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PEARL – Tyler Bates and Timothy Williams

September 30, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Earlier in 2022 a mid-budget horror movie called X, directed by Ti West, became something of a cult sleeper hit. The story was set in the 1970s and follows a group of actors who drive to rural Texas to make a Deep Throat-style adult film, and end up meeting a terrible fate at the hands of the elderly couple whose home they use for filming. The movie had a cast of reasonably major actors – Jenna Ortega, Martin Henderson, Brittany Snow, Kid Cudi – but the breakout star was undoubtedly Mia Goth, who got rave reviews for playing both not only the aspiring pornographic actress Maxine Minx, but also Pearl, the elderly woman whose outwardly frail demeanor hides a truly horrific core. This new movie is a prequel to X, and was shot simultaneously with the first film; it again stars Goth, this time as the younger version of Pearl, and looks at her early life, and the circumstances which led to her… problems.

The score for X was by composer Tyler Bates, working with goth-rock singer songwriter Chelsea Wolfe, and unfortunately I thought it was terrible. I understand why it sounds the way it sounds, but it’s completely removed from my taste, so I didn’t review it, and never listened to it again after that first bad experience. As a result of my negative reaction to X my initial interest in the score for Pearl was virtually zero, but when I found myself having the opportunity to listen to it, I decided to give it a chance. Well, I don’t think I have ever been so surprised by a score exceeding my expectations to such a staggering amount as I was here – because, honestly, it’s absolutely sensational, easily one of the best horror scores of 2022.

The score is again by Tyler Bates but, rather than working with a doom metal musician, he instead turned to his old friend and collaborator Timothy Williams, who previously orchestrated and wrote additional music for Bates on scores like 300, Doomsday, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Watchmen, Conan the Barbarian, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Deadpool 2, amongst several others. The difference is like night and day; whereas the score for X was dark and squalid and unpleasant, Pearl is a full orchestral, thematic delight, which embraces a classic Golden Age sound while still addressing the dark elements of Pearl’s origin story.

In an interview with the horror-focused website Bloody Disgusting, director West said that he asked Bates and Williams to write a score “in the style of mid-century melodramas … a sweeping, shrieking, strings-based score that lets the viewer know from the opening credits that Pearl will not be a subdued or quiet film.” He said to Bates that he wanted “a romantic, melodramatic, old-school score for this movie” – and the composers responded by writing exactly that, and then some. The reason for this, of course, is the fact that young Pearl is obsessed with classic movies, and yearns to move to Hollywood and become a glamorous chorus girl. It is Pearl’s failure to achieve this dream (among other things) which eventually drives her to murder and mayhem, but for the duration of the film Tyler and Williams don’t so much score Pearl’s harsh reality, living on her dilapidated Texas farm, and instead score the fantasy in her head.

Right from the opening cue, the “Pearl Main Titles,” you know this isn’t going to be an ordinary horror score. The melody that permeates the cue is gorgeous; sweeping, romantic banks of strings backed with harp glissandi, rolling timpani, warm brass harmonies, gentle woodwind textures. Honestly, it’s one of the most unexpected conceptual double-takes I’ve ever done when listening to a soundtrack album, such is the piece’s sensational beauty. It’s got hints of John Barry, hints of Frank Skinner, an unintentional hint of Mark McKenzie, hints of so many other classic MGM and Warner Brothers scores of the 1930s. It of course is playing totally juxtaposed to what is happening on screen, and it ends with a distorted chord as Pearl is brought lurching back into the real world, but as pure music, it’s just sublime.

This main theme is present throughout much of the rest of the score, cropping up in numerous guises and with numerous emotional differences that alter depending on Pearl’s own mental state and circumstances. Cues like “Go Fetch Your Father,” and the idealistically romantic and dreamy “The Projectionist” are notable for their tonal, approachable, pleasant sound, in which Bates and Williams often have their strings phrased in the classic Alfred Newman style, with heavy emphasis on the vibrato. In the quirkily playful and classically rich “Dancing With Scarecrows” they even occasionally introduce in a waltz-time beat to really enhance the opulent mood, standing in disturbing juxtaposition to what is happening on screen at the time.

Elsewhere, cues like “One Day,” “Ride Home,” “Bless Us, Oh Lord,” and “The Arts In Europe” combine these lilting odes to beauty and romance with some darker moments of brooding anguish and melodramatic intrigue, and are closer in tone to someone like Franz Waxman and his score for Sunset Boulevard. However, even though the music in these cues does often sound considerably gloomier, it still very much operates within that same lush orchestral palette, and the main theme is often carried by a prominent solo violin or a low, moody cello. I love the unsettling woodwind performance of the theme in “Papa,” which is one of the first cues where the composers begin to encroach into the world traditional horror movie music, although even here the sound is influenced more by Bernard Herrmann than anyone more modern.

“Alligator Egg,” “The Whole World Is Gonna Know My Name,” “What About Your Dog,” and “The Red Dress” are the cues where the music begins to change and lurches away from lyrical beauty and into full-on horror. Here, the composers offset fragments of the main theme against some more taut and dissonant orchestral textures which start to set the nerves a-jangling; the latter three of those cues are especially memorable, each of them being wonderful pieces of Gothic anguish, fully capturing Pearl’s horrifying descent into madness with huge orchestral outbursts, bold brass clusters, and violently shrieking strings.

Perhaps the most unique track on the album is the “Hot House Rag,” which is used diegetically in context to underscore Pearl’s ill-fated audition for a local talent scout, and is a light and dainty piece of period jazz, all tinkling Scott Joplin pianos, muted brass, and fanciful rhythms – it’s very unexpected, but totally in keeping with the painfully cheerful visage that Pearl presents to the world to mask her inner demons. Her subsequent rejection by the casting director, and the crushing of her dreams of escaping her bleak family life, is what finally breaks Pearl’s already fragile psyche completely, and “We’re Looking For Something Different” perfectly captures that complicated emotional turmoil.

The score’s finale, which underscore’s Pearl’s final bloody rampage and her eventual twisted acceptance of her life down on the farm, is as dark and bleak as one would imagine, a brooding array of string and woodwind textures that shift around the chord progressions of the main theme. “A Bicycle And An Axe” starts out with icy desolation, but erupts into a final bout of nightmarish chaos filled with whining Goldenthal-esque brass, squealing strings, and even some disturbing breathing noises. This style continues through “The Tableau” and into the disturbing finale “I’m So Happy You’re Home,” which manages to take the lush sweep of the main theme and make it terrifying when used to accompany Pearl’s face, mirthlessly beaming from ear to ear as she welcomes her husband Howard home from the war, taking him from one nightmare into another.

Numerous online commentators have alluded to the idea that Pearl plays sort of like a flip side to The Wizard of Oz, if Dorothy was somehow driven insane by her adventures on the yellow brick road and murdered all the munchkins. This idea is very much apparent in the music – you can absolutely imagine Judy Garland singing a classic song based on this score’s main theme – and the fact that Bates and Williams have recaptured that so much of sound is impressive. What’s even more impressive to me, however, is the way that they then take that beloved sound and twist it into something desperately unsettling, so that by the end, even though the music sounds mostly the same, the preceding journey through Pearl’s horror has shifted your perspective. That’s a sign of great musical storytelling, and what makes this score so enormously, unexpectedly, impressive.

Buy the Pearl soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Pearl Main Titles (2:23)
  • One Day (3:16)
  • Go Fetch Your Father (3:25)
  • Ride Home (2:32)
  • Dancing With Scarecrows (2:29)
  • Papa (2:41)
  • Bless Us, Oh Lord (3:13)
  • The Projectionist (3:06)
  • The Arts In Europe (2:29)
  • Alligator Egg (2:08)
  • The Whole World Is Gonna Know My Name (3:18)
  • What About Your Dog? (3:38)
  • The Red Dress (2:13)
  • Hot-House Rag (1:39)
  • We’re Looking For Something Different (2:18)
  • I Should Probably Get Going (2:08)
  • A Bicycle And An Axe (1:46)
  • The Tableau (2:24)
  • I’m So Happy You’re Home (2:46)

Running Time: 49 minutes 45 seconds

A24 Music (2022)

Music composed by Tyler Bates and Timothy Williams. Conducted by Timothy Williams. Orchestrations by Ariel Contreras-Esquivel. Recorded and mixed by Nick Spezia and Justin Moshkevich. Edited by XXXX. Album produced by Tyler Bates and Timothy Williams.

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