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Tenet
  • Composed by Ludwig Göransson
  • WaterTower / 86m

Christopher Nolan’s famous aversion to anyone watching his films other than at the cinema meant that Tenet was never likely to follow some other summer 2020 movies and go straight to audiences in their homes, with it instead being the tentpole to restart the big screen experience. I have to say I’m not quite ready to expose myself to that risk myself, so I haven’t seen it, but I’m yet to hear from anyone who has seen it who was able to articulate what it’s about, and with most reviews saying “I didn’t understand it…” and then some of them going on to say “…but it was brilliant!” and the rest “…so it was rubbish!”

Nolan’s last few movies have famously been scored by Hans Zimmer, with the composer writing some of his best ever music for a couple of them (Inception and Interstellar). Musically, the films beginning with D rather than I have been rather less impressive, but still have their fans; for the first score of his post-Zimmer period the director turned to a composer who has been turning more than a few heads himself in the last few years, Ludwig Göransson, still fresh from his unlikely Oscar win for Black Panther and being the chosen one to step into John Williams’s Star Wars shoes on The Mandalorian.

Ludwig Göransson

The Swede has quite a distinctive style of his own but he has adapted it to fit into the fairly familiar Nolan sound world and Tenet as a music score clearly comes from the Inception lineage. The opening cue, “Rainy Night in Tallinn” (which in fact is written in all caps officially, in common with all the other cues – but I can’t quite bring myself to do so in the review) actually starts with the sound of an orchestra warming up – don’t be fooled into thinking you’ll hear much of that orchestra again, because (while I’m sure they’re present) it’s a highly-processed sound that dominates the score.

What the score has a lot of is energy: as soon as the synths and beats kick in after a few bars, it’s straight into action. As I said, you can hear the Inception influence throughout – yes, even the HORN OF DOOM – but interestingly it’s taken from quite a narrow part of that exceptional Zimmer score, which had a far broader palette than this, which is strictly monochrome.

When the music does slow down for a while after the opening – “Windmills” and to a lesser extent “Meeting Neil”, then very much in “Priya” – there is an inescapable melancholy to it – the wash of keyboards is ever present, but some other textures in particular from guitar do give a certain human feel to it, though I would be stretching to say there’s much emotion.

“Betrayal” is largely free of incident (very simple textures repeating ad-nauseum), then comes one of the better tracks, “Freeport”, with the energy of the opening cue finally making a return. It has an unsettling quality to it which is dramatically very potent – the musical effects making things sound off-kilter. Speaking of those effects, I’ve read a lot of people talking about Göransson using musical palindromes through his score, and my reaction to that is similar to my reaction when I look at a few seemingly randomly-placed brushstrokes on a canvas and get told I’m obviously looking at a representation of the oppression of free thinking in 18th century high society – I have listened and listened but can’t find any evidence of palindromes, or things moving forwards and backwards, or the other things people are hearing, or pretending they’re hearing. It’s just musical processing and doesn’t sound any more revolutionary than anything we heard in Inception.

Disappointingly, only one track has a palindromic title, and that’s “747” (Michael Giacchino would not have let that happen) – it’s another decent piece of dark action music but the first half is fairly clearly modelled on the earlier score’s “Dream is Collapsing” (and not as good), and the second half is basically just sound effects. There’s a rare melody in “From Mumbai to Amalfi” and for just a short while a really wonderful new age synth sound behind it, which is the closest the score comes to expressing emotion and a highpoint as a result.

“Foils” is a simple but satisfying piece of action music (without the percussion for the most part this time, and frankly the better for it), the score’s “main theme” getting a bit of an airing (but the quotation marks indicate that calling it that is a stretch). Then in “Sator” Göransson introduces a sound effect that frankly is a rather less-than-welcome one to hear in September 2020 as I write these words, because it sounds distinctly like the sound of someone breathing on a ventilator – various people might never want to hear that sound again after what’s happened in the last few months, so be warned. Otherwise it’s an entirely unpleasant piece of suspense music anyway so shouldn’t have been anywhere near the album. We’re back to very bleak action music in “Trucks in Place”, which is vile, and then the unpleasant sound effect returns in “Red Room, Blue Room”, rather incongruously accompanied this time by what sounds like the whale song in Star Trek IV before Spock ran it through the filter to make it sound like it would underwater.

Fortunately things get back on track in “Inversion”, which has a driving energy to it as the unpleasantness is left behind; not much happens in “Retrieving the Case” but then Göransson starts pulling out all the stops as we near the end. At first it seems that not much is happening in “The Algorithm” either but the strings (strings!) do start to build up into a pretty compelling sound as the piece progresses; if it’s trying to be “Time” then it doesn’t make it, but it’s not a bad little attempt. The very long “Posterity” is perhaps the track to sample if you want to experience the score but not sit through 86 minutes of it – it’s a well-structured, fluid piece of dramatic music bolstered by bursts of high energy and clearly the best piece on the album. It’s not quite the finale (though it sounds like it will be) because we still have “The Protagonist”, a second attempt at redoing “Time” but it never really has the emotional or melodic hook to pull it off but is quite pleasant all the same. (Less pleasant is the song which follows, “The Plan” sung by Travis Scott, which I won’t comment on because it’s clearly not aimed at a person who owns as many Neil Diamond albums as I do.)

Tenet is a hard one to summarise. There’s a lot to like but the very long album is so monochrome, and some parts deeply unpleasant, I can’t imagine many people wanting to sit through all of it very often. The first few times I listened I had it on in the background and often stopped what I was doing as something caught my attention, but strangely, when you do sit and try to take in the detail you find there isn’t much there – it’s a fairly standard modern action thriller score with a few standout moments that make it rise above the crowd to some degree. If Hans Zimmer had delivered precisely this score for the film then people would have said “he’s just repeating Inception but it’s never as good”; as he didn’t, they’re not really saying that, but I guess it’s the one-sentence summary I was looking for.

Rating: ***

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  1. The Nandolorian (Reply) on Sunday 6 September, 2020 at 18:51

    What a surprise. I was anticipating you to hate this score since it was filled with what you hated. This seemed like the kind of score that would really bother you.

  2. İsmail (Reply) on Monday 7 September, 2020 at 07:21

    this score reminded me of a mix of Dunkirk + Inception + electronic elements from venom

  3. Thiv (Reply) on Monday 7 September, 2020 at 23:46

    It’s very much a post Inception generic action score, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets nominated for an academy award.‍♂️
    Btw, are you planning to review The Secret Garden by Dario Marianelli?

  4. Virral (Reply) on Wednesday 9 September, 2020 at 10:45

    Nolan should’ve chosen Daniel Pemberton instead. After the King Arthur & Steve Jobs soundtrack I think he’s the only one after Hans Zimmer who can make each and every minute of a soundtrack interesting and full of pleasant surprises. Even The Mandalorian soundtrack has many dull moments.

    • Edmund Meinerts (Reply) on Saturday 12 September, 2020 at 17:37

      Gotta say, it’s been a very long time since a Zimmer score came out where each and every minute was interesting and full of pleasant surprises…

  5. AE (Reply) on Tuesday 22 September, 2020 at 23:19

    I’d say this score is far from emotionless or uninteresting… and doesn’t even come close to ever being called dull. I’ve had it on repeat ever since seeing the movie last week. I had moments during the movie where I was literally out of my seat with excitement, being blown away with how much I loved the score (e.g. min 5:50 of “747”). During the movie, I thought I was hearing Zimmer and I thought to myself, “wow, he’s outdone himself… and has somehow reinfused energy into his work and effectively broke new ground by exploring rhythmical elements of trap and prog metal”. Turns out it was Ludwig! I think this is one of my favorite scores… of all time… absolutely riveting. Good sound design is good sound design, whether it’s layered melodic string arrangements or an impeccably produced percussive synth.

  6. Rory (Reply) on Monday 5 October, 2020 at 13:07

    I think the issue that you have found is that the Tenet soundtrack isn’t designed to be listened to purely as an album, and shouldn’t be judged as such. It is designed as a compliment to the film itself, and is an incredible listening experience when coupled with the various contexts of the film, and the scenes in which certain tracks play. I’d heavily recommend you to see the film; it’s one of my favourite cinema experiences, and the score is one of the many reasons why it engaged my attention like no other.