- Composed by Mica Levi
- Milan / 2016 / 34m
Natalie Portman gives what is generally considered to be one of her finest performances as Jackie Kennedy in Pablo Larrain’s acclaimed Jackie, which covers her time in the White House and then in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination. She was a complex person, with a life ripe for the biopic treatment, and most consider this film – which was in development for a very long time, at one point to be directed by Darren Aronofsky and to star Rachel Weisz – to have succeeded.
One of the film’s three Oscar nominations is for its score by Mica Levi, who created quite a stir with her debut film score in 2014, Under the Skin – beloved by more mainstream critics who usually have little to say about film music except when they bemoan the presence of a melody or emotion, but generally either loved or hated within the film music community itself. The same is true of Jackie to an extent: it’s a more conventional film score (though composed in a more European than Hollywood way, away from the picture itself) and it’s given a role front and central within the film, but once more its biggest devotees are not from within the usual film music circles.
Full of melancholy, strings (chamber-sized) dominate from start to finish. It’s simple music really, quite repetitive – deliberately so, creating a rather hypnotic effect that I have to say I think is tremendously effective. Austere on the outside but with shimmers of life glittering within, it’s not hard to see what Levi was trying to do, and she brilliantly captures the feeling that Kennedy was at times like an outside observer watching her own life unfold, powerless to do much about its direction of travel.
The early “Children” offers some warmth, the vibraphone of “Tears” adds an emotional complexity as layers seem to strip away, leaving a vulnerable exposed inner core. But more typical is the sparse sound of the desperately sad “Autopsy”, simple string figures evoking a film music sound more prominent in the 1970s, the militaristic snare an ever-present reminder of what’s happened. Compositionally there’s so little to it, but dramatically it packs quite a punch. I love too the following track, “Empty White House”, its enveloping serenity imbued by a deep-seated sadness. The unexpected fluttering flute solo of “Vanity” is another highlight, placed so prominently in the mix it seems to be like a little oasis of beauty.
There are two main “themes”, which alternate through the score and then come together wonderfully for the finale “The End” – one is an up-and-down device which seems to remain ever-constant through whatever else is happening, violins and celli entering and exiting in opposite directions – it’s a bit like the sort of thing Bernard Herrmann did so often, instrumental language expressing drama quite exquisitely well. It’s heard right at the start in “Intro” and receives its most telling performance in “Walk to Capitol Hill”. The other theme – heard in the previously-mentioned “Children” but really being allowed to soar in the finale – is much brighter, wind solos alternating over a bed of strings as little phrases build on one another.
By focusing exclusively on the woman herself and not on the extraordinary events she’s living through, Jackie becomes a sustained and truly compelling emotional narrative. It’s a short album but Levi says everything that needs to be said within it – the relative simplicity of its construction is deceptive because there are so many wonderful nuances lying beneath the surface. It is certainly not going to be for everyone, but I find it to be thought-provoking and as intellectually satisfying as it is dramatically, quite a rarity in film music these days. At the same time, it is as you might expect frequently rather gloomy – for me that just makes the moments of subtle levity all the more effective.