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LUCA – Dan Romer

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Luca is the 24th Disney-Pixar animated film, but also (curiously) one of the least-widely marketed. It’s a shame, too, because on the whole the film is a pure and whimsical delight, an easier and more approachable story that eschews the profound existentialism of recent films like Coco, Onward, and Soul, to instead tell a simple story about an idyllic childhood and the need for friendship and acceptance. The film follows Luca, a lonely young sea monster who lives with his family off the Riviera coast of Italy in the 1950s. Sea monsters are feared and hunted by humans, but Luca is lonely and obsessed with life on the other side of the ocean; things change for Luca when he meets another sea monster, Alberto, who says he lives among humans, and tells Luca that sea monsters look exactly like humans when dry, but return to their true forms when wet. Thus begins a summer of adventures for Luca and Alberto, who begin to spend more and more time in the nearby human town of Portorosso, and make plans to buy a Vespa motor scooter and travel the world together. The film is directed by Enrico Casarosa – who based the story partly on his own childhood growing up in Liguria – and features a voice cast including Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, Emma Berman, Maya Rudolph, and Jim Gaffigan.

Despite its simple story, Luca absolutely excels visually, aesthetically, and at establishing a time and place that is rich and appealing. It’s a sort of collision between Federico Fellini, Hayao Miyazaki, and Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, combining the gorgeously atmospheric settings of their films. It captures Fellini’s Italy perfectly – the architecture, the style, the food, the Vespas. I recently wrote in another review about the German concept of fernweh – an inscrutable longing for a place you’ve never been – and that same thing applies to Luca too. You yearn to swim in that water, eat that soft gelato and those steaming bowls of pasta, feel that sun on your back, breathe that air, live amid those gorgeous houses. The way Casarosa and his animators captured the lapping of surf on a rocky beach, the way the sunlight plays on the waves… it’s just beautiful. The film was originally due to be released in theaters in June 2021, but Disney eventually cancelled its cinema plan in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and instead released it straight-to-streaming on Disney+.

The final element of the story for Luca is, of course, music. Federico Fellini’s most famous musical collaborator was the great Nino Rota, and although he died in 1979 aged just 67, his style of writing gorgeous orchestral scores rooted in Italian folk music lived on through many of his contemporaries. During pre-production, Casarosa’s first choice to score the film was Ennio Morricone, but unfortunately he died in July 2020 before anything could be finalized. Eventually the project fell to young American composer Dan Romer, whose standing has been rising recently off the back of scores like Beasts of the Southern Wild and Wendy, to the extent that he was originally hired to score the upcoming James Bond film No Time to Die, before eventually being replaced by Hans Zimmer.

Romer was sophisticated enough to understand what the film needed, and what Casarosa wanted, and so his score is indeed an homage to the sounds of both Rota and Morricone, filtered through his personal, understated, minimalist, indie-rock style. There are numerous main themes weaving through the score, the most prominent of which are the themes for the three protagonists. Romer describes Luca’s theme as conveying “a sense of longing and wonder,” while Alberto’s theme has “a rousing ‘let’s go!’ kind of feeling,” and Giulia’s theme is “the most Italian, with a more homespun regional feel.” Because these youngsters dominate the story, Romer made sure that all three themes were harmonically compatible and could work in counterpoint during scenes that involved two or three at once.

Other themes include a lightly comedic march for Luca’s overprotective parents, Daniela and Lorenzo; a sweeping and romantic theme for Portorosso, the town where much of the action takes place; and minor motifs for the antagonist Ercole Visconti, and Luca’s peculiar Uncle Ugo. These themes are surrounded by gorgeous, sunny Italian orchestrations that strongly feature guitars, mandolins, and accordions alongside the orchestra. All of this is then given a playful, bouncy, carefree percussive tone, similar in style to the theme from Wendy, and to Hushpuppy’s theme from Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Luca’s theme is presented in the opening cue, “Meet Luca,” which begins as a playful little scherzo, energetic and lively, filled with lots of pizzicato strings and strummed guitars, which follow Luca around as he lives his life as a sea monster on the ocean floor with his family. The first really recognizable statement of Luca’s theme is heard on flute at 1:36, where it is surrounded by more traditional orchestrations, and then in a whistled version in the conclusion, which is a nice touch. Further statements come during the slightly downbeat “The Curious Fish,” as a pretty harp variation embedded into a series of playful comedy ideas in “Phantom Tail,” and again courtesy of an Alessandro Alessandroni-style whistler in the magical, aspirational “Vespa è Libertà”.

However, after he meets the more confident and worldly sea monster Alberto, and becomes his best friend, Luca’s theme mostly takes a back seat (almost literally) to Alberto’s theme, which quickly becomes an overarching theme for their friendship overall. You first hear Alberto’s theme as a prancing pizzicato motif in “You Forgot Your Harpoon,” and then with more light comedy textures in “Walking Is Just like Swimming,” before the whole thing bursts into life in two knockabout action sequences, “You Hold the Ramp” and “Silenzio Bruno”. These cues embed Alberto’s theme into a series of wild, frantic scherzos, full of verve and vitality, which capture the sense of reckless freedom their friendship inspires.

These two themes reach an emotional high point during “That’s the Dream,” which underscores the scene where Luca and Alberto imagine how wonderful their carefree life on a Vespa could be, riding through fields of golden flowers, reaching for the stars. In this cue Alberto’s theme emerges from a lilting guitar and a strummed mandolin, tender and sentimental, picks up a dynamic piano and clattering percussion, and builds to a lovely performance on trumpet, before the strings take over with a lush, hopeful statement of Luca’s theme. The subsequent “Take Me, Gravity” is equally lively and adventurous, with a superb bold statement of Alberto’s theme on brass accompanying the boys as they make the fateful decision to swim to Portorosso – and change their lives forever.

“Portorosso” introduces the traditional Italianate theme for Giulia, the human friend the boys make once they reach dry land, as well as the sweeping romantic theme for Portorosso itself, a wash of lush strings. However, their arrival in Portorosso also brings the boys into contact with Ercole, the arrogant town bully and the multiple champion of the prestigious Portorosso Cup, who is Giulia’s nemesis; Ercole’s theme is introduced as a haughty, slightly menacing little march in “Signor Vespa,” and later appears in cues such as “The Out of Town Weirdo Tax” and “We Don’t Need Anybody”.

After they realize that he has essentially gone to live on land permanently, Luca’s parents Daniela and Lorenzo make the decision to follow him to Portorosso to bring him home; their theme, which was briefly hinted at during the early album cue “Did You Hide,” now emerges properly during “Land Monsters Everywhere.” Romer says he wanted to ‘have two low instruments that kind of bumbled back and forth,’ and ended up writing a rhythmic, melodic figure that plays as a call-and-response between a tuba and a bass clarinet. It is reprised cheerfully later in “Buongiorno Massimo,” and then forms the basis of the galloping tarantella “Not Our Kid,” which underscores the comedy soccer sequence in which Daniela and Lorenzo repeatedly knock local children into the central fountain to see if any of them turn into sea monsters!

The most prominent performances of Giulia’s theme come in “Telescope” and “Beyond the Solar System,” in which she regales Luca with stories of science and discovery, planets and stars, and the scope of the universe. In the former, Giulia’s theme is gentle and magical, shimmering and full of wonder, before eventually giving way to a gorgeous, sweeping, almost balletic version of Luca’s theme in its finale. In the latter the theme is optimistic, and effervescent, featuring a bank of sparkling guitars that capture Luca’s sense of awe, as well as his daydreams of riding his Vespa on the rings of Saturn.

The big moment of serious drama comea during “The Sea Monster,” which opens with a variation on Ercole’s theme surrounded by tense pizzicato textures and nervous strings, and then conveys some darkness for the moment Alberto’s true identity is revealed to the Portorosso townspeople by Luca during an argument. Here, Romer captures the intensity of the scene with a massively dark string performance of Alberto’s theme that is very effective. The subsequent “I Wish I Could Take It Back” is equally dramatic, as Luca tries – but fails – to apologize to Alberto for ‘outing him’ against his will. There is a sense of regret associated with the use of marimbas, tremolo strings, and solemn piano textures here, while the deconstructed variation on Alberto’s theme is clever, the first note of which hangs broken in the air, much like Luca and Alberto’s relationship. However, Romer ensures that there is a sense of hopefulness and optimism in the final moments, leading into the score’s big finale.

Romer had built some action textures into earlier cues – “This Isn’t Any Old Race,” “Rules Are for Rule People,” and “How Humans Swim,” among others – but everything comes to a head in the 7½ minute cue underscoring the “Portorosso Cup,” a unique triathlon race involving swimming, eating pasta, and riding a bicycle, which Luca, Giulia, and Ercole have all entered. The cue features all the familiar sounds and textures from the rest of the score, and although there is darkness and trepidation in the statement of Luca’s theme in the opening moments, it quickly picks up speed for the race itself. Romer uses lively rapped percussion drumming a toe-tapping beat, and engages in endlessly vibrant writing for mandolins, guitars, trumpets, and clarinets, all accompanying the racers as they speed through town. The whole thing is fun, lively, caper-like, and hugely enjoyable, with numerous clear references to 1960s Fellini/Rota scores throughout. Not only that, there are several clever statements of the four main themes too, including one especially determined-sounding variation on Luca’s theme at a pivotal moment.

The score’s emotional finale begins with “How to Find the Good Ones” as Luca and Alberto – having been finally revealed as sea monsters to the entire town – are nevertheless warmly welcomed by the community after they finally defeat Ercole and rescue Giulia. There are superb, nostalgic string-led statements of Alberto’s theme, Giulia’s theme, and the Portorosso theme, each filled with affection and heart. The conclusive “Go Find Out for Me” is the film’s emotional climax where, after a few moments of tense buildup from tremolo strings, Romer lets loose with a huge, sweeping, emotional final statement of Luca’s theme. Romer says that, to judge the tone for this final scene, he was inspired by the sound of the song “Only in Dreams” by the rock band Weezer. Whatever he did, it worked perfectly.

In addition to score, the film’s soundtrack also includes numerous period pop songs and Italian language standards, including “Tintarella di Luna” and “Città Vuota” by the legendary Mina Mazzini, “Il Gatto e la Volpe” by rocker Edoardo Bennato, “Andavo a Cento all’Ora” and “Fatti Mandare Dalla Mamma a Prendere il Latte” by Gianni Morandi (the latter of which was co-written by Luis Bacalov), “Viva la Pappa col Pomodoro” by Rita Pavone (which was co-written by Nino Rota), and the famous “Un Bacio a Mezzanotte” by Quartetto Cetra, plus excerpts from operas by Giacomo Puccini and Gioachino Rossini. Unfortunately, none of them are included on the main soundtrack album, but I would absolutely recommend finding and acquiring them separately, as they add a great deal of period charm and specificity to the music overall.

Luca is a terrific little score; it’s a fun, light, optimistic, charming love letter to Italian folk music, Federico Fellini, and Nino Rota, filled with heart and a sense of freedom and wonderment. It’s also unexpectedly dense and impressively thematic, with Romer taking at least three major and three minor thematic ideas and playing them in a way which makes sense, and serves the story’s dramatic needs. Although I wasn’t too much of a fan of the sort of airy-fairy bucolic sound in Beasts of the Southern Wild, I thought Wendy was terrific, and now that Dan Romer has added Luca to his canon, I’m convinced that he has a lot of talent, and a lot to say. I do think that Romer is still living with the confines of what is now a recognizable personal sound, and that he needs to start branching out a little more beyond his comfort zone going forward, but for now I’m impressed with where he’s at. Luca is a delight.

Buy the Luca soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Meet Luca (4:08)
  • Did You Hide? (1:04)
  • The Curious Fish (1:39)
  • You Forgot Your Harpoon (0:39)
  • Phantom Tail (2:09)
  • Walking Is Just like Swimming (2:02)
  • Vespa è Libertà (1:42)
  • You Hold the Ramp (0:59)
  • Silenzio Bruno (0:41)
  • That’s the Dream (2:05)
  • The Bottom of the Ocean (1:52)
  • Take Me, Gravity (1:44)
  • Portorosso (1:36)
  • Signor Vespa (1:17)
  • This Isn’t Any Old Race (2:55)
  • Buonanotte, Boys (1:27)
  • Land Monsters Everywhere (0:55)
  • Buongiorno Massimo (3:03)
  • The Out of Town Weirdo Tax (1:48)
  • Rules Are for Rule People (1:08)
  • How Humans Swim (1:03)
  • Not Our Kid (0:49)
  • Telescope (2:46)
  • Beyond the Solar System (1:02)
  • We Don’t Need Anybody (1:54)
  • The Sea Monster (3:33)
  • I Wish I Could Take It Back (4:01)
  • The Portorosso Cup (7:34)
  • How to Find the Good Ones (5:14)
  • Go Find Out for Me (1:39)

Running Time: 64 minutes 44 seconds

Walt Disney Records (2021)

Music composed by Dan Romer. Conducted by Mark Graham. Orchestrations by Mark Graham. Recorded and mixed by Greg Hayes. Edited by Lodge Worster, David Channing, Barney Jones and Justin Pearson. Album produced by Dan Romer and Tom MacDougall.

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