February 2003 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Gary S. Dalkin
Managing Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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Music composed by Elliot Goldenthal
  Conducted by Stephen Mercurio OST/Enhanced Disc
  Available on Deutsche Grammophon 289 474 150-2  
Running time 52.44
Crotchet   Amazon UK


Mexican painter Frida Kahlo's (Salma Hayek) extraordinary and turbulent life is at the centre of "Frida", the biopic directed by the always-intriguing Julie Taymor, and scored by her partner in private and in industry, Elliot Goldenthal. With a portrait that incorporates the sharp colours of Mexico and of Kahlo's art, the film offered Goldenthal an obvious but challenging task: "Melodic intimacy," the composer observes in the liner notes, that included bringing his mindset to the musical tradition of the region.

Goldenthal had to leave some of his complex trademarks behind. ("These ideas remain on my studio floor under a pile of empty Corona bottles.") In their place are equally distinguished, but more approachable textures, based on the characteristics of Central American folk music. The composer's less subtle technique slips in 'round the edges, gaining prominence only in the most dramatic sequences. Is there is an orchestra? Yes. But at the heart of the score is a small ensemble, primarily made up of indigenous instruments... guitarron, vihuela, Mexican harp, and assorted percussion. The results are deceptively simple. Foremost in my mind is the 'Burning Bed' theme that balances Goldenthal's contemporary melodic sense with tragic romanticism; it ends the album in a sparkling cue and a powerful original song with lyrics by Taymor, bringing song and score together in a way that few living film composers attempt, much less accomplish. Indeed, several songs play on the soundtrack: some by Goldenthal, others from sources closer to home. (Both English and Spanish lyrics feature in the album booklet.) While these tracks demand an interest in the region's sound, the underscore and source music combine in a way that it all feels perfectly harmonious. And at least Hayek is not amongst the shrieking pop divas. There's scarcely an intolerable dip, scoop, or scream on this disc. (O, blessed relief!) Lila Downs headlines the vocal talent, also including Caetano Veloso and Los Cojolities, but the main interest is a human link between the past and the present. One of Kahlo's romances, renowned singer Chavela Vargas, features quite strikingly in a new recording for the soundtrack and a performance from 40 years earlier.

A CD-ROM application leads to film clips and video & text interviews, the highlight being a discussion between Elliot Goldenthal and Hayek. We hear how Goldenthal, obviously not from a Hispanic upbringing, drew from his experience and enjoyment of disparate musical sources. The behind-the-scenes explanations are clarifications, though, for "Frida" always seems personal. The music explains itself. There is melodic intimacy. Yes, it sounds personal, and that feeling carries the music as much as its composer's expertise. This is art.

Jeffrey Wheeler

***** 5

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