Terrence Malick is one of the most respected and most divisive directors working in film today, and his works have aroused strong feelings, pro or con, in everyone who has viewed them. His 2011 film The Tree of Life was no less so, earning nominations in several Academy Award categories while simultaneously being savaged by many viewers and critics. Despite (or perhaps because of) his reputation, Malick had attracted a variety of top-flight musical talent to score his projects, from Ennio Morricone on Days of Heaven to Hans Zimmer and co. on The Thin Red Line to James Horner on The New World.
For The Tree of Life, Malick recruited French composer Alexandre Desplat, who was in the midst of an extremely busy year. 2011 saw seven movies scored in whole or in part by Desplat, including his Oscar-nominated score for Best Picture winner The King’s Speech and a score for Best Picture nominee Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Desplat is often strongest in his contemplative mode, featured in scores such as Birth and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, than his disappointing attempts at epic fantasy writing as in The Golden Compass and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The Tree of Life represents in some ways the ultimate evolution of the former style, with his usual waltzes and melody supplemented by Philip Glass influenced minimalism.
Fans of Glass will probably enjoy what they find here, especially in “Circles,” the album’s longest and most impressive track. Cellular composition, repeated motifs, and a cyclical and evolving feel make the 11-minute centerpiece cue a true tour-de-force without losing Desplat’s distinctive voice. Echoes of Benjamin Button and Birth are to be had elsewhere, often in the most melodic and piano-led cues like the desolate “Childhood” and warm “Awakening,” although it’s by and large a score of textures more than melody or theme. Those expecting the empty bombast of Desplat’s Compass or Potter will be disappointed, though the composer does include his signature waltzes in the pair of “Motherhood” and “Fatherhood.”
Desplat also blesses the score with an air of impressionistic darkness in many cues. The aforementioned “Awakening,” for instance, includes a sinister full string section under its gentle piano melody, skillfully intermixing optimism and unease in a similar way to the deep electronic pulses from Birth, before building to an unnerving crescendo at the end. He uses other innovative techniques, like a solo and vaguely out-of-tune leading string in “Good and Evil” or discordant, Elliot Goldenthal style shrieking strings in “Temptation” (perhaps the score’s darkest cue).
From the minimalistic opening piano of “Childhood” to the inviting cyclic minimalism of “Circles” through the darkness of “Awakening” and “Temptation,” to the final innocent and childlike “Skies,” Desplat’s album truly feels like a musical journey. With only his signature musical voice to bind the score together, the composer nevertheless manages to create a cohesive musical narrative that can stand well on its own. This was perhaps the wisest decision Desplat made, given Malick’s history of tinkering with his films’ soundtracks: creating an album that can exist completely independently of its film, a contemplative masterpiece perfect for engaged listening or as a backdrop to writing or other creative endeavors.
There is one downside to the album: anyone looking for the classical pieces that were inserted into the film to replace the majority of Desplat’s original music will be disappointed. Malick, despite working with the very best original composers that Hollywood has to offer, often uses very little of the score they prepare, with what is used often chopped up and redistributed. This led to many angry viewers upset with the album from Lakeshore records, which includes only Desplat’s original score instead of the many classical pieces by John Tavener, Arsenije Jovanovic, and many others. This led to many reviews roundly trashing Desplat’s album for what it is not, rather than what it is.
Still, as long as listeners know exactly what they are getting into (and the available sound samples represent an excellent cross-section of Desplat’s music) they won’t be disappointed. It may be closer to a quasi-rejected score, or an instrumental “music inspired by” album, but The Tree of Life is still a musical journey well worth taking by one of Hollywood’s strongest musical voices. Lakeshore Records’ score album has become rather scarce the film’s release, commanding slightly inflated prices, but it is still readily available in digital form.