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The Book of Eli - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Soundtrack Review

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by Chris McEneany Jan 31, 2010

  • Movies review

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    The Book of Eli - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Soundtrack Review

    Here we go again, folks ... we're wandering the musical wasteland once more.

    To be perfectly honest with you, I doubted very much that I would be moved all over again by the score for another post-apocalyptic movie so quickly after the last couple (Panic In Year Zero and The Road) to actually write about it. But here we are now, sitting on the fringe of yet another bleak, barren and utterly dangerous landscape, filled with the dregs of a civilisation gone almost all the way to Hell, and back again. The Hughes Bros quasi-religious Western parable, The Book Of Eli, is built around a central conceit that takes in elements of Children Of Men, Mad Max 2, Shane, Fahrenheit 451and even Apocalypse Now, amongst many other end of the world scenarios. Bolstered by big stars and its makers' hip credentials, this seemed like something to really look forward to. The trailers boasted wrath and thunder and some mean kick-assery. But the truth of the matter is that the movie they have come up with is also fundamentally flawed and a massive let-down. I can't recall being so bored by a major feature for a long time.

    Perhaps I feel too spoilt by The Road to really appreciate The Book Of Eli as a film. Sure the wandering samurai notion is appealing - no-one loves violent confrontations of the one-man-against-many style more than me - as is the whole fantastical/philosophical take on rebuilding the West, and the film is certainly a visually captivating delight (if you like ashen, bleached-out photography, that is), but I was utterly unmoved by the quest, untouched by the narrative and wholly unenthusiastic about any of the characters, be they good (well, it's debatable, actually, if any really are) or bad. Denzel Washington gives typical gravitas to his role as the man with a mission, but the encounters he gets embroiled in become boringly repetitious and the film is, paradoxically, much drearier than the more intentionally harrowing The Road, from John Hillcoat. Washington's dead-calm dead-shot, Eli, is nothing more than Shane, Yojimbo or The Man With No Name, for all intents and purposes. The blighted landscape that he trudges across on his remorseless journey west is just a desaturated child borne out of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. The shades of empire-building that Gary Oldman's detestable tome-addict, Carnegie, promotes, via barter, intimidation and sheer mob-rule, are nothing more or less than the same old frontier ways just dusted-up and celebrated with his utterly contrived quest to find the Book, the Good Book, that is, and not The Da Vinci Code - the one thing that his roving road-gangs of rapists and murderers simply cannot come up with, and, naturally, the one thing that the noble machete-wielding, gun-slinging nomad, Eli, has got in his backpack. And will kill to protect.

    To be honest, the set-up is really just an excuse for a few scrappy skirmishes that wouldn't have looked out of place in an early 80's Italian post-Armageddon flick from Enzo G. Castellari, something akin to The New Barbarians or The Bronx Warriors, just dressed up with cooler stars, more fancy fight choreography and a shedload more sunglasses. And if the Hughes Bros had just left it at that, we'd have been fine. But instead they concoct some truly risible theological poignancy regarding Man's destiny and the saving of civilisation that is really kindergarten stuff and very patronising. Having the likes of Ray (Punisher) Stevenson, Tom Waits, Malcolm McDowell and even Michael Gambon and Frances De La Tour involved lends it no unorthodox chic either. In fact, the long-wigged McDowell is like a more monastic variation of Michael Caine's hippy, Jasper, from Cuaron's excellent Children Of Men. Their film tries to carry a message, much the same way that Eli, himself, does, but when the time comes for its eventual and massively signposted delivery, you run the risk of having already sold-out to the Land of Nod.

    But at least the brothers would have supplied a good score for such a heavy and portentous action-sermon, wouldn't they?

    Ahh, well, folks ... not quite.

    This is the type of score that you get from Cliff Martinez and David Julyan when cross-pollinated with Vangelis. We are in the land of endless glassy textures, lost without a map. Thematically, there really isn't much at work. This is ambient underscore, overscore, almost complete score-bore, that pulsates steadily and richly, but does not commit itself to the creation of any one direct leitmotif. But whereas many such scores that choose to go down this densely energised path become depressingly singular and moody without any empathetic connection, Ross constructs a milieu that he would clearly wish was as nourishing as Zimmer's extraordinary muzak for Terence Malik's The Thin Red Line or Mark Isham's for The Hitcher. Or anything from Tangerine Dream. However, barring some sporadically and, I'll admit, terrific passages along the way, this is nowhere near as good as any of them.

    In fact, watching the film leaves you with the distinct impression that there was hardly any music in it at all, so slow, sparse and ambient is the collage of textures and languid mood-scapes that adorn it. No doubt the Hughes Bros are happy with it, and it certainly fits the monotonous and dusty trail that the narrative marches along. But it simply isn't memorable in any way, shape or form. From Hell, the last movie that the siblings made before this - which was a long time ago - had a terrific score from Trevor Jones that not only complemented the film and the story it embraced, but made for a great album in its own right, barring that ludicrous track from Marilyn Manson. Incidentally, Atticus Ross, together with his brother Leopold both composed the score the Hughes' TV show Touching Evil, with Atticus having served his time already as a programmer and producer for the likes of Nine Inch Nails, Pink, Korn and even Grace Jones. Together with Clauydia Sarne, both siblings work on this score. However their collaborative process with the directors may have worked, though, it would seem that the Hughes boys were much more preoccupied with their stark imagery and rather condescending dialogue than in developing a musical narrative to either promote or accentuate their ideas.

    Things start off well. Panoramic, Track 1, is ethereal, shimmering and wonderful, an epic 7-minute trance-fugue of gently undulating tones that weave sinuously around swooning keyboard, piano and synthesiser. This is the kind of thing that, provided you are in the right mood, just sets you off on one of those late 70's, early 80's progressive/experimental sessions of musical embroidery, literally a dreamscape that paints its own pictures in your mind. There are vague jangles and pulses resonating herein. The theme is bliss, a sort of dark, painfully awakened bliss and it is easily the highpoint of the album. And that's the first track, folks.

    Track 2, Outland, complete with haunting wind effects to depict the hostile desert terrain, is reminiscent of The Road in its introductory section. A mournful piano serenades the arid desolation, a simple and plaintiff resonance before swirling electronica floats across the top and harsh, cold sweeping pulses rise and fall. A curious little rattling sound - chains, a scattering of coins - ripples about as the piece plays to a close. The Journey, which follows, provides a world-weary lament that figures primarily for synth and what sounds like a sampled choir embedded somewhere deep within. Strings then arrive to provide a swishing propulsion.

    Amen, Track 4, is another good one. There is darkness here. A raucous, brazen roll of brass leads the way, crashing down through the cue with remorseless, crushing energy. This is only a short cue, but there is evil coursing through it. Depth is the key here, and this track sifts the very silt of the Pit. The Convoy then shifts gears to deliver a pounding beat, with drum loops and electronic percussion weighting it down. Industrial guitars rip away in the background and then grungy wind channels spin and echo into the fade. Hushed anguish and factory-floor warbles, samples and off-kilter tones shriek and groan in Solara Violated, while soft, billowing electronica is the antidote for such trauma in Safe. Perhaps fittingly, that old “Bladerunner magic” coats the next track, entitled Human. Chains rattle in the dusty background as a mournful piano contemplates what is worth saving and why Eli should continue with his task. Something that sounds likes the munching of a biscuit introduces the following piece, but such unusual experimentation soon gives way to meandering menace and brooding tones. By now, you realise that no discernible theme will emerge from this score which, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing. The “musique concrete” of Christopher Young for Invaders From Mars was perfectly fine, and certainly captured something totally alien and abstract with its amoral, otherworldly discord. Richard Band accomplished similar things for From Beyond and The Caller. And the scores for both Solaris and Moon managed to be beautiful, evocative and haunting as well as being tonally metronomic and ambient. The key, almost certainly, is in having some form of theme running through. It is by no means essential but, without one, something such as Eli begins to do little other than meander from brooding to ethereal and back again, with no real hook, or tangible substance flowing along with it.

    Sadly, the rest of the album moves on along these lines. Walls of shimmering sound permeate. Tones float and drift. A pervasive atmosphere of dreamy melancholy takes hold, and the score flits from dark to, well, less dark with each successive track. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis created a work of simple and dazzling beauty with their music for The Road out of very similar source material, their eventual choices echoing spiritual blight and the collapse of humanity, yet their score also offered more hope, more euphoria and more character than anything that Ross is able to inject into a score for a film that, genuinely, does offer hope and euphoria.

    Track 14, Convoy Destruct, belies its title and produces that transcendental cloud of electronic soul that we heard way back at the start. Now this is great, but the thing is, we've heard it before. Movement, coming next, shuffles wind and distant drum reverbs, as exotic synth strains rise and fall. This, too, is quite effective as it mingles both a lighter touch alongside the darker elements for Carnegie and his henchmen. The Purpose, the final track, then trundles out an epitaph so wafer-thin and soulless that it sounds like the type of hopelessness that should have been serenading The Road instead.

    All this just leaves you wondering what the point of it was. With no musical connection to the story or the characters, both film and album fall totally flat and belly-up in the post fallout sun. And despite some spoilerific track titles, it is actually hard to remember just when and how a lot of this music actually even figures in the movie. Obviously, there may be elements on this album that were dropped from the final film, as well as elements that have been conjoined or remixed, but the movie just didn't appear to have much score in it at all.

    Either way, this album from Atticus Ross is full of lost promise. The most meagre hints of grandeur are lost much too easily amid ambience of the most insipid and featureless design. The heavily religious themes of the story are cast to the post-holocaust winds, and the gleam of salvation becomes almost as dank and squalid as the desperation that precedes it. I don't doubt for a moment that there are those out there who will enjoy this, but I found nothing of power, beauty or excitement within it. Therefore, I cannot recommend this score in the least.

    Full Track Listing

    1. Panoramic 7.11

    2. Outland 3.07

    3. The Journey 4.26

    4. Amen 1.50

    5. The Convoy 1.50

    6. Solara Violated 1.04

    7. Safe 1.22

    8. Human 2.06

    9. Meant To Be Shared 2.45

    10. The Passenger 1.55

    11. Den Of Vice 2.14

    12. Gattling 1.23

    13. Blind Faith 2.00

    14. Convoy Destruct 4.54

    15. Movement 3.04

    16. Carnegie's Demise 3.36

    17. The Purpose 1.59


    Verdict

    And so this musical trilogy of apocalyptic odyssey draws to a close.

    We've looked at Les Baxter's jazzy driven vibe for Panic In Year Zero, the hauntingly tragic melodies of The Road from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and now the exotic, shimmering electronica from Atticus Ross. All different films, different characters, different scores. Their composers, however, all reflect upon the drama of upheaval, of loss, of terror and of how the human spirit copes amid such chaotic darkness. Of the three, it remains the epochal downfall of The Road as my personal favourite, both as a film and as a score. The Ross Bros and the Hughes Bros, here, deliver The Book Of Eli to the accompaniment of an ambient dirge - something that I don't usually mind but, as evidenced by this, it is painfully bland, dreary and almost totally lacking in anything more memorable than a turgid blanket of mixing desk morbidity. Given the nature of the story - action and optimism, villainy and redemption - this just has to be wrong.

    As I said in the main review, the film actually felt as though it contained far less music than we have here, but the end result is the same. The music leaves virtually no mark on you at all. As expertly produced as the album is, it becomes utterly boring and outstays its welcome rapidly. There is plenty of room for a combination of the industrial, the ethereal and the ambient, but I would never have thought that the trio, when thrown together like this, could be so colourless and bereft of character.

    The film is dry, bleak and actually quite stupid. The score cannot save it. The album possibly adds more material than heard in the movie - but, in this case, that is not a welcome proposition.


    The Rundown

    Movie

    3

    Overall

    3

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