April 2006 Film Music CD Reviews

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

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The Constant Gardener  
Music composed and conducted by Alberto Iglesias
Performed by the London Session Orchestra
With instrumental solos by Ayub Ogada (voice, Nyatiti), Paul Clarvis (percussion), Javier Paxarino (Turkish clarinet, kawala, bass flute, zumara, baritone sax), Javier Crespo (ronrocco), John Paricelli (guitar), David Daniels (cello), Chris Laurence (double bass), Frank Ricotti (marimba), Skaila Kanga (harp), Simon Chamberlain (piano), Julia Malkova (viola), Javier Casado (accordion, keyboards).
Includes “Dicholo” written and performed by Ayub Ogada, and “Kothbiro” written by Mbarak Achieng and arranged and performed by Ayub Ogada.
  Available on Higher Octave Music (EMI 09463-36887-2-8)
Running Time: 74:01
Amazon UK   Amazon US

See also:

  • Hable Con Ella  
  • An activist is found murdered, a mild-mannered, Nairobi diplomat is roused into action, conspiracies abound, and a treacherous pharmaceutical conglomerate needs exposing.

    It’s the essence of The Constant Gardener, John le Carré’s darkest novel to date.  Sure, it criticizes, big, bold ideas are expressed (i.e., HIV-plagued Africa is victim to massive, immoral corporation), it’s rife with le Carré twists, and even incorporates a tragic tale of love, but none of it really came alive on page until it reached Hollywood.  Normally, when a picture is better than the novel, it’s because the director or screenwriter took creative liberties, the movie was based on a short piece, or the original had little substance.  In the case of The Constant Gardener, a despairing tale of vengeance, the book had immense substance—so much that the plodding, emotional blandness of it all is a turn off.

    Had Fernando Meirelles not directed this film, there wouldn’t have been a coherent ounce of intensity.  Meirelles, the Brazilian director of City of God, understands vibrancy, crazed energy.  Could someone that can take audiences for a riveting ride through the ghetto-hell cesspit of drug and gang-infested Brazil infuse some life into le Carré’s creation?  Yes, but it isn’t fully awake.  La Carré’s tone, weighty and chockfull of low level suspense, forces Meirelles to channel a sensational knack for conveying physical force into subdued, intellectual violence.  Even César Charlone’s exciting, frenzied camerawork is tamed somewhat for the adaptation.  Nonetheless, the director’s strength as a visual storyteller shines through in his second film: the color palette is still as piquant and cool as in City of God.  And the faces of the two phenomenal actors (Ralph Fiennes, as Justin Quayle, and Rachel Weisz, as his wife, Tessa) give the story a much needed heart—despite suppressed performances.  (There’s only so much one can to do without straying from the source.)  If only the music could transcend the work and leave a lasting imprint, I would have overlooked such fundamental flaws.

    Alberto Iglesias, a six-time, Goya-winning Spanish composer, is best known for his collaborations with Pedro Almodóvar on independent films such as Sex and Lucía, Live Flesh, All About My Mother, Bad Education, and Talk to Her.  His compositions are as diverse in instrumentation and styles as they are intriguing, and he has an impeccable flair for melding forms.  The Constant Gardener has layer upon layer of rhythmic, aural texturing, and Iglesias’s musical gamut runs from East African instrumentals to Western orchestra.  The music is frequently ethnic and ephemeral.  Much like Thomas Newman, Iglesias chooses unusual instruments and vocals for creating his distinctive sounds; the nyatiti (the 8-string Kenyan lyre) makes frequent appearances throughout the album and in the two most pleasant and memorable pieces (‘Dicholo’, ‘Kothbiro’), performed by East African artist, Ayub Ogada.  (The rhythmic, upbeat quality of his compositions may be similar to Wasis Diop, a Senegalese vocalist, but his mellifluous tone is the exact opposite.)  Along with a myriad of percussive instruments, the South American guitar (ronroco, a favorite of Gustavo Santaolalla), Arabic bamboo flute (kawala), and North African double reed instrument (zumara) combine with each other, perform solos, or blend with tribal vocals to set some strangely multipurpose moods.  (The movie and score don’t always gel enough in style that you’ll associate the two when listening to the music.)

    The Constant Gardener is neither overwhelming nor minimalistic; it also doesn’t attempt to adhere to one particular style or develop its minor (and few) motifs.  Like his blend of instruments, Iglesias’s style is seemingly that of many, and yet manages to be unique.  However, strings and a poignant solo on some type of wind instrument almost always make an appearance in his compositions.  ‘Tessa’s Death’ features this characteristic combination (this time with a Turkish clarinet) and sets the haunting, melancholy tone for the album.  If the film seems at all slow—yes, remaining true to le Carré’s work can result in poor pacing – it’s brought back to speed via camerawork and sometimes the music.  (‘To Loki’, ‘To Germany’, ‘Roadblock I’, and ‘Roadblock II’ are among the better action/suspense tracks.) It's apparent that Iglesias's many cues are intricately composed, scintillatingly subtle (‘Hospital’), and even rhythmically seductive (‘To Airport’)… but oftentimes—without a track listing on hand, they aren't so intense that you can always recall exactly what was happening in the film.  …Although, you might when listening to ‘Jomo Gets an HIV Test’ and ‘Motorbike’ due to their vague similarity to other mystery thriller scores or sheer sonic weirdness.

    For a film and novel that focuses on a tragic love relationship to tell a bigger story, it’s strange when love is sidelined for an ineffectual criticism of pharmaceutical companies.  Though virtually nonexistent in the text, this bond of love is made more intense, and more importantly, plausible through Fiennes and Weisz, so we understand Justin’s journey into hell to find the answers.  But when he finally realizes the truth of reality, has the knowledge, and the upper hand… why does he forfeit his life?  That’s mostly a question for le Carré.  (The pantywaist protagonist of the lit is an all-around failure, so running off to die is a semi-reasonable—if bathetic, choice.)

    Nevertheless, Iglesias was hired to score the film, not the book.  Passions are what make thrilling “thrillers” regardless of the material intelligence.  Iglesias failed to take the music to another level despite the Oscar nomination for the album.  I always believe that keen emotions are required for a score to succeed within a film and as a standalone album; the best scores often add more to the film, and bring to it an insightful, different dimension that cannot be seen or revealed through dialogue.  If this album isn’t listenable on the first pass (not for reasons pertaining to foreign instrumentation or atonal/dissonant phrasing), it’s due to its preoccupied state.  I didn’t get much out of it in the film, but on my first album listen, it felt vaguely restrained, and seemed to exist for the sake of itself.  The work obviously isn’t devoid of emotion, but the emotional shades rendered weren’t always distinct, germane—in the sense that if most everything was worthy of mention, what truly mattered? When you view all colors of the spectrum simultaneously—or accept the million one details of the story, you see white... a lot of it, but that's really all you see. Iglesias’s composition becomes a functional narrator of general moods and situations, so much that it does little more than acknowledge the characters and their plights, i.e., ‘Justin's Death’.  (Furthermore, the few moments of poignancy often didn’t have any music.)

    It shouldn’t be astonishing if two gifted actors become the film’s saving grace.  Le Carré’s carefully manufactured, logical tone blots out much of whatever nascent or intrinsic emotions there are in music, direction, or visuals.  But when the story and messages are as milquetoastish as the book version Quayle, the music should never follow suit: doing what’s necessary and giving up when it’s time.

    Tina Huang

    In-Movie: 3
    Standalone Score: 2
    Score for something else entirely or standalone music album without any affiliation whatsoever with book and movie (and never as generic “world music”): 4

    Michael McLennan adds:-

    Armed with Tina’s critique of Iglesias’ score and both its filmic function and standalone value, the reader is liable to question my commendation of this score. I discuss the score – both on album and in the film – at greater length in my editorial. For those who don’t care to read it, suffice to say that with beautifully subtle writing for multiple specialized instruments, this score is a gem both within its film and away from it. And the best comes from ‘Justin’s Death’, a seemingly improvised piece in isolation, but in context one of the best spotted and most dramatically brilliant cues in recent film. Though some key cues were unused in the film, Iglesias’s score was well deserving of its surprising Oscar nomination, and it was surely better than that award’s unauspicious winner.

    Michael McLennan


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