See also: Message in a Bottle.
Rarely has a soundtrack album evoked so much controversy, and the first thing to say is that this is not an album of Gabriel Yared's now BAFTA Anthony Asquith Award winning score (won jointly with T-Bone Burnett), though it does contain four tracks from it, totalling approximately 15 minutes.
The controversies are as follows. From the film score community:
That Gabriel Yared was the wrong choice of composer, being capable only of slow romantic dirges and not at all the man for an epic tale of love and war. Some would perhaps have preferred a traditional orchestral-action score something along the lines of John Williams' The Patriot (2000).
That only four tracks from Gabriel Yared's score have made it onto the "soundtrack album", the rest being filled with a worthless songs obviously placed there for commercial reasons and generated by people with no talent or understanding of film music.
That soundtrack albums are meant to contain film scores, not songs and that producer T-Bone Burnett certainly shouldn't have jointly won a BAFTA with Gabriel Yared for his work on Cold Mountain.
Now rarely have two minority groups of music fans more completely failed to understand the value of each others' musics and points of view. For from the American country / bluegrass, Old Time side of this great divide there comes an entirely different set of complaints.
That the album contains any of Gabriel Yared's score at all
for example, to quote Richard Wells writing on Amazon.com:
"The disc starts out fine. Jack White does a reasonable impression of an ancient vocalist on both the Appalachian and blues tracks, Allison Krauss and especially The Reeltime Travelers deliver tunes that almost make the CD, and the shape-note singing is moving; but once the disc hits track 10 and Mr. White's pop delivery of the insipid "Never Far Away," the whole project starts to go awry, and then plunges to its doom with the Gabriel Yared inclusions. "Never Far Away," is totally out of synch with anything else on the disc, and the Yared pieces are so "sound-tracky," that I can't believe an artist as talented as Mr. Burnett included them willingly."
Which is to say, the concept of a soundtrack album has now become so corrupted that some object to "sound-tracky" music appearing on a soundtrack, even when it comes from the score of the relevant film. This sort of attitude makes parts of the film music community's blood boil and metaphorically ask "who the hell is Mr Burnett anyway?"
Meanwhile other fans from the authentic folk / Old Time music tradition question the choice of artists gathered on the album and argue that they are too contemporary, obviously chosen for commercial reasons.
They say the film and album should not feature songs written by Sting or Elvis Costello.
That Jack White (who makes his acting debut in the film but is formerly best known as a rock singer with his band The White Stripes) shouldn't perform five songs, and has only been included because of his high profile outside of traditional music.
That some of the songs are too 'pop' or modern in their approach and production and that the only authentic pieces are those performed by The Sacred Harp Singers, Cassie Franklin and Tim O'Brien and fellow musicians. Indeed, some fans are arguing that the better "soundtrack" to Cold Mountain is a 2002 Tim O'Brien disc inspired by the Charles Frazier novel on which the film is based and called Songs From The Mountain. Personally I wouldn't know, but its not a new concept, there having been 'authentic' albums inspired by Captain Corelli's Mandolin and Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander novels long before the respective films and soundtrack discs.
Then there is the lunatic fringe which is disappointed that the Cold Mountain album isn't as much fun as the massively popular T-Bone Burnett produced disc for Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) Entirely missing the point that the film isn't as much fun either, and like film scores the songs were first and foremost written / arranged and produced to fit the film.
So where, as a writer mainly about film and film music do I stand on all this? Well I know and love North Carolina, where Cold Mountain is set. My wife is a native of the state and in 2002 we spent a lengthy honeymoon in the Appalachian Mountains in the west of NC, coming within six miles of the real Cold Mountain at one point. I tried reading the popular, award winning novel, but found it turgid and gave up around 90 pages in, by which point nothing of any note had happened. We remained curious but deeply ambivalent about the film. It starred one of my favourite actresses, Nicole Kidman, and one of my least favourite actors, Jude Law. It was directed by Anthony Minghella, director of one of the few films I truly loath, the pretentious, turgid and indescribably boring The English Patient.
Now Cold Mountain was shot mostly in Rumania, not North Carolina, on the somewhat implausible grounds that there is no where left in NC which looks as it did in the 1860's. The real reason, it is all too clear, is Cold Mountain was shot in Rumania to save money. Rumania does not look more than passingly like Western North Carolina. The mountains are different, the vegetation is different, the trees are different. Michael Mann appeared to be able to shoot The Last of the Mohicans in western NC in 1992 and find plenty of unspoilt locations. I've visited several of them, and with a little digital trickery any modern intrusion in the landscape can easily be removed, or avoided in the first place by simply pointing the camera somewhere else.
So Cold Mountain, the movie, turned out to be as phoney as Nicole Kidman's amusingly perfect hair and make-up we are supposed to believe she is a woman struggling to hold her remote farm together in the midst of the American Civil War but she looks like she's just stepped out of a Hollywood photo shoot. Or Gone With The Wind (1939). Truth is, Cold Mountain is The English Patient reworked with better battles and more epic cinematography in a different time and place. And that underlying sense of Hollywooden in-authenticity may just be why those serious about the musical roots of the region in which the film is set find the soundtrack too commercial.
As a film music writer none of this should perhaps concern me overly much. But then I unusually happen to also have a love for the musical traditions of North Carolina and the Appalachian Mountains. So all I can comment on in the end is how the album strikes me, with one foot in each camp.
First, the five songs by Jack White. The traditional 'Wayfaring Traveller' which opens the disc, is fine, a powerful and compelling take on a classic song. 'Sittin' On Top Of The World', on the other hand, is awful, a raw caterwauling mess which sounds more like a man in serious pain than anything approaching true singing. 'Never Far Away' is completely different again, having the polished sound and song structure of a Simon and Garfunkel ballad. It is entirely out of keeping with both film and album, and is it is not in the film has no place on the album. 'Christmas Time Will Soon Be Over' is an attractive upbeat traditional number, while 'Great High Mountain' in an arrangement by the great bluegrass musician Ralph Stanley is a strikingly effective performance.
Three numbers involving Tim Eriksen, 'I Wish My Baby Was Born', 'The Cuckoo' and 'Am I Born To Die?' all fit well within traditional bounds, while 'Like A Songbird That Has Fallen' by the Reeltime Travellers is a good enough new song marred by a fragile performance by the lead female vocalist. Likewise 'Lady Margret', another track not used in the film, receives a very brittle, non-professional sounding rendition by Cassie Franklin. Some will love this, others find it amateurish. Likewise two tracks of 'shapenote' singing performed by the Sacred Harp Singers at Liberty Church. 'I'm Going Home' and 'Idumea' are certainly impassioned, and it may well be if you have not heard this sort of singing before that it will have a startling effect to say the very least. 'Idumea' particularly sounds like a very committed and impassioned church congregation all going for it as enthusiastically as they can, technical ability and musical cohesion being very much secondary considerations. Again, some consider these tracks the best things on the album, while others may wonder if they have any business on a professionally produced recording at all.
Far and away the best singer on the album is Alison Krauss, and her two contributions receive the most polished and professional of productions. 'The Scarlet Tide', written by Elvis Costello, is considerably the better of the two, though not among the best songs Krauss has recorded. 'You Will Be My Ain True Love' is written by Sting who performs backing vocals, his voice somewhat disconcerting in context and brings out the Scottish, Celtic connections in Western NC. Unfortunately it is not a particularly memorable song.
As for Gabriel Yared's score tracks. If you know Yared you may already know what to expect. The music is very similar in sound and orchestration to parts of his album for Sylvia DVD and album for which are reviewed this month on Film Music on the Web. Essentially Yared delivers 15 minutes of gently introspective and melancholy instrumentals for piano and orchestra. The music is plaintive, wistful and attractive, yet barely different to that which he has provided for many other films in recent years. Indeed, the brief amount of his score provided on the soundtrack album for the North Carolina filmed and set Message In A Bottle (1999) offered rather more telling emotional impact that his contributions here. And that was another soundtrack album in which the composer's score was forced aside to make room for various songs.
Whatever the qualities of Yared's music for Cold Mountain, given the running length of the album and the inclusion of two songs which do not even appear in the film, fans of the composer have just cause to wonder why at least another 22 minutes of his score could not have been provided; rather two unnecessary songs and 16 minutes of empty disc.
An appealing compilation for those interested in but not deeply immersed in the musical traditions explored, but a poor representation of Gabriel Yared's not especially striking score. In essence, something of a botched job from whichever point of view one approaches it, but still quiet a listenable and enjoyable disc.