With five Emmy nominations under its belt – including one for best documentary – Netflix’s “Wild, Wild Country” brings to life the incredible ‘80s tale of the Indian religious cult which set up camp in eastern Oregon, drawing the ire of the local community when they began to flex their muscle.
The six-part film was co-directed by brothers Chapman, 31, and Maclain Way, 27, with a score composed by older brother Brocker, 34, which will be released in both digital and vinyl form by hip Austin indie Western Vinyl Records on Sept. 21. A playlist featuring the songs used in the film has been posted on Spotify now for several months.
Music supervisor Chris Swanson, the co-founder of Secretly Canadian, used several of the prestigious label’s artists, most notably Bill Callahan, with the lyrics to his song “Drover” giving the documentary its evocative title.
“At its core, this is a quintessentially American story about a group of outsiders who come here in search of freedom and building their own utopia,” explains Chapman. “Brocker and I spent a great amount of time listening to Aaron Copland and Charles Ives scores which conjure up images of the West as this bastion of freedom. We also wanted to evoke the harsh terrain, the rugged mountains, the vast spaces, which are so unique to that Pacific Northwest area.”
In an otherwise sterling review of the song choices on “Wild, Wild Country,” which also included the likes of Damien Jurado, Kevin Morby, Timber Timber and Marlon Williams, Pitchfork accused Chapman’s score of being “somewhat histrionic… praised for heightening viewers’ connections to the show and criticized for manipulating them.”
Both brothers defend the original music, with Brocker insisting, “We’re trying to score the world as it is to these individual characters… their universe and how they seem themselves in it. The goal is not to suspend judgement on how these people are presented but allow them to have their individual say.”
“An Adventure of my Life” (listen below) demonstrates how Brocker Way used elements of both Bernard Herrmann dread and Aaron Copland uplift to his acclaimed score, reflecting the moral ambiguity of “unreliable narrators” and “ghost cowboys.” The composer tried to capture the inner lives of the characters, how they saw their roles in an epic tale.
“There’s a tendency to criticize all documentary scores as ‘manipulative,’ argues Chapman. “All filmmaking tools – cinematography, lighting, editing – are manipulative. They are all used to extract emotions from the audience. What we tried to do was capture the ambitions and insights of how our talking heads feel about their worlds, how they envision themselves, not how we as filmmakers view them. We’re not about to exploit emotions in a cheap way, but to create an immersive experience where you’re in the co-pilot’s seat with those witnesses. I allow the characters to lead the charge and leave what happens next a surprise.”
With all the moral ambiguity expressed in “Wild, Wild Country,” the music helps bring out the real motivations behind the doc’s series of what Chapman calls “unreliable narrators,” like Ma Anan Sheela, the Machiavellian secretary and close confident to the ruling Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who is seen both as a young firebrand and as an older head of her own health commune/hospice in Switzerland, where she remains in exile.
“Musically, we’re trying to find that gray area where we can support each of the talking heads and their vision, their ideologies – not mine as a filmmaker – to heighten their emotions,” says Chapman. “You have to listen to what they say and begin to make sense of them yourself. These musical cues aren’t telling you how we feel, or what you should feel. We wanted to create a piece of art where you truly don’t know what’s coming around the corner.”
The first collaboration between Chapman and his older brother occurred when they played in a musical duo, dubbed Chapman & Brocker, releasing their own album in 2007, with Chapman on guitar and trumpet and Brocker, who was also studying orchestral arranging at the time, on piano.
“Ironically, Chapman and I sent a demo to Western Vinyl,” said Brocker of the label which boasts the likes of critical darlings Dirty Projectors, Carolyn Says and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, and is also part of the Secretly Canadian distribution system.
Chapman points to the use of songs by Callahan, Morby and Jurado as part of the brothers’ idea of having “cosmic cowboys, ghosts of the old West,” narrating the story, with Brocker’s expansive score giving the documentary its sprawling, mythic feel.
The score contributes to the theme of outsiders seeking religious and cultural freedom, mirroring the pilgrims and settlers who originally founded this country in the first place. And the comparison is made even starker by the current political climate over immigration, pointing at the ultimate corruption of the American Dream.
Brocker, who was in the room with his brothers from day one, basically used a 12-piece orchestra, including a string quartet, two horns and two woodwinds, for the score, recording live for that classic organic feel, with dramatic composers like Bernard Herrmann, John Barry and Henry Mancini among the inspirations.
“Listening to the album now acts like a time-travel for me,” says Brocker, who was thrilled that the legendary Dave Cooley did the final mastering for vinyl “It’s hard for me to separate the score from the film, but I can now hear all these new things… like the rub of the strings. It’s certainly been an emotional roller-coaster.”