Home > Reviews > DON’T WORRY DARLING – John Powell


September 27, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Don’t Worry Darling is a film that’s almost impossible to categorize. It’s one part domestic drama, one part paranoia mystery, and one part sci-fi/fantasy thriller, all wrapped up in a spectacular bow of 1950s kitsch, googie architecture, sharp suits, and A-line skirts. The film stars Florence Pugh as Alice, a young woman who lives an idyllic life in a planned desert community with her husband Jack (Harry Styles). Jack works for the Victory Project and its enigmatic owner Frank (Chris Pine), and disappears every day to his top-secret job, leaving Alice to a life of domestic bliss alongside her neighbors, one of whom is her best friend Bunny (Olivia Wilde). The women are discouraged from asking questions about their husbands’ work, and are told not to venture out to Company Headquarters due to the “dangerous materials” the company works with, and for a while Alice’s life is perfect – but soon a series of peculiar happenings begin to convince Alice that her glamorous life is not the utopia she thinks it is. To reveal more about the plot would remove some of the film’s power – suffice to say that the story goes in some fascinating, unexpected directions. The film is the sophomore effort of director Olivia Wilde after her 2019 debut Booksmart, and was written by Katie Silberman with Carey Van Dyke, and Shane Van Dyke, the grandchildren of the legendary Dick.

I thought the film was a tremendous examination of several concepts – the nature of reality, 1950s toxic masculinity, power and control – and I thoroughly enjoyed it for its look, style, sound, and performances, especially from Pugh and Pine. Unfortunately, the release of the film itself has been almost entirely overshadowed by stories of a difficult shoot (Shia LaBeouf was apparently hired, then fired, from a main role), and then rumors of subsequent feuds between the cast, especially Pugh and Wilde, and the whole issue of whether Styles spat on Chris Pine during a screening at the Venice Film Festival. It’s a shame that this is even a thing, because it really does detract from the fact that Olivia Wilde is clearly a strong, interesting filmmaker, who has made a fascinating, enjoyable movie that deserves to be judged on its considerable merits.

The music for Don’t Worry Darling is, somewhat unexpectedly, by John Powell. If you discount the ultra-low budget Locked Down, which he did in a week as a favor to his old friend Doug Liman, it’s his first ‘proper’ score in more than two and a half years – the last one being Call of the Wild in early 2020 – and one of just a handful of serious dramatic ‘adult’ films he has scored in the last decade or so. It’s also one of the most peculiar scores of his entire career; I joked upon hearing this for the first time that anyone who came to Powell’s music via big, thematic, orchestral extravaganzas like How to Train Your Dragon isn’t going to know what the hell to do with this, and I still stand by that.

The score is challenging, abstract, and strange almost to the point where it intentionally alienates its audience. It’s written almost exclusively for strings, electronics, voices, and percussion, with special vocal performances being provided by the superb Holly Sedillos. I want to go into detail about the use of voices especially here, and how they relate to what’s happening to Alice in context, but to do so without giving away massive spoilers is almost impossible; suffice to say that, once you realize what the voices represent – sometimes muffled and ghostly, sometimes desperately gasping for air, sometimes sounding on the brink of an orgasm – the conceit is brilliant, and it all makes sense. Once in a while the voices erupt into a rich, vivid howl of primal anguish, and in these moments the music will encourage memories of the Enfys Nest ‘marauders’ music from his score for Solo.

Cues like “Beginners Ballet Class,” “Waking Up to an Ever-Decreasing World,” “Advanced Ballet Class,” and “Whisky by the Hearth” are especially notable in this regard, with the latter of these containing a mesmerizing, sexually charged vocal effect that has to be heard to be believed.

The electronics are mostly eerie and disturbing, offering an unsettling portrait of all the things that are wrong with Alice’s life in Victory. Often, Powell distorts and manipulates the electronic tones so that they sound ‘wrong’ – they play backwards, stop and start at unusual moments, speed up and slow down, and much more besides. I have read some commentary about this aspect of the score comparing what Powell is doing here with the groundbreaking music that people like Karlheinz Stockhausen was writing in the 1950s; it’s all very difficult, but in context it really enhances the sense of alienation, confusion, and torment Alice feels as the walls of her comfortable life begin to break down and disintegrate.

Cues like “In the Bedroom,” “Margaret’s Flashback,” and “Keeping House” are especially effective in context, but can be crushingly oppressive when heard individually. The former, which underscores a scene where Alice and Jack have an illicit sexual encounter in Frank’s bedroom, while he creepily watches from a quiet corner, is especially unnerving.

The orchestral palette is limited mostly to various string textures, but again Powell’s technique is to make them sound as disconcerting as he can. It’s actually quite interesting how the music never settles on one particular emotional tone – in fact, for quite a lot of the time, Powell seems to be trying to make you feel several conflicting things simultaneously, again as a reflection of the concept that everything in this place is just a little off: scenes that should be romantic have an undercurrent of menace, scenes that should be calm and welcoming feel riddled with anxiety. It’s really very clever.

Some moments I especially liked include the string harmonics and aggressive con legno hits in “Breakfast of Champignons,” the elongated mock-soothing orchestral chords that become ambiguous and troubling in “Welcome to the Party,” the romantic strings that eventually deconstruct and collapse in on themselves as Alice takes a “Long Relaxing Bath,” the initial cold atmosphere and frantically intense finale of “A Doctor Visits,” and the pounding taiko drums in the second half of “Sorties & Delusions”.

A couple of specific set pieces are also impressive. “Trolley to HQ” underscores the scene where Alice, having witnessed what she believes to be a plane crash out in the desert, is compelled to strike out on her own and discovers the mysterious Company HQ. Powell uses all the score’s tricks and effects to underscore this scene; the strings are aggressive, pulsing and echoing and fading. The electronic rhythms are insistent and purposeful, and are accompanied by layers of vocals, huffing and puffing and chattering. It all builds to a highly dissonant, massive crushing finale as a key element of the film’s plot is revealed. Later, “Whose World Is It?” accompanies a menacing scene where some of the more sinister parts of Frank and Jack’s relationship are revealed; the music here is more traditionally orchestral, dramatic and intense, and filled with dark, brooding crescendos that turn a party scene into something far more ominous.

The snaky, whining string figures of the “Dinner Party Fallout” leave a major impression, and then in “We Need to Go” Powell injects a powerful sense of mournful melancholy into his strings, slithering and slightly exotic. This is another great example of Powell’s ‘two emotions simultaneously’ approach, wherein he captures Alice’s state of mind (increasingly frantic desperation), with Jack’s, which is romantic love underpinned with regret. The second half of the cue recalls Powell’s score for Green Zone, with its brutally pounding percussion. The score then builds through its shocking climax – “All for You Alice” and “Bunny’s Wise Words” are filled with unsettlingly romantic, keening, groaning strings, and end with a bang, literally, with blood and a whisky tumbler – until the conclusive “Victory Chase,” which is by far the score’s highlight.

It’s an 8-minute action sequence that accompanies Alice as she speeds through the city and out across the desert in Jack’s souped-up 1953 Corvette, desperately trying to evade Frank’s goons. Powell starts the cue with layer upon layer of other-worldly vocals – breathing, muttering, more Enfys Nest-style chanting – but then also gradually adds in additional layers of orchestral and percussive density, including the score’s first real use of brass. As it develops it becomes a rapid, chaotic, intensely entertaining explosion of fury and energy, quite unlike most of John Powell’s previous action music. I suppose you could say that there are some elements of his Bourne scores in some of the rhythmic ideas, and maybe a few hints of things like United 93 or the aforementioned Green Zone, but this is certainly not the cheerfully upbeat action he writes for Dragons or Star Wars; this is desperate, dangerous, and unforgiving.

One final thing to note about the score for Don’t Worry Darling is the fact that the score does not have a main theme in a traditional sense – this is a score all about atmosphere and texture, with virtually no concession to melody whatsoever. In fact, the only recognizable recurring thematic idea in the film is not part of the core score, but is instead a song, a simple motif hummed by Alice as she goes about her day-to-day life. As her flashbacks intensify, she remembers more and more of the song, and remembers where she knows it from, and this ultimately leads into the film’s revelatory climax. The song she sings is actually an original called “With You All the Time,” which was written for the film by Harry Styles, and which he says has a ‘homemade nursery rhyme feel to it,’ and is ‘both sweet and creepy, entirely dependent on the context’. This song is featured on the film’s standalone song soundtrack album, which includes several nostalgia-fueled 1950s period hits from the likes of Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, The Platters, and Ella Fitzgerald, among many others. These song choices are sensationally good.

I have a feeling that Don’t Worry Darling is going to be quite divisive. On the one hand, as I mentioned earlier, this is by far the most peculiar, challenging, unconventional score of John Powell’s recent career, and its lack of traditional orchestra and traditional melodic content, combined with its shameless weirdness, is likely to alienate and/or confuse his usual fan base. But, on the other hand, it works tremendously well in context, and some of its subtleties and apparent idiosyncrasies do have clear meaning and direct application when you understand what the film is actually about. Personally, I feel it’s a score one appreciates more than one enjoys; it doesn’t have the replay value of his more conventional feel-good works, and as such I’m unlikely to return to it with any frequency. But, as a creative exercise, and as a showcase for the more unconventional side of Powell’s musical personality, it’s something that demands to be experienced at least once.

Buy the Don’t Worry Darling soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Beginners Ballet Class (1:22)
  • Breakfast of Champignons (0:34)
  • Welcome to the Party (4:04)
  • In the Bedroom (0:38)
  • Margaret’s Flashback (0:40)
  • Keeping House (0:45)
  • Trolley to HQ (4:47)
  • Waking Up to an Ever-Decreasing World (1:51)
  • Advanced Ballet Class (2:46)
  • Long Relaxing Bath (1:05)
  • A Doctor Visits (2:56)
  • Whisky by the Hearth (1:10)
  • In the Ladies with Bunny (1:26)
  • Whose World Is It? (1:50)
  • Sorties & Delusions (4:43)
  • Dinner Party Fallout (2:52)
  • We Need to Go (2:15)
  • Rabbit Hole (2:27)
  • Everything Is Good Now (1:01)
  • Catechisms & Catheters (3:18)
  • All for You Alice (2:51)
  • Bunny’s Wise Words (1:59)
  • Victory Chase (8:18)
  • End Credits (Don’t Worry Darling) (1:45)
  • The Right Time (written by Nappy Brown, performed by Ray Charles) (3:25)
  • Bang Bang (written by Joe Cuba and Jimmy Sabater, performed by Dizzy Gillespie) (3:04)
  • Where or When (written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, performed by Benny Goodman Trio) (3:24)
  • Comin’ Home Baby (written by Bob Dorough and Ben Tucker, performed by Mel Tormé) (2:43)
  • The Oogum Boogum Song (written by Alfred Smith, performed by Brenton Wood) (3:07)
  • Tears on My Pillow (written by Sylvester Bradford and Al Lewis, performed by Little Anthony & The Imperials) (2:21)
  • Twilight Time (written by Buck Ram, Morty Nevins, Al Nevins, and Artie Dunn, performed by The Platters) (2:47)
  • Sh-Boom (written by James Keyes, Claude Feaster, Carl Feaster, Floyd F. McRae, and William Edwards, performed by The Chords) (2:24)
  • Need Your Love So Bad (written by William Edward John and Mertis John Jr., performed by Little Willie John) (2:17)
  • Sleep Walk (written by Santo Farina, Johnny Farina, and Ann Farina, performed by Santo & Johnny) (2:23)
  • You Belong To Me (written by Pee Wee King, Redd Stewart, and Chilton Price, performed by Helen Foster and the Rovers) (2:57)
  • Someone To Watch Over Me (written by George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, and Howard Dietz, performed by Ella Fitzgerald) (4:33)
  • With You All the Time (written by Harry Styles, performed by Florence Pugh and Harry Styles as Alice and Jack) (3:00)

Running Time: 57 minutes 25 seconds

WaterTower Music (2022)

Music composed by John Powell. Conducted by John Powell and Gavin Greenaway. Orchestrations by Mark Graham and John Ashton Thomas. Additional music by Batu Sener. Special vocal performances by Holly Sedillos. Recorded and mixed by Alejandro Venguer, Nick Wollage and John Michael Caldwell. Edited by Bill Bernstein. Album produced by John Powell.

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