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Overwhelm the Sky

I often write about the music for films I haven’t seen (which some people take great objection to – I’ll take up that debate another time). Being the dedicated professional that I am, I usually research some movies at great length in a bid to be as informed as possible and capable of capturing the smallest detail to provide my typical cornucopia of information to the reader (in other words, I look it up on Wikipedia) – with Overwhelm the Sky, this has proven to be somewhat challenging – not just because it doesn’t actually have a Wikipedia page but because most of the reviews and commentary of the film struggle to impart any sense of what it actually is – I get that it’s long, it’s musing, it’s black and white – I get the impression that the plot (man becomes obsessed with the murder of his future brother-in-law in San Francisco) is probably not particularly important. It sounds experimental, intriguing, worth seeking out.

While there are some soundtrack labels who are happy to put out scores for lesser-known films by composers whose name alone cannot be relied on to generate sales (MovieScore Media does this all the time), La-La Land tends to focus on scores for big films and/or scores by big-name composers. Therefore further intrigue comes from the fact that they released this – with due respect to its composer Costas Dafnis, he’s not going to get people clicking away to order the album – which immediately suggests this one must be a bit special.

Any release like this relies on word of mouth: and so here are the words from my mouth. What we have here is a brilliantly original, constantly compelling musical work that makes the listener sit up and take real notice. It does not sound like a 21st century film score – but neither does it sound like a 20th century one. In no small part because it’s the only thing my extremely limited capacity as a writer allows, when I write about lesser-known composers’ music for little-known films I tend to keep bringing in references to other film scores it resembles in order to provide some sort of frame of reference to the reader: with Overwhelm the Sky, no such facile comparisons are possible because it really just doesn’t sound like anything else.

Two simple observations are that Dafnis is clearly a phenomenal composer – able to exploit the possibilities an orchestra provides to produce fascinating music – and that he is clearly a phenomenal film composer – the two don’t always go hand-in-hand. This may seem a little perverse to say given I haven’t seen this film (not any other that he has scored) but it’s blindingly obvious that he has an understanding of the function of film music (aided by a director, Daniel Kremer, clearly at the heart of the endeavour) that isn’t necessarily in evidence so much these days. We have become so accustomed to film music being purely functional in nature – musical wallpaper, essentially, there because everyone knows that films need to have music in them, even if they don’t really think about why – that even the most pompous of us have given up complaining about it.

What a joy therefore to hear a soundtrack album that presents music that has depths to it – emotional contrasts – and that paints such a vivid picture. There is no great sweeping main theme or anything of that nature – even though the composer had the (very rare) opportunity to score an overture and intermission, given the film has had a roadshow version released, he stays firmly on message – the message (or my interpretation of it) being that it’s a hard world out there and we get to glimpse it from inside this film’s main character’s head.

Each track is like a little musical vignette – sometimes we hear jabbing piano, like the forming of a nightmare – sometimes it’s strings, always very elegantly played off against each other, just a hint of chaos – sometimes it’s hallucinatory in nature, a little melody floating above a bed of dissonance, then floating away again. Without being attached to the film it was designed to underscore, it’s actually impossible to avoid drifting away and taking in your own view of the picture the music seems to be etching on the imaginary canvas in front of you.

The film is often described as a neo noir – but of course, being in black and white, it’s also a literal noir – and Dafnis seems to take inspiration from that. He does it without actually ever quite getting fully black or fully white – dealing instead with shades of grey, intricately adding and removing those shades as he moves through. Later on in the score we veer closer towards more traditional territory – I can’t help but think of Bernard Herrmann, because even though the music doesn’t offer any direct similarities with Herrmann’s, its intentions seem at times to be similar. (See – I did manage to get in a facile comparison after all.)

My favourite thing will be the same as everyone else’s favourite thing, even if it may be subliminal – it’s the shafts of dusty light that are glimpsed here and there shining up from the dark ground – a cello solo perhaps, a trip further to the right of the piano keyboard – because they are fleeting, sometimes they’re very subtle – they feel really earned. It’s what film music’s meant to do.

The score runs for 45 minutes or so – the perfect length for this sort of thing – and then as a (not inconsiderable) bonus the album presents a three-part suite from the composer’s score for Torch, which is very much a complementary score. The film – the first Dafnis scored – was edited by Kremer and where he met the composer; he makes clear in the album’s notes that he hopes to have a long-term working relationship with. If Overwhelm the Sky often sounds like a kind of trippy dream, Torch is a little more like a conventional one: streams of consciousness coming together, meaning found in their interaction. There’s great use of winds, the composer exploiting their unique colours to paint vivid pictures.

Costas Dafnis is clearly super-talented and let’s hope that the right people hear this album or see this film and he gets the chance to go further. I realise that even if he were hired to score Captain Birdseye and the Fishfingers of Eternity or whatever the latest Marvel movie is, he’s not going to be allowed to write music like this for it – but there are still enough films and indeed tv shows out there designed more for adults that could really benefit from the confident touch of a composer this talented. Next time you’re adding a few soundtrack albums to your basket somewhere – consider giving this one a chance. It’s different, for sure, and it demands your close attention to really appreciate what it has to offer – it’s worth it.

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  1. RAY (Reply) on Friday 9 December, 2022 at 15:09

    The music is not bad, the review is crap.

  2. Chris Garner (Reply) on Saturday 10 December, 2022 at 13:59

    Thanks for this review, James! I hadn’t heard of this and may not have if you hadn’t shown a spotlight on it. I’ll be checking it out!