December 2006 Film Music CD Reviews

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

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EDITOR'S RECOMMENDATION December 2006

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The Upside of Anger  
Music composed, produced, orchestrated, and conducted by Alexandre Desplat
Performed by the Unnamed Orchestra (ed: probably the London Symphony Orchestra)
  Available on New Line Records (catalogue number unavailable)
Running Time: 40:49
This album has been released as an iTunes exclusive, and can be purchased (and sampled) at iTunes.

See also:

  • Birth
  • If I had been reviewing Desplat’s scores for Girl with a Pearl Earring, Birth or even Hostage a couple of years back, I would probably have felt the need to introduce this French composer to readers. But in late 2006 no such introduction is necessary: now a firmly established composer for American films, Desplat has crafted his own unique sound and attracted a deserved and devoted fan following. In my opinion, he’s now elevated beyond the ‘upcoming and rising’ status into being one of the few, really brilliant film composers of our times. The Upside of Anger is probably not the best score to further prove that, but it is a rather beautiful little work nevertheless. The Mike Binder-directed family drama came out in 2005, set in the suburbs of Detroit where the upper middle class Terry Ann Wolfmeyer (Joan Allen) becomes bitter after her husband apparently runs off with his Swedish secretary. She has four grown daughters – which of course only multiplies issues many times over – and there is a neighbour (Kevin Costner) who is attracted to the depths of her bitter depression. The Upside of Anger is a movie of many qualities, something mirrored in the elegant and intimate score that accompanies it.

    Scored for a small instrumental ensemble of piano, harp, celeste, xylophone, bassoon, clarinet, small string orchestra and subtle electronics, this work is based on two simple themes. The main theme - which represents the troubled and turbulent character of Terry - is introduced in the orchestral ‘Terry’s Theme’. It is the most vital ingredient of the score with its main melodic line built on repeated 3-note motifs and held by 3-note rhythmic arpeggios from the piano and soft string ostinati. It’s a truly captivating motif that has something of Zimmer’s main theme for Spanglish in nature, but is more tender and romantic. Various renditions follow, notably in ‘The Grave’ (orchestrated for a smaller ensemble), ‘Family Dinner’ and ‘Four Girls’. The latter is located in the end of the album and features the very main theme exclusively rearranged to a major-scale for a perfect uplifting ending.

    Scored for a small instrumental ensemble of piano, harp, celeste, xylophone, bassoon, clarinet, small string orchestra and subtle electronics, this work is based on two simple themes. The main theme - which represents the troubled and turbulent character of Terry - is introduced in the orchestral ‘Terry’s Theme’. It is the most vital ingredient of the score with its main melodic line built on repeated 3-note motifs and held by 3-note rhythmic arpeggios from the piano and soft string ostinati. It’s a truly captivating motif that has something of Zimmer’s main theme for Spanglish in nature, but is more tender and romantic. Various renditions follow, notably in ‘The Grave’ (orchestrated for a smaller ensemble), ‘Family Dinner’ and ‘Four Girls’. The latter is located in the end of the album and features the very main theme exclusively rearranged to a major-scale for a perfect uplifting ending.

    In line with the film’s constantly changing mood is the second theme, which represents the fun side of the movie and more particularly Dennis. (Who actually is the single light-hearted element of the movie.) Immediately after the first cue we get ‘Denny’s in the Mood’ with the 5-note theme for him in a 3/4 metre, a cute and child-like waltz. Piano fronts with classic guitar, playful clarinet, celeste, mandolin, and a warm small string ensemble adding an enchanting Mediterranean color. (Recalling Shadows of the Sun by composer Mark Thomas.) ‘Denny’s Not in the Mood’ also restates the theme up. Probably the most interesting arrangement comes in ‘The Wolfmeyers’, where we get a full orchestral rendition of the 2nd theme at a slower tempo, fronted by piano and with some of the most beautiful arrangements the composer has ever showcased.

    Apart those two themes, a couple of other musical elements make up for the rest of the score, the first being a series of stately, hypnotic pieces, similar to the largest part of his score for Birth. ‘Together’ is the first piece to feature this where a constantly repeated xylophone motif provides the basis for some eerie but at the same time melodic strings to be laid upon and drive the piece. ‘Epilogue’ and ‘Seasons go by’ follow in the same fashion with ‘Summer’ being the standout of this group. A similar xylophone motif lies below a 3-note piano theme and a warm string ensemble sustains some drawn-out notes throughout the rewarding piece.

    The other side of the score is vivid and playful, initially introduced in the cute piece ‘Left Alone’. Brass mickey-mousing stands out in this cue - a lively musical dialogue with elegant strings, pizzicato and playful clarinet on a rhythmic ostinato. The colorful tango of ‘Spring’ with the celeste, clarinet, bassoon, string orchestra and the piano is another example of the large group of fun pieces that can be found sneaking around the whole score. The most playful cue of the album is ‘Popeye’s Love’ which features a one-time appearance of a seven-note theme by piano and mandolin, accompanied by harp, strings, bassoon and clarinet. The first half of the cue is done in a funny militaristic-like fashion before it all turns into a celebratory waltz fanfare. Coming to bring an end to all this is ‘The upside of anger’, one of the best cues the composer has ever written. The slow, string-driven cue is a deeply melancholic and truly magnificent piece that starts with a long and subtle string intro and then moves to the main theme and up to a passionate string climax.

    The Upside of Anger has that elegance we’ve come to associate with Desplat’s work. The warm sound of the small string ensemble adds an old-fashioned, European feeling to it. It’s not the most original score you’ll ever hear indeed, but it’s still truly pleasant and carefully crafted with underlying harmonic writing many would envy. The single downside of the score – which also keeps it from full marks – is that the album avoids larger suites in favor of a more fragmentary layout with many cues averaging ninety seconds. Still, this is a score of rare depth and meaning; don’t let the lack of a physical CD turn you off this iTunes exclusive.

    Demetris Christodoulides

    Rating: 4

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