From teenage yearning to a parent’s sadness and the wonder-filled gaze of a child with a facial deformity, the heart thrives in 2017’s family offerings and their scores.
With a resume that includes such artists as Fiona Apple and Kanye West and movie scores for “Magnolia” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Jon Brion’s approach to music is far from traditional. So it’s no surprise that the composer threw aside the typical tropes of an orchestral score.
After screening Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” with Saoirse Ronan playing a teenager struggling with life in Sacramento, Brion opted for an intimate sound that featured a small group of rhythm instruments and a woodwind ensemble, primarily flutes. “It is, by nature, a more delicate, very humane sound,” Brion says. “Strings can remind us we’re watching a movie. This felt a little more private, a little more individual.”
Multi-instumentalist Brion played almost everything else himself: percussion, bass, piano, guitars, “and any other oddball things lying around.” But the acclaimed producer intentionally avoided sounding like pop music of the period (2002). For him, “it was more about playing the underlying sweetness and yearning of Lady Bird.”
Two-time Oscar winner and renowned songwriter Randy Newman is synonymous with the piano, but “The Meyerowitz Stories” marks the first time he’s written and played an entire score by himself at the keyboard.
“I was ready to go slightly bigger, maybe a chamber orchestra, but that’s not what [director Noah Baumbach] wanted,” Newman says. “He would come over and we would silent-movie it,” improvising at the piano while the film played.
His bluesy main theme reflects the personality of the self-absorbed sculptor (Dustin Hoffman) around whom most of the story revolves. “He’s remorselessly destructive,” says Newman, adding that Hoffman himself heard in the music “a sense of loneliness, as if all the characters somehow never connected to each other.”
The brief piano interludes (most of them less than a minute) function as a kind of commentary on the characters and the tension at play. According to Newman, Baumbach eschewed any hint of sentimentality.
Music by Marcelo Zarvos
“We didn’t need a lot of help from the music to get tears on this one,” says composer Marcelo Zarvos of “Wonder,” about a bright 10-year-old who suffers from a congenital facial deformity. “The music is mostly uplifting and bubbly. It’s first and foremost a story about a 10-year-old kid, and it was important to capture that.”
Brazilian-born Zarvos (whose credits include “Fences” and “The Good Shepherd”) had never scored a family film before, but knew to steer clear of the melodramatic or overly sentimental. As director Stephen Chbosky advised: “We have the ‘sad’ down, so let’s get the ‘happy,’ ” Zarvos recalls.
Auggie, played by Jacob Tremblay, “is a very smart kid,” he adds. “His defense is his mind and his wit. We wanted the music to emphasize that — to celebrate his victories as much as his trials.” Piano (with the composer at the ivories) became the centerpiece of the score. Says Zarvos: “There was something about the simplicity of it and the lightness that felt just right.”