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David O. Russell’s first film since 2015, Amsterdam seems to be continuing the post-Covid trend of films which are not part of a big franchise ending up being seen as box office failures. I don’t know – the expectation has been so firmly set by all the studios that all movies will be released onto streaming shortly after their cinema release, it’s not a great surprise that it’s really only the teenagers who can’t face waiting to watch Bananaman or whoever find some deux ex machina to defeat the seemingly-undefeatable enemy who are going to the cinema any more.

Anyway, I haven’t seen it, so I’m hardly one to complain. My trips to the cinema are largely a thing of the past for various reasons. So (with due apologies to the purists) I can’t tell you how great Daniel Pemberton’s music is in it, but I’ve no doubt that it is great; what I can tell you without much fear of reprisals is that it is great on the album.

Daniel Pemberton

You’d be forgiven for thinking you were listening to an Alexandre Desplat score based on the opening cue – the elegant (oh so elegant, in fact) winds and stately phrasings recall his brilliant Birth. But it’s not Birth that sticks in the mind as the album goes on – it’s actually more akin to Desplat’s Wes Anderson scores, with these little vignettes coming and going (and to be clear, that’s a facile sweeping comment – the only kind of comment I can make, most of the time – there’s almost 90 minutes of Pemberton music on this album and the vast bulk of it does not sound like Alexandre Desplat at all).

It’s not exactly monothematic, but a huge amount of the score is built from that opening theme. But as it begins – and indeed ends – the album in that elegant, stately style, it gets thrown through an unimaginable number of variations in between, with Pemberton finding so many ways of getting different feelings out of the same building blocks. My favourite is the heavenly choral take on it (“The French Lady” and elsewhere) but more common is the percussive, slightly jazzy version which dominates: there’s a kind of nervous energy serving as an undercurrent to it which makes it absolutely compelling.

Whether you favour the beautiful flute version, the driving percussion version, the kind of easy listening pop version, the raspy saxophones version (if I mention Michael Nyman now it makes it sound like I think Pemberton is just copying others, but I don’t – I won’t mention Nyman, but if I did then it would only be to say there is a certain stylistic resemblance at times) – I just love the way the musical story is constructed.

Because I’m a complete philistine, I don’t usually mention things like this, but I can exclusively reveal that the score features “tons of magical woodwind, crotales, saxes and some other bits” – well, exclusive as long as you don’t follow the mysterious Twitter user @DANIELPEMBERTON who may have been the original author of that sentence. I Googled crotales imagining it was some sort of Mexican appetiser but the truth is even more fascinating (perhaps you could use Google to do your own search – it’s a recent tool, ideal for such purposes). Though it IS about time somebody wrote a score featuring a solo part for a Mexican appetiser of some description.

I know I’ve already mentioned the nervous energy, but I’m so proud of thinking of it I’m going to mention it again – even when the music is at its prettiest I think I can hear it there, and at times it does get a bit darker (but never veering too far away from that central melodic construction) – and everywhere in between there seems to be that tension, sometimes slight and sometimes great – and that, for me, is what makes this an absolute barnstormer of an album of music. I absolutely love the song that comes from his main theme (“Time”, sung by Givēon, and written by them and Drake) – really sticks in the mind long after it’s finished, much like the whole score really. (I’d add a health warning for the other songs though, sung by the cast members.)

Daniel Pemberton’s an exciting film composer, no doubting that. He’s still quite young in film composer terms – not quite as young as me, but only by a month, and I suppose technically I’m not actually a film composer, but in any case the signs are that of the two of us, he may leave a rather more profound mark on the world – and he already seems to have developed this great, really quite diverse catalogue of work. I’d stick Amsterdam as one of his most impressive so far.

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  1. Geoff (Reply) on Monday 17 October, 2022 at 19:11

    Very well-written review, I’m almost tempted to buy the album to make sure it’s accurate!

  2. Sean (Reply) on Thursday 20 October, 2022 at 02:26

    A few things. 1 – There’s something more casual about this review than what I’m used to, in a good, refreshing way. There’s more of a sort of lazy informal zest than a lot of your older stuff (which is also great.) This may be related to your overt and announced mini renovation of your system here, and maybe your prose also? Which, leads me to 2 – I expected and then missed a star rating at the end. I’m still not used to its absence (whatever, I’ll have to accept that.) 3 – Does “I suppose technically I’m not actually a film composer” mean you are very quintessentially British at sarcasm or is there a chance we need to hear some recordings of yours? 4 – Great review for many reasons, not leastly that I am consequently now listening to the score from the start, as I type (having only previously enjoyed it as part of the film.) 4 – If you have a chance, please review Jonny Greenwood’s “Licorice Pizza” score. The complete score is hard to find but key cues are tucked into the OST amongst pop selections.

    • Tom de Ruiter (Reply) on Thursday 20 October, 2022 at 18:39

      The star ratings are still on the composer page.

  3. Peter (Reply) on Thursday 3 November, 2022 at 13:25

    I agree with the overall score and I think it’s possibly perhaps Pemberton’s most refined and mature work. I totally agree it resembles Desplat’s work with Anderson.

    I think Pemberton is one of the best let’s say more new or still fresh composers out there. He’s one of those who can find the right blend between electronics and orchestra. And he has a real talent for catchy themes and melodies. I think he’s really just one or two scores away from scoring some all-time great score, maybe next year’s Spider-Man: Across the Spiderverse – the first Spider-Man score was heavy on electronics and not as polished as I hoped, but if he combines the more orchestral approach from Trial and Amsterdam with the right dose of electronics, that score can be something special.

    I know you didn’t review them here, but I suggest also tryin Steve Jobs, Molly’s Game, The Counselor.