Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Tree of Life: Musical Branches

Terrence Malick's new film The Tree of Life is generating a lot of interest and even more buzz. Critics are saying this film—only his fifth—is the director's masterpiece. Maybe they're right. I hear it wrestles with several major themes, among them the dynamics of family, the span of generations, and the origins of the universe. Filmed three years ago, it's been trapped as much in the editing room as in the mind of its director. The result—and I base this solely on the trailer—is a brilliant rumination on Life. I can't wait to see it.

One of the elements that has me most excited is Alexandre Desplat's score. In recent years, Desplat has become one of Hollywood's go-to composers. His sometimes quirky, always melodic work has been used primarily in independent, European films, but he's also made a significant mark on larger-budget pictures, such as the two-part Harry Potter finale. He was nominated for an Oscar last year for his King's Speech score. He should have won.

His work on The Tree of Life is unlike anything he's composed before. Gone are the melodic quirks. Gone are the brief interludes that illuminate one aspect of a character or a plot moment. Instead, this time Desplat has taken a broader view, a much bigger one, and the result sounds more like contemporary classical than what one might think of as film music. It's as if Desplat has channeled Philip Glass or John Corigliano or—and this is more precise—John Adams, whose work last year on the film I Am Love was astonishingly beautiful. That film used music composed separately from it, assembling a collage of Adams' great works. Here, the music is original. It weaves and sweeps through its own set of sonic images, drawing the listener in. There is a gravity to it all, and yet also a hopefulness and a wonder, as if Desplat is discovering the story and the storytelling at the moment of composition, like writing a poem about a flower blossoming as it blossoms.

The score's very high highlight is the 11-minute track "Circles." I can't tell you what it accompanies on the screen, but the music itself is gorgeous and deep. At times it sounds like rushing riverwater, and at one point a lower series of notes is added, punctuating thought or action. But the river's flow won't stop. Soon, Desplat adds a bright swirling motif, which adds dimension to the water sounds. It's playful, irresistible. It sounds almost like two people falling in love...or perhaps the riverwater and the swirling tones are layers of passion and discovery as two people make love. Like "River," a little later in the score, I was reminded of 1980s George Winston, his thoughtful, relentless piano motifs. It could also be a bit of Glass, repetitive and hypnotic in the best way.

The score's other very high highlight is "Light & Darkness," an 8-minute track that's filled with mystery, tentative exploration, and what sounds like meaningful realization and, later in the piece, yearning.

Two other tracks, "Motherhood" and "Fatherhood," seem to complement each other, the former higher on the piano register and the latter lower. In between them is a track called "City of Glass." I wonder if the juxtaposition is meant to signify something; perhaps the film will answer that question. Musically, the center track is slower, purposeful, more thoughtful. It probably means nothing; on soundtracks, the order of tracks is not always the same as that in the film. But as presented, the parenting tracks are an interesting set of bookends; they contrast and illuminate each other.

The score ends with two fascinating tracks. "Temptation," at more than 6 minutes, sounds like music on tiptoe. Does it dare move forward? Does it dare meet temptation with action? There is a very dark undercurrent here—as if Eve is approaching the apple, not quite sure what to do: flee or bite? In "Skies," at just over 5 minutes, the calm has returned. The storm, the temptation, has passed—or at least faded, replaced by something that sounds like the newborn child of mystery and hope.

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