“The Tree Of Life”

Malick’s fifth and arguably best film, “The Tree Of Life” was also his first that overtly wove music into the fabric of the film, making it as much a key aspect of the narrative as anything else on the screen. The filmmaker again worked with a living legend of a composer in Alexandre Desplat, but the histrionics of past productions are absent here, and most of Desplat’s work was cartilage used to connect the 30 odd classical pieces that ground and texture the film. Which makes sense, considering Brad Pitt’s austere father is a failed musician and is seen playing piano throughout, and at one point even sternly instructs his boys to respect classical music. It’s fitting for Malick, who, word has it, has a wealth of classical knowledge (and especially considering how much classical music has snuck into his past films).

Picking just one key track, though, is an impossible task for “The Tree Of Life,” mostly due to the sheer depth and breadth of the score. Writing on the L.A. Times Blog, David Ng pointed out just how interwoven the compositions Malick chose and the themes playing out on screen are. The fact that he chose Zbigniew Preisner’s “Lacrimosa” from “Requiem for My Friend” to score the scene “shows just how closely he associates birth and death,” Ng wrote. Similarly, he continued, “One of the pieces [Pitt’s character] plays is Bach‘s ‘Toccata and Fugue,’ a work for organ that is both spiritual in nature and ruthlessly disciplined in construction — an apt summation of the Pitt character.”

The most stunning, and potentially the most successful use of music Malick has ever pulled off though, is arguably the final sequence from the film. A glorious, 10-minute montage that culminates in Sean Penn wandering aimlessly through a crisp, steel world, is scored to Hector Berlioz’s “10. Agnus Dei [Requiem, Op. 5 (Grande Messe des Morts)].” It’s an eternally moving scene, made all the more powerful by its abrupt, staggering silence.

“To The Wonder”

Much like with “The Tree Of Life,” Malick stuck with mostly classical tracks for “To The Wonder” (arguably his biggest blunder of a film), hiring a composer — Hanan Townshend — to craft the connective tissue. The film feels like a retread far too often, and when it doesn’t, it’s because Malick has pushed his creative sensibilities to a nearly incomprehensible place. Really, only the score and the brilliant cinematography amount to much of anything. Again, the wistful, poignant pairing of aesthetics toy out some stirring emotions — though they never serve any larger purpose. Which is a shame, because with “The Tree Of Life” before it, “To The Wonder” once again feels like a film adorned with purposeful musical choices. In part because the director again showed off his vast knowledge of classical music, snipping out the most ideal slices from expansive suites to pair with his scenes. For instance, the scene when Ben Affleck’s Neil finally asks Olga Kurylenko’s Marina and her daughter to move to America with him, Malick pairs the sweeping and sanguine scene with a tender, nearly melancholy section of Ottorino Respighi’s “Ancient Airs and Dances Suite II” — a nearly 19-minute composition — that is as hopeful as it is foreboding.

“Knight Of Cups”

It took Malick 30-some years to find a musical collaborator to fit in with his tight cohort (which includes Lubezki and editor Billy Weber), but Hanan Townshend eventually made the cut. The composer, who worked as a music licensor on ‘Tree Of Life,’ did work on both “To The Wonder” and then “Knight Of Cups.” He’s even credited with additional work on “Voyage Of Time” and “Song To Song” — a film packed wall to wall with mostly modern pop songs. The success of the collaboration, seems to hinge upon exactly what James Horner despised about Malick: he’s going to use classical music whenever he damn well pleases. Townshend seems to understand how Malick operates, settling to compose songs to fill in the gaps instead of span the entire picture (and he must be more content to let a director constantly look over his shoulder). The results, though, speak for themselves. While Malick has certainly been off his game since ‘Tree Of Life,’ his last films have shown a care and intentionality with music that his earlier movies didn’t. The main theme from “Knight Of Cups,” Wojciech Kilar’s “Exodus” is essentially the musical embodiment of Christian Bale’s character’s moral degradation, and his search for that ever-elusive divinity. And Henryk Górecki’s “Symphony No. 3: Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (1st Movement)” captures the isolation and emptiness that he feels at the hands of his lonely material wealth. Malick’s choices are mature and deliberate in a way that speaks to his artistic ambitions and that picturesque final product he’s conceptualized in his mind.

“Voyage Of Time”/”Voyage Of Time: The IMAX Experience”

To put it simply, the music of “Voyage Of Time” is celestial. The ambitious doc, which was some four decades in the making (rare even for Malick), looks to tell the story of the universe from its birth until its death (à la ‘Tree Of Life’), and the music Malick chooses to accompany the piece are as grand as they are apt. As with so much of recent Malick, if you are content to just sit back and experience a movie, scene to scene, and look no further than a single moment for meaning and emotion, his films are going to be masterpieces. The same goes here. Again, the director pairs dazzling renderings of the universe with brilliant pieces of music, turning each scene into a startlingly serene experience (one that the movie itself never lives up to). The picks also feel less restrained, his grandiose ambition more evident, and thus more immediately obvious. Arvo Pärt’s angelic “Da pacem Domine” is a fitting example: a tremendous piece of work that nicely accompanies the visual aesthetic, but is discernibly overbearing. Once more, it works to a degree, but the whack over the head is hard to ignore.

“Song To Song”

Earlier this month we ran down the entire track list of Malick’s latest, and it’s a doozy. The songs run from the unexpected (Die Antwoord) to the fitting (Lykke Li) to the familiar (Camille Saint-Saëns’s “Symphony in F Major, ‘Urbs Roma’”). Not to mention that artists like Lykke Li and Patti Smith play key parts in the film. “I Know Places” by Lykke Li, who plays Ryan Gosling’s ex, encapsulates the melancholy of their tenuous but loving relationship they share, while a number of Smith’s songs pop up throughout. Then there is the overt theme of the film in “rolling and tumbling,” which is represented with both visual rolling and musical tumbling (obviously including Bob Dylan’s “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”). It’s a film built upon music that propels itself via the songs and what they mean, while also showing off a bit more of an eclectic taste from the director. And despite the fact that it isn’t our favorite of Malick’s efforts, it is nonetheless a welcome change of pace… musically at least.    
Of course what truly becomes clear throughout Malick’s career working with composers and musicians – and the scorched earth of scorned feelings he has left in his wake –  is his unwillingness to compromise his artistic vision. If it wasn’t clear enough from the years he spends with his films on both sides of production, his fearless approach to pulling the plug on whole compositions (like in Horner’s experience) to annoying composers with notes (Morricone’s) to driving them mad (Zimmer’s) makes it all the more obvious. Malick is a one of a kind filmmaker, so utterly idiosyncratic that few artistic collaborators stick with him for long, and those that do (like Lubezki and Billy Weber) tend to just keep coming back. So, whether or not Malick has wound up capturing the perfect soundtrack or score for his movies remains a divisive topic, but one thing is certain: he got what he wanted.

  • bohmer

    “He didn’t have a clue how to use music”, what?!

  • Jim

    With respect to the late James Horner, the idea of ‘New World’ potentially replicating ‘Titanic’ is ghastly. It’s a far, far, far more artful, intelligent and sensitive film. And whatever the acrimony behind the scenes, its use of the Prelude from Wagner’s Ring Cycle – and equally Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.23 – is easily one of the most exquisite blends of cinema and music ever.

  • aknighterrant

    Hanan Townshend was involved with additional score for ‘Tree of Life’ – he composes interpolations of the classical pieces used in the film to re-evoke/echo those earlier moments.