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AN UNFINISHED LIFE
Stunning, deeply engaging, deeply personal music which transcends the film from which it was removed
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
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Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 2006 Varese Sarabande Records, Inc.; review copyright (c) 2006 James Southall
Film scores get rejected for any number of reasons - because the composer didn't stick close enough to the temp-track; because test audiences didn't react favourably; because the film got re-edited and the music no longer fit; sometimes, perhaps, even because the music just wasn't very good. Most common of all these days, however, seems to be that a film is in trouble, the studio is in panic, and all they can really change is the music - so they do, regardless of any artistic merit of doing so. It is hard to believe that anything other than the latter was the reason for Christopher Young's fine music for An Unfinished Life being replaced by the inoffensive Thomas Newman approximations of Deborah Lurie, the film having already sat on the shelf, unreleased, for nearly two years.
Varese Sarabande released Lurie's score when the film finally got released. Now, a few months later, they have "done the double" for the second time, by also releasing Christopher Young's unused music (they previously did it with Timeline, releasing both Brian Tyler's score and Jerry Goldsmith's rejected effort). Disappointingly, the liner notes are essentially just a little biography of Young, which is quite interesting in its way, but one suspects far more interest could have been gleaned if some background to the score's rejection had been included. (Perhaps there were contractual reasons as to why that couldn't be included.)
Instantly, it is clear that this is music of considerably more substance, and composed with a considerably more personal touch, than the music which replaced it in the film. For so long, Young was typecast as a horror composer, but he actually escaped those shackles a number of years ago - even so, it seemed that when he wasn't doing horror, his scores tended to be built around a strong jazz base, resulting in a curious mixture of two distinct sounds from the composer. More recently (since the turn of the century, perhaps) he seems to have branched out considerably, writing in a large number of genres, very effectively in each. With the engaging, lovely The Shipping News (like An Unfinished Life, for director Lasse Hallstrom) and the beyond-lovely, amazing The Tower, Young has proven a remarkable ability for writing relatively low-key music which speaks straight to the heart, his detailed and crystal-clear orchestration for a far smaller ensemble than the bigger films afford seeming to bring the very best out of him.
This score very much makes a triumphant triumvirate of these small-scale scores. Quite simply, it is a masterpiece. Of course, it will never be possible to tell how the music worked with the film, since it is highly unlikely that we will ever get to see the film with this music accompanying it, but quite frankly the film doesn't deserve music as good as this anyway. With a small ensemble of strings, guitars, basses, piano and ethnic flute, Young creates a dazzlingly colourful atmosphere, beautifully capturing the sense of the kind of old-fashioned, rural America the film tries to evoke. From the gorgeous main title, anchored around fantastic solos for the aforementioned instrumentalists, through a piece as impassioned and heartstopping as "A Father's Greatest Loss", this is music which has an enormous personal connection.
Even though Young has never written music quite like this before, it's unmistakably by him. It is surely because of that, that the music speaks on such a base level to the listener - far better for a composer to be writing in his own style, in his own way, than being asked to ape a temp-track and try to sound like somebody else - how could music written under the latter constraints ever be truly personal, or affect anyone?
In "Bittersweet Sorrow", the string section swells for the first time. The effect is electrifying: Young has held off from that moment for virtually half the score, so when it finally happens, it feels like the dramatic tension which has been created has reached a natural pay-off - most modern scores, the "musical wallpaper", never attempt anything so clever, with their composers going full-on right from the word go. Because the score has been building and building, seemingly to that moment, it was important for Young to maintain the dramatic flow - which he does perfectly in the more lighthearted "Kick the Bucket" which immediately follows, allowing the listener a short breather after the dramatic music which has preceded it. I am not trying to suggest that some light relief was needed because the music is depressing in any way - Young executes with a lightness-of-touch which is a joy to witness - but it is certainly an intense listening experience, with the bucolic charm which does pervade a large chunk of the music notably absent from some sections, such as the pained "Grave Chat", which is particularly dark and features an almost Morricone-like exposition of suspense through an imaginative and effective electric guitar solo.
I mentioned jazz earlier, and there are some subtle jazz influences here, particularly with some of the piano writing when accompanied by electric bass and brushed drums - there's a great vibe in "A Subtle Shift", for instance, and (ironically) more subtle examples elsewhere in the score. In what seems to be an appropriate move, Young bases one piece - "Accidents" - around an interpolation of Elmer Bernstein's theme from To Kill a Mockingbird - a wonderful tribute to the late composer. The scores closes with a simply outstanding finale, "Sins of Happiness", which is enough to melt any heart - truly splendid, moving, emotional music, and exactly the right payoff for the score which has gone before it - and the similarly-lovely "We Begin at the End Again", reprising the opening guitar theme, bringing a nice sense of closure to the score.
It really is rare to hear music of this beauty in a modern film. (And, of course, this music isn't actually in a modern film itself.) It's a truly wonderful score from Christopher Young, one of the great film composers of this time - one whose big action and horror scores are frequently, and so correctly, praised to the hills - but whose lighter, more personal efforts just don't seem to attract the attention they deserve.
It ain't over yet, though - after fifty minutes of his score, Varese has included "14 Unfinished Lives - for Solo Piano (Used and Unused Themes)" - which is exactly what it says it is, and lasts half an hour. We are treated to virtually another take on the same score - there were rumours at the time that Young had in fact written two scores for An Unfinished Life, so perhaps this 14-movement piece could actually be a piano version of the "other" one? Again, the liner notes are completely unhelpful in determining how this piano suite may have originated. In any case, the music does what its title suggests, and there are reprises of some of the themes from the score itself, along with some brand new pieces. I sometimes find that music for solo piano can become rather monotonous after a fairly short time, so it is to his great credit that Young maintains interest throughout the half-hour suite - the music is full of life, full of beauty, full of colour.
This is a wonderful, wonderful album which stands alongside The Tower as showing off Christopher Young at his most personal - and at his very, very best. It was limited to just 1,000 copies and has already sold out, just like The Tower, so tragically, what are arguably the composer's two finest works are now unavailable to the public-at-large. But in any case, I can't recommend it highly enough, if you can lay your hands on a copy. The album is rounded off with a beautiful cover painting by Matthew Joseph Peak. An Unfinished Life can be added to the short roster of rejected scores which completely overshadow not only the scores which replaced them, but the films from which they were rejected.