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Life of Pi
  • Composed by Mychael Danna
  • Sony Classical / 2012 / 65:39

I was doubtful as to whether Yann Martel’s outstanding book Life of Pi could successfully translate onto the big screen – so much of it relies on the reader using his imagination, choosing his own interpretation of the words.  I shouldn’t have worried – Ang Lee has pulled it off with great skill, with a visually stunning film that does leave room for the viewer to make his own decisions.  I’m surprised at the number of reviews of it which try to talk about the plot as if it’s a linear, straightforward fable when it really is anything but – people need to see it and make up their own minds.  (And if you do see it – do so in 3-D.  It uses the technology brilliantly to enhance the experience.)

Lee has worked with a number of different composers on his films, enticing excellent scores from many; his most frequent collaborator has been Mychael Danna, but that collaboration seemed to be at an end when the composer’s music for Hulk was tossed out in favour of a replacement by Danny Elfman.  The pair have obviously now made up because Danna is back for Life of Pi, and he’s a great choice – his ability to blend eastern and western elements together has always been his calling card as a film composer and he does it again with great skill in this score.

Mychael Danna

Mychael Danna

The opening act of the film is set in Pondicherry in India – formerly a French colony – and is filmed as this place of magic and wonder; Danna blends those emotions with elements of French and Indian music to produce truly captivating music.  The opening song, “Pi’s Lullaby” sung by Bombay Jayashri, is an outstanding expression of innocence and childish wonder, and while the main body of its melody isn’t actually heard in the score, the very beautiful melodic bridge is.  The main theme itself is introduced in the second cue, “Piscine Molitar Patel”, and that’s where Danna blends sitar and accordion and various other ethnic suggestions of the twin cultures in with the orchestra; it’s an outstanding theme, sent through quite a journey over the course of the music (I just love the playful variation in “Thank You Vishnu for Introducing Me to Christ”).

The music starts on a new path from the sad, reflective “Leaving India”, a piece covered in a gorgeous glossy sheen despite its underlying emotion.  There’s a heightened sense of drama in “The Deepest Spot on Earth” as one of the themes is heard on the horns for the first time, before the spectacular “Tsimtsum” sees a boys’ choir join the soaring orchestra for one of the film music highlights of 2012 – a piece of major power and major beauty, there’s an impressive, sustained intensity to it.  Not so intense, but just as dramatically potent, is “First Night, First Day” which reprises the choral material but this time the orchestral accompaniment is darker – there’s a suggestion of danger and also of despair as the boy at the heart of the film realises what he has to face up to.

From that point onwards, the music changes tack again – suddenly there are bigger issues at play – the nature of faith, of God, of life.  Danna is careful to avoid anything specifically religious, deliberately blending influences that could perhaps individually be taken as signs of different faiths.  Suddenly there’s a serenity to the music – the gorgeous fluttering Indian bansuri flutes of “Skinny Vegetarian Boy” a peaceful, emotional treat.  There’s a calmness too now – and a great respect – in the relationship between Pi and his tiger companion, explored musically in “Pi and Richard Parker”, with Danna expressing that calm through the most comforting of western instruments, the piano, combining with the bansuri flutes for Pi and the harsher ney flutes frequently used in the score for the tiger, Richard Parker.  Here too, Danna starts to explore the wonders of the natural world – “The Whale” and “Flying Fish” are highly expressive portraits, the latter bringing a wonderful sense of chaos through the interlocking (but never overlapping, if you see what I mean) musical lines.

In “Tiger Vision” the composer brings forth a great sense of mystery, but running through it there’s actually quite a profound sadness and sense of loss; and then everything explodes in “God Storm”, with the tumult coming largely from the feelings inspired by the music rather than anything truly inherently violent within its construction.  It’s another stunning piece – the boys’ choir returns as well – with Danna putting the listener through the emotional wringer.  After that, there’s a sense of resolve running through “I’m Ready Now” and in “The Island” a brief excursion back to the gentle playfulness heard earlier in the score.  In the lengthy “Back to the World”, Danna cleverly portrays the fact that while the literal journey may be over, the spiritual one is only just beginning; and that territory is explored further in the two final cues, “The Second Story” and “Which Story Do You Prefer?”

What makes this music so effective in the film and so outstandingly rich on album is that there is great clarity of thought expressed not through particularly complex writing – indeed, by Mychael Danna’s usual standards this is relatively straightforward in the way it’s constructed from a technical perspective – but through the great tapestry of feelings that are explored.  Life of Pi is one of the very strongest scores of the year, an album that should appeal to people on multiple levels, and I’d expect to see it get some good recognition from the various awards bodies.  Highly recommended.

Rating: **** 1/2 |

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  1. Chris Avis (Reply) on Friday 28 December, 2012 at 02:43

    Nice review, James!
    This is an incredible score and also makes for a tremendous album. It’s the finest new score I’ve heard this year. I’m only surprised it isn’t being discussed more.


  2. Kevin (Reply) on Friday 28 December, 2012 at 04:05

    Yes. It’s probably the best score written this year for the best film this year.

  3. Bernardo (Reply) on Thursday 7 February, 2013 at 10:53

    I liked the score and the movie. The movie deserves a solid 6 (ou of ten). The score is OK, but not memorable, i would rate it with a 3 (out of 5). Can’t understand the hype on this score but that’s just me.

  4. ANDRÉ - CAPE TOWN. (Reply) on Tuesday 6 August, 2013 at 09:36

    James, there was a re-run of the movie 8MM a few night ago> I’ve always been puzzled by DANNA’s use of ethnic Middle- Eastern instruments in a ‘Snuff-sex-thriller’ that focuses totally on American characters, situations & locations. Thanx for supplying the reason in that stunning critique. I was then curious about your comments re GREEN FIRE and Danna’s use of Asian instruments. The first paragraph is there …. THEN NOTHING?? I was connected to your BLUEYONDER.CO.UK site and informed you of the problem. But failure! My mobile’s server was unable to connect to an address that no loger exists > so apologies for having to use the LIFE OF PI site. Have you got a new email address that we may use to connect??

  5. James Southall (Reply) on Saturday 10 August, 2013 at 11:02

    Hi Andre – I’m not sure what you’re referring to by Green Fire. I thought perhaps you meant Green Dragon, but when I click on that one it seems to load correctly to me.

    I do have an email address – it’s james AT movie-wave DOT net

  6. ANDRÉ - CAPE TOWN. (Reply) on Tuesday 13 August, 2013 at 23:05

    I’m presuming that the GREEN DRAGON title prompted fantasy images, in my mind, of this mythical creature belching GREEN FIRE at some bad human-species types. The great MIKLOS ROZSA’s “Green Fire” score never entered my mind James >> or was my subconscious playing games? I listened to the GREEN DRAGON CD and loved the percussion the DANNA brothers incorporated into the orchestral score. There were two nice ’emotionally direct’ tracks, but they lacked the heart-rending soul beauty that only France’s remarkable GEORGES DELERUE could provide AND, of course, Britain’s RACHEL PORTMAN…. what’s happened to RACHEL– anyone? The music she wrote for a few films ( in ’11 & ’12 ) was so exquisitely beautiful that the directors felt it detracted from the images & drama on screen….and so changes were demanded. Her style contrasts with the more muscular music being churned out today, and provides the balance many collectors yearn for. Thanx for the address James.