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THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
Beautiful drama score shows off all the qualities of this rising film music star
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
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Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 2008 Paramount Pictures; review copyright (c) 2009 James Southall.
Regular readers are probably sick and tired of me saying how fond I am of the music of Alexandre Desplat. Another thing they're probably sick and tired of me saying is how dumbed-down much of film music has become, especially for the higher-profile movie releases, where the "composer" doesn't need to stray too far from his sample library to impress Messrs Bruckheimer and Bay and the other big movers and shakers. So this makes the rise of Desplat all the more remarkable - here we have a composer who provides music which is the very antithesis of that which the focus groups tell us everyone loves - primarily orchestral, theme-based, dramatically pertinent - and getting bigger and bigger projects all the time, and more and more critical recognition. If this is some sign of a backlash against the lowest common denominator, composed-by-committee-and-computer, dramatically banal music which has blighted Hollywood for the last decade or so, then there's cause for much rejoicing. I won't hang out the bunting just yet, but at least there's a glimmer of hope appearing on the horizon.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is probably the highest-profile assignment for Desplat so far. While it's hardly standard blockbuster fare, it has a "name" director and stars one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, and has raked in millions of dollars and been nominated for a number of awards (despite reviews that weren't all that hot). If the movie has - in a rather facile way, admittedly - been described as "Forrest Gump 2", then I hope that nobody buying this album was hoping the score would also be Forrest Gump 2. It's hard to imagine a score which could be further from that - there's no mawkish sentimentality here, no syrupy swelling of the orchestra at the slightest provocation - it's completely the opposite.
One of the few criticisms aimed towards Desplat - and the reason that people who don't like his music often give - is that there tends to be an austerity about it which is pretty rare in film music. You can tell the guy's a perfectionist, but occasionally this can spill over to create a slightly clinical sound - it's hard to put my finger on it, but even when there is great beauty in the music he writes, there's just this slightly distant feeling in it sometimes. This can be a great advantage (how perfect that style was for a movie like The Painted Veil) but it's almost always present to some degree in his scores, and perhaps in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button it's present to a degree which hasn't been heard before, at least since he started working in Hollywood films.
That minor point aside, it's hard to find anything but praise to lavish on this score, and I suppose I should spend at least a moment actually talking about it. With the orchestra augmented by bariton sax, cimbalom and a couple of other interesting timbres, Desplat - as usual - spends much time carefully creating and exploring a very singular mood. In perhaps the least surprising development this side of the industrial revolution, the main theme is a waltz, and a very attractive one. Whether Desplat can continue his career and keep putting delicate waltzes into so many films remains to be seen, but it's still working at the moment!
Beauty comes to the fore on a number of occasions - the mid-stream twosome of "Love in Murmansk" and "Meeting Again" present the most gorgeous seven minutes of film music of the year, and there are other moments which are certainly not far behind. The piano theme of "It Was Nice to have Met You" (and elsewhere) could melt the heart; the harp writing in the following track, "Children's Games", likewise. Sometimes Desplat makes the music go darker - the sorrowful sax of "Mr Button" or the tense atmosphere of "Submarine Attack" - and in these segments, he blends them so seamlessly into the overall sound world that, especially the latter, almost creep up on the listener and catch him unawares.
I don't think I would quite place The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in the very upper-echelons of Desplat's achievements - it's probably a notch or two behind Birth and The Painted Veil on my scales - it's unquestionably one of 2008's standout film scores. I'm not sure how many times Desplat will be able to return to this well - you'd struggle to say he has branched out into anything new here - but for now, he can keep returning as often as he likes as far as I'm concerned, because this is gorgeous! The soundtrack album is a double-CD set, with one disc for the score and one for songs and dialogue; needless to say, I haven't bothered with the latter in this review.