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The Tree of Life
  • Composed by Alexandre Desplat
  • Lakeshore Records / 2011 / 61:10

Terrence Malick films tend to inspire one of two reactions in people – either they walk out of the cinema half way through, or they walk around for weeks after seeing the film wanting to talk about it to everyone they meet.  (I know from experience that finding anyone else who wants to talk about them can be easier said than done.)  The Tree of Life has proved to be no different, the director’s meditation on life itself dividing critics and audiences in a way that few films do.  

Some of the most beautiful music ever written for film has been written for Malick’s films – but the composers who wrote it didn’t always have the most pleasurable experiences.  James Horner seemed to be a particularly odd choice to score the director’s previous film, The New World – one suspects he was hired by the same people who bizarrely tried to market the film as a kind of live-action version of Disney’s Pocohontas – and that’s pretty much how he scored the film, writing some of his most outstanding music in the process.  Little of it is actually heard in the film itself.  Alexandre Desplat seemed like a more logical choice (he was hired after it had previously been announced that James Newton Howard would be scoring this) – but in the event he fared no better than Horner, a fact he seemed to be unaware of himself as he was interviewed on the red carpet at Cannes on his way in to see the premiere.

Alexandre Desplat

As usual, it is hard to argue with any of Malick’s musical choices in the film (and indeed the “real” soundtrack album which features the music actually used in the film would be a stunner) but Desplat’s musical vision for the film can be heard on this album from Lakeshore Records and is itself very much worthy of serious attention.  The world that continually comes to mind while listening is “contemplative” – few film scores that I’ve heard have been so thought-provoking.  That’s a hard thing for any critic to explain – let alone one with word skills as rudimentary as mine – so I shall let the statement stand by itself.

Much of the music is relatively straightforward from a compositional perspective – the opening piece, “Childhood”, features little piano figures weaving up and down over pedal notes – but emotionally, it is incredibly complex.  If the film could be described as a meditation on the meaning of life then it wouldn’t be a particular stretch to extend the description to this music.  “Circles” is a stunning eleven minutes of music, the electronic pulse a familiar device from previous music by this composer, the richness and depth another.  “River” is one of the most attractive pieces, a sterling effort at creating music which really does seem to flow like water.

“Awakening” is a bit of a surprise.  It is one of the most outwardly emotional pieces of music I’ve heard from this composer and honestly wouldn’t feel out of place on one of John Barry’s late-career concept albums.  Of course, as with life itself, for every moment of light comes one of darkness and that is true of this score.  I would not be so lazy as to point out in the most facile way that this is never more true than in the piece actually called “Light and Darkness” – no, strike that, of course I would be that lazy – but there are times when the darkness is actually pretty unattractive, particularly in the fairly lengthy “Temptation” near the album’s end – I would not be so lazy as to crack a facile joke like “the only real temptation is to press the skip button,” oh no, not I.

Despite the fact that I’ve just written two paragraphs about particular tracks, I will now state that this is an album which really isn’t about individual tracks.  There is a rare feeling of going on a genuine journey though this – of visiting life’s joys and its sorrows, its highs and lows.  There is always the sense that the music is taking you somewhere.  To continue the hyperbole, I will also state that much of the time, this feels almost like the culmination of a style which has been extensively explored by Desplat in his career to date.  The most obvious comparison would be with De Battre Mon Cœur s’est Arrêté but Desplat’s musical personality is so strong, I’m sure the lineage could be traced back any number of ways.  What I really mean by the statement is that I feel like I’m hearing a composer who has been tentatively (OK, sometimes not so tentatively) prodding in certain directions finally leaping out in those directions and pushing as far as he seems able.  Alexandre Desplat is a composer whose natural instinct is to hold back and I’m sure that many would listen to this music and say that’s precisely what he’s doing, but the sense of familiarity which will greet those who have listened to his music intently over the past few years will surely be accompanied by a sense of exploration.

In over a decade of writing reviews of film music albums, I have never before needed to listen to an album so many times before committing my thoughts to the keyboard.  This is an album of real contrasts – and not just the one between light and dark I so tritely observed earlier.  It is so nuanced, hidden reaches are revealed even after many dozens of listens; and yet at the same time, Desplat’s intention, to go on that “river of life” journey, seems as obvious as James Horner’s great Hollywood romance approach to Malick’s previous film.  The composition represents some of the most minimalist film music you’ll ever hear; the depth of emotion contained in such seemingly small gestures, extraordinary.

Having said all this – and despite the fact that I’ve spent over fifty hours listening to it – I’m not entirely sure I’m any closer to reaching a conclusion than I was the first time I’ve heard it.  There is some incredibly strong music here, but for all that, it’s not difficult to see why some people would find it a little cold.  There are depths here which arguably go beyond any of them, but there simply aren’t the crowdpleasing highlights found in the past scores for Malick films, not just Horner’s but Hans Zimmer’s exceptional The Thin Red Line and Ennio Morricone’s Days of Heaven, which is as beautiful as any film score ever written.  No doubt some would argue that they’re essential for the listening experience but I wonder whether a couple of cues couldn’t have been trimmed from the album to provide something even stronger (particularly the unappealing “Temptation”).  “Circles” is so full of emotion it can actually be quite exhausting – wouldn’t it have been better-used as the album’s finale than placed so early on?

I could write for the rest of the week – I’m not sure I would say anything any more useful than what I’ve already said.  The Tree of Life feels like an incredible amount of effort has gone into it – and it provokes as much thought in this listener as it took its composer to write it.  It feels like the ultimate example of this mature style of scoring from Desplat, but it would be hard to argue that it’s his strongest album – there is much to be said for gifts not being given too freely, but those with less saintly natures will probably find it easier to enjoy the more-freely-presented gifts on offer from The Painted Veil or Birth when drawing up their lists of favourite albums from this composer.  If this represents Desplat at his “purest” – and I believe it does – then it confirms my belief that he’s one of the most interesting film composers to come along in a very long time.  This is not an album likely to convert any non-believers, to coin a phrase – and it really does require the listener to put something into it if they expect to get much out – but there are genuine riches to be mined from it by those who hold this composer in high regard.

The vagaries of my review schedule (I make it sound far grander than it actually is) see this review appearing immediately after that for Transformers 3.  That is a prime (an Optimus Prime?) example of the way most Hollywood films are scored – this is the polar opposite to the way most Hollywood films are scored.  It is not, in truth, the most enjoyable film music album of the year so far, but it would take a bold man to claim it is not the most ambitious – perhaps not all of the ambitions are quite met, but it’s pretty remarkable to hear a film composer trying something like this and far more of it succeeds than does not.  **** 1/2

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  1. Sean Wilson (Reply) on Wednesday 20 July, 2011 at 09:42

    Corking review James, I agree with you on pretty much all counts. It’s a difficult and intellectual score but one that leaves more of a lasting impression than many this year – such a shame that hardly any of it was used in the film but Malick’s use of classical music pieces is, as ever, superb!

  2. orion_mk3 (Reply) on Wednesday 20 July, 2011 at 16:41

    A great assessment. I like the contemplative Desplat scores much better than his blockbusters, and this one in particular has a lot to offer. It’s like “Birth” crossed with “Koyaanisqatsi.”

  3. Luc Van der Eeken (Reply) on Thursday 21 July, 2011 at 11:02

    James, that is one fantastic review and you described exactly how I feel. For me, it’s the best score of the year (so far) and certainly Desplat’s best in a while. It requires multiple listenings but it’s so worth it, just like Malick’s beautiful film.

  4. Hasta (Reply) on Tuesday 23 August, 2011 at 12:38

    some of this score is breathtaking, as you say…

    August 23, today is Desplat’s birthday.

    Yay for him. But really, good for him; he’s awesome.

  5. Ligno Vitae (Reply) on Tuesday 22 May, 2012 at 01:05

    An excellent review, exactly what I thought. “Childhood” is one of the best pieces I’ve ever heard from Desplat. It’s so minimalist, so beautiful, so deep…it’s, in a way, like the movie itself.

  6. Hunter Hale (Reply) on Monday 27 August, 2012 at 05:03

    On the Blu ray for THE TREE OF LIFE Desplat explains that Mallick had him write the music before the film was even edited! He designed the recordings so that different layers of the recording could be used as the director desired. I love the films final score but I also greatly admire the music that Desplat created and I’m pleased that you felt that you needed to spend a great deal of time with it before writing a review. Both the film itself and Desplat’s wonderful music are worth spending time with . . . and both are very rewarding!

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