Home > Reviews > CANDYMAN – Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe

CANDYMAN – Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe

September 3, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The 1992 horror film Candyman, directed by Bernard Rose and based on a short story by Clive Barker, was an interesting exploration of urban legends, societal decay, and racism, dressed up with plenty of blood and gore, and featuring an iconic lead performance by Tony Todd as the hook-handed monster seeking revenge on his murderers from beyond the grave. It spawned a fairly decent first sequel – Farewell to the Flesh from 1995 – and a rather risible second sequel in 1999, but this new film is essentially a direct sequel to the original. The film is directed by Nia DaCosta and stars Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Teyonah Parris as Anthony and Brianna, a wealthy young couple, both serious artists, who live in the newly-gentrified Cabrini Green neighborhood of Chicago, formerly the site of the ‘projects’ where the first film took place. Seeking inspiration for his latest collection, Anthony ventures into a dilapidated part of the neighborhood, where he learns of the urban legend where, if somebody says the name “Candyman” five times while looking into a mirror, a spirit will appear and kill the summoner. However, as Anthony digs deeper into Candyman lore, and creates art based on what he finds, he discovers some terrible truths about his own past.

As horror movies go, Candyman is certainly on the more serious and thoughtful side. There are certainly some scares to be had, as well as some gore and body horror (the latter stemming from the gruesome after-effects of a bee sting), but there is a depth to it that is often absent from the genre. Director DaCosta and screenwriters Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld go down some very contemporary roads, looking at numerous issues impacting the African American community, ranging from the effects of gentrification to police brutality, and the legacy of America’s racist slave-owning colonial past. It makes some interesting story choices which expand on who Candyman actually is, and overall is a smart and sober urban horror movie for the millennial generation.

The score for the original Candyman, and its first sequel, was – somewhat astonishingly – the acclaimed classical minimalist composer Philip Glass. His two themes for the protagonist Helen and her nemesis Candyman were elegant, haunting, music-box melodies featuring unusual religioso vocal ideas amid his familiar repetitive ostinati. For the remake, the director turned to Missouri-born composer and ‘sound artist,’ Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, who often performs under the pseudonym Lichens. Lowe is a composer whose work is very much rooted in experimentalism; he uses spontaneous vocal sounds, modular synthesizers, guitars, and percussion items to make what he calls “noise rock,” while Allmusic described his 2005 solo album as using “looping wordless vocals and avant-folk fingerpicking to create otherworldly sheets of deep-listening drone”. This is Lowe’s first real foray into mainstream film scoring, having only previously written for a few short films and documentaries, although he did work with the late Jóhann Jóhannsson on scores like Sicario, Arrival, Mother, and Mary Magdalene, creating unique modular synth sounds and percussion design.

As one might expect based on all this description, Candyman is a very, very difficult score. It’s essentially an hour of ambient sound design, enlivened by cello and vocal performances by Oscar-winning composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, and some deconstructed allusions to Glass’s original themes from the first film. It has a great deal in common with aforementioned scores like Arrival, as well as Guðnadóttir’s Chernobyl, Mica Levi’s Under the Skin, and others, in that it almost entirely eschews melody and thematic content in favor of endless, endless pulses and drones. Lowe’s approach to the score was actually very similar to what Guðnadóttir did on Chernobyl. In an interview with Indiewire, Lowe describes how he “walked through those row houses [in the real Cabrini Green], and recorded natural sounds, sticking the field recorder inside an old electrical box, letting it record the wind beating the outside of the box, or the door to the electrical box creaking.” Lowe also recorded and manipulated the sounds of bees and other insects, sampled some of the actors saying the word ‘candyman,’ and also recorded his own voice – sounds which he would then “stretch, bend, and crush to the point where they were unintelligible.”

Look, I’m sure you can see where I’m going here. All this pre-production, all this authentic sourcing of musique concréte sound effects, it’s all fascinating, and I absolutely commend the depth of thinking behind the concept… but it’s all for nothing if the final score ends up basically sounding like every other ambient drone score out there… which is essentially what Candyman does. No amount of intelligent conceptualizing can make up for the fact that, for the overwhelming majority of the score’s running time, it’s just a bunch of drones. Sometimes the timbre changes, sometimes the rhythm changes, sometimes it’s louder, sometimes it’s quieter, and sometimes it’s so ear-splittingly shrill that it makes your ears physically hurt, but at the end of the day it’s little more than manipulated sound design. Guðnadóttir’s cello has been overwhelmed so much in post-production that you can barely identify it as a cello, but her voice is prominent in some cues, and these are among the score’s high points. The few cues where Lowe directly quotes Glass’s theme are also memorable, if for no other reason than to remind you what this score could have been.

Is there anything worth listening to in the score? That depends on your point of view. Cues like “Prologue,” “Rows and Towers,” “I Thought We Could (The Turn),” the disturbing “Anthony’s Arm,” “Got Taken,” and the distressing “Leaves a Stain” feature the eerie, ghostly vocal ideas prominently, unsettling murmurations that play like the desiccated remains of Philip Glass’s choir from the first film. “Rows and Towers” and the subsequent “Called to Row Houses” also appear to be prominent examples of the ‘sampled bee’ that Lowe was describing, while “I Thought We Could (The Turn)” also contains what can only be described as a pastiche of a 1980s electronic 8-bit chiptune, without any of the personality.

Elsewhere, cues like “The Sweet” and the conclusive “Brianna Says His Name” feature a menacing, growling, undulating synth line that grabs the attention. “Frantic Painting” and “Frantic Cycles” are the only cues where Guðnadóttir’s cello is actually recognizable as a cello, which of course makes them stand out as anomalies. And then “Music Box,” and its “Reprise,” are the only cues in which Glass’s original themes feature most prominently, but of course Lowe has done his level best to strip away almost everything that made them so effective, leaving them as mere echoes of the past.

The rest is rumbling, groaning, ambient noise. If all that sounds interesting to you, have at it. Admirers of classical composers like Bartok or Penderecki at their most atonally and aggressively avant-garde may glean something from it. To be fair, some of it is quite clever from a technical point of view, but for me it’s not really fulfilling any of its basic functions as a film score.

And that’s the score’s second issue. Much like the aforementioned scores by Guðnadóttir and Levi, as well as certain scores by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Candyman is a complete failure of basic musical storytelling. I realize that I’ve written variations on this paragraph before, and that this is somewhat old-fashioned thinking these days, but I will absolutely die on this hill. To me, film composers are as much storytellers as the directors and writers. They provide the emotional link between audience and film, and work to guide viewers – sometimes overtly, sometimes subliminally – through whatever difficult concepts and topics the film is presenting.

Emotion is everything in film music. I don’t care what emotion it is you’re conveying, or what instruments or techniques you’re using to convey it, but the emotion HAS to be present. I’m not talking about massive sweeping orchestrations or romantic themes, because most films don’t need that; Candyman certainly doesn’t. But no film presents one single emotion, ever. Even horror films – or perhaps especially horror films – have to provide respite from the tension in order to make the tension effective when you want your audience to feel it the most. DaCosta and the actors have imbued the film with a richness of performance and visual aesthetic, and the writers ask some difficult, layered, nuanced questions about African Americans in contemporary America – but you wouldn’t have any clue about that from the score.

The score for Candyman is not just an exercise in one emotion; sometimes it has literally no emotion, and in the end that harms the film. How am I supposed to feel for the characters and what they are going through when the film’s emotional content is so musically muted? I don’t buy for a second the notion that the writing and directing and acting should be enough, and that the music should not guide your emotions or force you to feel something because film, by its very nature, is a medium expressly designed to manipulate emotions, otherwise what’s the point?

Lowe conveys nothing about the depth of the relationship between Anthony and Brianna, nothing about the tragedy inherent in their crumbling relationship, nothing about the anguish Anthony feels as the revelations about his past come to light. There isn’t even any real acknowledgement of the tragedy in Candyman’s origin story, despite the filmmakers framing it as something akin to the brutality suffered by too many American Americans today. It’s all just creepy tension and overwhelming brooding atmosphere – no depth, no nuance, no reflection of the intelligence in the screenplay or what the filmmakers are trying to convey to the audience. This, to me, is unacceptable, and is the second film music hill I will absolutely die on.

In the end, if you found yourself being fascinated by scores like Arrival or Chernobyl or Under the Skin, if you see depth and meaning in the gimmicks of recording the hums of electrical outlets, or if you prefer your film music to be almost entirely free of melody, harmony, narrative structure, and diverse human emotion, then Candyman might be your score of the year. For me, it’s an experiment that doesn’t work. I’m all for new voices in film music – heck, I spend half my time championing outstanding young composers who write the type of film music I love – but unfortunately Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe’s voice is not one I will be rushing to hear again, or a name I will want to say again, no matter how many bees he digitally samples.

Buy the Candyman soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Prologue (1:43)
  • The Sweet (2:17)
  • Music Box (2:25)
  • Row Houses (2:58)
  • Graffiti (0:56)
  • Rows and Towers (4:06)
  • What’s Candyman? (1:28)
  • I Thought We Could (The Turn) (3:08)
  • Joke Summoning (3:18)
  • End of Clive and Jerrika (3:00)
  • Brianna Finds Bodies (1:28)
  • Brianna’s Mirror Dream (1:31)
  • The Library (1:11)
  • The Elevator (0:54)
  • Frantic Painting (0:59)
  • You Should Say It (1:27)
  • End of Finley (2:17)
  • Frantic Cycles (1:20)
  • The Story of Daniel Robitaille (3:59)
  • Brianna in the Studio (1:38)
  • The End of the Kids (2:47)
  • Anthony’s Arm (1:06)
  • Got Taken (2:28)
  • Called to Row Houses (0:52)
  • The Laundromat (1:42)
  • Young William (1:26)
  • Leaves a Stain (3:32)
  • William Chases Brianna (1:32)
  • End of Burke (0:42)
  • Brianna Says His Name (7:10)
  • Music Box (Reprised) (5:00)
  • Cabrini Walk (Bonus) (1:08)
  • Cabrini Walk II (Bonus) (1:02)
  • The Bridge (Bonus) (1:00)

Running Time: 73 minutes 14 seconds

Waxwork Records (2021)

Music composed and performed by Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe. Special cello and voice performances by Hildur Guðnadóttir. Recorded and mixed by Randall Dunn. Edited by Cory Milano. Album produced by Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe and Randall Dunn.

  1. Matthew McKinnon
    September 7, 2021 at 7:28 am

    I have to ask… why did you bother reviewing this [and other soundtracks like it] when all you have to offer is scorn?

    Your point of view is your own, and that’s fair enough; but it’s so dismissive of an entire area of musical experimentation it’s almost embarrassing.

    • Ben
      September 10, 2021 at 10:57 pm

      Firstly, he didn’t only offer scorn.

      Secondly, is it not the job of a film music critic to give honest reviews, good or bad?

      • Matthew McKinnon
        September 13, 2021 at 4:37 am

        It’s not a ‘job’ or a duty. If you have no appreciation whatsoever of the musical genre you’re reviewing – as is clearly the case here – then why bother?

      • September 13, 2021 at 8:29 am

        Matthew, have you read any of the 2,000 other reviews I’ve written, or are you just fixating on this one? I clearly have an appreciation for the genre, otherwise I wouldn’t have written this review the way I did. I’ve spent virtually my entire life appreciating and celebrating film scores. There’s a whole context and “bigger picture” you’re missing relating to this score and other scores that sound like it.

  2. Matthew McKinnon
    September 13, 2021 at 9:52 am

    Yes, I have read some of your other reviews.

    I’m not ‘fixating’ on this one, just addressing it specifically. It reads like you’re throwing your hands up in the air and saying ‘oh, I don’t like this sort of thing, it means nothing to me, this modern noise’ and that’s it. That’s the sum total of your insight here.

    When you write ‘if you see depth and meaning in the gimmicks of recording the hums of electrical outlets, or if you prefer your film music to be almost entirely free of melody, harmony, narrative structure, and diverse human emotion, then Candyman might be your score of the year’ you’re completely disregarding an entire swathe not just of soundtrack music, but of musical experimentation generally. Because it doesn’t tick your boxes.

    [I’d also add that fear and tension are the key emotions here and in the other films you mentioned; melody and narrative structure aren’t necessarily what express those feelings, and atonal and unsettling sound design/music often does an excellent job evoking them].

    So why bother? This isn’t a broadsheet, it’s a blog. You’re not performing a service when you write a review like this.

    • September 13, 2021 at 2:55 pm

      Yeah, I am disregarding it. Because I think it’s a terrible way of scoring a film. Writing this review of this score provides counterpoint to, and balance to, the positive reviews, and further illustrates to my readers what my taste and opinions and biases are. That’s the point. If you don’t understand why that’s valuable, and that’s not what you want to read… well, then I can’t help you.

      • Matthew McKinnon
        September 13, 2021 at 7:09 pm

        Hmm. ‘Valuable’ is somewhat overstating your importance, but whatever…

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