Home > Reviews > Under-the-Radar Round Up 2022 – English Language Indies

Under-the-Radar Round Up 2022 – English Language Indies

My recurring under-the-radar series usually concentrates on the best scores for non-English language films in a given year, but doing so means that I sometimes overlook music written for British and American films that are similarly low-profile, but also have outstanding scores. To rectify that, here is the first of two new review articles looking at five such scores from the first half of 2022, written for independent English-language features that you might have otherwise overlooked. The scores are from a beautiful animated film about a German painter, a comedy horror film about a cursed board game, a modern day Indiana Jones variant, a powerful period drama set in the Scottish highlands, and a shark-infested horror thriller from Australia!

 

CHARLOTTE – Michelino Bisceglia

Charlotte is an animated drama film about the life of German expressionist painter Charlotte Salomon, directed by Eric Warin and Tahir Rana, featuring the voices of Keira Knightley, Brenda Blethyn, Jim Broadbent, Sam Claflin, Henry Czerny, Eddie Marsan, Helen McCrory, Sophie Okonedo and Mark Strong. Salomon was a German-Jewish artist born in Berlin in 1917, who created a series of more than 700 masterpiece paintings called ‘Leben Oder Theater’ between 1941 and 1943 while Salomon hiding from the Nazis in southern France. In 1943 she was captured and deported to Auschwitz, where she and her unborn child were murdered by the Nazis soon after her arrival, aged just 26.

The score for Charlotte is by the Belgian composer and acclaimed jazz musician Michelino Bisceglia; in 2014 Bisceglia won the WSA Public Choice Award for the score for Marina, a film by veteran Belgian director Stijn Coninx, and since then has concentrated on film work. Charlotte is the first of Bisceglia’s films to receive any sort of wide international release, and it will hopefully lead to more projects for him, because the score is wonderful.

The music is highly classical, and highly emotional, commenting on the beautiful artistic endeavors of Charlotte’s life, and the tragic circumstances of her death, with equal amounts of grace and beauty. The opening cue “Life? or Theatre? (Prelude)” introduces the main theme, a gorgeously balletic piece for solo piano, lush strings, and eventually light woodwinds, all backed with classical orchestral accents. This theme floats freely through much of the score, anchoring subsequent cues like the lovely “Sistine Chapel,” the warmly idyllic “Lake Wannsee,” and the hopeful and almost defiantly upbeat “Leaving Berlin.

Bittersweet and thoughtful textures are prominent in “Open Window” and “Your Mother’s Sister,” hinting at the tragedy to come, but even in these more introspective moments Bisceglia’s orchestrations, tones, and regular allusions to thematic ideas are just superb. Of course, everything changes after the darkness of the “Kristallnacht,” which offsets starker orchestral tones with fragments of operatic vocals and a haunting, searing cello solo, illustrating the devastating event that essentially initiated the holocaust. Parts of cues like “Flowers for Grossmama” and “Grosspapa Is Attacked” are very intense, while “The Night Walk” offers deep, tortuous, heart-rending emotions.

The conclusive trio of cues, “Life? or Theatre? II,” “The Cardboard,” and the “Charlotte Epilogue” revisit the main theme with a great deal of emotional depth and sensitivity, underscoring the tragedy of Charlotte’s life with an appropriate amount of sorrow for a young life snuffed out so cruelly, while also celebrating her artistic endeavors and the beauty of her legacy that lives on through her paintings. The statement of the main theme in the final cue is especially superb.

Charlotte is a wonderful score; sophisticated, intelligent, classical, refines, and in the end emotionally powerful. It’s also a wonderful example of what music for animated films can be – this is a world away from the jolly mickey mousing that one usually associates with the genre – and sets the standard for animation film music in 2022. Bisceglia’s score is available as a digital download from Amazon and most other good online retailers.

Track Listing: 1. Life? or Theatre? (Prelude) (3:27), 2. Sistine Chapel (1:57), 3. Open Window (1:10), 4. Your Mother’s Sister (1:14), 5. Lake Wannsee (3:32), 6. Kristallnacht (1:58), 7. Leaving Berlin (2:35), 8. Flowers for Grossmama (2:03), 9. Family Secrets (1:26), 10. The Night Walk (2:12), 11. The Demon Inside (1:10), 12. Ottilie’s Good-Bye (1:39), 13. Grosspapa Is Attacked (1:11), 14. The Omelet (4:27), 15. Life? or Theatre? II (2:28), 16. The Cardboard (3:49), 17. Charlotte Epilogue (3:33), 18. Bist Du Bei Mir (3:16), 19. Liebst du um Schönheit (2:12), 20. Wanders Nachtlied (1:50). Sony Music, 39 minutes 59 seconds.

 

GATLOPP: HELL OF A GAME – Kenny Wood

Gatlopp: Hell of a Game is a low-budget comedy horror film directed by Alberto Belli, starring Jim Mahoney, Emmy Raver-Lampman, and Jon Bass. Essentially a more adult and horrific variation on Jumanji, it follows a group of old friends who reunite for a nostalgic evening of fun and games after a decade apart. After having one too many drinks, they decide to play a game – the ‘Gatlopp’ of the title – but it’s quickly revealed that this game comes with supernatural stakes and that losing the game could result in them – quite literally – going to hell.

The score for Gatlopp is by the excellent young composer Kenny Wood, who has been a part of the Hollywood film music world for some time now; he has been an arranger, programmer, and additional music composer for everyone from Brian Tyler to Heitor Pereira, Chris Lennertz, Mychael Danna, and others, and has written numerous scores for short films and TV shows (including the Academy Award nominated animated short film Oktapodi in 2009) , but Gatlopp is one of the first scores where Wood has jumped into the spotlight himself – and it’s not before time, because the music here is excellent.

The first thing that springs to mind upon hearing Gatlopp is ‘classic Danny Elfman,’ and right from the first moments of the “Gatlopp Main Title” scores like Beetlejuice, Darkman, and Men in Black spring to mind, with its jaunty and sprightly jazz-based sound accompanying a memorable, propulsive main theme. This main theme comes back with a vengeance in several cues, receiving especially satisfying statements, especially in the conclusive “Done Being Righteous,” while in other cues he performs a truncated version of the theme’s first four notes as a sort of recurring ‘Fanfare for Gatlopp’.

Other cues of note include the playful and mischievous “Paul’s Welcome” and the more contemporary “Troy & Sam,” but the score doesn’t really pick up its full mojo until “Rules of the Game,” after which the players begin playing and all hell breaks loose. There’s some absolutely superb full-throttle action/adventure/horror music here, notably the primal “Ancient Arrow” with its whooping voices and clattering native percussion, and the brilliant set piece “The Final Question” which underscores the film’s raucous finale with panache and power.

There’s also some very impressive compositional expertise on show throughout the score; some of the things Wood does with his instruments, combining them in unexpected ways, making them create surprising sounds, are very clever. The way he uses his pianos in combination with xylophones in cues like “Cliff & The Scream,” for example, is similar to the way Elfman used them in scores like Dolores Claiborne, and results in an effectively unsettling atmosphere. There’s also a frequent descending, collapsing string idea that appears in several cues that is also vintage Elfman and is very effective.

The brief use of a choir in “Good to Go On” gives the score a bigger sense of scope, while the beauty of “Finish This Sentence” gives the score some emotional depth and ups the stakes in terms of connecting with the characters. The occasional use of a bubbling synth texture gives the score the occasional feel of a retro video game. I could have done without the dubstep at the end of “Rules of the Game,” but you can’t have everything, and the unexpected transcendental-psychedelic Indian raga in “André” makes up for it.

There’s perhaps an argument to be made that the fact that the score is performed almost entirely by samples slightly hampers its scope somewhat, and that some of the sonics don’t do full justice to the sophistication of Wood’s writing, but that’s really only something that audiophiles will pick up on. In the end it is Wood’s writing, his inventiveness, his creativity, and the wacky Elfmanesque energy that he brings that makes Gatlopp as good as it is, and hopefully it will give Wood the launchpad he needs to graduate on to bigger and more high profile features. Wood’s score is available as a digital download from Amazon and most other good online retailers.

Track Listing: 1. Gatlopp Main Title (1:57), 2. Paul’s Welcome (1:59), 3. Game Time (1:06), 4. Troy & Sam (1:09), 5. Reunited (1:34), 6. Rules of the Game (1:48), 7. Cliff & the Scream (2:51), 8. This Game Tricked Us (3:12), 9. Charades (1:03), 10. Ancient Arrow (3:50), 11. Good Job Samantha (0:43), 12. Why Did You Lie? (1:18), 13. Truth Hurts (1:22), 14. Good to Go On (0:46), 15. We Really Need You (1:06), 16. Heavy on the Cheese (1:26), 17. Finish This Sentence (2:54), 18. The Final Question (5:29), 19. Fix Your Pants (0:58), 20. André (0:47), 21. Done Being Righteous (1:32). Capsaicin Untamed, 38 minutes 37 seconds.

 

PLUNDER QUEST – Massimo Sammi

Plunder Quest is an action-adventure comedy film inspired by Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Da Vinci Code, written and directed by Kalani Hubbard, starring Jake Fallon, Katherine Flannery, Eric Rosenberg, and Arielle Tillett. Fallon plays Tom Waters, a scoundrel/rogue in New York, who acquires rare or hard-to-find items for collectors who can afford his services. After learning of a potentially valuable cache of prohibition-era whiskey hidden on an island, Waters teams up with Amber (Flannery), the waitress at his favorite coffee shop, and quickly becomes embroiled in a rousing adventure and a race against time to find the treasure.

The score for Plunder Quest is by the Los Angeles-based Italian composer Massimo Sammi, who learned his musical trade as a trumpet player in the Italian Army Band, before relocating to the United States to study, first at the New England Conservatory of Music, and then in the film scoring program at UCLA. Sammi has scored numerous short films and documentaries, but Plunder Quest is effectively his mainstream theatrical feature debut.

In describing the score, Sammi says: “The director wanted me to represent the youthful and vibrant nature of the main character, with an homage to the classic action-comedy score of the 80s, so we decided to use an orchestral palette, with fanfares featuring the beautiful live trumpet of Everett Kelly. It was really challenging at first, since I was really pushed out of my comfort zone: I had to score all sort of genres, from old school animation-style chase music, to a classic-Hollywood romantic kiss scene with soaring violins, heroic music for drone-shot montages, a tongue-in-cheek picaresque poker game, to the ending bombastic super-hero ostinatos with final build-up”.

The most obvious influence on the score is of course John Williams, and the sense of fun and adventure that typified the Indiana Jones scores runs through much of Plunder Quest, especially the main theme that originates in the first cue. Statements of the main “Plunder Quest Theme” abound throughout the score, with cues such as “Bar Fight” and “The Quest Starts” receiving notably rousing reprises prior to the excellent return to the theme in the “Finale”.

Warm, wholesome textures full of mystery and intrigue run through “Liquid Gold,” giving the macguffin at the center of the plot a magical vibe. “Trip to the Island” is exciting and daring, full of bright brass triplets and surging string runs. Tinkling dulcimers, prancing woodwinds, and more elegant strings give cues like “This Place is Weird” a feeling of dusty opulence flavored with subtle comedy.

The plentiful action music – as heard towards the end of “The Quest Starts,” and then later in “The Big Fight” and in the dramatic “Betrayal and Aftermath” – is underpinned with complicated string patterns and a sense of anticipatory forward motion, while the love theme for Tom and Amber receives its most romantic statements in “Let’s Find Out,” which is full of delicate woodwind twitters and soft, elegant strings, and in the sweeping “The Kiss”.

This is all very impressive stuff from Sammi, and I was especially pleased to note that although the score was mostly created from samples (with one live trumpet) the sound quality was mostly excellent, with composition to match. Fans of classic 1980s heroic action-adventure scores, especially those which ape the general sound of John Williams and Indiana Jones, will find Plunder Quest to especially appealing, and I look forward to what Massimo Sammi does next. The score is available as a digital download from Moviescore Media and via most other good online retailers.

Track Listing: 1. Plunder Quest Theme (1:37), 2. Liquid Gold (1:35), 3. Trip to the Island (1:49), 4. Bar Fight (1:38), 5. The Quest Starts (2:29), 6. This Place Is Weird (2:37), 7. The Big Fight (1:30), 8. This Will Help (2:21), 9. Bad Omen (2:05), 10. Let’s Find Out (1:39), 11. Forest Montage (1:56), 12. We Made It (2:12), 13. Betrayal and Aftermath (4:37), 14. The Kiss (3:40), 15. Finale: Plunder Quest Theme (Reprise) (2:34). Moviescore Media MMS-22013, 34 minutes 10 seconds.

 

THE REEF: STALKED – Mark Smythe

The Reef: Stalked is an Australian horror film written and directed by Andrew Traucki. It’s a sequel to Traucki’s 2010 film The Reef, and stars Teressa Liane, Ann Truong, Saskia Archer, Kate Lister, and Tim Ross. The film follows two sisters, Nic and Annie, who go on a kayaking and diving adventure with their friends Jodie and Lisa following the murder of their sister. However, the group’s vacation quickly becomes a fight for survival when a large great white shark begins to follow and attack them.

The score for The Reef: Stalked is by the excellent Los Angeles-based Kiwi composer Mark Smythe, who has written scores for several other cult horror movies, including Charlie’s Farm, Daddy’s Little Girl, and Boar, all of which were directed by his regular collaborator Chris Sun. Smythe has perhaps been a little pigeonholed as a horror composer, but he is actually much more versatile than that, and this is why The Reef: Stalked is such a welcome addition to his filmography as it goes some way showcasing a very different side to his musical personality.

The first thing you notice about the score is how beautiful large parts of it are. The opening cues, from “Ocean Sisterhood” through “Okay Let’s Go” feature tender, intimate for chords that shift between warm horns and soft woodwinds, backed by light plucked harps and gently twittering strings. It’s music that has an idyllic quality to it – a perfect depiction of an ocean paradise and of sisterly friendship – and at times some of the textures remind me of scores that Basil Poledouris wrote at the beginning of his career. I love the ghostly, faraway voices in “Underlying Malaise,” and the pretty and summery guitars in cues like “New Dawn,” “Apple Pie,” and the slightly grittier “Okay Let’s Go,” which are so full of hope and life, you’re almost sad that a shark is going to come and rip it all to chum.

You get hints of the lurking danger in cues like “Flashbacks,” but to Smythe’s credit he avoids going full-on John Williams and Jaws, when it would have been so easy for him to ape that style. Instead, once the carnage does begin in the aftermath of “Water Stalker,” Smythe creates a very different sound; it’s still shrouded in an atmosphere of impending doom and punctuated with explosions of noise and terror, but it has a new and interesting approach that probably owes more to the avant-garde writing of Krzysztof Pendericki than anyone else.

Cues like “Great White Lunge,” “Predator in Paradise,” and “The Shadow Returns” feature some superb, chaotic brass outbursts and wonderfully shrill string rhythms that really enhance the sense of menace posed by the animal. “Lisa” is a terrifying outburst of orchestral carnage, but ends as a haunting cello lament. “No More Paddling” offers a determined, solemn break from the chaos, underscoring the resolve of the survivors to confront and defeat their underwater foe. Everything climaxes in the vivid, vicious “Fin Finale,” a festival of slashing string writing and bold, intense percussion, before offering a lyrical final coda in “Salvation” and the lovely “Dive Sisters Forever”.

This is all really good, impressive stuff, and I hope that the film its successful enough that it leads to Smythe being offered bigger and more high-profile projects that allow him to graduate beyond creature features and monsters of the week; as good as they can be, he clearly has the capacity to write music for much more sophisticated films with more interesting things to say. The score album was produced by Smythe himself on his own label, and is available as a digital download from Amazon and via most other good online retailers.

Track Listing: 1. Ocean Sisterhood (1:31), 2. Underlying Malaise (0:41), 3. New Dawn (0:57), 4. Flashbacks (1:20), 5. Apple Pie (0:47), 6. Okay Let’s Go (1:41), 7. Water Stalker (2:22), 8. The Man in the Grey Suit (3:13), 9. Great White Lunge (2:17), 10. Lisa (1:26), 11. Predator in Paradise (1:22), 12. The Leaky Boat (2:12), 13. Your Best Friend (0:55), 14. The Island Run (0:40), 15. The Shadow Returns (1:08), 16. No More Paddling (1:41), 17. Converging Hunter (1:16), 18. Fin Finale (3:37), 19. Salvation (1:11), 20. Dive Sisters Forever (2:04). Mark Smythe, 32 minutes 21 seconds.

 

THE ROAD DANCE – Carlos José Alvarez

The Road Dance is a British historical romantic drama film written and directed by Richie Adams, based on the 2002 novel by John MacKay, starring Hermione Corfield, Morven Christie, Mark Gatiss, Will Fletcher, and Ali Whitney. The film focuses on a young girl named Kirsty Macleod, who lives in a small village in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland in the 1930s. Kirsty’s life alters irrevocably when her boyfriend Murdo is called up to the British Army, and sent off to fight in World War II; then, on the night before he leaves, she is knocked unconscious, raped, and becomes pregnant. With Murdo away, Kirsty vows to keep her pregnancy hidden from the ultra-religious community leaders on the island, but despite her best efforts dark secrets have a way of coming out.

The score for The Road Dance is by the Louisiana-born Cuban composer Carlos José Alvarez, whose scores have included the supernatural-thriller Deadline, the sci-fi thriller The Quiet Hour, the romantic comedy Inventing Adam, and the critically acclaimed documentary Cubamerican. While he may not have been an obvious choice to score a period drama set in the Gaelic-speaking islands of Scotland, his hiring was nevertheless inspired, as he brought universal emotions to the devastating story of young Kirsty’s plight, while also capturing the sounds and traditions of the locale.

In discussing the score, Alvarez said “the story needed to be handled so very delicately. The vistas and setting are sweeping and yet there is an intimacy about the film that could not be ignored. Finding the balance was a main focus. The performances are so strong and we had to really just trust them… the director wanted the score to feel like the heartbeat of the island and the people and I felt a responsibility to do my homework and seek out the proper musicians. One in particular that I must mention is Alasdair White. Working with Alasdair was one of the great joys of writing this score. He’s a world class fiddle and whistle player from the Isle of Lewis, where are our story takes place. He’s so connected to the musical traditions of the Hebrides and he was invaluable to the sound of the score.”

The score overflows with beautiful, but sometimes quite melancholy, writing for beds of string, much of which contains elements of familiar lilt of the highlands and islands that you often find in Scottish folk music. The main theme, introduced in “The Road Dance,” is gorgeous, an undulating, romantic, but also slightly wild piece for strings, subtle bagpipes, and a trilling pennywhistle, that perfectly captures the raw, open vistas of the Hebrides. The cue also introduces the score’s secondary theme, which appears to represent both Kirsty and her love for Murdo, and is underpinned with palpable tragedy.

These two melodies dominate the score, and are especially prominent in cues like the sonorous “Isle of Lewis, 1906,” and “The Village”. Elsewhere, “You’re Never Far from Me” and “Don’t Forget to Breathe” use pianos in combination with the strings and fiddles and pipes in a beautiful, but tragically passionate, manner. “The Beach” is more upbeat and jaunty, like a traditional jig, infused with romance. The music for the “Incident” is as serious and dramatic as one might expect, a bank of ominous tremolo strings, and thereafter the music tends to operate in a darker and more downbeat world, as Kirsty deals not only with the aftermath of her rape, but also the awful, judgmental reaction of the townsfolk that turns her into a pariah. Cues like “Nightmare,” “Off Into the Night,” and the searing “Confronting the Truth” are especially poignant in this regard.

Eventually the score returns to the sound of the opening cue during the finale, and the graceful build-up and sweeping conclusion of the 8-minute finale cue “A New Life” makes it probably the most satisfying cue of all. Anyone wanting to sample the tone of the score should probably listen to it first.

Overall, The Road Dance is an outstanding work, and offers a superb introduction to Carlos José Alvarez’s talents, even if it is not really indicative of his other scores to date. Throughout the score I got hints of James Horner’s Braveheart, Carter Burwell’s Rob Roy, and even Bear McCreary’s Outlander, crossed with the classical lyricism of a Craig Armstrong Far from the Madding Crowd or a Dario Marianelli Jane Eyre, and anyone who would appreciate that sound would do well to seen this score out. The score is available as a digital download from Moviescore Media and via most other good online retailers.

Track Listing: 1. The Road Dance (2:30), 2. You’re Never Far from Me (3:29), 3. Isle of Lewis, 1906 (2:32), 4. The Village (1:32), 5. The Beach (3:04), 6. Don’t Forget to Breathe (3:29), 7. It’s Just a Dream (1:18), 8. To the Dance (1:46), 9. Incident (2:34), 10. Off to War (3:10), 11. Bring Them Home Safely (vocal by Scott Miller) (1:52), 12. Nightmare (3:00), 13. Kirsty’s Secret (2:07), 14. Off Into the Night (2:52), 15. Nothing Left (1:43), 16. Confronting the Truth (2:48), 17. A New Life (8:10), 18. Fil O Ro (performed by Ellen MacDonald and Alasdair White) (4:12). Moviescore Media MMS-22023, 52 minutes 07 seconds.

  1. Benjamin Stock
    August 16, 2022 at 1:34 pm

    Excellent review! Is there any chance you will review any seasons of Bear McCreary’s Outlander?

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