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PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER
Inexcusably bland music is the year's most disappointing score, despite its good moments
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
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Album cover copyright (c) 2006 EMI Classics; review copyright (c) 2007 James Southall
Considered by many to be a literary classic, Patrick Suskind's Perfume has been regarded for a long time as being unfilmable, but German director Tom Tykwer (he of Run Lola Run) has disproved the theory. One of his difficulties was how to transport the book's vivid descriptions of scents onto the screen - and the director decided that the best way to do it was to try to convey the correct feelings through music, and that a large-scale symphonic score was the way to go. This was in stark contrast to the music in his previous films and so the natural assumption would have been that his previous collaborators, keyboard players Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek, would have to make way for someone more suited for orchestral composition.
Lo and behold, not only did Tykwer retain their services, he decided to throw himself into the mix as well, and so we end up with a score written by all three of them. Bizarrely - remarkably - incomprehensively - it is played by the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of the esteemed Sir Simon Rattle. Contrary to the press blurb, it is not the film music debut of either of those parties (the Berliners played George Fenton's Deep Blue, and Rattle conducted Patrick Doyle's Henry V) but is nevertheless still a remarkable enough event that it made a few headlines.
Sadly, with this great opportunity for some film music to make a bit of a splash in the classical world, the resulting score does not come close to being what it could have been. I have on several occasions lamented declining standards in film music, and sometimes the presence of electronic music when orchestral would seem to be a more suitable option - but the only thing worse than using electronic music when orchestral music would be better is getting orchestral music written by people who just can't. I don't know the musical educations of any of the three composers - for all I know, they might have spent their youthful summers holidaying with Stravinsky - but it sure doesn't sound like their education included composition or orchestration.
They stretch to creating some (very) pleasant melodies, and the team of orchestrators they employed has certainly strived to do with it the best that they could - and of course, the playing is incomparable in terms of film scores, with the delicateness of the performance being unlike anything usually found in the medium - but there's only so much they can do to rescue things. Sadly the core material is pretty banal and devoid of feeling. I do feel that music which is emotionally direct but compositionally simple can be hugely effective (John Barry did it brilliantly), but that wasn't what was needed here.
When some female vocals are added, there's a soft, haunting quality - when the strings sweep, it's actually almost like being in a Barry score - when the basses are plucked and the flutes are fluttering, the effect is undeniably impressive - but these are comparatively slim pickings considering the musical opportunity afforded to the composers by the film. And that's the crux of the matter - for all the good moments (and there are certainly some), Perfume is one of the most glorious opportunities for lush, exciting film music in years - and a proper composer would surely have made the most of those opportunities, with the thought of a score by (say) Alexandre Desplat for this movie being enough to send a shiver down the spine - and so to hear music which is as close as anything you'll ever hear to being a production of MicrosoftFilmScoreWizard (you can hear all the attempts to push the right buttons - but also hear how hollow it all is) is a crushing disappointment. What on earth Rattle and his orchestra must have made of playing music like this, I can't begin to imagine.