Home > Reviews > THE FATHER and NOMADLAND – Ludovico Einaudi

THE FATHER and NOMADLAND – Ludovico Einaudi

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Two of the most critically acclaimed films of the 2020-2021 Oscar season were The Father and Nomadland. The Father is a searing, emotionally devastating look at the effects of dementia; it’s directed by Florian Zeller and stars Anthony Hopkins as Anthony, an ageing man whose deteriorating mental faculties are brought into sharp relief through his interactions with four individuals – Olivia Colman, Rufus Sewell, Olivia Williams, and Mark Gatiss – all of whom appear as different members of his family, or not, at any given time. The way Zeller creates an atmosphere of disorientation and confusion for the audience, reflecting the disorientation and confusion felt by Anthony, is masterful and terribly moving, while Hopkins himself gives one of his career best performances. Nomadland, on the other hand, is a slow and naturalistic road movie directed by Chloe Zhao, starring Frances McDormand as a woman who seeks to escape from contemporary life by joining a community of people who live out of camper vans as modern-day nomads.

Both The Father and Nomadland won several Academy Awards earlier this week, but other than them being linked in this way, you may be wondering why I am reviewing the music from these films in the same article. Well, the reason is because these two films are part of a growing trend wherein serious filmmakers do not commission an original score for their films, and instead rely on pre-existing classical and instrumental music to enhance the soundtrack. In a nutshell, they keep their temp-tracks intact, and don’t bring in a new composer to write a new score. In the case of both The Father and Nomadland, the music chosen is by Italian pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi, and the overwhelming majority of it comes from his classical album Seven Days Walking, which was released by Decca in 2019.

Filmmakers and directors have, of course, been doing this for years. Stanley Kubrick famously rejected Alex North’s original score in favor of his classical music temp-track for 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. Quentin Tarantino cobbles together his soundtracks from an eclectic mix of surf rock, pop songs, and spaghetti western themes by Ennio Morricone. Other films, ranging from Raging Bull to Call Me By Your Name, to The Favourite, all used classical music rather than original scores. Directors as varied as Martin Scorsese, Yorgos Lanthimos, Woody Allen, and so many others, regularly prefer to make their own musical choices rather than hand their projects over to a composer.

I’m torn about whether or not I think this is a good thing. On the one hand, this sort of musical content goes against everything I stand for as a film music critic. Original music should, in my opinion, be an integral part of the filmmaking process, an aural accompaniment that is specific to the film it accompanies, and which helps guide and inform the audience through the narrative journey. Specific themes and variations, emotional markers, and an overarching musical architecture are all things I have long advocated for as being essential to good film music, and what Zeller and Zhao have done here flies in the face of all that. Einaudi can’t comment on the film, can’t provide any musical architecture, and can’t link concepts and characters and ideas with his music, because none of the music was written specifically for these films. People who are already familiar with Einaudi’s music from its original context could be taken out of these films by its inclusion as ‘score,’ which surely is contrary to the immersive, engrossing experiences the filmmakers are wanting to create. But then, on the other hand, this is entirely the director’s choice, and their artistic vision, and audiences have clearly responded well to these films as they were presented. Einaudi’s music is clearly a match for the tone the directors were wanting to create, and in Zhao’s case the music actually helped organize her thoughts while she was editing Nomadland. You have to respect the director’s choices when it comes to their films, and I have defended Quentin Tarantino in the past for doing this very thing, because his musical taste is usually so good. So, as I said, I’m torn.

It’s also interesting that, for these films, both Zeller and Zhao chose the music of Ludovico Einaudi, because he’s such a controversial figure. Einaudi is, by quite some margin, the most popular and successful figure in contemporary classical music today. The release of Seven Days Walking was followed by a series of sold-out concerts at the Barbican in London. The album itself debuted at the top of the UK Classical Artist Albums Chart, and at number 31 on the mainstream comprehensive UK Albums Chart, giving him his fifth Top 40 record. In its first week of release it also became the fastest-streamed classical album of all time worldwide, exceeding 2 million streams on release day alone. Audiences clearly love him, and he is immensely popular with ‘mainstream’ fans of light classical music.

However, in the classical world itself, he is often derided and ridiculed. In his review in the Guardian in August 2019, music critic Phillip Clark called Seven Days Walking “stubbornly empty, unmemorable and humorless … music patched together from cute melodic soundbites and occasional outbursts of bombast … stupefying humdrum ordinariness and straightforwardness … music that speaks fluent cliché”. He said that Einaudi “has started from everything he knows and cannily pureed his musical vocabulary down to an inventory of generic, soulless chord sequences – sad minor tone sighs, affirmative slips into the major, water-treading arpeggios, anthemic fanfares – each designed to push emotional buttons as shamelessly as a Simon Cowell Christmas No 1.” And this is not an isolated opinion either; many people I know and personally respect in the classical music community consider Einaudi to be a terrible ambassador for contemporary orchestral music, the latent heir to easy populists like Liberace or Richard Clayderman. It also doesn’t help that Einaudi seems to consider himself something of a superstar, a big ego who has bought into his own hype and album sales figures.

Speaking personally, I find his music to be perfectly acceptable. I enjoyed his score for the British TV remake of Dr. Zhivago in 2002, as well as his various contributions to director Shane Meadows’s This Is England series of movies. Stylistically he reminds me a little bit of people like Brian Eno, Max Richter, and Yann Tiersen when they are being ambient, with a bit of early Michael Nyman thrown in for good measure. The ensemble on Seven Days Walking is minimal – Einaudi himself on piano and keyboard, Redi Hasa on cello, Federico Mecozzi on viola and violin – and the tone is mostly slow, contemplative, and more than a little hypnotic, a series of undulated repeating chords overlaid with pretty little melodies that dance around between the various soloists. It’s not especially challenging, it’s not especially innovative; in fact, it is quite aggressively pleasant, but for directors like Zeller and Zhao this is what they wanted the music in their films to achieve – unobtrusive background noise that doesn’t offer any commentary on the narrative substance of the films, but instead simply offers a soothing tone that breaks the silence.

The five cues from The Father are very much rooted in this style, with very little clear delineation between any of the individual tracks, which results in a nice but rather samey listening experience. There’s a strident piano sequence beginning around 3:30 in “Cold Wind, Variation 2 – Day 4” that I quite like. “Low Mist, Variation 2 – Day 1” is generally quite relaxing, opening with some nice musical conversations between piano and cello. “My Journey – Film Version/David Menke Remix” is a little different, and has a more religioso, liturgical overtone, with soft choral ideas on top of high string sustains, but it does tend to drone on a little.

Nomadland contains music from other Einaudi albums. “Oltremare” is from his 2006 album Divenire, and “Petricor” is from the 2015 album Elements. “Oltremare” is really quite lovely, a delicate and fluttery piano solo theme that dances around a repeated pattern of syncopated chords and motifs with dexterity and a splendid emotional flourish. When Einaudi lays on the keys the effect is quite dramatic and intense, and very compelling. “Golden Butterflies – Day 1” has a gossamer, fragile piano tone that I really enjoy, gently trembling like the insects of the title, and which becomes even more summery and enchanting when the strings come in. “Petricor” initially feels a little more dour and introspective than some of the other pieces, and features some unusual sonic manipulation of the strings that gives it a slightly alien quality, but by the end it is driving, pulsing, and insistent, with a heavy thrum from the violins.

There’s also one piece from a different source, “Epilogue,” a standalone instrumental piece written by Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds in 2013, and which is very much rooted in the same stylistic as his score for the popular TV series Broadchurch; low, whispery, murmury, minimalist writing for strings and keyboards, which occasionally rises to elegant heights. The Nomadland soundtrack also includes a couple of additional pieces, “Gravity – Day 3” and “Low Mist – Day 1,” also from Seven Days Walking, but these tracks are not included on the album.

How does this music work in the film, though? Well, as I said before, it’s all very aggressively pleasant, but it somehow works differently in the two films. In The Father, the music adds a level of pathos to Anthony’s plight and makes him a more sympathetic figure. The hypnotic, looping nature of Einaudi’s music somehow perfectly encapsulates Anthony’s confusion, his misremembering of details, and his lack of cognitive stability. Einaudi could likely have come up with the same feelings with original music but, for whatever reason, Zeller chose to keep the original pre-existing pieces in place.

However in Nomadland, which is a film I quite intensely dislike (for reasons I’m not going to get into here), the music has quite the opposite effect. Rather than creating empathy for Fern, Swanky, and the other nomads, Einaudi’s music created a barrier between me and them, and was one of the many reasons I failed to connect with the story or the situation on any level. It adds a superficial level of beauty to the many scenes of desert landscapes, shot at sunset with a golden hour glow, but never offers any commentary or context on the film itself. I’m not sure that Nomadland could have been helped by having a project specific score anyway, but it needed something to help it connect with its audience, and the dreamy meanderings of Einaudi’s piano wasn’t it.

So, what conclusions can one draw from this? Well, the albums for both The Father and Nomadland are very nice indeed, and offer around half an hour each of contemplative, introspective music for piano and strings that fans of Ludovico Einaudi and people who share that style will enjoy a great deal. As film music, however, I stand by my initial assessment in that, in almost all circumstances, original project-specific music created through a collaboration between director and composer will yield the best, most compelling, and most dramatically appropriate results. The fact that the music works so well in The Father can be considered a happy accident; the fact that essentially the same music in Nomadland had almost zero positive effect on that film is indicative of the problems that ‘scoring’ a film this way inherently has.

Buy the Father and Nomadland soundtracks from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Cold Wind, Variation 2 – Day 4 (5:15)
  • Cold Wind, Variation 1 – Day 1 (4:00)
  • Low Mist, Variation 2 – Day 1 (5:44)
  • Low Mist, Variation 1 – Day 5 (4:42)
  • My Journey – Film Version/David Menke Remix (3:53)
  • Oltremare (11:00)
  • Golden Butterflies – Day 1 (5:48)
  • On the Road Again (written by Willie Nelson, performed by Nomadland Cast) (1:41)
  • Quartzsite Vendor Blues (written and performed by Donnie Miller) (3:16)
  • Epilogue (written by Ólafur Arnalds) (4:06)
  • Answer Me, My Love (written by Carl Sigman, Fred Rauch and Gerhard Winkler, performed by Nat King Cole) (2:36)
  • Next to the Track Blues (written and performed by Paul Winer) (1:14)
  • Petricor (6:32)
  • Low Mist – Day 3 (5:53)
  • Dave’s Song (written and performed by Tay Strathairn) (3:16)
  • Drifting Away I Go (written and performed by Cat Clifford) (3:03)

Running Time: 23 minutes 32 seconds (The Father)
Running Time: 48 minutes 26 seconds (Nomadland)

Decca (2021)

Music composed by Ludovico Einaudi. Recorded and mixed by Gianluca Mancini. Albums produced by Ludovico Einaudi.

  1. April 28, 2021 at 12:40 am

    Great article, and i’m agree with you. I’m so happy, beacuse you are a such a rare expert in film music world. Your site and reviews is one of the best places to explore and to enjoy of the new and also old and rare film scores, and give me impuls to search for inspirational and original film music. Go one and thank you so much, cheers…

  2. Musical Potato
    April 28, 2021 at 5:21 am

    Have you listened to Minari? I thought it was great and was happy it got recognized by some nominations.

  3. May 2, 2021 at 10:37 am

    Ironically, Einaudi has written some really accomplished scores that work so very well, and yet here his music is being used almost like source music. Just feels wrong, somehow, as if relegating it to mood music (which is what temp tracks tend to be).

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