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Michael Palin in North Korea
  • Composed by Miguel d’Oliveira
  • MovieScore Media/ 32m

In the late 1980s, former Python Michael Palin started a highly-successful second career as a travel documentary presenter, becoming the best in his field (with the earlier ones in particular becoming classics of the genre). He hasn’t been back to that well for a while, until this two-part documentary came along and saw him traveling to and around the highly-secretive North Korea. The score comes courtesy of Miguel d’Oliveira and is not what you might expect at all, featuring neither the lush orchestral sound that these shows sometimes have these days nor some westernised ethnic hodgepodge – instead it’s what you might call a lush synthetic sound, realised primarily by equipment from the 1980s, cleverly suggesting the timewarp that Palin often found while on his travels. While they were stage-managed, he did manage to delve beneath the surface he was being shown quite impressively and d’Oliveira’s music also reflects that – the faux glossy sheen (what “the future sounds like” when I was a kid) lies on top of some nice glimpses at humanity.

There is sometimes a gently comic feel which goes well with some of the absurdities – “Table Tennis” underscoring a bizarre kind of dance routine undertaken by female traffic cops a prime example. That’s part of the warmth – and there is warmth, throughout, as Palin meets people who are after all just people, regardless of the foibles of their leaders. “The Border” is a brilliant track, a striking little figure running through it all and it is followed by the more ominous “Weapons’ Parade”, more mechanistic sounds imposing themselves, a starker piece. “Hair Port” is beautifully-judged, witty piece for another of those absurdities (a massive airport with nobody in it and the only flight of the day fogged off). This is really compelling music – it’s a series of vignettes with no real melodic connective tissue and most of them are very short (18 tracks on an album which barely breaks half an hour) but it comes together really very nicely and is the sort of album you can listen to again and again.  To hear something this bold and different being done for a tv documentary is really impressive and it’s one of 2018’s hidden gems for sure.

Rating: **** | |

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