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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford - Music from the Motion Picture Soundtrack Review

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by Chris McEneany Feb 5, 2008

  • Movies review


    The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford - Music from the Motion Picture Soundtrack Review
    With a movie that is as deliberately melancholy, meandering and reflective as The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis had to come up with a score that would fit the emotional and psychological plight of the title characters as snugly as a glove. With a previous western-style melodrama already under their collective belt, John Hillcoat's fantastic Aussie-oater The Proposition, it was hardly surprising that director Andrew Dominik and star/producer Brad Pitt approached the former Bad Seeds duo to concoct such a darkly lyrical and gently portentous score. Mixing existential moods and tonal reverie to scintillatingly spooky perfection, they weave a mesmerising spell of soft lament and atmospheric mental-murk, exploring the internal contradictions of the notorious outlaw and, especially, his obsessed wannabe-friend-cum-murderer as the two collide on the road to historical infamy. The overriding impression that the album plants in the mind is of the aching passion of two blinkered, paranoid and fiercely devoted individuals straddling the fault-line between myth and reality. It incorporates instrumentation of the era - fiddles, accordions, violas, jaw-harp, celeste and triangle etc - but avoids every single cliché that this type of setting would normally inspire. The film is not a Western in the conventional sense, therefore it does not receive the conventional type of score. But, unlike Marco Beltrami's excellent (and, if I'm honest, more enjoyable) quasi-homage to the genre with his work on 3.10 To Yuma (reviewed separately), it wavers into much more authentic, folk-flavoured territory. As such, like the film as well, the experience may well be an acquired taste. But for each person who finds it off-putting, another will be entranced by its yearning observation of doomed mythology.

    Based on Ron Hansen's novel of the same name, Dominik's sophomore film (after an audacious debut with Chopper) is a hypnotic ode to the dying days of, not the Wild West, but of the wild ways of Jesse James and a meditation on the nature of celebrity and its inevitable fall-out. With performances that are universally spellbinding and a wilfully elegiac nature that defies pigeon-holing, the story is lent an art-house vibe by slowly unfolding its drama, intense character study and pastoral aesthetic with heartrending conviction and shuffling, non-linear approach that, to be fair, left many cold and twitchy. But, get it and the story becomes a living, breathing journey into the dark heart of friendship and obsession. Justifiably lauded, the movie's impact is unarguably cemented by a score that also refuses to play by the rules.

    This is a difficult album to discuss track by track, as I would normally do, because it doesn't chop and change styles, doesn't deviate from its tragic and forlorn trajectory but, instead, maintains an aura of slowly unveiling conscience, almost like the guilty down-time after an act of violence or a musical confession, say. Very similar in tone to Cliff Martinez's score for the George Clooney remake of Solaris, the entire piece plays out in a soft, continuous ballad. Only the likes of Cowgirl and the later Carnival strike a different chord, but not in the way that their titles would suggest, with only the barest upturn in tone hinted at. Otherwise, this is dark stuff that hides its dangers beneath a deceptive calm of tranquil harmony. I was constantly reminded of a piece of music that, if it existed, would sound just like this - imagine, if you will, composer Trevor Jones had incorporated a slow, gutted romanticism to capture the shock and futility after the massacre of the redcoats and their families in The Last Of The Mohicans. It would have found its genesis here in the harder-hearted futility of Assassination.

    Now if all this sounds like one big miserable slog - and my wife, upon hearing this score, certainly thought so, calling it a dirge, in fact - it isn't, but it does gleefully wallow in painful sentiment and the crushing bitterness of a destiny that will not provide the goal that anybody in the film seeks. One reviewer has likened the soundtrack to that of Antonia Bird's offbeat horror-western Ravenous - but this is, quite frankly, way off the mark. Ravenous' score -which is a firm favourite of mine - from Blur's Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman is an eclectic and hugely diverse series of ambient-cum-frightening-cum-percussive-overdrive compositions that may carry a melancholic thread and some truly ominous undertones but, there, the similarity stops dead. Naturally and deliberately, one must assume, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis are paying their dues to the great Ry Cooder, whose own acoustic and folk-evocative score for Walter Hill's more action-packed Jesse James saga, The Long Riders, this most clearly recalls. Even Cooder's score for Hill's later Southern Comfort - which might as well be a Western for all its swamps and M16 rifles - has much in common with this measured and unshowy musical probing of changing times and the damage they cause to corruptible souls. Gently twiddled strings hark out a pining for the seasons, clearly conjuring the wind and rain-swept vistas that stretch out across Pitt's thousand-yard-stare as the increasingly suspicious and paranoid Jesse James wiles away his last days and weeks in slow-burn agitation. A banjo recalls happier times. Edgy strings and a soothingly tapped piano serenade an almost subliminal beat that gradually becomes deeper and more emphatic as the drawn-out confrontation between Ford and his hero continues. Treachery is heralded with the beautiful tinkling of celeste and triangle, perfectly capturing the intimacy and agony of moral conflict, broken dreams and the fragility of devotion. A searing string section carries notes for so long that they resemble all of Jesse's alliances becoming stretched beyond his ability to control them.

    Watching the film, I fell instantly in love with the score. Both movie and music were a marriage made in Heaven. The film is a triumph as far as I am concerned, but it would be nowhere near as effective without the accompaniment of Cave and Ellis, who are fast becoming the people to turn to when you want existential 19th Century ballads.

    Famously, the duo fashioned their score from the mood evoked by a recording of Brad Pitt repeating the same line over and over again for a minute, which would obviously explain the continual, slow-seeping spread of fate that underpins the story, the film and, as a direct consequence, the music. But even with such a single track of motivation coursing throughout the project, they still find the time to create two powerful themes that can't help but stand out. The first track, Rather Lovely Thing, is the poisoned blessing of Jesse's theme which plays out in an undemanding style that colours the character and his erratic, somewhat tenuous grasp on his own notoriety with beautiful, yet sorrowful insistence. Wisely, Cave and Ellis utilise this theme at other junctions throughout the score, reinforcing the man's honourably bleak outlook. The next stand-out, and simply the most magnificent track on the album, is actually the final cue - Song For Bob. Lasting just over six minutes, this is dependant on a measured but insistent theme that grows and grows over the duration, becoming the poetically tragic epitaph for Robert Ford. In the film, this plays over a montage of Ford's search for isolation - literally as well as figuratively - after having committed the deed that will damn him, and draws towards the inevitable climax that we, and he, all know is coming. Cut off from the visuals this track is just as remarkable. Never overblown, never doffing its cap to the conventions of a film's denouement, the cue is, nonetheless, remorseless and unyielding. I can't overstate the power of this one track to embrace every notion and theme that Dominik and Pitt embed within their film. Simply awesome. That earlier remark about The Last Of The Mohicans? Listen to this cue and you'll see what I mean.

    Nick Cave's rendition of the folk-ditty The Ballad Of Jesse James, as witnessed in his cameo in the film, is not to be found on the album. And this is a wise decision, I feel. The score is devoid of vocals and even a small song that may tell the tale and sum up the emotions of the characters successfully in the film would still feel out of place here amongst the languid introspection that dominates the soundtrack.

    The night I set aside to listen to this, I also listened to James Newton Howard's score for I Am Legend and it is truly remarkable how well the two works complement one another. Both are wistful and tragic. Both mourn for worlds and personalities that are on the brink of extinction. Both work supremely well on a level of pure emotion that refuses to be demonstrative or to take the easy option. Both resonate in the mind for a long time afterward, lingering like a memory you don't want to let go of, no matter how painful it is. A full review of Howard's score for I Am Legend will follow shortly, but I have to state that Dominik's The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford employs its composers' work far more effectively than the film of Legend does for Howard's. As it stands, this album is a note-perfect reproduction of the film's uneasy cadence - moving, whimsical and achingly prophetic. If you are a fan of the movie, then you can't help but love this score as it is so integral a part of it and the album stands up remarkably well on its own, too, becoming its own exquisite entity.

    Track Listing is as follows:

    1. Rather Lovely Thing (3.13)

    2. Moving On (2.32)

    3. Song For Jesse (2.35)

    4. Falling (2.54)

    5. Cowgirl (4.05)

    6. Money Train (2.38)

    7. What Must Be Done (1.57)

    8. Another Rather Lovely Thing (3.27)

    9. Carnival (2.52)

    10. Last Ride Back To KC (5.24)

    11. What Happens Next (2.08)

    12. Destined For Great Things (2.25)

    13. Counting The Stars (1.19)

    14. Song For Bob (6.03)


    Much like the film itself, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis supply a score that is sombre and melancholy, lyrical and meditative ... yet, all the while, retains a lilting dread and sense of foreboding. Ambient but accessible, dark and haunting, yet possessed of such period folk harmonies that the whole album feels as though it can effortlessly transport you to a bygone time. It is strange how the emotional side of the saga still comes through even shorn of the imagery and it is, indeed, difficult to listen to this without seeing Casey Affleck's adulation and eventual resentment as Ford, and Pitt's eternally staring, psychotic eyes as James within the aural landscape that was created to surround them.

    Intimate and mournful, The Assassination Of Jesse James is deceptively profound and quietly devastating. As I said earlier, the double-bill of this and James Newton Howard's I Am Legend score make curiously compatible bedfellows for a night of quiet reflection ... provided you are in the right mood.


    The Rundown





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