The Monuments Men (Alexandre Desplat)

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With a cast that had 5 Oscars and 17 nominations, and a little-known but deeply important true World War II story about artworks being saved from Nazi looters by a ragtag team of Allied conservators pressed into military service, director-star George Clooney’s The Monuments Men had an impressive pedigree. Yet the film was unable to overcome a wandering focus and lack of narrative drive, feeling like a Cliffs Notes version of a longer film and becoming a critical disappointment despite a healthy box office take. Despite all the Oscar gold among the cast, the film wound up delayed to an undemanding late winter release date from its original statuette-friendly slot.

French composer Alexandre Desplat was one of the busiest composers in Hollywood during the early 2010s and brought his own impressive collection of Oscar nominations to the project, collecting his sixth (for Philomena) when The Monuments Men was still in theaters. Desplat had worked with Clooney once before, on the low-key political thriller The Ides of March in 2011, and they apparently hit things off so well that not only did Desplat return to score The Monuments Men, he also appeared onscreen in a cameo. Quite possibly the longest and most involved composer cameo in recent memory, Desplat’s turn as the French Resistance fighter Emile not only revealed a bit of acting talent but resulted in one of the film’s funniest lines (“You speak English? Speak English.”) while Desplat thanks Clooney in the liner notes for convincing him to “play a Frenchman in a beret.”

The music is a fascinating fusion of several distinct styles, and a lot of your appreciation for the score will hinge upon how well you can reconcile the disparate elements within it. There are echoes of classic war movies scored by the likes of Elmer Bernstein or Malcolm Arnold, white-knuckle militaristic action music very much in the mold of 1980s John Williams, and of course Alexandre Desplat’s distinctive personal style with his fondness for waltzes. It is an odd enough collection of influences that the score sometimes feels rather schizophrenic, though the composer is to be commended for how well its disparate parts hang together.

Arnold and Bernstein’s influence is felt most overtly in The Monuments Men‘s main theme, heard most prominently in the jaunty “Opening Titles,” “Basic Training,” and “End Credits.” A bouncy and upbeat march with a somewhat more serious interlude, Desplat uses the theme to great effect in the film’s lighthearted and more comic moments, and its whistled rendition at the end of the album is a direct reference to Arnold’s famous interpretation of the “Colonel Bogey March” from The Bridge on the River Kwai. The more serious interlude is inserted in many of the more dramatic tracks as well, with downbeat and solo piano versions of the main melody accompanying many scenes of struggle and strife as well.

For the villainous Nazis (and, to an extent, the rival group of Soviet treasure hunters) Desplat uses a menacing brass motif that informs the latter half of “Champagne,” “The Nero Decree,” and other scenes of artistic destruction and villainy. John Williams’ brassy Nazi fanfare from Raiders of the Lost Ark is perhaps the most apt influence and comparison, though Desplat never really sets the Monuments Men theme and Nazi/Soviet motif against one another in quite the same way. The basic parts of the motif are also twisted into a pompous and amusing waltz in “Stahl’s Chalet” for one particularly tense scene late in the picture.

Lover of waltzes that he is, Desplat sneaks another in as well, this one serving as a theme for Cate Blanchett’s underwritten character and her low-key love-hate relationship with Matt Damn’s Monuments Man. Debuted in the first half of “Champagne” and given its fullest expression in “Claire & Granger,” the waltz is lovely but sadly never seems to come into its own and lacks an entire track unto itself like the main theme and villainy motif. One wishes for a John Williams-style concert arrangement of the theme to give it more breathing room as a result.

Finally, the score does contain some wonderful all-out action music, and it’s here that Williams’ influence is the most keenly felt. In several spots, but most extensively and notably at the beginning of the lengthy “Finale,” Desplat gives himself over to brass-heavy action writing that’s thrilling in the same way as many of Williams’ early 1980s scores as well as later attempts by other composers (like Michael Giacchino in Medal of Honor: Frontline). It is a thrilling if rather brief addition to the hour-long album, and a much better marriage of Desplat and Williams’ stylistics than the earlier Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was.

Whether through his music or his acting, Alexandre Desplat proved himself essential to The Monuments Men, and if the production was disappointing or a missed opportunity, he at least can be said to have taken full advantage and produced one of his most straightforwardly enjoyable scores of the 2010s. Sony Classical put out an album with virtually every note of Desplat’s score to coincide with the film’s early 2014 release, and included Nora Sagal’s rendition of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” from one of the film’s key attempts at character drama (it’s certainly performed with old-fashioned gusto if nothing else). Even with its occasionally schizophrenic swings from mood to mood and genre to genre, The Monuments Men is still an accessible music from a period dominated by Desplat’s darker and more troubled music for Oscar bait films.

Rating: starstarstarstar

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The Tree of Life (Alexandre Desplat)

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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.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar