Even if they might not survive deep into the awards season, a handful of 2015 releases nevertheless feature some of the most accomplished movie maestros delivering scores of the time-tested variety: lush, orchestral and unblinkingly pretty.
In “The Prophet” — the animated translation of Kahlil Gibran’s book of existential poetry — French-Lebanese composer Gabriel Yared was tasked with unifying the film’s collage of eight “chapters” helmed by different animators.
He did so by treating the framing narrative, of a young girl’s interactions with the exiled poet Mustafa, with a playful score for a traditional orchestra seasoned with instrumental colors from the film’s Mediterranean setting. As the story’s gravity increases, so does the music, culminating in a lavish cello elegy performed by Yo-Yo Ma.
Yared, who won an Oscar for “The English Patient,” gave each of the poetry segments a distinctive musical style. (Two of them are accompanied by songs.) For the “On Death” sequence, an early storyboard by fraternal animators Gaetan and Paul Brizzi inspired Yared to write a slow waltz for solo cello, soprano and orchestra. For Joann Sfar’s “On Marriage,” he wrote a tango that blended oriental instruments with orchestra and accordion.
“The distinction came mostly from the words and content of each ‘teaching,’” he says, “and also from the specific style of each animator.”
Yared also scored Angelina Jolie Pitt’s drama “By the Sea,” about a marriage on the rocks. In his elegant score, solo woodwinds trace restless lines over bobbing strings and piano figures churn under long, anguished cello laments.
“The music needed to surround and envelop the characters, but be subtle and delicate enough so it would not say too much,” says Yared. “It needed to tiptoe alongside the film so it would not over-dramatize the narrative.”
Thomas Vinterberg’s unhurried, painterly adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel, “Far From the Madding Crowd,” seemed to demand a vintage orchestral score brimming with melody. Scottish composer Craig Armstrong, best known for his work with Baz Luhrmann, sets the tone from the opening titles, accompanying widescreen farmland vistas with a mini concerto for violin and orchestra.
“A lot of films these days are incredibly fast, because every scene is about two seconds long,” says Armstrong. “It was nice to work on a film that was quite lyrical, and had a lot of space for music, where you could really develop the tunes.”
Armstrong initially explored deriving his score from period folk and church music, but the film’s Scandinavian pace and artistry leapt to life with the romantic vocabulary of Delius and Vaughan Williams. So he wrote long-line melodies for Carey Mulligan’s character and her suitors, and nurtured them patiently across the length of the film.
The Stradivarius solos (performed by English violinist Clio Gould, for whom Armstrong wrote a concerto in 2009) give the score a virtuosity that harmonizes with the performances by Mulligan and company.
“Some music just seems to fit a particular movie,” he says, “and when I started going down that route of an old-fashioned, traditional movie score, it really seemed to work.”
It’s no surprise an old-fashioned movie score would fit — like a glass slipper — Kenneth Branagh’s loving, live-action incarnation of Disney’s “Cinderella.” His lifelong collaborator, Patrick Doyle, gilded the storybook tale with a sparkling, waltzing, fairytale score.
“Everything leads to the ballroom,” says Doyle, who wrote no fewer than five waltzes as thematic foundations. “The music had to have romance and heart. So I sat down at the piano and wrote the love waltz, something simple and direct but with strength.”
The 105-minute film spills over with music that’s soaked in 19th-century romanticism and heaving melody. It twirls in time with the heroine’s dazzling dress, twinkles with the Fairy Godmother’s magic, and openly weeps over the ache of parental loss at the story’s heart.
Branagh deliberately adhered to the feel and era of the film’s 1950 inky inspiration, and Walt Disney’s studio “wanted the score to have a classic feel to it, a timeless quality,” says Doyle. “I wanted to honor the tradition.”