'127 Hours' and other films take experimental turns in music

Composers like Trent Reznor ('The Social Network'), A.R. Rahman ('127 Hours') and Carter Burwell ('True Grit') dig deep into movies' moods to conjure up matching melodies

By Todd Martens for Los Angeles Times on December 7, 2010

Plenty of filmmakers took non-traditional routes this season, turning to the world of rock to bring an immediacy to their stories.

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails scored his first flick in the Facebook drama "The Social Network," and French disco purveyors Daft Punk anchored Disney's high-concept reboot in "Tron." Digging deeper, former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr brought a human element to "Inception," LCD Soundsystem leader James Murphy distilled the anxiety of "Greenberg" and Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich experimented with electronics for "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World."

Not to be outshined, veteran composers also did some experimenting. Carter Burwell grappled with how to make a western not sound like a western, while A.R. Rahman had to set the tone for a film in which the camera is largely static, focused on just one character. Clint Mansell, meanwhile, riffed on Tchaikovsky in "Black Swan" and John Powell had a colorful canvas to decorate for "How to Train Your Dragon."

Here's a sampling of just a few of 2010's film music standouts:

A.R. Rahman

For those who felt squeamish during Danny Boyle's "127 Hours" — or those who have avoided it after hearing war stories — know that composer A.R. Rahman could have made things far worse for the audience. Not often, after all, is an artist charged with providing the musical accompaniment for a man cutting off his own arm.

Make no mistake, there are times Rahman's score is harsh. Yet when it comes to the completion of the deed itself, when James Franco as trapped climber Aron Ralston is in a near-delusionary hopeful state, Rahman toned it down. At that moment, the more metallic aspects of the score become awash in calming atmospheres.

"At first, it felt a little bit too harsh, but I went to the computer and went for something meditative rather than harsh," Rahman says. "It was a very difficult scene. I had to see it more than 40 times. We started pulling things out of the score. We wanted to make it more human."

The Bollywood megastar and musical architect of Boyle's Oscar-winning "Slumdog Millionaire," Rahman tapped into his Western influences for much of "127 Hours." Ralston is often seen sporting headphones, with upbeat rock and dance bleeding out of them. Rahman's score feels very much like something the cinematic Ralston might be listening to, a mix of heavily layered acoustic and electric guitars, and it's all brightened with digital effects.

"My thing was to have one instrument, one instrument that was very close to this character," Rahman says. "He was single, he was very confident and young. So I thought the guitar would be perfect."

Carter Burwell

The opening few moments of Joel and Ethan Coen's take on "True Grit" are designed to make it clear that this is not going to be standard western fare. A significant portion of that task would fall on composer Carter Burwell, working here on his 14th collaboration with the Coen brothers. Ultimately, Burwell settled on interpreting a hymn, "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms," with a solitary piano.

"We use the hymn in the very first scene and gradually lead the viewer away from it," Burwell says. "So where you expect a western to be grand, we wanted it to be the exact opposite. It's very specific to time and place, and there are a lot of different traditions to call upon or ignore. Mostly we chose to ignore them."

Following the young Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) on her quest for retribution, Burwell's score gradually escalates. The piano eventually gives way to a full orchestra, but Burwell never fully loses the influence of the hymn.

"One of the things I liked about the hymns, and the general concept that we used, was the idea of call-and-response," Burwell says. "A soloist sings, and the congregation responds. There are places in the score where we use that. We have an enormous landscape and a solo clarinet, and it is answered by the whole orchestra. There's all this land, and you sense this enormous unfeeling country with the orchestra."

Burwell does note that he and the Coens weren't simply trying to toy with audience expectations. Two scenes — a shootout and a river crossing — receive the triumphant horns and adventurous grandeur of western scores of yore.

"I'm not saying I'm Dimitri Tiomkin, but it references that kind of approach," Burwell says of the famed western film composer. "We debated how much we should have the classic feel, but for those two scenes, it seemed to be right. It seemed like the characters were enjoying being in a western."

Alexandre Desplat

The drama in "The King's Speech" stems from the inability to communicate. The challenge, then, for French composer Alexandre Desplat was to keep his score from saying too much.

"This is a film about the sound of the voice," Desplat says. "Music has to deal with that. Music has to deal with silence. Music has to deal with time."

First, the score to the Tom Hooper-directed film could not sound too perfect. The sleuthing skills of Abbey Road's chief engineer, Pete Cobin, helped Desplat find the tone he needed.

Digging through the EMI archives, Cobin recovered vintage microphones owned by the royal family, Desplat says. "At that time, the royal family had microphones made to order. We recorded the score with these microphones. It allowed the sound to have a dated feel — a purely dated feel."

For someone who averages seven to 10 films a year, "The King's Speech" may be Desplat's warmest and most restrained effort to date. Much of the score centers on a piano, chosen to match the film's use of Beethoven and Mozart. As string melodies drift and cascade in the background, the piano tends to lag just behind, save for the romantic swing that accompanies Colin Firth's King George VI as he rehearses in Westminster Abbey.

Says Desplat, "The king stammers, so how can you say that in musical terms without being didactic or obvious? I suggested to Tom that we could maybe give this idea that music is not going forward. How do you do that? I suggested one note, repeated.… It's almost like a sad movement of a Schubert quartet."

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

For his first film score, Trent Reznor was eager to try his hand at leading an orchestra. Yet it was Reznor's Nine Inch Nails work, namely the 2008 atmospheric collection "Ghosts I-IV," that more closely aligned with what "The Social Network" director David Fincher was after.

"There was a part of me that was really disappointed," says Reznor, who composed the score with longtime collaborator Atticus Ross. "The orchestral route was a challenge that I thought would be fun to address. "

But with no string section, Reznor and Ross began modifying their initial ideas to fit into a "world of modular synthesizers and an acoustic piano." The latter became the key, as the hissing electronics indicated tension, and the sorrowful piano melody, with notes patiently spaced measures apart, hinted at what Ross described as the "serious human shortcomings on display."

The down-and-out piano-draped electronic piece scored the film's opening title sequence, a move that surprised Reznor.

"There's a level of tension, a level of reserve and a level of anger," Reznor says of the piece. "It's not a bombastic title scene. It's not a comfortable rock song. Seeing David had the taste and insight to try that in that spot defined how the rest of the score would go. We realized that Fincher was ready to break some rules."

Some initial tendencies, such as an overuse of 8-bit video game sounds, were largely abandoned. Instead, the score is one with fraught rhythms and sometimes uncomfortable synthetic landscapes.

"The music kind of goes along with the idea that 'you take this, and you make your own decisions,'" Ross says. "The music is not one of those ones where you see someone sad, and this sad music goes along with it."

View the NIN Hotline article index