Home > Reviews > Under-the-Radar Round Up 2021, Part 4C

Under-the-Radar Round Up 2021, Part 4C

January 18, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments

2021 is over and, as the world of mainstream blockbuster cinema and film music continues to recover from the COVID-19 Coronavirus, I again urge people to look beyond the confines of mainstream Hollywood to find the best film music being written. As such, I now present the third and final part of my final group of reviews looking at the best “under the radar” scores from around the world – the five titles included here again represent some of the best film music heard this year, and include a historical drama from Malta, a big-screen reboot of a beloved Japanese-Spanish children’s animated series from the 1980s, a sweeping British natural history documentary, a Norwegian Christmas fantasy-comedy, and a documentary from Iran with a score by one of 2021’s breakthrough composers.

 

BLOOD ON THE CROWN – Laurent Eyquem

Blood on the Crown (also known as Just Noise) is somewhat unique in that it is one of the few films made in, and about, Malta. It is directed by Davide Ferrairo, and tells the story of one of the most important historical events in the Maltese independence movement, specifically the event known in Malta as ‘Sette Guigno’, which took place in 1919, and which saw British troops attacking Maltese pro-independence protestors, resulting in numerous deaths, subsequent trials, and significant political upheaval that galvanized the push for sovereignty throughout subsequent decades. Somehow the director was able to convince both Malcolm McDowell and Harvey Keitel to appear in the film – Keitel plays General Hunter Blair, the commander of the British forces in Malta at that time – and was also able to attract the superb French composer Laurent Eyquem to write the score.

Eyquem has a history of writing excellent music for historical dramas – Copperhead (2013) and The Red Tent (2014) are amongst my personal favorites – and Blood on the Crown is a new addition to that list. It’s a rich, emotional orchestral score augmented with a great deal or regional color, notably some flamboyant writing for bouzouki lutes, which comments on the drama and intrigue of the political situation in Malta at that time, defines the romantic relationship between the two protagonists (two idealistic dissidents who fall in love), and then builds to a bloody, thrilling climax as the events of Sette Guigno unfold, and the fate of a country is decided.

Much of the beginning of the score is moody and introspective, a series of solemn string textures enlivened by strumming bouzoukis. The solo female soprano vocalist in “Being Interrogated/Chaos” gives the cues a hint of tragedy mixed with defiant idealism. A beautiful theme for piano and strings emerges in “Afternoon Ballad/The Factory,” and becomes determinedly romantic with the introduction of more bouzoukis, ethnic percussion, and elegant flutes. “The Flirt” is gorgeous, like a seductive dance between lovers, a duet between bouzouki and guitar backed by lyrical strings, while the subsequent “The Graffiti” plays a like a mischievous, jazzy variation on that sound.

The action and suspense music, in cues like “Revolt on the Horizon,” “Burning the Flag,” and especially the excellent pair comprising “Riots at the Malta Chronicle” and “The Army Deployment,” is energetic and percussive, with layers of tapped and rapped drums overlaid with chugging strings and more insistent bouzouki rhythms. Occasionally Eyquem bolsters his orchestra with an exotic wailing vocalist, or with the more contemporary touch of synth percussion, and in those moments the score takes on a feeling akin to something that someone like Harry Gregson-Williams might write – Spy Game meets Kingdom of Heaven. The final cue, “Just Noise,” is a longing string lament based on the score’s recurring main theme – noble, wistful, romantic, evocative of the location, and offering just the right tone of remembrance coupled with determination. It’s really good.

Unfortunately, the score for Blood on the Crown has not been released commercially in any form, although Eyquem did release a promo album for awards consideration purposes. As is always the case, my reviewing of an unreleased score is my plea for a specialist soundtrack label to pick it up and release it so that the general public can experience it.

Track Listing: 1. Death at the Hospital (1:35), 2. Being Interrogated/Chaos (1:06), 3. Afternoon Ballad/The Factory (1:16), 4. The Flirt (2:07), 5. Revolt on the Horizon (1:00), 6. Despair (0:53), 7. The Graffiti (1:05), 8. Burning the Flag (3:40), 9. Riots at the Malta Chronicle (1:11), 10 The Army Deployment (4:52), 11 Death of Ganni’s Dad (1:00), 12 Just Noise (2:49). Promo, 22 minutes 40 seconds.

 

DOGTANIAN AND THE THREE MUSKEHOUNDS – Manel Gil-Inglada

One of the abiding memories I have of watching TV as a child is of rushing home after school so that I could watch the latest episode of Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds. I don’t think the show was ever broadcast in the United States – it was definitely a European thing – but everyone I knew watched it and most loved it. It was exactly what you think it was: an adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, but with anthropomorphic dogs. It was a Spanish-Japanese co-production, and was one of a series of other equally brilliant shows (the other included Around the World with Willy Fog and The Mysterious Cities of Gold). This new film, properly called D’Artacán y los Tres Mosqueperros in its native Spanish, is a big-screen remake of the original 1981 Dogtanian series, and it is awash in nostalgia – even the characters look the same! It is directed by Toni García and has a score by Spanish composer Manel Gil-Inglada.

Gil-Inglada’s score is just terrific – a fully orchestral action swashbuckler, performed by the Orquesta Sinfónica de Navarra and conducted by Vanessa Garde. The whole thing is awash in memorable recurring themes; there are specific melodic identities for Dogtanian, the Musketeers as a whole, Dogtanian’s lovely canine love interest Juliet, and the power-hungry Cardinal Richelieu. The orchestrations are rich and varied, ranging from intimate and romantic violin solos to expansive and bombastic and rousing action-adventure sword fight music, and it often has a classical French sound that makes use of traditional Gallic instruments including accordions and recorders. There are also some clear allusions to the music of the renaissance, representing the formal music one would hear in the court of King Louis XIII, as well as some liturgical church music. Interestingly, some of the religioso sounds are phrases to sound a little on the dark and insidious side, clearly speaking to the fact that Richelieu is the villain of the piece.

As it is a children’s film there’s a fair amount of knockabout mickey-mousing too, but to Gil-Inglada’s credit he never lets the childishness overtake the score – throughout its entire running time it takes the source material seriously, never over-sells the joke. One sequence of incongruous and anachronistic funk briefly breaks the mood, but this is not enough to do cause any real issues with the score overall. Best of all is the fact that Gil-Inglada regularly interpolates the original TV show main theme, ‘Muskehounds Are Always Ready,’ which was written by Italian film composers Guido & Maurizio De Angelis, and is imprinted into my childhood memories. The enormous statement of it towards the end of the final cue is just tremendous, a musical nostalgia bomb that 10-year-old me never knew he needed.

Unfortunately, the score for Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds has not been released commercially in any form, although Gil-Inglada did release an 80-minute promo album for awards consideration purposes. As is always the case, my reviewing of an unreleased score is my plea for a specialist soundtrack label to pick it up and release it so that the general public can experience it. It’s a wonderful, exciting, romantic, thrilling children’s adventure score with plenty of swash and buckle, and which will especially appeal to anyone who has a nostalgic affection for the original series. One for all and all for one!

Track Listing: 15 untitled tracks. Promo, 79 minutes 04 seconds.

 

A PERFECT PLANET – Ilan Eshkeri

A Perfect Planet is a BBC Earth docuseries narrated by Sir David Attenborough, which purports so show how the forces of nature – weather, ocean currents, solar energy and volcanoes – drive, shape and support Earth’s great diversity of life. It’s yet another spectacular look at the marvels of life on this planet of ours, from the world leaders in making nature documentaries – it takes us from lands drenched by the Indian Monsoon to the slopes of fiery Hawaiian volcanoes, from the tidal islands of the Bahamas to the frozen wastes of Ellesmere Island. From Arctic wolves prowling moonlit landscapes in winter, to frozen wood frogs magically thawing back to life in spring; from the vampire finches of the Galapagos who drink the blood of seabirds, to the African flamingos who gather in their thousands every year in a vast volcanic lake to breed. The score is by Ilan Eshkeri, who with this work follows in the footsteps of such outstanding composers as George Fenton, Steven Price, and Hans Zimmer, writing music for these astonishing Attenborough documentaries.

Eshkeri said he wanted his score to have a “really strong, repetitive theme, sometimes in major, sometimes in minor, which keeps coming back with choir, arpeggios, pianos and so on”. He says the piece was intended to be really joyful, a celebration, and full hope, but with a hint of caution which acknowledges that you can see all of these incredible things in nature, but that we need to look after the planet. The score combines a large orchestral ensemble, augmented with solo instruments intended to increase the sense of intimacy and immediacy: traditional pianos and guitar, but also more unexpected textures like Wurlitzer organs, an electronic piano, ukulele, and hand percussion.

So many cues offer standout moments that I could list almost every cue, but here are some of the ones which stood out to me. I love the tenderness of the opening cue “A Perfect Planet,” a lovely amalgam of piano, strings, and a solo voice that gradually grows to encompass a fuller and more boisterous palette; when this theme comes back later, in cues like “Sunlight,” “Summer,” the graceful “Autumn,” and “A Changing World,” you get a sense of the score’s structure, and how Eshkeri is using this theme as a recurring marker for the seasons themselves. I love all the serious, rich, poignant, dramatic string writing in cues like “A Perfect Balance,” the stunning “Flamingos,” the unexpectedly romantic “Gibbons,” and the much darker and more emotional “Dry Season,” especially when whey combine with voices.

I really appreciate the open, sweeping sound of cues like “Wildebeest,” “Bears,” “Sooty Shearwaters,” and “Rockhopper Penguins,” as Eshkeri really captures the essence and scale of the landscapes these animals inhabit. I also love how the ever-present danger and fight-to-the-death intensity that surrounds so many of their lives is captured by the action music, in the second half of the aforementioned “Wildebeest,” and later in the turbulent “Volcanoes,” “Arctic Foxes” and others. There is quirkiness and a sense of play in cues like the second half of “Bears,” as well as “Silver Ants,” the festive “Red Crabs,” and the ethereal, uplifting “Manta Rays,” which offer a lighter respite from the drama and scope, and often introduce some different colors, including electronic sounds. I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

Nature documentaries have for years offered composers such a rich canvas on which to write, and as such it’s perhaps no surprise that virtually all of 2021’s great documentary scores are written for films that look at the great vastness of life on earth. A Perfect Planet is certainly one of 2021’s great documentary scores; it’s available to stream and download from most good online retailers, but unfortunately there is no physical CD release.

Track Listing: 1. A Perfect Planet (3:14), 2. A Perfect Balance (2:17), 3. Wildebeest (3:51), 4. Flamingos (6:21), 5. Vampire Finches (3:32), 6. Bears (6:05), 7. Volcanoes (2:10), 8. Sunlight (1:29), 9. Gibbons (2:34), 10. Arctic Foxes (4:30), 11. Silver Ants (3:02), 12. Autumn (1:38), 13. Snub-Nosed Monkeys (2:44), 14. Sooty Shearwaters (4:29), 15. Fire Ants (4:30), 16. Giant River Turtles (4:25), 17. Red Crabs (3:52), 18. Summer (1:31), 19. Dry Season Pt. 1 (2:32), 20. Dry Season Pt. 2 (4:10), 21. A Changing Climate (1:53), 22. Marine Iguana (4:16), 23. Cuttlefish (3:24), 24. Mangroves (4:29), 25. Manta Rays (3:52), 26. Spring (1:02), 27. Hardyheads (3:00), 28. Rockhopper Penguins (4:16), 29. Eden’s Whales (3:20), 30. Elephant Orphans (2:40), 31. Climate Refugees (2:28), 32. The Rainforest (2:49), 33. Reforestation (1:40), 34. A Changing Planet (4:28). Sony Music, 112 minutes 51 seconds.

 

SAGAN OM KARL-BERTIL JONSSONS JULAFTON – Gaute Storaas

Sagan Om Karl-Bertil Jonssons Julafton is a live action theatrical remake of a beloved Swedish animated short film of the same name from 1975. It tells tale of a boy named Karl-Bertil who works in a post office. When he learns of the story of Robin Hood, he falls in love with the character and his ideals, and decides to steal Christmas gifts from the wealthy to give to the poor people of Stockholm; good hearted comedy hi-jinks ensue. The original film is hugely popular in Scandinavia, and is broadcast every Christmas Eve on Swedish and Norwegian national television. This new film is directed by Hannes Holm, stars Simon Larsson as Karl-Bertil, and has an original score by Norwegian composer Gaute Storaas.

I don’t know what it is about Scandinavian composers, but they have the musical sound of Christmas down to a tee. It must be something in their genetic makeup, but so many outstanding Christmas scores have come from those climes in recent years: Knut Avenstroup Haugen’s Jul i Flåklypa, Henrik Skram’s Snøfall, and Gautre Storaas’s two from this year – Tre Nøtter til Askepott, and this one. However, as good as Karl-Bertil Jonssons Julafton is, it may come as a surprise to many that score is mostly comprised of very authentic and upbeat jazz.

The first cue, “Karl-Bertil Jonssons Julafton,” is a re-recording of the main theme from the old animation from 1974, which was written by Gunnar Svensson, and is a soft jazz piece with a prominent saxophone, marimbas, and lounge pianos. Most of the rest of the score which stay true to the tone of the original score, which gives the score a slightly downbeat introspective tone, while also addressing the caper aspects of Karl-Bertil’s good-hearted larceny.

Cues like “Familjen Jonsson,” “Nu Tändas Tusen Juleljus,” the sparkling and upbeat “Postcentralen,” the more downbeat and introspective “Barnhemmet,” “Karl-Bertils Triumffärd,” “Plånboken,” the groovy “Att Ta Från De Rika Och Ge Åt De Fattiga,” and the swingin’ big-band piece “Vi Har Bråttom” draw heavily on Storaas’s jazz band credentials, and are superbly authentic, making excellent use of a traditional jazz combo in a variety of settings. A recurring theme for Karl-Bertil reoccurs through several of these cues, and then again in later cues like “En Okänd Välgörare.” Storaas also incorporates two traditional Christmas songs into the melodic core of the score, including the familiar “O Tannenbaum”.

Only occasionally does the jazz take a back seat in favor of more traditional orchestral stylings; “Inför Galan” introduces a lush string section, then the lovely pair “Karl-Bertil Och Vera” and “Fru Hedvqvists Farväl” offer some sentimental seasonal motifs that warm the heart. The last cue, “Robin Hood” is actually the beginning of the film, where Karl-Bertil is in the movie theater watching the swashbuckling hero who inspires him, and is a Korngold-style march full of rousing brass fanfares and boldly adventurous strings.

Interestingly, the whole thing feels very much like the jazz music composer Vince Guaraldi wrote for the American Charlie Brown Christmas specials in the 1970s, which gives the whole thing a very nostalgic and familiar quality, even though virtually no-one outside of Scandinavia will have actually seen the original film. The whole thing is a jazzy, groovy good-time that – while certainly not a traditional Christmas score in any way – offers plenty of delights on its own terms. The score is available to stream and download from most good online retailers.

Track Listing: 1. Karl-Bertil Jonssons Julafton (1:49), 2. Familjen Jonsson (2:24), 3. Nu Tändas Tusen Juleljus (1:25), 4. Postcentralen (2:02), 5. Barnhemmet (2:08), 6. Taxeringskalendern (1:07), 7. Karl-Bertils Triumffärd (2:18), 8. Plånboken (1:55), 9. O Tannenbaum (2:33), 10. Jul På Varuhuset (1:09), 11. En Okänd Välgörare (1:36), 12. Inför Galan (0:48), 13. Att Ta Från De Rika Och Ge Åt De Fattiga (2:06), 14. Vi Har Bråttom (2:08), 15. Karl-Bertil Och Vera (2:40), 16. Fru Hedvqvists Farväl (1:09), 17. Robin Hood (1:18). Music Super Circus, 30 minutes 44 seconds.

 

WOODGIRLS: A DUET FOR A DREAM – Amir Molookpour

Woodgirls: A Duet for a Dream is an Iranian documentary feature film directed by Azadeh Bizargiti, which looks at the lives of two female carpenters who are trying to follow their dream and open a carpentry workshop run by women for women. It’s a film which would likely have gone completely unacknowledged by me were it not for the fact that it’s score, by Iranian composer Amir Molookpour, was released by producer Mikael Carlsson on his label Moviescore Media – in fact, it’s one of three Molookpour scores released in 2021 (with the others being the 2019 drama Son-Mother and the 2020 drama There Is No Evil), comprising the entirety of the composer’s film output to date.

According to his online bio, Molookpour began to study traditional Persian music at the age of nine before moving on to study of western classical music. In 2001 Molookpour moved to Italy to study musicology at the University of Pavia in Cremona; he wrote his thesis on the role and functions of music in the religious rituals of Iranian Zoroastrians, and he composed a series of classical works including a string quartet, three songs based on poems of Hermann Hesse, and a requiem including Latin and Persian texts, before making his film music debut.

For Woodgirls, Molookpour adapted parts of Geminiano Giacomelli’s 1734 opera La Merope, specifically the aria “Sposa, Son Disprezzata” (which means “I am wife, and I am scorned”), and based several the cues on this aria’s theme. This gives the score an unexpectedly lush, rich, emotional sound rooted in western classical music – it’s perhaps somewhat incongruous considering that this film is a very Iranian story, but it nevertheless gives the whole thing a gravitas that really illustrates how the struggles faced by women have not changed enough in 300 years. I might have liked a little musical acknowledgment of the heritage and culture at the women at the heart of the story, but that’s a minor criticism of what is otherwise a beautiful work.

There are pretty, playful woodwind textures underpinned with prancing pizzicato textures in the title track “Woodgirls,” followed by a touch of melancholy in the “Opening”. Darker, more pensive strings usher in the first performance of Giacomelli’s theme in “The City, Pt. 1,” a sound which continues on through the oboe-led “Said by the House” The string writing in “The Old House” and “To the Village” is especially outstanding – elegant, tender, sincere – while “A New Beginning” introduces a piano and some moody synth textures into the mix, adding another later of color. The conclusive “The City, Pt. 2” offers one final statement of Giacomelli’s theme, ensuring that the thematic depth of the film is maintained.

Although it only lasts for 18 minutes or so, the whole thing is just delightful, one of the most unexpectedly engaging documentary scores of the year. These three releases, but especially Woodgirls and There Is No Evil, introduce a terrific new talent to the film music world in the shape of Amir Molookpour, and I sincerely hope we hear more from him in the future. The score is available to stream and download from the Moviescore Media site and via most good online retailers.

Track Listing: 1. Woodgirls (2:11), 2. Opening (2:27), 3. The City, Pt. 1 (2:14), 4. Sadi by the House (2:33), 5. The Old House (3:16), 6. To the Village (2:17), 7. A New Beginning (1:30), 8. The City, Pt. 2 (1:42). Moviescore Media/Reality Bytes RB01003, 18 minutes 14 seconds.

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  1. January 21, 2022 at 9:00 am

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