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THE STARLING – Benjamin Wallfisch

October 12, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Starling is a comedy-drama film from Netflix, directed by Theodore Melfi, starring Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd, and Kevin Kline. The film is an examination of the grief suffered by the parents after the loss of a child; McCarthy and O’Dowd play Lily and Jack, a husband and wife couple whose new baby dies of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which results in Jack having a nervous breakdown and requiring a stay in a mental health facility. As Lily focuses all her attention on Jack, preparing for his imminent return home, she neglects her own mental health needs; to compound matters, a starling has made a nest in a tree in their back garden, which starts to dive-bomb and attack her every time she comes near it. Eventually, things change for the better for Lily when she meets Larry Fine (Kline), a former psychologist turned veterinarian, who becomes an unexpected confidant.

The score for The Starling is by the supremely talented Benjamin Wallfisch, who previously worked with director Melfi on Hidden Figures in 2016. With this score Wallfisch is taking a break from the enormous blockbuster fantasy and sci-fi and horror movies he has been scoring of late, and returning to the more intimate drama sound that dominated much of his early career. When Wallfisch first branched out from working with Dario Marianelli and began scoring movies of his own, scores that sounded like The Starling were very much his bread and butter; early works like Dear Wendy in 2005, Summer in February in 2013, and Desert Dancer in 2014, all contained strongly thematic and often very romantic orchestral writing, and were the scores of his which first appealed to my sensibility. Even now I still associate him with that sound, even though the likes of Blade Runner 2049, Shazam, The Invisible Man, and the It movies are much more well-known by the general population. As good as many of those scores are, this might be why The Starling captured my attention so much; it greatly reminds me of those beautiful early works, and reminds me why I first fell in love with his work.

The score was performed by the Chamber Orchestra of London, with featured instrumental solos by Huw Williams on piano and Owen Gurry on guitar. It’s anchored by a gorgeous, bucolic theme which appears in the opening cue, “The Starling,” which is carried by an undulating fragile-sounding piano motif that sounds like it could break under the slightest pressure, much like the emotions of the lead characters. The background orchestrations are lovely – warm strings, harp glissandi – and the whole thing has a tenderness and an earnestness that is just enchanting. Its prominent restatements in later cues like the quite dramatic “Circus” are excellent.

A theme specific to “Lily” herself is based in the same sonic world as the main theme, but has a slightly more downcast and melancholy tone, and often plays in conjunction with the main theme during the score’s most emotional moments. These lyrical piano and string textures continue throughout numerous subsequent cues, including the first half of “Gardening,” the emotionally powerful “Talk to Him,” “I Can’t Be Who I Was,” “We Turn On Ourselves,” the beautifully despondent “Reflection,” and many others. “Damaged Garden” adds a slightly contemporary edge to the sound through the inclusion of a more prominent chugging guitar element, which adds a sense of drama and determination to Wallfisch’s classical orchestrations.

Meanwhile, “Sternus Vulgaris” introduces the score’s other main recurring idea, for the titular bird that establishes itself both as Lily’s feathered nemesis and also as a metaphor for the problems plaguing the family overall. Wallfisch’s theme for the starling is a spiky, aggressive cello figure surrounded by a plethora of vaguely jazzy percussive textures, ranging from pizzicato violins, brushed snares, and plucked basses to finger snaps, and even a Hammond organ. It’s a wryly comedic piece that plays well, and re-appears in several subsequent cues, including the second half of “Gardening”. This aspect of the score occasionally reminds me of Thomas Newman, especially his scores which take a peek at the troubles and strifes that exist behind the seemingly perfect white picket fences of suburban America; I’m thinking of American Beauty, Revolutionary Road, and others in that vein.

A sense of emotional distress and quiet urgency allows “Starling Down” to be the cue that initiates the build up to the score’s outstanding finale, which continues in “Say It Every Day” and climaxes in “Fly Free”. This cue is where Wallfisch fully lets loose with the score’s most uplifting orchestral music, a series of soaring statements of both the Main Theme and Lily’s Theme that bring the house down; I especially appreciated the darting woodwind textures that often accompany cues to do with flying. In these moments Wallfisch’s music reminded me of Marc Shaiman’s Oscar-nominated 1990s scores like The American President and Patch Adams, where any semblances of restraint and moderation were cast off in favor of unashamed orchestral beauty. The conclusive “I Made You Something” is just the right side of overly-sentimental, and ends the score on a tender high.

The album is rounded by out two original songs; “Find Another Reason Why (The Starling Version)” performed by the Tennessee-based alt-folk band Judah & the Lion, and “Simple Sound of Morning,” co-written and performed by Nate Ruess from the indie pop band Fun.

Despite the score part of the album running for just a tad over half an hour, perhaps the only criticism one could really lay on The Starling is that it gets a little repetitive. As gorgeous as Wallfisch’s string and piano writing is – and, believe me, it is gorgeous – anyone who runs out of patience with scores that adopt a similar sound and tone throughout might find it a little slow. The jazzier starling cues do break the mood, and the emotional power in the climax is outstanding, but some might find everything else a little maudlin. Personally, though, I don’t find that at all. The elegance and grace in Benjamin Wallfisch’s writing in The Starling appealed to my personal taste immediately and, as I stated earlier, brought back positive recollections of those early scores like Summer in February, which made me a Wallfisch fan in the first place. The Starling is short, sweet, and emotionally rewarding.

Buy the Starling soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Starling (1:37)
  • Sternus Vulgaris (1:26)
  • Lily (2:29)
  • Gardening (2:20)
  • Talk to Him (2:18)
  • I Can’t Be Who I Was (2:01)
  • We Turn On Ourselves (1:34)
  • Damaged Garden (2:54)
  • Circus (2:11)
  • Reflection (2:22)
  • Together (2:27)
  • Starling Down (2:01)
  • Say It Every Day (1:58)
  • Fly Free (3:02)
  • I Made You Something (2:08)
  • Find Another Reason Why (The Starling Version) (written by Judah Akers and Brian MacDonald, performed by Judah & the Lion) (3:06)
  • Simple Sound of Morning (written by Nate Ruess, Nate Harold, Ryan Miller, and James Valentine, performed by Nate Ruess) (2:13)

Running Time: 38 minutes 07 seconds

Netflix/Milan Records (2021)

Music composed by Benjamin Wallfisch. Conducted by Geoff Alexander. Performed by The Chamber Orchestra of London. Orchestrations by David Krystal and Silvio Buchmeyer. Featured musical soloists Huw Williams and Owen Gurry. Recorded and mixed by Andrew Dudman and Benjamin Wallfisch. Edited by Clint Bennett. Album produced by Benjamin Wallfisch.

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