix. Cannon is an expert in Asian music, and was also recently a consultant for on Harry Gregson-Williams’s Mulan. Harbor from the Holocaust is another one of those blended east-meets-west scores, but in this instance it’s both the middle east and the far east at the same time, as he combines traditional Israeli-Jewish instruments and voices with traditional Chinese folk music AND a western orchestra.

To capture this triad of musical styles Cannon drew on the sound of several instrumental and vocal soloists, he most prominent of which is the great cellist Yo-Yo Ma, whose sublimely evocative performances are the cornerstones of cues such as “It’s Burning,” “Meisinger’s Plan,” and “The Enormity of the Holocaust”. These cues are desperately emotional, and powerfully beautiful, really capturing the essence of what the Holocaust meant for these displaced people. Some of the cello melodies are based on the work of composer Mordechai Gebirtig, who died in the Krakow ghetto in 1942 if that brings anything clearer.

The rest of the cues are no less beautiful, but are very interesting in the way Cannon takes entirely different musical ideas and blends them together. Many of the cues feature the plaintive singing of Rabbi Avram Mlotek, a cantor vocalist who under normal circumstances would be the member of the clergy who leads the congregation in song and prayer in a synagogue. Then, as part of the same cue, he’ll bring in the sound of Beibei Monter’s guzheng Chinese zither, or Niv Ashkenazi’s solo violin, or Kelly Anderson’s solo piano. These combinations of sounds seem alien to each other – I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a Jewish vocal alongside a Chinese folk instrument, ever – and that’s what makes this score so endlessly creative, in how it brilliantly conveys the message of hope that came from these two cultures coming together.

Every cue is superb, but I’m especially taken with the opening cue “A Harbor from the Holocaust,” the intense and antagonistic “Colonial Shanghai,” the gently hopeful “The Ship to Shanghai,” the moving piano writing in “Our Parents’ Sacrifice,” the tender woodwinds in “Kadoorie School,” the playfully innocent “Unlikely Friends,” and the beautifully elegant finale in “Under a China Blue Sky”.

Perhaps the only thing holding the score back from a perfect acting is the lack of an overarching memorable main theme that runs through the entire work, but this is a minor quibble for what is otherwise a terrific work. It’s available as a digital download from Tōrō Records and via most good online streaming services, and gets an unhesitating recommendation from me.

Track Listing: 1. A Harbor from the Holocaust (1:29), 2. Couldn’t Just Stand By (1:05), 3. It’s Burning (1:48), 4. Colonial Shanghai (1:04), 5. The Ship to Shanghai (1:50), 6. Honkou Arrival (1:06), 7. Our Parents’ Sacrifice/Rough Part of Town (1:39), 8. Nobody Knows You Exist (1:17), 9. Kadoorie School (1:53), 10. Moved to the Ghetto (1:58), 11. Bloch’s Woodblock Prints (1:06), 12. Meisinger’s Plan/Occupation (1:20), 13. Starvation/The Deaf Artist (1:26), 14. Bordering on Despair (1:34), 15. Laura Margolis (1:34), 16. Prison Camps (1:32), 17. Unlikely Friends (2:07), 18. Ghetto Bombed/War Over (2:32), 19. The Enormity of the Holocaust (1:52), 20. Shanghai Bar Mitzvah/Postwar Refugees (1:45), 21. Helga’s Resilience (1:05), 22. Learning from the Past (1:33), 23. Under a China Blue Sky (3:00). Tōrō Records, 37 minutes 45 seconds.

 

I HATE NEW YEAR’S – Emer Kinsella

I Hate New Year’s is a romantic comedy with a twist, written and directed by Christin Baker. It stars Dia Frampton as Layne, a rising star in the music world who heads home to Nashville for New Year’s Eve to break her writer’s block. As equally stuck in the romantic department as she is in the songwriting department, Layne finds unlikely inspiration in the form of her former girlfriend Caroline (Kelly Lynn Reiter), who she hasn’t seen for many years. Like the concurrently released (and more high profile) Hallmark LGBT romantic comedy Happiest Season, I Hate New Year’s is a seasonal love story with a contemporary edge.

The score for I Hate New Year’s is by the Los Angeles-based Dublin-born composer and violinist Emer Kinsella, who most recently worked as a music production assistant for Benjamin Wallfisch on Shazam and Hellboy; this is her first feature score, and its quality bodes well for her future, because it’s really lovely. A lot of the score has a contemporary urban vibe, with an array of unusual overlapping percussion ideas blended with pizzicato string textures, guitars, and a light country-rock beat that comes from the lead character’s musical background; cues like “Social Trending,” “The Adventure Begins,” and “Nashville City” have a vibe that reminds me of early Thomas Newman and is really appealing, toe-tapping and finger-snapping fun. There’s also something really unique about Kinsella’s percussion ensemble that I can’t quite pin down, but it sounds very different from most drums or percussion samples, and I like that – “Respect Your Intuition” is a great example of what I’m talking about.

However, where the score really excels is in the moments of low-key drama, emotional pathos, and romance. Kinsella has a lovely turn of phrase with her string section – as one would expect considering her background – but there is also some really excellent writing for piano and guitar too. Cues like “Walk at Dusk” and “Sneaking Away” have a lonely attitude, while others like “Reminiscing” and “Friends Reunite” blend the string and piano ideas with the percussion rhythms I mentioned earlier, creating a fascinating sonic texture. One off cues of note include the Indian ragas and comedy stylistics of “Psychic Reading,” and the vague gypsy vibe in “The Letter C” (which occasionally reminds me of a deconstructed version of Hans Zimmer’s Sherlock Holmes). “Almost Kissed” and “The Plan” are lovely pieces of straightforward romance, foreshadowing the conclusive cues “Making Amends” and “The Grand Gesture,” which really build up to some terrific emotional heights.

I don’t want to make a big deal of Kinsella’s gender, because it really shouldn’t even be an issue, but I will say that it’s encouraging to see another addition to the ever-growing list of up-and-coming female composers, alongside people like Anne-Kathrin Dern, Amelia Warner, Nami Melumad, and Amie Doherty. I Hate New Year’s is a small-scale score, both in terms of its profile and its ensemble size, but it has a big heart, and that’s often what matters most. It’s available as a digital download from Emersion Records and via most good online streaming services.

Track Listing: 1. Social Trending (2:28), 2. Walk at Dusk (3:47), 3. The Adventure Begins (1:17), 4. Reminiscing (2:09), 5. Friends Reunite (1:11), 6. Sneaking Away (0:44), 7. Respect Your Intuition (2:29), 8. Psychic Reading (3:49), 9. Almost Kissed (1:38), 10. Nashville City (1:07), 11. The Letter C (1:28), 12. The Plan (1:06), 13. Hidden Affection (1:09), 14. Dressing Up (0:44), 15. Home Sweet Home (2:43), 16. Mystery Girl (0:40), 17. Making Amends (3:20), 18. Hit The Town (0:56), 19. The Grand Gesture (2:36). Emersion Records, 35 minutes 22 seconds.

 

THE LIFE AHEAD – Gabriel Yared

Director Eduardo Ponti’s film La Vita Davanti a Sé (The Life Ahead) sees the return to the big screen of the iconic Italian actress Sophia Loren, after more than a decade away – although it of course helps that Loren and Ponti are mother and son! The film is an adaptation of the popular 1975 French language novel La Vie Devant Soi, and sees Loren playing Madame Rosa, a holocaust survivor and former prostitute, now living a quiet life in a small Italian town, providing childcare for the children of her fellow “working women.” Rosa is robbed in the street by Momo, a 12-year old Senegalese immigrant, but instead of turning him over to the police she decides to help him – and so begins an unlikely friendship between the pair, as each learns from the other – until Rosa’s health takes a turn for the worse. The film has been very favorably received, with the now 86-year-old Loren receiving Oscar buzz for what is likely to be her swansong performance.

The score for The Life Ahead is by the Oscar-winning Franco-Lebanese composer Gabriel Yared, who has been quietly working away on a number of excellent European productions since his Hollywood heyday at the end of the 1990s and early 2000s, including the popular success Judy just last year. The Life Ahead sees Yared blending his traditional lush classical style with some more urgent contemporary electronica, illustrating the culture clash between the fading elegance and sexuality of Rosa and the brash, modern Momo. Most people reading this will be drawn to Rosa’s music, which is just gorgeous. The opening cue, “Madame Rosa,” has a definite Nino Rota quality to it, blending strings, piano, woodwinds together in a lilting dance which has more than a hint of traditional Italian folk music to it. The main melody also has a sense of tragic wistfulness to it, as if it recognizes that Rosa was once a great beauty but is now slowly, tragically, fading into old age.

Momo’s music, in cues like “People Call Me Momo,” has a vibe of contemporary urban dance music and hip-hop, with drum machines and synthesizers overlaid with cool beats, often led by a guitar or a ‘whistling’ idea. And then the cues which deal with Momo’s life working for a street drug dealer – “Police Raid,” “Momo Sketches,” “Picking Up Drugs” – use a blend of electronics and strings, and comments variously on the danger inherent in Momo’s circumstances, and his desire to be free of them. Sometimes they are sad and filled with regret, while at other times they have a harsh, risky edge to them. The guitar version of Momo’s theme in “Momo Sketches” is especially poignant; in another life, another time, this kid could have been an artist.

Parts of “Olive Tree Grove,” and the more urgent “Illness,” are more dramatic, using pianos and strings in a more intense way to underscore Rosa’s decline, while “Helping Rosa” is touching in a low-key way, returning to Rosa’s waltz with a more tragic air. The conclusive pair, “Momo Cries” and “Momo and Rosa,” are the emotional high points of the score, in which Yared turns Rosa’s waltz into a gorgeous, longing lament full of yearning, with especially lovely writing for piano and strings.

The score for The Life Ahead is short – only 26 minutes in total – but it’s worth experiencing as a reminder of how good Gabriel Yared can be when he’s at his best, with the bookending cues being especially outstanding. Recommended.

Track Listing: 1. Madame Rosa (4:00), 2. People Call Me Momo (0:56), 3. Police Raid (2:05), 4. Momo Sketches (1:04), 5. Olive Tree Grove (1:33), 6. Picking Up Drugs (1:23), 7. Hospital Breakout (1:40), 8. Illness (2:04), 9. Helping Rosa (1:41), 10. Momo Cries (2:25), 11. Momo and Rosa (5:47), 12. Drug Dealing Montage (Bonus Track) (1:17). Plaza Mayor Company, 26 minutes 06 seconds.

 

SAN MAO: THE DESERT BRIDE – Marc Timón Barceló

Chen Mao Ping, commonly known as San Mao or Echo Chan, was a Taiwanese author, best known for her short story collection Gone with the Rainy Season, and her autobiographical work Stories of the Sahara, which she wrote while living in Morocco with her Spanish husband José María Quero in the 1970s, and which has since gone on to be one of the most popular memoirs/travelogues in Chinese culture. San Mao committed suicide in 1991 by hanging herself with a pair of silk stockings, and her death sparked a wave of renewed interested in her life and the reasons she may have had to take her own life. This new documentary, San Mao: The Desert Bride directed by Marta Arribas and Ana Pérez, explores her life and death for contemporary audiences.

The score for San Mao is by the terrific young Spanish composer Marc Timón Barceló, who many may likely remember for his earlier work on scores like The Little Wizard, El Arbor Sin Sombra, and the concert work Coliseum. In talking about the score, Timón says that “San Mao is one of the most intimate, dark and melancholic soundtracks that I have ever composed. The full score is based on a constant dialogue between soloists and the expressivity of the strings. For the occasion I especially created the Emporion Orchestra to get the intimate but passionate, rich, deep sound that I was looking for. It’s also very remarkable the role of the melodic elements, led by these soloists which represent San Mao’s inner voice, as well as the color that the harp gives to the ensemble. Only the harp can whisper the harmonic changes like it does, with subtlety and gorgeous finesse, enriching the orchestral texture.”

As such, San Mao is a rich, deep, emotional work which showcases a number of solo instruments- violin, cello, flute, and piano – alongside a lush, haunting orchestra. The expressive main theme, “San Mao,” is a perfect example of this, a rolling and intense piece that expresses the core of the writer’s poetic soul. There are some interesting textural ideas here, where the harps seem to be mimicking the plucked sounds often heard in traditional Chinese classical music, which gives a wonderfully evocative sense of east-meets-west. There is some gorgeous combination writing for the four main soloists – those ‘conversations’ that Timón was talking about – in the dance-like “My Name is Echo Chen,” while later in “Suffering” Timón adds layer upon layer of anguish to the score with a series of searing cello and violin passages.

“Painful Youth Loves” continues the theme of bittersweet beauty, but adds a lightly romantic piano motif into the middle of it, to give it a sort of longing quality; this carries on into the subsequent “Suicide,” which is a poignant as one would expect of a cue with that title, as well as in the devastatingly beautiful “Shadows,” a showcase for weeping cellos. After some downbeat ruminations in cues like “Loneliness” and “Red Dust” it all builds up to the stunning finale, “Elegy,” which offers a series of superb variations on the main theme that moves between the central quartet of featured instruments with elegance and poignant emotion.

Despite his young age and comparative lack of international experience Marc Timón Barceló is one of the best young composers to come out of Spain in the last few years, and San Mao is a perfect example of why many people – including me – hold him in such high regard. San Mao is a gorgeous, expressive, intelligently structured documentary score that is as poetic as it’s subject matter, and comes with an unhesitating recommendation. The score is available from Moviescore Media, and via most good streaming and download sites.

Track Listing: 1. San Mao (3:47), 2. My Name Is Echo Chen (1:29), 3. The Premonition (1:52), 4. Suffering (2:57), 5. Painful Youth Loves (1:39), 6. Eternal Silence (1:59), 7. Suicide (1:55), 8. Shadows (2:55), 9. Loneliness (2:29), 10. Deep Blue Sea (2:04), 11. Red Dust (1:35), 12. Elegy (3:09). Moviescore Media MMS-20024, 27 minutes 56 seconds.

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  1. January 26, 2021 at 9:01 am

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