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DON’T LOOK UP – Nicholas Britell

December 31, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Pitching a satire at the right level is always a tricky task, especially when the thing you are satirizing is something that is happening at the time. Whether you are tackling politics, war (like Dr Strangelove or MASH), religion (like Monty Python’s Life of Brian), bureaucracy (like Brazil), or something else entirely, you run the risk of alienating the half of your audience that doesn’t agree with your stance – and this appears to have happened to Adam McKay with his new film Don’t Look Up. The film stars Leonardo di Caprio and Jennifer Lawrence as Randall Mindy and Kate Dibiasky, two astronomy scientists who make a shocking discovery – that a comet, larger than the one which killed the dinosaurs, is on a collision course with Earth, and will strike in six months with 99% probability. Despite their scientifically accurate (but, obviously, desperately dire) warnings, they face opposition and scorn at every turn: from politicians more concerned about their poll ratings, from a disinterested media more concerned with the latest celebrity breakup, and from an apathetic public who immediately become polarized based on their political and religious beliefs. The film co-stars Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, Timothée Chalamet, and Ariana Grande, among many others, and has been the recipient of equal amounts of praise and scorn in the wake of its release.

For ‘comet’ we must of course read ‘COVID’ or ‘climate change’ to fully grasp the nuances of McKay’s satire. The film is a timely exposé of the world’s general, and America’s particular, failure to adequately deal with both the long-term existential threat of climate change, and the immediate issues of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, and it makes its points with such an obvious smack in the face that when you watch it you cannot quite understand how the world has reacted the way it has to the threats. People in power more concerned with winning elections than saving lives. Business moguls looking for even more ways to make billions of dollars for themselves rather than actually use their vast wealth to help people. Media celebrities trying to soften the impact of real, devastating news with half-baked soundbites that undermine the very point that is trying to be made. And, of course, the general public immediately splitting into two partisan camps almost precisely down left-right political lines, with one half expressly denying science and refusing to acknowledge objective reality. Sometimes it takes a film like this to actually make the obvious more clear.

Inevitably, reactions to the film have been polarizing too. Brian Lowry of CNN praised the film as “a satire to spur a conversation about potentially ignoring a crisis until it’s too late,” while Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post says that “McKay dares to infuse Don’t Look Up with an authentic, un-ironic sense of grief. Sincerity might be the most daring move of all in a film that, at its angriest and most amusing, doesn’t mind tacking perilously close to real life.” On the other hand, David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter called the film “a cynical, insufferably smug satire stuffed to the gills with stars that purports to comment on political and media inattention to the climate crisis, but really just trivializes it”. Similarly, Charles Bramesco of The Guardian wrote that the “script states the obvious as if everyone else is too stupid to realize it, and does so from a position of lofty superiority”. Life imitating art imitating life at its finest.

The score for Don’t Look Up is by composer Nicholas Britell, who worked with director McKay on his previous films The Big Short and Vice, and is hot off the back of his work scoring films like Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk, and Cruella, as well as the HBO TV series Succession. Tonally, Don’t Look Up presented Britell with one of his most challenging assignments. In an interview with Jon Burlingame for Variety Britell says the challenge was to “chart the musical landscape of the movie, to get the tone right and have it balance all these different elements, from the seriousness to the comedy, in a way where it feels right, and doesn’t feel forced.” He responded by writing one of his most eclectic scores, which blends big-band jazz with traditional orchestral sounds, electronics, and a bizarre assortment of unconventional instruments ranging from banjos and mandolins to toy pianos.

The whole thing is built mostly around a single recurring main theme, a thrilling, lively piece for a big-band jazz combo featuring prominent solos for upright bass, drums, trumpets, and a saxophone trio. It has a slightly manic tone which fits perfectly with the increasingly aghast reactions that Mindy and Dibiasky have when their warnings go unheeded, and it’s clever how Britell manages to keep the tone just the right side of farcical while still providing a necessary comedic punch. It emerges quite slowly over the course of the first few cues, before erupting into vibrant life in the “Don’t Look Up – Main Title Theme”. Subsequent cues such as “My Boyfriend Broke Up With Me” feature the big jazz arrangement prominently, and it receives an extended performance in the excellent “It’s A Strange Glorious World”.

However, even when the main theme is not explicitly being performed, Britell still finds ways to makes its presence felt within the rest of the score. The first cue, “Discovery,” blends the main theme with what will eventually become a recurring idea for the comet itself – a series of light, innocent, pretty textures for chimes and a toy piano which gradually become ominous as Dibiaski makes her planet-killing observations. Both “The Call” and “C-5 Galaxy” prominently use the chords from the main theme but not the melody; in the former, Britell combines more chimes and pianos with some rather abstract electronic noodling which makes the main theme chords feel stressful, while in the latter the chords play under a series of textures for perky electronics, big band percussion, toy pianos, and hip-hop beats. Later, “The Arrest” uses a blend of classical strings and electronics in a way that makes the piece feel like a cousin to the score for Succession, while in “Kate Goes Home” the chords play in counterpoint against world-weary strings and wryly comedic banjos.

As I mentioned above, some of the ideas from the opening cue develop into a recurring idea for Comet Dibiaski itself – imagine being the person who the end of the world is named after! The comet theme comprises a series of celestial tones for electronics and chimes that accompany the enormous space object as it goes, sailing serenely through the cosmos completely unaware that it is going to wipe out all life on Earth. It appears prominently in “Hyperobject Approaches,” while later in “The Comet Appears” Britell presents an extended version that features some interesting interplay between piano and woodwinds.

Several other standalone pieces also leave a positive impression. “The Launch” is a faux heroic orchestral cue which blends triumphant Americana with the more dream-like Comet theme, and heavenly open choral voices. Four later tracks adopt a style which I’m calling ‘BASH Militarism,’ as it appears to be related directly to Mark Rylance’s Elon Musk/Jeff Bezos-style tech billionaire Peter Isherwell, whose company BASH intervenes in the plot to save humanity – with devastating results. The cues involving BASH have a sort of more faux-heroic militarism, and are filled with prominent brasses and snare drum riffs, underpinned with bubbling electronics. Cues like “Arrival at the Hangar” and “The BASH Launch” adopt this style prominently, while in the subsequent “Twenty-Four Drones Is Enough” and “It All Comes Down to This” they blend perfectly with the main title jazz licks. If we can’t laugh at this technological ineptness and self-aggrandizing failure, we’re all truly doomed.

Related to this is all of the ‘commercial music’ Britell wrote for the film, which ranged from the ringtones on Isherwell’s cell phone to the music accompanying his various presentations. “On Hold” is literally cheesy telephone hold music, with muffled and crackly sound quality to match. “BASH Corporate Ident – Liif” has that faux-inspirational and insufferably upbeat artificial sound heard in conjunction with every Apple project launch. “FEMA-BASH Commercial” has all the forced sincerity of a Superbowl Budweiser commercial. “The BASH Presentation” is actually one of the most impressive cues in the score; it’s filled with searching strings and warm pianos, and is rousing and inspirational, but in context comes off as intentionally insincere and disingenuous – like a snake oil salesman trying to sell you his latest concoction as a miracle cure. It’s brilliant musical satire.

The finale of the score, and film, is the cue “Thanksgiving (Overture to Logic and Knowledge),” which underscores the scene where Minsky, Dibiaski, and their families have one final meal together as they await armageddon. Interestingly, Britell wrote this piece before shooting started so that director McKay could play it to the actors on-set in that final scene, and the end result occupies an interesting emotional space: the first half of the cue is dominated by the celestial sound of the Comet theme as it approaches, but the second half of it is unexpectedly calm, sad, resigned, bittersweet. Britell’s combination writing for piano, strings, and light electronics is not the music one would expect to hear while waiting for oblivion, but in context it actually works. We tried, folks, we gave it our best, and in the end being with your loved ones, eating apple pie and sharing warm stories, is the right place to be at the end of the world.

The album ends with a couple of codas and bonus tracks. “The End?” underscores the film’s final scene, 22,740 years in the future, with anxious percussion, light and peppy electronics, and inspirational chords – just watch out for the brontorocs! “Memento Mori” is a music box waltz, underpinned with dark electronic chords and industrial textures. The “Don’t Look Up – End Credits Suite” is an extended exploration of the jazz main theme, and is really excellent.

Britell also co-wrote the two new songs in the film, one of which – “Just Look Up” – is performed on-screen by Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi as part of a ridiculously on-the-nose pro-science anti-meteor convention concert. One part love song, one part political rallying cry, it features the astonishing lyric “Look up, what he’s really trying to say is get your head out of your ass, listen to the goddamn qualified scientists, we really fucked it up, fucked it up this time…” The other song is “Second Nature,” written by Britell and Justin Vernon and performed by Vernon’s band Bon Iver, and is heard under the end titles.

For anyone who hasn’t seen the film, I can see how Don’t Look Up might come across as a little disjointed, filled with short bitty cues and unexpected tonal choices. Not only that, anyone who doesn’t especially care for big band jazz sounds might also find the entire approach to the soundtrack unappealing at best, annoying at worst. Personally, however, I find Britell’s way of tackling this difficult subject matter to be intellectually fulfilling and musically enjoyable. Satire is a challenging genre for composers; you can’t undercut or undersell the points that the film is trying to make – both serious and comedic – but you also can’t completely telegraph the joke by playing it solely for laughs, as then you run the risk of not conveying the serious aspect of the story to the audience. For me, Britell has successfully walked that tonal tightrope, and considering that the film itself is appealing to the left-leaning members of the industry, looks likely to snag an Oscar nomination.

Buy the Don’t Look Up soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Just Look Up (written by Nicholas Britell, Ariana Grande, Scott Mescudi, and Taura Stinson, performed by Ariana Grande feat. Kid Cudi) (3:22)
  • Discovery (1:22)
  • Ephemeris (1:06)
  • On Hold (0:28)
  • The Call (2:33)
  • C-5 Galaxy (1:05)
  • Don’t Look Up – Main Title Theme (0:52)
  • BASH Corporate Ident – Liif (0:41)
  • Hyperobject Approaches (0:47)
  • My Boyfriend Broke Up With Me (0:33)
  • The Arrest (1:05)
  • It’s A Strange Glorious World (2:35)
  • The Launch (4:00)
  • The BASH Presentation (2:08)
  • Kate Goes Home (1:00)
  • FEMA-BASH Commercial (0:59)
  • Arrival at the Hangar (0:59)
  • There Is a Comet (1:18)
  • The Comet Appears (2:56)
  • The Prayer for Stuff (0:51)
  • The BASH Launch (0:44)
  • Twenty-Four Drones Is Enough (0:55)
  • It All Comes Down to This (0:43)
  • Thanksgiving (Overture to Logic and Knowledge) (4:41)
  • The End? (2:19)
  • Memento Mori (1:27)
  • Don’t Look Up – End Credits Suite (2:30)
  • Logic Waltz in B Major (1:44) Bonus
  • Don’t Look Up – Main Title Suite (4:09) Bonus
  • Ode to Science (3:30) Bonus
  • Second Nature (written by Justin Vernon and Nicholas Britell, performed by Bon Iver) (4:03)

Running Time: 57 minutes 12 seconds

Republic Records (2021)

Music composed by Nicholas Britell. Conducted by Matt Dunkley. Orchestrations by Nicholas Britell and Matt Dunkley. Recorded and mixed by Casey Stone. Edited by John Finklea. Album produced by Nicholas Britell.

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