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American Pastoral
  • Composed by Alexandre Desplat
  • Lakeshore Records / 2016 / 40m

Often considered amongst his finest works, Philip Roth’s 1997 novel American Pastoral won him the Pulitzer Prize.  It follows the disintegration of the American dream in the late 1960s and early 70s (Vietnam through Watergate) through one family’s eyes.  Ewan McGregor directs (for the first time) and also stars as Seymour “Swede” Levov, whose life is turned upside down when his daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning) flees after being accused of setting off a bomb in a Vietnam protest.  It’s a weighty project on which to make your directorial debut and early reviews have not been kind to McGregor’s film.


Composer Alexandre Desplat is no stranger to cinematic adaptations of literary fiction and this comes hot on the heels of his outstanding score for The Light Between Oceans, one of his very best.  Not surprisingly, this is another earnest and very serious work, frequently rather downbeat and I have to say borderline depressing but not without its moments of great beauty.

Alexandre Desplat

Alexandre Desplat

The score opens with “Swede’s Story”, a noble horn theme (with McGregor himself apparently amongst the performers) serving as a brief prelude before the theme gets a more extended airing in the next cue, “Riots”, the timpani heartbeat a trademark of the composer and giving a dramatic energy to the piece as the theme gradually falls apart.  An outstanding melody is then introduced in “Rita Cohen”, a gossamer-thin piano tune over piercingly high strings – it sounds like the slightest breeze would shatter it apart.  It’s beautiful but full of such sadness, a feeling explored further in “Meeting Rita” – the orchestration is fuller now, stronger and sturdier, but the piano still takes the lead, now performing the score’s second main theme.

The flute that accompanies the horn theme in “Hotel Albaugh” is just gorgeous but tragedy is clearly in the air – the string harmonies are done so cleverly.  “Chasing the Van” is a full-on piece of dark action music, rumbling low-end piano accompanying the choppy strings and noirish winds – it’s got a bit of Leonard Bernstein’s On the Waterfront about it, and in particular even more like Jerry Goldsmith’s two explorations of that sound in City Hall and LA Confidential.  It doesn’t last long on the album, but does in the mind.  Then comes the fascinating “Dawn”, oboe and clarinet in tandem and also solo piano offering two distinct darker colours which try to stop the higher winds and strings from brightening up (they do: briefly, beautifully; before receding again).

“FBI Search” is a much less interesting piece, gentle suspense and drama which keeps things flowing along but doesn’t offer much except a slightly deeper examination of the darker timbres from the previous cue.  “The Vow” adds a dark, dark pedal note underneath the piano theme, some jarring string textures above it – it’s uncomfortable listening, the beauty of the melody placed in such stark contrast to the sounds surrounding it.  Brilliant dramatic scoring, if not particularly easy to hear.  “Merry’s Story” offers another presentation of the horn theme before a dramatic climax is reached in the emotion-laden “Swede & Merry”, which includes a wonderfully passionate interlude for Barber-like strings.  It’s stirring stuff, the score’s standout piece.

In “Merry’s Things” a familiar Desplat device, rumbling electronic bass, runs under a fast-moving introduction before the noble, tragic horn theme is reprised once again.  It’s the piano theme that takes centre stage in “Fix Your Dress”, somehow having acquired what sounds like a slightly sinister feeling in the opening of the cue when there are subtle strings accompanying it, but then the emotion is laid bare as the strings depart – anguish, desperation, somehow still beauty.  The melodic core of the action material from earlier in the score is reprised in “Swede Grabs Sheila”, but by slowing it down and slightly deconstructing it into its constituent orchestral parts Desplat manages to make it sound more like a 70s thriller score, diagonal phrasings countering each other to produce a disconcerting, angular effect.  There’s something very Morricone-like about the descending eight-note figure which opens and closes the cue.  “Reunited” then offers some closure, but it’s no Hollywood happy ending – there’s a requiem feeling to the opening with the violins approaching their highest registers, the simple piano too, before the stunningly powerful closing moments where the score’s signature sounds – the violins, piano, horns – come together with devastating power.

Desplat closes his score with a fully-orchestrated version of the horn theme in “Kaddish for Seymour”, and in many ways it sums the whole thing up: it’s beautiful, multi-faceted, clever but it’s also unhappy, really deeply so.  And that’s undoubtedly going to put some people off the score – it’s a rich and deep one but is rarely easy listening, without the readily-accessible emotion and melody of The Light Between Oceans.  If you’re willing to invest in it then there’s a lot to get back, but don’t go in expecting anything else.  I can’t see me listening to this as much as my favourite Desplat scores but there’s no doubting its quality..

Rating: *** 1/2

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