Chances are few reading this will have heard of the film composer Roque Baños, largely because his work has been almost entirely for productions in his native Spain. Of the 31 productions he has composed the music for which are listed on the Internet Movie Database the only previous one in English was Sexy Beast (2000), a film largely shot in Spain. Likewise, The Machinist, a film which might appear an all American dark thriller starring Christian Bale and Jennifer Jason Leigh, but which is actually a Spanish financed and shot production.
The booklet notes tell us ‘Director Brad Anderson purposely wanted the film’s score to echo and hark back to the work of Bernard Herrmann’, particularly referencing Psycho and Vertigo. Given the number of thrillers over the past three decades that have deliberately looked back to the master, either in straight homage or tongue-in-cheek pastiche, this was a dangerous strategy. Considering Baños even goes so far as to incorporate a Theremin into his score the door was open to disaster, both to make a serious thriller seem a dated spoof, and to invite outright laughter at the score. Yet it works, and brilliantly so. Baños’ score does not feel for a second like a pastiche, though it draws on elements familiar from the above mentioned Hitchcock classics, together with The Day the Earth Stood Still and the coldly moving tuned percussion melodies of Fahrenheit 451. I have no idea what Baños’ own personal style might be like, but here he so subsumes himself into the musical persona of Herrmann that his score for The Machinist sounds like nothing so much as that Herrmann has somehow returned from the beyond and fashioned one last great score.
I have heard very many scores which are at one level or another influenced by or in homage to Bernard Herrmann. Often such scores are delivered in the most glaringly obvious and superficial manner. Witness the appalling travesty that is Alan Silvestri’s What Lies Beneath. Conversely, The Machinist feels real. It has a cool, elegant detachment, a minimal precision, a sheer elegance, which elevates it far beyond most contenders. The writing is precise, often scored for chamber size groupings of instruments, the orchestrations imaginatively detailed, the instrument placement pin sharp, performances exceptionally accurate, the recording preternatural in its clarity.
I won’t single out particular tracks as the entire score sounds like the classic Bernard Herrmann score we didn’t know existed. If July’s Film Music on the Web’s outstanding new score was Despat’s stunning work on the thriller Hostage, this month’s standout is surely The Machinist. If the former echoed the best of the past and pointed one possible way to the future of the thriller, The Machinist occupies an odd limbo, uncannily reflecting the past while sounding utterly of the present. By its very nature one can hardly say this is an essential purchase, but those who love Herrmann’s music will find this fascinating, and as a score in its own right it is a very striking achievement.
Michael McLennan adds:-
Word has it that the spirit of Bernard Herrmann is being channelled in the new Roque Banos (Sexy Beast, Carlos Saura’s Goya in Bordeaux, Iberia and Salome) score to Brad Anderson’s ematiation/insomnia thriller The Machinist. And this is hardly unusual – paying homage to Bernard Herrmann is one of the most fashionable games in film scoring, played in recent years by such little known talents as John Williams (Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Minority Report), Philip Glass (Secret Window, Undertow), Danny Elfman (Mars Attacks, Pyscho), Alberto Iglesias (Bad Education, The Dancer Upstairs), Philippe Rombi (The Swimming Pool, parts of Jeux d’Enfants) and Ryuichi Sakamoto (Snake Eyes, Femme Fatale). What all these composers acknowledged in their referencing of Herrmann, was that the patterns of film editing were often better served by Herrmann’s minimalist composition with emphasis on motifs and perpetual motion than by more traditional long-line melodies with symmetric harmonies.
But the score of The Machinist trumps them all. Possibly never has a score so deeply operated out of the aesthetic choices of another composer. Sure – Michael Giacchino’s The Incredibles mined John Barry’s Bond scores as well as works by Mancini and Rimsky-Korsakov, and Edward Shearmur’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow seemed to say nothing that Korngold, Bliss and Williams didn’t say between them. But even these were scores where multiple influences played a part. Only one influence is heard in Roque Banos’ score, and that one influence permeates every cue.
The basic motif of the score could not be simpler, and it is the basis of all cues. In ‘Trevor’s Lair’, a theremin descends two notes, ascends two notes, descends again, and ascends again. The repeated-four note structure recalls the love theme from Herrmann’s Vertigo, particularly the development of that simple melody in the sequence where James Stewart trails Kim Novak. The theremin itself, along with the ondes martinot one of the oldest synthesized instruments, is a reference to Herrmann – specifically The Day the Earth Stood Still. (A screening of that film prompted the director’s desire for a Herrmann-based score, having already gone some way down the direction of a standard modern thriller score.)
The basic motif is passed throughout Herrmann’s favourites in the first cues. The violins and celesta take it up from the solo theremin in Trevor’s Lair’, before variations are played by the bass clarinet. The cue peaks with elegant counterpoint of oboes and theremin. To these basic ingredients ‘Sleepless’ adds harp, bass pizzicato and a bassoon solo. ‘Looks Like Rain’ opens with a new motif in the bass clarinet, while the cue as a whole is centred on a mournful bassoon solo performance of a new theme. The cue climaxes in a tumultuous passage for brass and strings before solo theremin eerily closes the piece.
The highlight of the album is the cello and piano duet that opens Mother’s Day’. As piano plays a gentle haunting motif, the cello reprises the bassoon theme. The bass clarinet again takes the fore for the rest of the cue. The theme is repeated for celesta and percussion in ‘Family Photos’, for solo violin and piano in ‘Miserable Life’, strings in ‘Chasing’, and solo cello in Steve’s Care’. The stunning sound quality of Jose Vinader’s recording means that passages such as these sound like fresh recordings of hitherto unreleased Bernard Herrmann works.
If there’s a problem with an album like The Machinist, it’s the fact that its hard to come out of the experience remembering specific tracks you want to play again. The perpetual motion, short motifs and specific use of Herrmannesque colours throughout does mean that it’s hard to tell when one cue ends and another begins for anyone but the very attentive listener. This is not to say that Banos doesn’t hold some surprises for the latter half of the album. ‘Chasing’ does pick up the pace: a set-piece action cue written in the classic Herrmann style, with ideas that later appear in Underground Escape’. A delightful passage for flute and celesta introduces Hit’n’Run Accident’, which also features an extended contra-bassoon solo. The piano solo in the second half of ‘Steve’s Care’ speaks beautifully to the solitude of Christian Bale’s character Trevor Reznik. ‘This Is My Waitress’ is reminiscent of the slashing strings of Herrmann’s Psycho, though is a tad more restrained and adds the colour of the theremin. ‘Ivan Kills Nikkolash’ lets all stops loose and is a fitting climax, the latter half recalling Alan John’s Herrmannesque work for The Bank. The softer themes of the score close the album with a soaring violin solo in ‘I Know Who You Are’ and the last theremin calls of ‘Trevor in Jail’.
I feel The Machinist would work better as a shorter album, perhaps losing fifteen minutes of its current fifty-minute length. Perhaps there are simply too many passages for celesta repeating the basic motif for my liking, and a more ‘highlight-centred’ album presentation would serve me better. But the music itself is without fault – given Banos set out to mine Bernard Herrmann’s style for this score, the result must be considered an unequivocal success. And the performance of the City of Prague is very commendable – they have come a long way since they first appeared on the film-scoring scene. It may not be the most original film score in recent years, but it’s easily the most faithful homage to one of the art form’s leading lights. Whether it’s a Roque Banos score is another matter entirely, but hopefully, like Barry-imitator Michael Giacchino, Banos will soon have an opportunity to share his own compositional voice with the film scoring community.
Ian Lace adds:-
This is an interesting score. Don’t be put off by the rather unattractive and unmusical moanings and glissandi heard right at the beginning of this album. When Gary recommended this atmospheric, creepy orchestral score, he proclaimed it: “Roque Banos’ score for The Machinist is an openly acknowledged Herrmann homage, specifically Vertigo and Psycho, although there is also plenty of material reminiscent of The Day The Earth Stood Still. Superior to 90% of Herrmann imitations, there is a real clarity and sense of composition to this one, rather than just “sounding like” Herrmann”. I need add no more.
Disturbing but completely arresting – unlike so many scores these days.