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JULIA – Rachel Portman

December 17, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

There are so many cookery shows, chef competitions, and other food-related programs on American television these days that there are entire channels dedicated to the genre, but as wide and broad as they are they can all trace their lineage back to one person: Julia Child. It was she who basically introduced the concept of French haute cuisine to the American public following the publication of her first book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, in 1961, which in turn led to her first appearances on television in the mid-1960s. Through the 1970s and 1980s she was the pre-eminent TV cooking personality in the country, and her way of cooking food influenced generations of home chefs and restauranteurs alike. A dramatic film about her life, Julie & Julia, was released in 2009 with Meryl Streep playing Child, but this new film Julia is a straightforward biographical documentary. It is directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, with Brian Grazer and Ron Howard as executive producers, and has an original score by Rachel Portman.

It’s been a fair few years since Portman has had a reasonably major score to write about. Although scores like Godmothered and A Dog’s Purpose and Race were all noteworthy, and although she won an Emmy in 2015 for Bessie, we’re a world away from her late 1990s and early 2000s heyday when she was scoring 2-3 big studio films a year, and regularly picking up Oscar nominations. Some have suggested that her lush, melodic, lyrical style has mostly fallen out of favor with modern filmmakers, and if that is the case then it’s a shame because she has always been one of my favorite composers. In a way, Portman is a perfect choice to score a film like Julia, because to me her music is comfort food for my ears and my heart. Hers is a sound that is familiar, welcoming, and satisfying, but also has the ingredients of an artist – her woodwinds are light and crisp, like a perfect patisserie, her piano lines are clean and elegant, like fine wine, and her strings are as rich and luxurious as one of Escoffier’s famous sauces mères.

There is nothing unfamiliar or unexpected about Julia; it is, in many ways, a quintessential Rachel Portman score. To continue with the food analogies, it’s like going back to a restaurant you haven’t visited in a while, ordering your favorite dish, and it being presented to you exactly as you remember it. While some people may consider this rather dull and predictable, I prefer to think of it like a visit from an old friend. Anyone who has ever harbored a liking for her all-time classic works will find elements from them here; there are numerous moments that recall scores like Emma, Only You, and The Cider House Rules, while elsewhere there are flavors of The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Road to Wellville, and Benny & Joon. Most of all, however, the score follows in the footsteps of Portman’s other major score about the gastronomic delights of France, Chocolat, and all the deliciousness and decadence that music suggests.

There are several recurring melodies weaving through the Julia score, and all of them are lovely. In an interview with Jon Burlingame for Variety, Portman outlines them by saying that “Julia’s character and personality, the main theme, is fun and upbeat. But there’s also a more wistful side to her growing up, wanting to leave. There’s a love theme, which was incredibly important, for her and her husband Paul. Then there was her determination to get her cookbook done, her edginess, pushing and trying. And then there’s France. There needed to be French flavors, an accordion here and there.” Portman also describes how scenes of Child making a souffle, and the precise movement thereof, inspired her to write a traditional French waltz, while other cues feature Portman herself singing scat-style vocals over the music, in one of the score’s most unusual moments.

The opening “Fed By Our Mothers” is delicate and bucolic and filled with lilting, sunny textures for piano and solo cello that sound like home. “Growing Up” is pretty and graceful and whimsical, again anchored by a bright piano motif. “Pining for Adventure” has that sense of determination and forward motion, and is anchored by a more prominent, forthright rhythmic idea that dances between the strings and the piano. “Spam and Pineapple” is fun and bouncy and has hints of jazz, with more prominent saxophones, vibraphones, and brushed snare drums. “Discovery of Food and Love” feels like a love theme – and it is, except that this love is between a woman and an array of cream-based sauces!

“Paris” is about as stereotypical as one can be when conjuring up images of the city; accordions and strings in waltz time, which if they were any more French would be riding a bicycle, wearing a beret, and smoking Gauloises, with a string of onions around its neck. The senses of candor and firmness come back in “Strong Opinions,” a cue which blends the energy of the adventure theme with the gallic flair of the French theme and the perkiness of Julia’s personal theme to create an excellent snapshot of the score overall, and the woman at the center of it.

Portman’s jazz-scat vocals appear for the first time in “She Could Ad Lib,” adding an Andrews Sisters-style sassy freshness to the light, circus-like, rhythmic comedy beats. This is contrasted with the slightly more melancholy string writing in “Tasting as you Cook,” and then with the sheer joy and ebullience of “Such a Character” and “Julia is the Star,” which positively overflow with good-natured charm.

The music of “Provence” has the same idyllic appeal as that particular part of France where Child had her cottage/restaurant ‘La Pitchoune’ from 1963 until 1991, when she relinquished the property following the death of her beloved husband Paul. The bittersweet, but still beautiful, rendering of their love theme for soft strings and warm, fondly nostalgic pianos in “Paul Unwell” captures the sadness of that moment, as well as the happy memories of their life together. The conclusive “Bon Appetit” ends the score on a thoughtful note, offering a remembrance of Julia herself (she died aged 91 in 2004), and running through several of the score’s main themes with a joyous, effervescent touch, and no small amount of warmth and emotion.

Julia is a truly delightful score, one which will appeal to anyone who has ever loved Rachel Portman’s highly idiosyncratic personal style, and has pined for the years where we would happily digest three or four of them every year. It contains everything that has ever made Rachel Portman’s music good – in fact, this score might best be described as a Portman Salad: it takes a bit from here, a bit from there, a bit from somewhere else, and tosses it all together with a new dressing and a fresh garnish. The flavors and the colors are familiar, and although it is presented on a clean plate so technically it’s a new dish, the experience of savoring it feels wholesome and warmly sentimental, like a memory of a meal you enjoyed years previously, and are only too happy to rediscover now. Bon appetit indeed.

Buy the Julia soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Fed By Our Mothers (1:48)
  • Growing Up (3:01)
  • Pining for Adventure (2:34)
  • Spam and Pineapple (1:25)
  • Discovery of Food and Love (2:30)
  • Paris (2:04)
  • The Only Woman (2:12)
  • Strong Opinions (4:12)
  • She Could Ad Lib (2:29)
  • Tasting as you Cook (1:02)
  • Such a Character (4:01)
  • Julia is the Star (2:59)
  • Bob (1:20)
  • Provence (1:32)
  • Paul Unwell (2:32)
  • Bon Appetit (3:25)

Running Time: 38 minutes 59 seconds

Lakeshore Records (2021)

Music composed and conducted by Rachel Portman. Performed by The Chamber Orchestra of London. Orchestrations by Rachel Portman and Edward Farmer. Recorded and mixed by Joshia Blair. Edited by XXXX. Album produced by Rachel Portman.

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  1. January 21, 2022 at 9:01 am

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