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

Under-the-Radar Round Up 2020, Part V

January 12, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

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 fifth installment in my ongoing series of articles looking at the best “under the radar” scores from around the world – this time concentrating on six more of the best scores from the fourth quarter of 2020!

The titles included are a Christmas-themed animated film from Norway, a documentary about the Spanish civil war, a Russian Romeo-and-Juliet style romantic drama, a Dutch WWII spy thriller, a historical romance from Spain, and Italian biopic of a mad genius painter!

 

JUL PÅ KUTOPPEN [CHRISTMAS AT CATTLE HILL] – Gaute Storaas

Jul På Kutoppen is a children’s animated film from Norway, the sequel to the popular 2018 film just called ‘Kutoppen’. The story follows the adventures of a cow named Klara, who recently moved from the city to Castle Hill, and will be celebrating Christmas at Kutoppen for the first time. However, when Klara learns that her father Mosk has been called away and will not have time to prepare for the festivities, the resourceful little calf decides to take matters into her own hands (hooves?) and plan Christmas herself… with predictably disastrous results! The film is directed by Will Ashurst and is a typically inoffensive diversion for little ones, albeit one which features some fun-looking Claymation-style stop motion animated graphics.

The score for Jul På Kutoppen is by the great Norwegian composer Gaute Storaas, who despite having written magnificent music for films like Birkebeinerne, and Halvdan Viking, is still mostly unknown outside Scandinavia. Jul På Kutoppen is another reason why this needs to change; it’s a light, friendly, tuneful thoroughly enjoyable children’s comedy adventure score, full of lovely orchestral textures and all manner of hi-jinks.

The opening “Kutoppen Ouverture” has a wonderful open quality, a sense of scope and landscape beauty, and eventually emerges into a lovely central theme that has an echo of the carol ‘Joy to the World’. Quite a lot of the score has a Christmas sound – sleigh bells, chimes, light metallic percussion – and that can be heard in several cues, such as the elegantly old-fashioned “Juleforventninger,” the moving “Gamle Julebilder,” and the sweeping “Hente Juletre”. The warmly inviting “Setra og Byen” has a pretty sequence for solo violin, “Til Gaards” reprises the main theme with sweetness and approachability, “Pauline Lister Opp” is a frantic comedy action sequence, and “Paulinekarantene” is a sneaky little dance for slithering string and woodwinds.

Elsewhere, “Nissen i Snoen” recalls some of James Horner’s most playful animated scores, “Bruk Hodet” is an unexpected explosion of Spanish flamenco music, “Nissen Tar Av” is an unexpectedly serious piece of orchestral action, “Mamma” reprises the main theme with a great deal of emotional depth, and the conclusive “God Jul” is just superb, sentimental and tuneful in all the right ways. Overall, it’s just delightful, a little musical cup of seasonal warmth, cheer, and family fun.

Unfortunately the score for Jul På Kutoppen is not available for purchase on CD or via digital download – Storaas prepared this promo specifically for awards consideration purposes – but I for one would be delighted if it came out, perhaps as part of an ‘animation compilation’ alongside things like Dyrene i Hakkebakkeskogen, Elias og Storegaps Hemmelighet, and the first Kutoppen film. Over to you, record labels!

Track Listing: 1. Kutoppen Ouverture (1:48), 2. Juleforventninger (1:49), 3. Setra og Byen (2:00), 4. Gammelt Sagn (1:03), 5. Til Gaards (1:26), 6. Overraskelsen (1:01), 7. Gamle Julebilder (0:39), 8. Pauline Lister Opp (1:23), 9. Nissens Gjemmested (1:13), 10. Grotservering (1:39), 11. Paulinekarantene (1:04), 12. Hente Juletre (1:17), 13. Nissen i Snoen (1:34), 14. Nisseforvandling (1:30), 15. Nissetelefontoys (0:53), 16. Bruk Hodet (0:22), 17. Jalousie (0:46), 18. Nissen Tar Av (1:00), 19. Anger (1:15), 20. Mamma (1:46), 21. Julereportasjen (1:46), 22. Misteltein (0:45), 23. God Jul (1:15). Promo, 29 minutes 44 seconds.

 

THE LAST VERMEER – Johan Söderqvist

The Last Vermeer is an Anglo-Dutch period drama film directed by Dan Friedkin, based on the 2008 book The Man Who Made Vermeers by Jonathan Lopez. The film stars Guy Pearce as Hans van Meegeren, a master art forger during World War II. Van Meegeren meets Captain Joseph Piller (Claes Bang), a member of the Dutch Resistance fighting against the Nazis, and together they come up with a plan to swindle millions of guilders from them by selling them forgeries of famous Johannes Vermeer paintings, all made by van Meegeren. Despite being in constant danger, van Meegeren’s talent and effort provided invaluable finances for the Resistance, and is now considered the most successful art forger of all time. The film co-stars Vicki Krieps and Roland Møller, and has a terrific score by Swedish composer Johan Söderqvist.

I’ve been a bit hot-and-cold on Söderqvist’s music in the past. Sometimes he’s really good, and sometimes I find him a little dull, but I think The Last Vermeer may be my favorite score by him to date. It’s built around a truly marvelous, sweeping main theme – “The Last Vermeer Theme” – which is traditionally classical, elegant and romantic, with a rhapsodic piano core and lush, sweeping string accompaniment. This theme is essentially the recurring theme for Van Meegeren, and it reflects the artistic talent he has, and his connection to the Dutch masters of the past. It appears in several subsequent cues, notably “Van Meegeren’s Story,” which is built around the piano part, and “Sublime Art,” which is just stunningly beautiful.

The World War II thriller and drama elements of the story are told through darker orchestral passages, often featuring elongated violin and cello chords and subtle electronics, as heard in cues like “To Rotterdam,” “Going to the Court,” “The Execution/Van Meegeren In Prison,” “The Trial,” which is just haunting with its cello-led darkness. One or two moments of action emerge in tracks like “The Escape,” offering more insistent string rhythms and pulsating brasses, while other cues like “Family Leaves” and “Joseph Returns To His Family” are underpinned with tragedy and deep emotion, commenting on the toll Van Meegeren’s work takes on his personal life, and are built around solemn piano lines. It’s all very good.

The final cue, “The Last Vermeer End Credit” reprises the main theme at its most powerful and stirring, ending the album on an enormous high and presenting, for me, the most emotionally satisfying musical moment Söderqvist’s career to date. Some of the middle section of the score does get bogged down a little in murky tension and drama, but the highlights are so enormously high that they are more than worth the wait. The score is available as a digital album from Lakeshore Records.

Track Listing: 1. The Last Vermeer Theme (4:30), 2. Finding The Painting (1:43), 3. To The Interrogation (1:18), 4. The Escape (2:11), 5. Van Meegeren´s Story (2:43), 6. To Rotterdam (3:29), 7. Going To The Court (1:39), 8. Time Is Growing Short (0:56), 9. Aging The Painting (1:39), 10. Delivering The Painting (1:44), 11. No Idea Where Theo Is (1:49), 12. Family Leaves (2:30), 13. The Execution/Van Meegeren In Prison (2:25), 14. Christ And The Adulteress (1:17), 15. The Trial (2:55), 16. Sublime Art (1:51), 17. He Was A Nazi (1:02), 18. You´re A Fake (3:05), 19. Joseph Returns To His Family (1:34), 20. The Last Vermeer End Credit (3:12). Lakeshore Records, 43 minutes 42 seconds.

 

SILVER SKATES – Guy Farley

Silver Skates is a Russian romantic drama directed by Michael Lockshin, loosely adapted from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The story is set in winter in St. Petersburg in the late 19th century. The cold weather turns the rivers and canals of the city to ice, essentially creating new main roads which traversed on ice skates and sleds. 18-year-old Matvey works as a skating delivery boy for a famous bakery, with his prized possession being the silver skates left to him by his father. Meanwhile, the rich and privileged Alisa, the daughter of a high ranking official working for the tsar, is bored and lonely in her father’s mansion, and dreams of romance. This doesn’t seem possible – until the day she meets Matvey, and although they come from vastly different financial and social backgrounds, they begin to fall in love.

The score for Silver Skates is by the British composer Guy Farley. I will never understand why Farley doesn’t have a bigger international profile than he does; he’s one of the great theme-writers working today, and many of his earlier scores – Madre Teresa, Modigliani, The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, Hot Potato – are just superb, and this score is easily there equal. Farley explains that the director wanted ‘strong themes, emotion, drama, and classic orchestral storytelling,’ and as such the music is awash in sweeping splendor in the grand Russian tradition. Farley blends his orchestra with a host of Russian instruments, including balalaikas, domra lutes, gusli zithers, various dulcimers, a saz, a bayan accordion, and diverse ethnic percussion items, while also imbuing other cues with a quasi-gypsy flavor to represent a gang of thieves.

There are also several recurring themes spread throughout the score, including individual themes for the two protagonists, a powerful and robust motif for the Russian aristocracy, and a tender romance theme for Matvey and Alisa together that is based in part on Claude Debussy’s Claire de Lune. Farley sets out his stall early with the opening cue “The Grand Bakery,” which is wonderfully lush and overflowing with sparkling wintry orchestrations that represent Matvey’s life swooshing up and down the frozen rovers. “The Palace” introduces the rich thematic material for the aristocrats, with all its bombastic grandeur and echoes of the Russian greats, and then subsequent “Alisa Studies” introduces a lovely, delicate theme for the female half of the central pair, which at times reminds me of an Alexandre Desplat waltz.

As the score progresses several other cues emerge as highlights. “Ice Gang” and “Ice Hustle” both features the statements of the gypsy-like music for the thieves, which comes across as a jazzy variant on the Sherlock Holmes music popularized by Hans Zimmer and David Arnold. “Secrets and Earrings” and “Ice Revellers” both reprise the aristocratic theme with regal opulence, “Miss Jackson” features a gorgeous and emotional piano solo, and “Awakening” contains perhaps the standout inclusion of the Russian ethnic instruments, while “Spiritual World” moves through several of the recurring themes, but imbues them with a sense of subtle darkness with highlights the plight of the Russian peasants, who suffer while the aristocrats live lavishly.

There are also several outstanding action sequences, including the brilliant “The Art of Stealing,” in which Farley re-fashions both the main theme and the ice gang theme into a bombastic chase sequence. Later cues like “Arkady’s Fight,” “Alice Escapes,” the brutally imposing “Surrounded,” and “Palace Escape” are no less impressive, and feature much more prominent brass sections, meaty rhythmic ideas, thrilling woodwind runs, and often a nimble dulcimer weaving in and around the action. The final two cues – “The Wedding” and “Family” – are gorgeous, wholesome statements of the main theme which end the score on a romantic high note; the bonus track at the end is a concert arrangement of the love theme, and is just superb.

Silver Skates is a terrific score, filled to the brim with lovely themes, elegant orchestrations, vivid evocations of imperial Russia, and sweeping romance, as well as some bold and dynamic action to enhance the drama. I will repeat what I said earlier about how Guy Farley should be much more well-known and popular than he is – hopefully, this score will go some way to changing that. The music is available from MovieScore Media, and as a digital download from most good online retailers.

Track Listing: 1. The Grand Bakery (3:15), 2. Ice Skating (Clair de Lune) (2:57), 3. The Palace (1:56), 4. Alisa Studies (1:46), 5. Ice Gang (2:21), 6. Secrets and Earrings (3:45), 7. Miss Jackson (2:15), 8. The Art of Stealing (2:12), 9. A Gilded Cage (2:15), 10. Ice Revellers (3:45), 11. Awakening (1:10), 12. The Sting (2:30), 13. Spiritual World (5:28), 14. Arkadiy’s Fight (3:14), 15. Father (1:48), 16. Alisa Escapes (1:59), 17. Ice Hustle (2:46), 18. Surrounded (2:47), 19. Alive (3:46), 20. Palace Escape (2:49), 21. Jump for Your Life (2:40), 22. The Wedding (3:13), 23. Family (1:47), 24. Love Theme (2:45). Moviescore Media, 65 minutes 24 seconds.

 

EL VERANO QUE VIVIMOS – Federico Jusid

El Verano Que Vivimos is a sweeping Spanish-language historical romantic drama, directed by Carlos Sedes. The film stars Guiomar Puerta as Isabel, a young journalism student who travels to a rural Galician coastal town as part of an assignment. There she finds an anonymous obituary from 1958 dedicated to someone called “Lucía,” which appears to hint at a much larger story involving passionate romance and betrayal among the lush vineyards, and Isabel resolves to find out who Lucía is, who wrote the obituary, and what happened to these lovers from so many years ago. The film co-stars Blanca Suárez and Javier Rey, and has a stunningly gorgeous score by the Argentine composer Federico Jusid.

Jusid has always had a way of writing stunningly beautiful themes for many of his scores, and El Verano Que Vivimos is no exception. The overarching emotions in play here are love and loss, and it all comes pouring out in the opening cue “Quiere Que la Lleve?” via a series of sparkling piano lines, elegant and lively string phrases, and dancing woodwinds that move gracefully around the romantic central melody. There are several vivid passages of romantic longing and bittersweet passion, notably the gorgeous writing for viola and piano in “En la Noche,” the deeply tender “Viña Adela,” the insistent “En la Feria,” and the warm and inviting “Aquel Verano,” each offering a new dimension to the story as the history of Lucía is slowly revealed.

Elsewhere, “Carreras en la Playa” is a vibrant explosion of color and life, upbeat and vivacious, while “Persecución” is fiery and passionate, a fiesta of driving piano lines and flashing strings. “Lucía Vega, Mi Prometida” brings a sultry Spanish guitar into the mix, and the extraordinary “Vámonos” builds out of an array of dramatic and intense classical string phrases, before the conclusive passages from “Encuentros” through to the “Créditos el Verano Que Vivimos” reprise the main theme with a deep intensity and a romantic sweep that is just gorgeous.

El Verano Que Vivimos is one of the most traditionally romantic scores of 2020, and re-confirms that assertion I have made numerous times over the years: that Federico Jusid is one of the best young composers writing film music anywhere in the world today. The depth and elegance of his orchestrations, the beauty and passion of this themes, and the strong emotional content that runs through all of his scores, is second to none. The score for El Verano Que Vivimos is available as a digital download from Atresmúsica and via all good online streaming services.

Track Listing: 1. ¿Quiere Que la Lleve? (2:40), 2. En la Noche (3:06), 3. El Verano Que Vivimos (1:44), 4. Viña Adela (3:37), 5. Carreras en la Playa (1:46), 6. Un Tiempo Infinito (3:18), 7. En la Feria (1:56), 8. Aquel Verano (1:19), 9. Marismas (2:24), 10. Mi Refugio (1:23), 11. Persecución (1:38), 12. El Hijo de Gonzalo (2:30), 13. Lucía Vega, Mi Prometida (2:01), 14. Vámonos (4:14), 15. La Ira de Hernán (3:34), 16. Encuentros (1:41), 17. Descubriendo a Mi Padre (1:21), 18. Créditos el Verano Que Vivimos (2:17). Atresmúsica, 42 minutes 32 seconds.

 

VOLEVO NASCONDERMI – Marco Biscarini and Daniele Furlati

Volevo Nascondermi is an Italian biographical drama film directed by Giorgio Diritti, about the life of painter Antonio Ligabue. Ligabue was one of the most important and acclaimed Italian ‘naïve artists’ of the twentieth century – naïve meaning he was not classically trained – but who suffered from mental health issues throughout his life, and died in 1965 not long after being paralyzed in a motorcycle accident. The film was critically acclaimed in Europe, and received special plaudits for lead actor Elio Germano, who won the Silver Bear for Best Actor at the Berlin Film Festival.

The score for Volevo Nascondermi is by two Italian composers, Marco Biscarini and Daniele Furlati, neither of whom have really made an impact outside of their native country in the years since their debut in 2005; in fact, most of their work has been on short films and documentaries, although they were nominated for a David award (the Italian version of the Oscar) for their score for one of director Diritti’s previous films, L’Uomo Che Verrà, in 2009. If enough people hear it Volevo Nascondermi could be their breakout work, because it’s just superb.

Like many films which deal with art and artists, the score is very classical. Lush strings, gorgeous lyrical pianos, and delicately-hewn melodic content emerges from every cue, warmly sun-kissed music that mirrors the romantic images of the Italian countryside that Ligabue painted. One third of the score feels like actual classical music from the high romantic era, Paganini or Vivaldi, while the two-thirds feel like the music Ennio Morricone might have written for a film like this, one part overwhelmingly romantic and beautiful, one part abstract and impressionistic.

Many of the cues also feature vocal performances by the Italian singer Marta Ascari, known as ‘La Tarma,’ who sometime sings lyrics in English, while at other times she just intones soft hums over the melody. The opening piece, “Invisible,” is an original song that had a delicate fragility to it, such that you fear it almost might break. The lyrics relate directly to Ligabue’s life – the translation of the film’s title is ‘Hidden Away’ – and offer a resonant understanding of what he went through and how he suffered his mental and physical demons. The orchestra-only version of the song at the end of album is just gorgeous.

Several cues are real standouts, including a handful of melodies that recur several times throughout the score in subtly different arrangements: “La Pazzia” is a glorious, expressive flurry of violins, “Grains” is a hypnotic palette of strings and subtle electronics, and “Miniatura” is a lamenting cello melody made disturbing by extended string techniques that squeak and creak in the background, alluding to Ligabue’s madness. Other cues of note include the more intense and dramatically potent “Schegge” and “Esilio, both of which feature an oddly-manipulated choir adding a level of depth to the strings, the darkly antagonistic “Dove Sei,” and the more effervescent and ethereal “Sogno di Toni”. Many of these cues are also backed by voices – sometimes they are almost imperceptible whispers, while at other times they coo softly, again possibly alluding to Ligabue’s schizophrenia and the slow decline from sanity that he endured throughout his life.

Volevo Nascondermi is a fascinating score depicting the life of a tortured genius that faithfully illustrates brilliant art and his tragic death; it’s an unusual score that blends the highly classical with the weirdly abstract, and I hope that this is just the first of many scores by Marco Biscarini and Daniele Furlati that make an international impact. The score is available as a digital download from Ala Bianca Records.

Track Listing: 1. Invisible (performed by La Tarma) (4:07), 2. La Pazzia I (1:43), 3. Grains (1:39), 4. Miniatura I (2:36), 5. Grains II (2:19), 6. Schegge (2:08), 7. Laccabue (0:26), 8. Dove Sei? (3:24), 9. La Pazzia III (0:52), 10. La Pazzia IV (0:51), 11. Esilio (1:32), 12. Mentalist (1:43), 13. Diavoletto (0:40), 14. Miniatura IV (3:02), 15. Sogno di Toni (2:01), 16. Roma (1:42), 17. Cluster (1:22), 18. Toni Funambolo (4:03), 19. Il Gran Signore (performed by La Tarma) (1:17), 20. Con Te (performed by La Tarma)(1:55), 21. Il Soldato Militare (2:12), 22. Invisible (4:09). Ala Bianca Records, 45 minutes 57 seconds.

 

WORDS FOR AN END OF THE WORLD – Iván Palomares

Words for an End of the World – known in Spanish as Palabras Para un Fin del Mundo – is a documentary feature directed by Manuel Menchón about the life and death of Spanish author and educator Miguel de Unamuno, one of the most prominent victims of his country’s Civil War, and who was an especially vocal critic of Miguel Primo de Rivera and Manuel Azaña, Prime Ministers of Spain prior to the Franco-led revolt. The score is by the exceptional Spanish composer Iván Palomares, who has already written one excellent work in 2020 with Ron Hopper’s Misfortune, and follows it up with this one to really cement himself as one of the best young composers coming out of Spain right now.

The score for Words for an End of the World is a different animal from either Ron Hopper or his 2018 work En las Estrellas in that it is much more minimalist work. Palomares says his score “is not meant to depict suffering or be an elegy to the fallen, but rather to immerse the viewer in the nonsense and incomprehension of this period. In order to do so, I wanted a very unusual palette of instrumental colors with raw, dirty and broken instruments creating new sounds. For Miguel de Unamuno, I recorded and mixed several pianos in order to create a reflective sound on the verge of a breakdown. The circular tintinnabuli in the score – which is inspired by the Estonian classical composer Arvo Pärt – reflects on the Miguel’s imprisonment, while the investigation is represented with a ticking clock, a kind of bomb that will, ultimately explode as the investigation carries on. Finally, layers of old music, atonal harmonies, sound design elements and processed vocals complete the journey into a realm of incomprehension and reflection of how humanity’s endurance of needless conflicts.”

This all makes for a fascinating, at times meditative score which blends these intense, detailed piano lines with a sense of palpable urgency. The opening “Words for an End of the World” is a perfect example of the tintinnabula style, a mesmerizing set of repeated piano ideas that cast a hypnotic spell, and subsequent cues like “Miguel De Unamuno” build on their magnetic energy. Cues like “Monarchy or Republic” and “I Told You I Would Return” blend them with bubbling synth pulses, while “The Investigation Begins,” “December 31, 1936,” and others focus on the tick-tock ideas mentioned above. “Conspiracies” even has a touch of modern jazz, to add yet another musical layer to the mix.

Some cues are unusual and abstract and border on sound design, notably “Death of Rizal and Birth of the Legion,” “Misfortunes” and “A Song for the Fallen” with their eerie voices, but even though they are difficult to enjoy they are fascinating in their construct. In the end, Words for an End of the World is a score which will reward people with a tolerance for music on the more unusual, experimental side of things; there are none of the gorgeous sweeping themes or full-bodied orchestral passages that we have come to know Palomares for, but the combination of minimalist piano writing and highly-specific highly-targeted manipulation make it a worthwhile listen for anyone with an ear for the strange. The score is available as a digital download from Moviescore Media, and via most good online download stores.

Track Listing: 1. Words for an End of the World (3:09), 2. Monarchy or Republic (1:27), 3. Death of Rizal and Birth of the Legion (1:42), 4. I Told You I Would Return (2:21), 5. The Investigation Begins (2:53), 6. Misfortunes (3:09), 7. Miguel De Unamuno (4:21), 8. A Song for the Fallen (2:53), 9. Conspiracies (1:42), 10. The Investigation Report (2:53), 11. December 31, 1936 (3:55), 12. The Funeral (1:36). Moviescore Media, 32 minutes 08 seconds.

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