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Unrelentingly "big" music outstays its welcome, but has a collection of very impressive high points
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
* * * 1/2
Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 2006 OMM Productions SL; review copyright (c) 2007 James Southall
A change of pace from director Guillermo del Toro, the fantasy Pan's Labyrinth attracted much acclaim upon its release, and has received a surprising number of Oscar nominations - including one for Best Score. The director's usual composer in Hollywood is Marco Beltrami, but he turned to Javier Navarrete for this film (as he did with his previous Spanish production, The Devil's Backbone). Navarrete has been writing film music in Spain since the 1980s, but has never attracted much international attention before. This score could well prove to be a breakthrough in that regard (if he wants it to be).
The music is likely to polarise listeners, probably (if I am allowed to invoke stereotypes - and I don't see why not - after all, what's the point of owning a website if you don't use it to invoke some bigotry?) by age. It is colourful, large-scale music, dominated by a memorable theme, and I can well imagine the younger members in film music fandom falling head over heels for it; more wizened old crones may well ask where the emotional depth is, and make a list of various other scores from years gone by which do a similar sort of thing, but better. Go on, take a guess - which group do you think I'm in?
Actually, I'm probably somewhere in between (I am not that old and grizzly, yet). Much as with Patrick Doyle's Eragon earlier in the year, it is very easy for me to see why so many people like this music - it's warm and well-intentioned, and has a certain swagger in its largess. Furthermore, like that score, it is anchored around a wonderful main theme, which Navarrete sends through a seemingly endless set of variations (doing far more with it than Doyle did with his in Eragon, in fact). It is music which is very easy to like. This kind of "epic" scoring for fantasy films has obviously had some high-profile additions in recent years, and I guess on a surface level Pan's Labyrinth could be considered to have a somewhat similar tone to Lord of the Rings - the choir, the slightly muddy recording, the dark action pieces.
However, it falls into a trap which prevents it from reaching the highest level - every moment is scored as if it were the most important piece of drama ever committed to film. Whether it is dark action, sweeping emotion, even "gentle" reflection - the music is huge and dense, attempting to make that particular moment seem so big. Needless to say, this approach doesn't bother some listeners (dare I bring the young/old divide back into this?) but it allows no breathing room for the listener. On a 30-minute album this would hardly matter, but on a 74-minute one it matters a great deal - it's quite exhausting listening to it, and very hard to make it through in one sitting.
I find this a very hard score to appraise (a less-than-ideal attribute for a film music "critic" to possess) - there are some beautiful moments here, not least the main theme lullaby, and some of the more hard-edged action music, which actually has a touch of The Matrix about it - and what kind of film music fan could fail to be impressed at the sweeping "A Book of Blood"? - but when all these ingredients are added together, it somehow seems to become rather less than the sum of its parts.
As I said, it is very easy to see why so many people like this score so much, but I find its appeal to be on a slightly more superficial level than would be ideal - the ingredients are there, they're just not mixed together in quite the right way for me. Its Oscar nomination seems a bit bizarre (along with another of the nominees, Notes on a Scandal, many reviews of the film have commented in unfavourable terms on the music, which is pretty rare) but still, perhaps it will allow the obviously-talented Navarrete to get a bit more exposure on a wider scale, which would clearly be a good thing. Pan's Labyrinth is at times very good music - but not for the first time (nor even the hundred-and-first, in all probability) I find myself feeling the need to say how very much better the score could have been presented if half of it had been left off. (The director himself even says in his liner notes that a lot of this music was rejected from the film but left on the album for posterity; but then, he also says that The Omen is a monothematic score, which is a peculiar claim indeed.)