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CRUELLA – Nicholas Britell

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The latest film to examine the origin stories of famous Disney villains, after Maleficent in 2014, is Cruella, which tells the history of Cruella De Vil, the antagonist of both the 1961 Disney animated film One Hundred and One Dalmatians, and the original novel by Dodie Smith. There has already been a live-action adaptation of the story in 1996, with Glenn Close playing Cruella, but this prequel sees Emma Stone donning the famous black-and-white hairstyle wig. She plays Estella De Vil, an aspiring fashion designer in 1960s London, who takes a job working for the brilliant but difficult Baroness von Hellman, the head of a prestigious fashion house, played by Emma Thompson. The intense rivalry that develops between the two slowly eats away at De Vil’s sanity, and she eventually transforms herself into ‘Cruella’ and becomes a notorious and dangerous criminal obsessed with dalmatian dog furs. The film co-stars Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser as Cruella’s henchmen Jasper and Horace, and is directed by Craig Gillespie, whose last film was the Oscar-winning drama I, Tonya.

The score for Cruella is by the exceptionally talented young American composer Nicholas Britell, whose comparatively short career in film music has already included writing for acclaimed works such as Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, popular titles such as The Big Short and Battle of the Sexes, and the hit HBO TV series Succession. Britell is one of the most unpredictable and creative composers around today, and so it may come as no surprise to learn that Cruella is about as far away from the ‘typical Disney score’ sound as it is possible to be. Instead of writing the usual lush and sweeping orchestrations, Britell went a different route, drawing inspiration from the sights and sounds of London’s Carnaby Street in the swinging sixties. That era was a chaotic blend of music and fashion – models like Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy wore clothes designed by Mary Quant while listening to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and Dusty Springfield – and it is into this zeitgeist that Britell’s score taps.

Cruella is essentially a rock score, written mostly for guitars, percussion, and keyboards, backed by a string section, and occasionally featuring wordless vocalists. There is a main theme for Cruella that weaves throughout the score – a recurring motif of either three or five notes that is heard in virtually every cue in some form or another, but which is performed in a series of styles and with a huge variation in instrumentation to keep it fresh and interesting. It actually appears in the first cue, “Cruella – Disney Castle Logo,” on a subtle and understated guitar.

As the score develops this theme appears frequently. “The Drive to London” initially moves between heavily processed guitars and lighter, almost Renaissance-style strings, before the main Cruella motif appears in the conclusion in a gentle, music-box style arrangement. “Everything’s Going So Well” arranges the theme for guitar and marimba, while “The Necklace” opens with a soft, bittersweet piano version of the theme, but becomes angrier and more insistent as it is taken over by guitars and percussive strings.

One of my favorite versions of the theme is “Surveillance,” a brilliant hard rock version awash in throbbing guitars backed by a prominent drum kit. “I Like To Make An Impact” is a dangerously jazzy arrangement of the theme’s music box variation, “Revenge/Let’s Begin” gives Cruella’s theme a slightly psychotic edge, and sees Britell working mesmerizing vocals into yet another rock-inflected statement, while “Get It Open/Moths” arranges Cruella’s theme for powerful, intense strings, offset by growling electric guitars and a brilliant new rhythmic idea that jumps between drums and bass.

One of the other standout cues is “The Baroque Ball,” a superb waltz-time dance with layered la-la-la vocals and a swaying, elegant rhythmic element performed on electric guitars. “The Baroness Needs Looks” has a snappy, groovy vibe for trilling pianos and jazz percussion that is just delicious; “I Think You’re Something “ feels like a piece Ennio Morricone might have written in the 1960s for Alessandro Alessandrini’s vocal group I Cantori Moderni, a kaleidoscopic array of overlapping vocals accompanied by a jazz trio – the busy, energetic vocal patterns here are mesmerizing. The subsequent “Oh, That’s a Hybrid” is a more electronic keyboard-based rock variation of the riff from the Baroness’s theme.

“Oh, That’s Why You’re Peeved” is darkly gritty, a jazz-grunge hybrid of various recurring thematic textures that is quite dynamic. The emotional high point of the score begins with “The True Story of Cruella’s Birth,” which revisits the operatic vocals from the baroque ball but blends them with the rock/metal guitars of Cruella’s theme in an interesting and effective tonal collision of styles. The score reaches its zenith in the stirring “I’m Cruella,” wherein Britell allows the theme to really soar with a magnificent arrangement for a bank of emotional classical strings, including a searing solo cello.

“A Great Tribute/She’s Here” simmers with barely-contained fury, while jangling guitars perform Cruella’s theme accompanied by metallic percussion; the Morricone vibes are heavy here too, and the cue is especially reminiscent of some of the brutal action sequences from his many spaghetti westerns – the way Britell makes the glockenspiel music box motif seem threatening is very impressive. “The Cliff” is dramatic and intense, full of stabbing string chords and growling guitars; “She Jumped!” is emotionally taut, tremolo strings carrying the chord progressions of Cruella’s theme; and the conclusive “Goodbye, Estella” is a final statement of Cruella’s theme for acoustic and electric guitars backed by a hard rock percussive groove, funk licks, and slightly insane-sounding dreamlike wordless vocals; Estella is dead, long live Cruella. Brilliant, bad, and a little bit mad indeed.

The final element of the soundtrack is an original song, “Call Me Cruella,” written by Britell with Florence Welch, Jordan Powers, Steph Jones, and Taura Stinson, and performed by Florence and the Machine. It’s based on the guitar riff and beat from Cruella’s theme, especially the version in “Surveillance, and interestingly is the only part of the soundtrack which appears to pay the tiniest bit of lip service to the famous “Cruella De Vil” song from the original film, which was written by George Bruns and Mel Leven and was performed with jazzy gravel-voiced gusto by Melloman Bill Lee. Welch’s vocal performance is a seductive cat-purr with a hint of danger, and reminds me of Siouxsie Sioux from Siouxsie and the Banshees and her punk rock persona. The album is rounded out by an instrumental version of the “Call Me Cruella” song, which is fairly similar to “Surveillance,” before a bonus track presents a fantastic orchestral arrangement of the waltz from “The Baroque Ball” that is quite superb.

There is also an accompanying song soundtrack which highlights the various pop and rock songs that play a major role in the movie itself. Some of them are anachronistic from a time period point of view (being released later than the decade in which the film is set), but there are some real bangers, including Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” Queen’s “Stone Cold Crazy,” Blondie’s “One Way or Another,” Electric Light Orchestra’s “Livin’ Thing,” and the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” plus additional efforts by Supertramp, The Doors, the Bee Gees, Ike and Tina Turner, and even Ken Dodd!

What I like most about Cruella is how innovative it is, and how unlike the traditional ‘Disney movie’ score it sounds. Nicholas Britell has combined the rock and jazz sound of Swingin’ Sixties London with strong thematic writing, and a touch of flamboyant madness, to truly capture De Vil’s fashion-forward lifestyle, her increasingly shocking persona, and her descent into villainous chaos. If you were going into this expecting something akin to the soundtrack from the original animated film, or even Michael Kamen’s score for the 1996 Glenn Close version, then you are going to be very surprised indeed. This version of Cruella is an intelligent collision of styles, a modern take on a familiar story, and is hugely entertaining. It also re-asserts Nicholas Britell’s position as one of the most unorthodox and creative young composers in Hollywood; I don’t like everything he does, but no one can deny his talent.

Buy the Cruella soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • SCORE ALBUM
  • Call Me Cruella (written by Florence Welch, Jordan Powers, Nicholas Britell, Steph Jones, and Taura Stinson, performed by Florence and the Machine) (2:07)
  • Cruella – Disney Castle Logo (0:45)
  • The Baroque Ball (2:01)
  • The Most Dreadful Accident (1:18)
  • The Drive to London (1:36)
  • Red Hair Dye (0:24)
  • The Baroness Needs Looks (1:08)
  • I Think You’re Something (2:10)
  • Everything’s Going So Well (0:41)
  • The Necklace (1:33)
  • The Angle (1:10)
  • Surveillance (1:44)
  • I Like To Make An Impact (1:52)
  • Oh, That’s a Hybrid (1:43)
  • Revenge/Let’s Begin (3:38)
  • Putting the Dresses in the Safe (0:42)
  • Get It Open/Moths (1:50)
  • Oh, That’s Why You’re Peeved (2:47)
  • The True Story of Cruella’s Birth (1:55)
  • I’m Cruella (4:21)
  • A Great Tribute/She’s Here (3:45)
  • The Cliff (4:33)
  • She Jumped! (0:50)
  • Goodbye, Estella (1:51)
  • Call Me Cruella (Instrumental Version) (2:06)
  • Orchestral Waltz (Bonus Track) (2:09)
  • SOUNDTRACK ALBUM
  • Call Me Cruella (written by Florence Welch, Jordan Powers, Nicholas Britell, Steph Jones, and Taura Stinson, performed by Florence and the Machine) (2:07)
  • Bloody Well Right (written by Rick Davies and Roger Hodgson, performed by Supertramp) (4:34)
  • Whisper, Whisper (written by Barry Gibb, Maurice Gibb, and Robin Gibb, performed by Bee Gees) (3:25)
  • Five to One (written by Jim Morrison, John Densmore, Ray Manzarek, and Robby Krieger, performed by the Doors) (4:25)
  • Feeling Good (written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, performed by Nina Simone) (2:54)
  • Fire (written by Billy Beck, Leroy Bonner, Marshall Jones, Ralph Middlebrooks, Marvin Pierce, Clarence Satchell, and James Williams, performed by Ohio Players) (4:35)
  • Whole Lotta Love (written by John Bonham, Willie Dixon, John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page, and Robert Plant, performed by Ike & Tina Turner) (4:42)
  • Livin’ Thing (written by Jeff Lynne, performed by Electric Light Orchestra) (3:42)
  • Stone Cold Crazy (written by Freddie Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon, performed by Queen) (2:15)
  • One Way or Another (written by Debbie Harry and Nigel Harrison, performed by Blondie) (3:34)
  • Should I Stay or Should I Go (written by Nicholas ‘Topper’ Headon, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and Joe Strummer, performed by The Clash) (3:09)
  • I Love Paris (written by Cole Porter, performed by Georgia Gibbs) (2:31)
  • Love Is Like a Violin (written by Jimmy Kennedy and Miarka Laparcerie, performed by Ken Dodd) (2:10)
  • I Wanna Be Your Dog (written by Dave Alexander, James Osterberg Jr., Ron Asheton, and Scott Asheton, performed by John McCrea) (3:56)
  • Come Together (written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, performed by Ike & Tina Turner) (3:37)

Running Time: 50 minutes 49 seconds (Score Album)
Running Time: 51 minutes 35 seconds (Song Album)

Walt Disney Records (2021)

Music composed by Nicholas Britell. Conducted by Matt Dunkley. Orchestrations by Nicholas Britell, Matt Dunkley, Mark Baechle and Richard Bronskill. Recorded and mixed by Geoff Foster. Edited by Joseph S. DeBeasi, Todd Kasow and Philip Tallman. Album produced by Nicholas Britell.

  1. May 26, 2021 at 8:11 am

    *Alessandro Alessandroni

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