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  • Composed by Howard Shore
  • Howe Records / 2011 / 67:33

It’s been a few years since Avatar but at last there’s been another film which shows how effective 3D can be at enhancing the storytelling of a good filmmaker, when done right.  I wouldn’t have expected Martin Scorsese to be the man to do it, but of course one of his own heroes, Alfred Hitchcock, tried it out in a past generation.  Hugo is a truly magical film which ought to be beloved by all lovers of cinema – both for the masterful way it is made and for the warm glow it puts on classic filmmaking, as it tells the story of a young orphan in Paris whose solitary life keeping the clocks up to date in the railway station is changed once he encounters a shopkeeper with a remarkable past.

The whole film is wonderful but it is the remarkable opening shot which dazzles the most and will stick longest in the memory – a vintage piece of Scorsese, a breathtaking three-dimensional flight over 1930s Paris.  The director’s visual flair is all over the film, the most dazzling to come from mainstream Hollywood in some time.  He brings too his now-regular musical collaborator Howard Shore, working on his fifth film for the director.  If the film seems a bit of a departure for Scorsese then so it is too for Shore, whose career since Lord of the Rings has been focused generally on very serious, weighty films which have been provided with very serious, weighty music (and a couple of much more trivial films – which were still provided with very serious, weighty music).

Howard Shore at the Hugo premiere

Fortunately, any concern that he would be unable to rediscover the deftness of touch required for a film like this are quickly extinguished.  From the outset, Shore’s music is full of life, full of sparkle, full of that distinctly Parisian joie de vivre.  While there is a full orchestra (with inevitable accompaniment from accordion), the composer avoids the very heavy-handed style of orchestration which has dominated his recent works; and his marvellous themes, in particular the whimsical waltz which serves as the main theme and is thrown around with enthusiastic abandon throughout the score.

The film contains a surprising amount of comedy, largely courtesy of the stationmaster (played by Sacha Baron Cohen), and Shore accompanies these moments with no less enthusiasm.  The character’s theme is a comic march but the composer frequently extends the idea into some wild, deliberately full-bodied music to accompany wild chase sequences and such.  “The Invention of Dreams”, perhaps the single most wonderful piece in the score, recalls music for the great silent films – Shore channelling Chaplin, and doing it with no little amount of skill.  Wonderful too is the (French) vocal version of the main theme, “Coeur Volant”, sung by Zaz – a rare modern example of a song being perfectly integrated with the fabric of the score.

I can’t remember the last time I fell so head-over-heels for a Hollywood movie as I did for Hugo, and my praise applies equally to its wonderful score, in my opinion the finest of 2011.  Howard Shore’s music inhabits the film in a way which recalls the great magical scores for dreamlike family adventures of the past, and it holds up remarkably well away from it on the lengthy album.  I think it’s easily his strongest work this side of Lord of the Rings and while I note that some people seem to have found it rather dull, I can’t say I really understand why.  For me it is indeed the stuff of dreams.  *****

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  1. Debbie (Reply) on Saturday 31 December, 2011 at 15:35

    If you think it is the best of 2011, it is a must buy. Right now I am thoroughly enjoying Shore’s ‘Return of the King’, especially the two pieces with Renee Fleming

  2. Edmund Meinerts (Reply) on Saturday 21 July, 2012 at 07:06

    I do like this score – it’s very charming, very pleasant, has better themes than most and fits the film like a glove – but I can’t help but get the impression that your high opinion of the film has somewhat skewed your opinion of the music. It’s a bit too lightweight for me to consider giving it a full rating (somewhat arbitrary reason to dock points, but I struggle to see how this can be considered equal or superior to Shore’s Lord of the Rings scores).

    Minor nitpick, though. I do enjoy both film and score and I’m glad the latter captivated you to such an extent; personally, I find myself struggling to call it more than just “nice”.