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Society of the Snow

When I was a boy I used to go on walking holidays every year with my dad in North Devon. We’d stay in bed-and-breakfasts and every evening would get back, clean up, have a meal and then do a bit of reading or something before a well-earned night’s sleep. One year the bed-and-breakfast we were staying in had a tattered paperback copy of a book by Piers Paul Read which I started reading and then stayed up half the night to finish – “Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors” about the 1972 plane crash of the Uruguayan rugby team Old Christians and the horrors they endured on their way to some of them miraculously surviving.

This book was adapted into the 1993 film Alive by Frank Marshall, which is a perfectly decent big Hollywood survival story, so I didn’t really understand why J.A. Bayona was making another film about the incident; but now having seen it, I understand perfectly well – this time there is much more focus on the inner turmoil of the characters, in particular when they take the most desperate decision a group of humans could take in order to survive, and while harrowing I think Society of the Snow is an outstanding piece of work and am surprised it’s not featuring a little more heavily in the 2023 best-of lists.

Michael Giacchino

The 1993 film featured a wonderful score by James Newton Howard; this time round Michael Giacchino was on-hand to provide the music, with Bayona opting to continue his collaboration with him and not revert to his pre-Jurassic World composer Fernando Velázquez. Giacchino’s music is superb – he’s one of the finest film composers of his generation, and it’s nice to see him tackling a movie like this one instead of the usual popcorn blockbusters which he does so well.

All the great film composers have their own personal style which gives you a glimpse inside them at the same time as doing whatever the film needs doing. I may be wrong but I’ve always thought of Giacchino’s most personal music as being that he wrote for the tv show Lost – and Society of the Snow is the closest one of his film scores has ever come to that specific sound. With its pair of short-lined main themes, each very short but very malleable, usually heard shot-through with great sadness and at times desperation, its modest but very effective orchestration (we often hear the simple melody line on piano with the subtlest of accompaniment) this is very inward-looking music, tiny changes in timbre showing the profound changes which emerge in the humans at the heart of the story building up over time.

There’s enormous beauty here too, and it’s earned. It’s not until late in the seventh cue, “Susy Passes”, that we hear one of the main themes sung by a choir and the effect is emotionally devastating – even here Giacchino doesn’t go particularly big and that makes it all the more moving, I think. Putting this music a few minutes after the dissonance of “Crash” is so clever – and following it with the orchestral and choral might of the similarly dissonant “News Radio” makes the latter an absolute hammer-blow, both in film and on album.

There are some difficult moments for sure – this is not an easy-listening album. It would be impossible for the score for this film not to have them. The manic percussion and demonic chorus of “The Second Expedition” is not music you’d want to listen to with the lights off. But they’re what make the shimmers of light through the story so much brighter than they might otherwise be (“I See the Sky” is so simple yet so moving), and when we do get to the miraculous finale, “Found”, it’s enough to make the hardest heart melt. Just a few tracks earlier in “Take Home the Love” the composer used a guitar to add an extra human touch to an intimate moment and now in the finale he uses it again to connect back to that moment; likewise, in “Andes Ascent” the almost Morricone-like percussion and choir marks the turning of the tide and the first real prospect of hope and he revisits this material in “Found” too. It’s such a beautiful piece of music – spiritual, uplifting, the main themes revealing themselves in such a different way now.

I’ll be honest and say that I struggle to see what a lot of film music these days is even trying to do – often it feels so big all the time, it has no chance of adding something to the film it’s in. Society of the Snow is what great film music should be – it doesn’t shy away from accentuating the lows as well as the highs, it paints a tremendously vivid dramatic picture, it treats the real-life horrors with great respect and features moments of tremendous beauty. For my money it’s the best film score of 2023 and is another reminder that Michael Giacchino is one of the very best there is.

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  1. Kalman (Reply) on Sunday 7 January, 2024 at 13:12

    I haven’t seen the movie yet, probably that’s the problem because as a standalone listening this album hasn’t really grabbed me. As you wrote this is not easy listening: not too many melodies, mostly atmospheric music. I usually like Giacchino so I’ll return after watching the film and see if my opinion changes.

  2. Sean (Reply) on Saturday 13 January, 2024 at 15:28

    I haven’t been this excited to listen to a score in a while – simply because of the review and your 5 star rating (yes I still go check.) Debating if I need to watch the show first though to hear it for it’s main purpose first.

    • James Southall (Reply) on Saturday 13 January, 2024 at 21:22

      I don’t say it often but in this case I do think it’s easier to appreciate the album if you’ve seen the movie.