Musician Alex Ebert has spent a career reinventing himself, from hard-partying frontman of such bands as the Lucky 13s and Ima Robot to messianic alter ego Edward Sharpe of the Magnetic Zeros fame to clear-eyed solo artist, with a range of influences too wide to list here.
Now, with his feature film scoring debut on J.C. Chandor’s “All Is Lost,” about a nameless navigator (Robert Redford) whose yacht is slowly sinking in the Indian Ocean with no sign of help, or hope, Ebert returns his attention to a medium that was a passing interest from his school days.
The music is meditative and spare, as if the mission were to make it as inconspicuous as possible.
“When I first read the script during my first meeting with (Chandor), I told him I thought the other big character in the movie was silence,” Ebert tells Variety. “In fact, when I got the first cut of the film, I quite liked it without any music. I enjoyed being forced into the same aloneness and solipsism that Redford was forced into.”
But once he was exposed to a rough cut of the movie, he found himself “going to town, basically making a musical,” even if that musical has the effect of lulling the viewer into a quiet sense of desperation, if not existential dread.
Ebert dug deep, and came up with a theme he thought would best serve the character and the movie. “I initially played it on piano but J.C. didn’t want any piano. And I’m glad he didn’t because it pushed me to find an instrument that would be sort of perfect. And I went through a few and found the alto flute as the prime voice.”
That breathy flute, along with bass flute, strings, a bowed upright bass, acoustic guitar and more unorthodox instruments like gigantic crystal and Tibetan bowls, which created a kind of ambient affect not unlike whale cries, give a sense of extreme solitude and inevitable death.
Although he was inspired by Ennio Morricone’s mournful music for “The Mission,” Ebert’s work stands very much on its own, with few signs of what came before.
In a coda for the movie, the song “Amen,” Ebert touches on Redford’s generation. “Raised on golden days/God love the USA/Fed on Purple
Haze/Young men today/He heard them say …”
“It’s a dual tale of youthful endurance and the defiance of the human aging process and the idea of living forever,” Ebert says.
The song reflects the director’s over-arching theme for the movie. “J.C. told me it’s about an entire generation facing their own swan song, facing death and yet living in the face of it.”