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Exceptional musical tapestry is one of 2008's finest film music creations
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
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Album cover copyright (c) 2008 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation; review copyright (c) 2009 James Southall.
"The feel-good film of the decade!" proclaims all the publicity material for Slumdog Millionaire. It's even on the soundtrack cover, accompanied by a picture of two beautiful, jolly-looking people. But don't let it fool you - for all but the last couple of its 120 minutes, this is not a film which is going to make you feel very good. A young man who has grown up in a Mumbai slum has somehow managed to get himself to the final question in the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and the film charts his life to that point - and it is not a happy life, featuring some shocking moments. But Danny Boyle (reportedly furious by the nature of the film's publicity) has fashioned it into a wonderful film, ingeniously directed, and it should move all but the grouchiest of viewers.
The front cover of the soundtrack album features a sticker saying "Scored by international superstar composer A.R. Rahman" - now, I'm willing to take a wager that 90% of people reading this review have never owned an album of music by this international superstar, even though he has scored over a hundred films. So how can he be an international superstar? The answer, of course, is that he is the number one composer of Bollywood, whose films are exposed to India's 1.2 billion inhabitants. Aside from the occasional bit of additional music for western composers (like Mychael Danna and the excellent score for Water, or Craig Armstrong and the average one for Elizabeth: The Golden Age) he has never actually scored a film designed primarily for western audiences before, which is why Slumdog Millionaire will be many people's first exposure to his work.
A combination of Bollywood flair with techno elements is not the sort of thing any self-respecting lover of orchestral film music would ever like, surely, but this colourful music is easily one of 2008's most engaging uses of music within a film. The score is relatively short and there are plenty of songs (mostly written by Rahman) in the film and on the album, but it's the whole of the musical tapestry which makes this experience so fulfilling - the score and songs are extensions of one another - you couldn't have one without the other. The album opens with "O... Saya", written by Rahman and sung by British/Indian singer M.I.A. (her initials). How I can like it is beyond me, and indeed I don't think I do like it... I love it. You have to have a high tolerance for experimental Indian pop music (and I suspect you have no idea whether you have such tolerance or not) - but if you get it, then you really do get it.
The first piece of score is "Riots", an excellent piece of dark action music. It's dominated by percussion, creating a breathless, exhilirating atmosphere which doesn't let up. "Mausam & Escape" has a lighter opening, and then it just explodes into a top, top piece of action music. Imagine John Powell with a sitar... the use of electronics is cutting-edge and very exciting, the sitar builds to a complete frenzy at times, a choir is added late on for the final layer. It's eclectic, but quite, quite brilliant. The next song, "Paper Plane", is again sung by M.I.A. and is not by Rahman - it was used in the film's trailer. Dare I say... it's brilliant.
Rahman's back in the act in "Ringa Ringa", the sort of song westeners would probably first think of when it comes to Bollywood. Insanely catchy, imaginatively-arranged, it's just great music. "Liquid Dance" is another piece of tense action music, but it's not like any tense action music I've ever heard in a film before. "Hey!" scream the sampled voices, the drum loop repeats over and over (as drum loops tend to), punctuated by odd synthesised noises - and again, Powell-ish synthesised string runs. How it works I've no idea, but it works. Then's the killer piece, the one that will have tens of thousands of people rushing from the cinema to the CD shop to buy the album - "Latika's Theme". Latika is the main female character, played in adult form by the insanely beautiful Freida Pinto, and Rahman's theme for her is a real beauty as well - a gorgeous melody hummed by a female vocalist (credited, simply, as Suzanne) accompanied by guitars and a subtle bit of percussion, it's probably the simplest piece of music in the score, but without it I'm sure neither music nor, probably, film would have garnered the kind of attention they have.
"Aaj Ki Raat" is like an Indian version of 80s pop - not, this time, by Rahman, but still great. The next score track, "Millionaire", sounds like the sort of thing I heard in nightclubs in the 1990s (as you might expect, I spent much of the 1990s in nightclubs) - funny how much better it sounds to me now I'm old and dull than it did when I was young and dull. The most hardcore techno comes in "Gangsta Blues", probably the album's hardest sell for someone like me, but it's extremely effective when it appears in one of the film's most uncomfortable scenes. The uplifting finale is accompanied by the song "Dreams on Fire", again featuring Suzanne, but this time she gets to actually sing words. A beautiful ballad. Then comes the feelgood bit... a full-blown, no-holds-barred Bollywood musical extravaganza, "Jai Ho", to which the cast do the whole dance routine during the end credits. It doesn't make much sense in the context of the film, but frankly who cares?
Rahman has already won a Golden Globe and been nominated for three Oscars for Slumdog Millionaire, for the score and two of the songs ("O... Saya" and "Jai Ho") and nobody would be particularly surprised if he won in both categories. There has been predictable dissent about this - how could music like this ever be considered on the same level as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or Milk? Some have even compared it with the Gustavo Santaolalla / Babel fiasco of a couple of years ago... but it's nothing like that. OK, so it may not be serious dramatic underscoring like the other four Oscar nominees, but this is music which enhances the film, which enriches the viewer and listener... one might almost call it the feel-good soundtrack album of the decade. It's an absolutely wonderful album, and after listening to it there's only one real reaction. Wow!