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COPPELIA – Maurizio Malagnini

December 10, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

A wonderful combination of live action ballet, animation, science fiction, and sweeping orchestral music, Coppelia is a film quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s a contemporary updating of the 1870 stage ballet by Léo Delibes, which was itself based on a story by the famed German fantasy author Ernst Hoffmann, whose work also inspired Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann and Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, among others. The film follows the story of Swan and Franz, two young lovers who live in a pretty European town. One day a sinister scientist and inventor named Doctor Coppelius comes to town; he promises the townspeople that he can make them handsome, beautiful, and strong through cosmetic surgery, and entices them to come to his laboratory. However, what the townspeople don’t realize is that the Doctor is actually on a personal quest to build the perfect “robot woman,” and he is using the ‘essence’ of the townspeople to bring his robot creation, named Coppelia, to life, while simultaneously turning the townspeople into mindless zombies who do nothing except stare at their own reflection. When the Doctor realizes that the love Franz has for Swan is the missing ingredient he needs to fully bring Coppelia to life, he kidnaps him – motivating Swan and their friends to break into the lab, rescue Franz, stop the Doctor, and save the town.

The film is directed by Jeff Tudor, Steven De Beul, and Ben Tesseur, and features choreography by Ted Brandsen, the artistic director of the Dutch National Ballet. The principal dancers are Michaela DePrince as Swan, Daniel Camargo as Franz, and Vito Mazzeo as the Doctor, with guest performances from ballet superstars Darcy Bussell and Irek Mukhamedov. It’s a fascinating, visually quirky, occasionally peculiar project which has some interesting things to say about self-image and the contemporary obsessions with beauty in a world full of Instagram influencers, but ultimate leaves you with a smile on your face. The dancing is absolutely top notch, especially from the lead dancer Michaela DePrince, who has a fascinating backstory: she was orphaned in the Sierra Leonean civil war, was adopted by an American family, and became one of the first African-born prima ballerinas in the world. She also suffers from the skin condition vitiligo in real life, which fits in with Coppelia’s underlying story about dangerously unrealistic and unattainable standards of beauty in modern society.

The final element of Coppelia – and the icing on the cake – is the score, written by the UK-based Italian composer Maurizio Malagnini. As many people know, Malagnini has been writing great music for years – he was nominated for an Emmy for scoring the TV show The Paradise, has written six seasons of music for the BBC drama series Call the Midwife, and wrote one of the best scores of the year in 2015 for his work on the Peter Pan adaptation Peter & Wendy – but despite his massive talent he still remains defiantly under-the-radar, comparatively undiscovered by most film music fans. Malagnini is an old soul who writes unashamedly emotional, unapologetically thematic orchestral film music, and Coppelia might very well be the best score of his career to date.

Considering that Coppelia is essentially a silent film – there is no dialogue whatsoever, and just a few sound effects – Malagnini’s music carries the entire emotional weight of the project, He describes the score as “maximalism” – melodies composed to be lyrical and create emotions, harmonies to be intense, swells to embrace the audience, and orchestration to color in millions of shades. He says his music was inspired by all his Italian heritage mixed with his love for classic Hollywood music, and that it should be enjoyed with no moderation. I couldn’t agree more: Coppelia is a sweeping, magical, theme-filled, emotion-packed powerhouse of a score which will appeal to anyone with a romantic bone in their body.

However, the opening “Prologue” cue reveals the twist in the tale – that there is also a significant amount of electronic scoring too, which represents the sci-fi elements relating to the Doctor, Coppelia herself, and his evil scheme. Some people find any hint of electronica completely unpalatable in film music, and some of those will be turned off by this aspect of the score, but let me be absolutely clear here: Malagnini’s use of electronics and keyboards in the context of Coppelia is excellent, and adds a different tonal and textural dimension to the score which I find to be very successful. The “Prologue” introduces the theme for the Doctor himself after around 20 seconds, a sinister bank of Jerry Goldsmith-esque darkly-hued strings – think of something like The Shadow – surrounded by bubbling and pulsating synths and dramatic choral textures which identify the Doctor as an outsider in town, changing the happy, carefree, free-spirited community into something darker and stranger.

The next seven cues, from “Breakfast With Mum” through to “Grand Waltz,” are much more traditionally classical, and represent the main character Swan, her relationship with her mother, her various friends in her home town, and of course her romance with the handsome Franz, for whom she initially pines from afar, but with whom she eventually falls in love. There are various different melodies and themes weaving through these cues, including an especially brassy regal one for prima ballerina Darcy Bussell as “The Mayor,” but the one thing they all have in common is unadulterated, overwhelming romantic beauty. The strings whirl and sing, the woodwinds dance and twitter gaily, the light metallic percussion tinkles in the background, and then when the melodies soar, it all becomes magic.

There’s a sparkling violin solo at the beginning of “Journey to Town” that is just sublime. There’s a huge amount of depth and emotional range in “Friendship” as it moves from jaunty to poignant. to grand and classical, to jazzy, with some clear influences from George Gershwin, all anchored by several magnificent statements of Swan and Franz’s Love Theme. “Swan’s Dream” is effortlessly elegant, pianos and strings cascading like a waterfall. The piano rendition of the love theme in “Falling in Love” is expressive and tender, while the “Grand Waltz” is just what it purports to be – elegant and majestic and full of classical romance. Listening to this blind, you would have difficulty convincing me that it wasn’t written by Strauss himself.

Things change when “Dr Coppelius Interrupts,” a piece which has a sort of charming sneakiness similar to the Nazi music from John Williams’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – slithery snake oil salesman strings and a Cheshire Cat grin hiding his actual malevolence – and which sets the actual plot in motion. There is a sort of off-kilter tone to both “The Town Is Changing” and “Mother is Different,” which revolve around dramatic crescendos and bittersweet laments, feature heavier staccato in the piano writing, and make several references to the Doctor’s theme, before fully embracing his wickedness (and the synth elements) with a full-throated brass arrangement of his theme in “The Evil Dr Coppelius”.

At first glance “Coppelia’s Dance Track” seems to be something of an outlier. It is a somewhat incongruous modern EDM-orchestra hybrid which, in context, plays under a TV commercial in which the Doctor uses Coppelia as a ‘spokes-robot’ to entice his ‘customers’ to his lair, but it actually cleverly introduces the theme for Coppelia herself. Elements of this theme play subtly in the subsequent “Coppelia Drugs Franz,” and then combine with the Doctor’s theme in the 8½-minute sequence comprising “Coppelius’ Experiments” and “Giving Life to Coppelia,” which also has some militaristic overtones, vague flavors of romantic Celtic music, and references to Swan’s theme and the Love Theme, while also containing some of the most prominent and aggressive synth writing in the entire score.

The stunning solo violin theme from “Journey to Town” comes back in “Franz’s Drawing” and is subject to several clever instrumental variations, while in the same cue the grand waltz theme gets a Gallic makeover in a new arrangement for an accordion. The “Ice Cream Tango” is a lavish dance sequence in which Swan, Franz, and their respective friends have fun while – unknown to them – the rest of the town is falling under the Doctor’s spell. The melody of the Tango theme has some incredibly subtle references to the Italian song ‘O Sole Mio’ which leads me to wonder whether this is a clever in-joke by Malagnini which only English people will get (“just one Cornetto…”) – either way, the sequence is a whimsical, dream-like delight. This leads into the romantic triumph of “The First Kiss” between Swan and Franz, but then the subsequent “The Nightmare” is where the Doctor realizes that the love in Franz’s heart is what he needs to bring Coppelia fully to life; the surging strings here are more serious and intense, the horns are bold and dramatic, and the whole thing is appropriately powerful.

There are some gorgeous, tragedy-inflected brass versions of the waltz in “Franz Follows Coppelia” and “On the Mirror,” which usher in the sequence from “Plan of Action” through to the end of “Destroying the Clinic” that acts as the film’s action finale. In it, Swan and her friends break into the Doctor’s facility to rescue Franz, but then also discover the truth of what the Doctor is doing, and who Coppelia really is. Here, all the score’s main themes come together in a superb, intricate tapestry of melodic writing; elements of Swan’s theme and the love theme play against the Doctor’s theme, Coppelia’s theme, and more, and there is even some light half comedic-half dramatic action caper music that accompanies Swan as she searches the facility for her kidnapped love. There is a dangerous undercurrent to “Swan Explores the Clinic,” conveyed with energetic string runs and bubbling electronica. Statements of the Doctor’s theme run throughout “The Blending Room” and “Stopping the Essence,” and then the quartet of cues comprising “Robot Dance,” “Friends Don’t Give Up,” “Escaping the Robots,” and “Friends Manage to Break In!” are surprisingly threatening. The combination of striking string figures, percussive electronic textures, thrilling horn calls, and more statements of the Doctor’s theme enhance the danger his faceless automatons present to Swan.

“True Love Kiss” underscores the climactic scene where the love between Swan and Franz ultimately saves the day, re-directing Franz’s ‘essence’ away from Coppelia and back to Swan, with a massive, emotional, dramatic surge of emotion. This leads to them eventually “Destroying the Clinic” with a final brass-led rampage of the Doctor’s theme, rushing strings heavily distorted with electronica, before the “Grand Finale” returns to the effortlessly romantic style of the first part of the score as the threat posed by the Doctor and Coppelia is vanquished, Swan and Franz are reunited, and the town is saved. Here, Malagnini expresses this triumph with a series of celebratory brass fanfares underpinned with lyrical strings and rousing percussion, and some moments of heartfelt piano tenderness, all leading up to magnificent final statements of the waltz and the love theme. The final cue, the “Coppelia-Radio Suite” is a sweeping reprise of all the score’s main themes which acts as a perfect coda and an outstanding summary of everything the score has to offer.

I really can’t stress enough just what a tremendous achievement Coppelia is, for Maurizio Malagnini, and for everyone involved. While some may consider the film itself somewhat childish, with its stagey acting performances from the dancers, its simple and occasionally hokey special FX, and its fanciful animated 2D sets, the heart and creativity in the dancing and especially the music is absolutely first rate. Best of all, for me, is its unashamed heart-on-its-sleeve emotion; this is the type of content I crave in film music, the type of music that brought me to the genre in the first place. Obviously, as I mentioned earlier, the fact that Malagnini carries the entire dramatic weight of the movie plays in his favor, but there was nothing in the script that said that it had to be this rich, this lavish, this thematically dense, or this overwhelmingly beautiful. Fans of Patrick Doyle, or George Fenton, or Rachel Portman, or Debbie Wiseman at their most tenderly romantic and symphonically lavish, will be beside themselves with delight when they hear what this score has to offer.

To be fair, Coppelia is an incredibly obscure piece of work. It premiered in the United States in late November 2021 on the publicly funded arts channel PBS as part of its ‘Great Performances’ series, and if you can figure out how to watch it you can see the whole thing at this link here: https://www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/coppelia/13073/. I have no idea if, or when, it is being broadcast elsewhere in the world. But things like that don’t influence my decision making whatsoever when I’m making value judgements about musical quality. In a time when the theatrical movie schedule is dominated by Marvel and Disney, prequels and sequels and multiverses, there has to be room for art projects like Coppelia, and for ravishing music like that composed here by Maurizio Malagnini. With all that in mind, and unless something absolutely astonishing happens in the last three weeks of the year, chances are that Coppelia will end up being my choice for the best score of 2021.

Buy the Coppelia soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Prologue (2:01)
  • Breakfast With Mum (2:35)
  • Journey to Town (2:45)
  • The Mayor (0:41)
  • Friendship (4:18)
  • Swan’s Dream (2:18)
  • Falling in Love (1:31)
  • Grand Waltz (3:58)
  • Dr Coppelius Interrupts (0:56)
  • The Town Is Changing (2:32)
  • Mother is Different (0:45)
  • The Evil Dr Coppelius (2:02)
  • The Town Has Changed! (1:23)
  • Opening Fanfare (0:25)
  • Coppelia’s Dance Track (1:34)
  • Coppelia Drugs Franz (0:54)
  • Coppelius’ Experiments (5:54)
  • Giving Life to Coppelia (2:41)
  • Franz’s Drawing (2:38)
  • Rescuing Mum (0:32)
  • Mum Wants a Makeover (0:49)
  • Ice Cream Tango (1:59)
  • The First Kiss (1:47)
  • The Nightmare (1:42)
  • Franz Follows Coppelia (1:12)
  • On the Mirror (1:20)
  • Plan of Action (2:30)
  • Swan Explores the Clinic (1:09)
  • The Blending Room (0:46)
  • Stopping the Essence (1:57)
  • Swan Has Found Franz (1:14)
  • Robot Dance (1:40)
  • Friends Don’t Give Up (2:51)
  • Escaping the Robots (1:58)
  • Friends Manage to Break In! (1:39)
  • Stealing Franz’s Love (1:02)
  • True Love Kiss (1:52)
  • Destroying the Clinic (2:02)
  • Grand Finale (5:17)
  • Coppelia-Radio Suite (4:06)

Running Time: 81 minutes 15 seconds

Dubois Records (2021)

Music composed by Maurizio Malagnini. Conducted by Geoff Alexander. Performed by The BBC Concert Orchestra. Orchestrations by Jehan Stefan and Jeff Atmajian. Recorded and mixed by Jonathan Allen. Edited by Stefano Civetta. Album produced by Maurizio Malagnini.

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  1. January 21, 2022 at 9:00 am

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