Those who find the ABC Classics soundtrack release for the Robert Connolly film of Elliot Perlman’s novel Three Dollars might erroneously conclude from the track listing on the back of the CD that it is a compilation of pop songs from sources as diverse as David Bowie, Chet Baker and Joy Division. Those who consider the tenth track closely will realise it is actually eleven tracks of score by Alan John, composer of Connolly’s previous film, the clever corporate thriller The Bank.
John’s score for The Bank, also released by ABC Classics, was a masterwork, revealing an aptitude for writing for multiple idioms and timbres, and a voice informed by Philip Glass and Bernard Herrmann. For fans of that elegant thriller score, it is the contribution of John that makes this new release so interesting.
The film is a subdued drama about economic hardship and compromised lower middle class morality in modern Australia. Accordingly the palette is spare, and so is most appropriate for those film score afficiandos who favour a small sound. John plays piano himself, co-opting members of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and previous collaborators to fill out a lounge ensemble augmented with woodwinds. All instruments are close-miked Greg White’s recording, the mix of a lounge band sound and piano and woodwinds trio giving John’s brief score a unique sound.
‘Three Dollars – Main Titles’ is based around an ascending three note piano motif. John reveals in his liner notes that this motif comes from the Joy Division song ‘Love will tear us apart’, and is intended to be represent the “spookily recurrent three dollar coins that appear throughout the film”. The three note motif is repeated over the course of the piece, bass pizzicato and light electric guitar strums providing a nice harmonic context to the idea. An bassoon variation of the motif enters with light drumming halfway through, and the piece comes to an unusual climax before solo piano resolution.
This basic sound – a combination of lounge music and subdued orchestral score – gives the score its appeal. It’s not the patent Thomas Newman sound for serious drama, nor is it that clichéd piano-and-strings combination all film score fans have heard a few too many times. Like Free Association’s Code 46 or Mark Isham’s Crash , a blend of idioms here really helps the score maintain a unique voice.
And while there is a striking unity of sound here, no two cues are alike. Electric guitar and bass provide an upbeat rhythmic setting for the three dollars motifs in ‘Claremont’s Land’ – a fast-paced take on the main title that sinks into icy piano. Two oboes lead the piece in ‘Fading Light / Crossroads / Overtime’, initially with harp accompaniment, before bass, guitar and piano join. The cue settles into a subdued motif for harp and piano, guitar, with bass and drums returning for a relatively upbeat restatement of the main title. Many of the cues that follow are basic deviations on this idea, with ‘Abby’, ‘Intensity’ and ‘The Sacking’ stand-out cues in the second half of the score.
Occasionally there are deviations from this sound. ‘Ode to Joy’ is a ukulele and vocal take on the Beethoven piece that takes one out of the experience a bit. (John’s liner notes do mention that the Beethoven’s “anthem for the brotherhood of man” is woven more deliberately throughout the score as ironic comment, though it is a little difficult to detect it at first.) More consistent with the melodies and palette of the rest of the score is the trumpet-led lounge jazz piece “Through with Love”.
Undoubtedly the highlight of the album is the sombre chaconne that appears first in ‘Deadlands’. The three dollars motif is repeated over a bass ostinato, with oboe and cor anglais accompaniment weaving in and out of the cue until it fades away to a descending piano motif. The power of such a simple piece to affect a listener always amazes me, and when the chaconne is given a welcome reprise in the first half of the concluding cue ‘The Bashing / End Credits’, the effect is cathartic. (John notes that by use of the piece twice he was linking two moments that he felt were at the heart of the film.) A reprise of the main title closes the score.
Despite my praise for this score, it a hard album to rate. As a fan of the rarely-released composer’s work, for my part John’s twenty-five minute score is worth buying the CD for. If you’re not likely to be interested in the songs (without which I’m sure there would be no CD at all!), and the purchase comes down to your interest in light acoustic scores, then it’s a harder CD to recommend.
This much is for sure – with this score, Alan John confirms that he is a fine crafter of music in support of drama. There is unique voice on show here, as in The Bank. We can pick the influences – in this case as diverse as Beethoven and Joy Division – but we’ve never really heard it this way before. And in the genre of film music, providing genuinely novel combinations of instruments in support of drama is one of the greatest challenges there is. Fans of the composer should not hesitate to purchase it.
ABC Classics’ album features liner notes from the author, composer and director of Three Dollars, as well as many production images from what looks like a fine film.