June 2006 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Michael McLennan
Managing Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster: Len Mullenger

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The Proposition  
Music composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis
Lyrics by Nick Cave
Except: ‘Happy Land’, music and lyrics traditional, arranged by Cave and Ellis; ‘Martha’s Dream’ and ‘Queenie’s Suite’ music by Cave/Ellis/Turner/White; ‘Clean Hands, Dirty Hands’ lyrics traditional, music and arrangement by Cave / Ellis / Casey / White / Vjestica
Performed by Nick Cave (vocals and piano), Warren Ellis (violin, trussart violin and loops), Martyn Casey (bass), Jim White (drum), George Vjestica (guitar on ‘The Rider Song’), Doug Leitch (guitar on ‘Happy Land’).
  Available on EMI – Rubber Records (RUB-214)
Running Time: 42:23
Amazon UK   Amazon US

Like the songs of its author, musician Nick Cave (of The Bad Seeds), The Proposition is rough poetry. The gestures, the words, the characters, the actions, are highly romantic, but those high ideals – filial loyalty, true justice, fostering civilization – exist in a brutal time and place. And is the place brutal! Few westerns have ever captured the punishing parched landscape of the West as effectively as the 2005 film directed by John Hillcoat, a fact made all the more remarkable for the fact that it was shot entirely in the Australian outback, and set during that nation’s bushranger era.

Western archetypes are reinvented in this appropriation of elements of Ford, Zinneman, Peckinpah and Leone. Instead of a wizened but abused indigenous race in the American Indians, here we have the aboriginal people of Australia. The sheriff trying to preserve ‘civilise’ the ‘fresh hell’ of the outback town, Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), is now a figure of colonial authority. The middle of three thieving Irish brothers, Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce), is given a ‘proposition’ by the Captain – seek out, betray and murder his brutal older brother Arthur (Danny Huston, in a character modelled on the brutal bushranger Dan Morgan), or allow his weak-willed younger brother Mikey (Richard Wilson) to go to the gallows.

The taciturn Charlie accepts, and the film follows the consequences of the proposition for both of them. The Captain’s unorthodox approach to law enforcement comes under pressure from his subordinates, his wife (Emily Watson), and the local gentry (David Wenham). It’s not a film for the faint of heart, with brutal flashes of violence, an atmosphere of sweat and grime so thick you can almost smell it in your seat, a hallucinogenic ambience, and that heavy-handed moral convictions that has always sat well in the western genre. It’s a film filled with things we’ve seen before, but it asks interesting questions and somehow just feels fresh anyway.

The film also raises the issue of the kind of films that would emerge were scripts written by musicians. If The Proposition is anything to go by, they would be films where music feels wholly organic to the storytelling – where the barrier between underscore and scripted diegetic music is fluid to the point of irrelevance. Whether it’s because they’ve worked together before (on To Have and To Hold – which Cave scored with others), or because Cave plays both writer and composer here (the latter role with Bad Seed violinist Warren Ellis), the music is so much a part of this world.

From the opening credits, the sense of rough poetry is there, as the untrained voice of a child sings the traditional ‘Happy Land’ off-key over the gentle but grainy sound of Ellis’s violin, the latter played fiddle style. In the opening track of the album, the lengthy song is truncated and a violin solo placed where the vocal was, but its still a wistful beginning. The melody aspires to a goodness both Charlie and Captain Stanley strive to achieve. (Note: Those who know the score for Prince of Egypt will likely double-take on hearing ‘Happy Land’ – the child vocal bridge in that film’s award-winning song ‘Believe’ was taken from the traditional interpolated here.)

The roughness of the music – a kind of blend of folk and rock music – will surprise anyone expecting a lyrical orchestral score. The highlights of the album are the series of tracks called ‘The Proposition’. At times it feels like Cave wrote the dialogue with this music in mind. In ‘The Proposition #1’, a tremolo drone, a processional beat, and a stern grainy violin theme weaves into the dialogue as though the latter were lyrics in one of Cave’s songs. From the opening drone to descending hummed vocals of Cave towards the end of the track, the piece lends motion and tension to a scene that lays out the geography and motivations for the entire story. Exposition should be scored like this more often!

This central theme returns often throughout the film as the consequences of Captain Stanley’s proposition return to haunt him and Charlie Burns. The violin theme is slowed down and played at a lower pitch at the opening of ‘Martha’s Dream’ as Stanley faces an erosion of his authority. The descending hummed vocals return in ‘The Proposition #2’ as powerful counterpoint to the grief of Charlie Burns as he stands over the body of a brother. The theme that started the narrative ends it in ‘The Proposition #3’, Ellis’s violin drawing out the final beats of the story’s unexpected resolution.

Another theme used well throughout the story comes in ‘The Rider’ tracks. In ‘The Rider #1’, as an electronic drone fills the air with warning around Charlie Burns, Cave utters and whispers lyrics linking the aboriginal dreamtime imagery with western archetypes:

“‘When?’, said the moon to the stars in the sky
‘Soon’, said the wind that followed him home
‘Who?’, said the cloud that started to cry
‘Me’, said the rider as dry as a bone
‘How?’, said the sun melted the ground
‘Why?’, said the river that refused to run
‘Where?’, said the thunder without a sound
‘Here’, said the rider and took up his gun ”

The film has been criticised to some extent for its character development, particularly the Guy Pearce character and his procrastination. I think the problem is that Hillcoat and Cave have made a film where character is more externalised – the surrounds, visual and aural, give expression to the conflicts of the characters. And the lyrics are key part of this, ‘The Rider #1’ turning a travel montage into a meditation inside the head of Charlie Burns on what signs in the heavens would have to unfold for him to know how to deal with the proposition made to him.

In ‘The Rider #2’, a tense pause follows the phrasing of lyrics and Arthur Burns wisens to his brother Charlie’s presence. As the brutal elder brother sets out on horseback in pursuit of Captain Stanley, the film risks its most expressive musical gesture – a screeching distorted electric guitar sound. I found it too confronting when I saw the film last year, but I’ve come to admire the experimental attitude behind the gesture since, and I always enjoy the pause before it when listening now. Finally, in ‘The Rider #3’, the rider “lays down his gun” and acts in the only way available to him.

Aside from these themes, there is a great deal of variety to the material, some of it better than others. ‘Road to Banyon’ features plucked and strummed guitar over a grungy distorted loop, and it’s a little abrasive even in this score. ‘Down the Valley’ is a song by Cave – a kind of psalm for the paranoid, with keyboard and violin solo passages. ‘Moan Thing’ features Cave moaning sorrowfully. ‘Martha’s Dream’ closes with a fugal passage for multiple overlapping violin melodies, reprised, along with ‘Happy Land’ in ‘Queenie’s Suite’. In ‘Gun Thing’, a surprisingly attractive piano line accompanies Cave’s lyrics about how he’ll go out and get himself a ‘gun’. ‘Sad Violin Thing’ speaks for itself. ‘Clean Hands, Dirty Hands’ should have probably been called ‘One Last Thing’ – it’s a medley of unused fragments of songs (including one about redemption, Cave had to get it in here somewhere!) and score.

The end titles of the film are accompanied by the second last track on this album, ‘The Rider Song’. It’s strangely optimistic – much like the concluding scene of the film – and it draws on themes and lyrics from elsewhere in the album to tie the score together. If anything, the tone of it recalls Cave’s sweet song from Bruno Coulais’s Travelling Birds score, though the lyrics (from the different ‘Rider’ tracks) are more poetic here. It’s the kind of song that truly deserves an Oscar nomination, but will no doubt be passed over.

A remarkable score all over. There’s all sorts of things one could complain about. The film main titles are missing, as is the memorable source cue sung in the middle of the film during the ‘scourging sequence’. For those who don’t like rock music (4/4 meters, simple melodies, basic construction), Cave and Ellis’s folk influences will not be enough of an incentive to overcome the desire for Jerry Goldsmith, Bruce Broughton or Jerry Fielding to take over the reins. But for all their skill, I suspect they would not have written something as subtly resonant as the score written by the author of the film. Nor would the score have quite have danced along the boundaries of sound design, source music and underscore so successfully.

In any case, I think the best way to discover this score is the way I did – via the film. The album, if desired, is purchased with greater awareness of what the listener is getting themselves into, and serves as a way to reflect on a fine film, the best western since Costner’s Open Range (2003). Had I come to this without having seen the film, I would not have liked it as much. But there’s no denying how well the music works in the telling of this story. Meditating on it after watching drew me more into the music and the film. I’m looking forward to the next Cave/Hillcoat collaboration.

Note: Also recommended is Nick Cave’s collaborative score with Blixa Bargeld and Mick Harvey on John Hillcoat’s last film, To Have and to Hold. This one places more emphasis on an orchestra of strings and woodwinds for a lush romantic effect not dissimilar to the works of Michael Nyman.

Michael McLennan

Rating: 4.5

Review copy donated by reviewer

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