Feb 12, 2011

RAVENOUS - Damon Albarn & Michael Nyman

Cannibalism is weird.
It's even weirder the way it's portrayed in the 1999 horror/black comedy Ravenous, by English director Antonia Bird, based loosely on the cannibalistic murders of the infamous Donner Party incident.
Ravenous was a narrative mess that is never quite sure what sort of film it's supposed to be, meandering back and forth between pure horror and oddly misplaced comedic moments. This gross-out Civil War cannibal piece stars a slew of cult favorite actors, including The Proposition's Guy Pearce, Trainspotting's Robert Carlyle, Beetlejuice's Jeffrey Jones, LOST's Jeremy Davies, Band Of Brother's Neal McDonough and in what I suspect was the studio's last minute addition to cash in on the Scream franchise hoopla, David Arquette.
Macedonian director Milcho Manchevski of the wonderful and overly under appreciated Before The Rain was originally on board but was fired by the studio two weeks into filming deep in the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia and was quickly replaced by Robert Carlyle's Priest director, Antonia Bird. This might be one of the main reasons Ravenous appears so uneven and awkwardly bizarre in many moments. That and the actors were given free range to do what they wanted, including choreographing their own climatic fight scene, which is surprisingly quite effective. Another up in the air element to the film was in many of the scenes the actors were allowed to make way with their own dialogue, resulting in the main character of the film not uttering a complete sentence until thirty minutes into the film, while many of the other characters mumble incoherently for the most part.
Over the years since it's release, Ravenous has garnered a rather strong cult following and it's well deserved. It really is a strange mess of a movie and a lot of the stranger elements I don't believe are intentional. As a movie, it might not be the greatest or most memorable, as an experience it is one of the oddest and more disturbing ones to leave you feeling completely vulnerable, in such a way not really felt since Deliverance or the original The Hills Have Eyes.
As equally deranged is the avant-garde score dually composed by Damon Albarn who is the mastermind behind the virtual, trip hop, comic book-esque musical project, known as the Gorillaz and the minimalist composer, Micheal Nyman, known best for the biopunk sci-fi flick Gattaca and the New Zealand 19th Century drama The Piano.
The writing process was not really a collaboration between the two, as neither actually sat in a room and wrote together. The score was actually composed with each artist writing specific pieces and then orchestrated by Nyman once all the composing was complete. Damon Albarn wrote about sixty percent of the music and Nyman came in at the last minute and filled in the blanks. Together they recorded and produced the score, in which they both realized that they wished they had spent more time composing together as well.
First up is one of Micheal Nyman's more humorous contributions to the film, a very fitting period piece: a rearrangement of the original U.S. National anthem, "Hail Columbia". It starts off as a proud brass and woodwind set, if not a little off tune. As it progresses it slowly disintegrates into slop and is eventually taken over by a rather charming performance by a banjo and a slightly off key violin. What's interesting about this piece and it's two counterparts on this album, "Welcome To Fort Spencer" and a rearrangement of Stephen Foster's "Noises Off" is that they are played by a group of non-musicians, Nyman had assembled called "The Foster's Social Orchestra". The results are hilarious and quite frankly sound worse than any high school band I've ever heard.
If you all ready hate what you're hearing, then Ravenous is clearly, without any doubt, not your thing. I'd probably go find something else to listen to, because it only gets weirder and even more challenging.
Next up is one of my personal favorites off the album, a progressive composition called "Boyd's Journey". It starts off with a pleasantly grating banjo plucking, repeating the same descending two notes over and over again. It develops a bit more with every other bar, adding in a squeeze box accordion, a bassoon, a fiddle, a violin and a tuba mixed very distantly into the background. As pleasant (and to many, really annoying) as this track is, it's got a somewhat somber feel to it, foreshadowing the dark, downward spiral this adventure will be taking the listener on. This is the first cue that caught my ear upon my initial viewing of the film and I absolutely hated it. Overtime it began to grow on me, as I peeled off the layer of happiness it portrays to the naked eye and found a rather sad and lonely emotional core hidden underneath.
"Colquhoun's Story" is the highlight of the entire score, in my humble opinion. It starts off with that cute squeeze box accordion again, that seems harmless and somehow comedic but within seconds it doesn't sound so humorous anymore as you realize it is on a maddening loop that is both hypnotizing and effectively eerie. A banjo, a pan flute and a sustained violin note creep into the mix with ease and wonder and is quickly joined by a slew of other instruments creating a powerful feeling of dread and terror as it explodes from all sides in it's final minute. It is apparent that the funny is no more....for now.
"The Trek" and "He Was Licking Me" (yuck) are the first tracks on the album that are quite obviously composed by Michael Nyman. They swell and create a sort of emotionally deep, yet distant backdrop to the palette we've been introduced to all ready. While they are the closet thing to a traditional score in this film, they still manage to stand out as well, with the obscure uses of the banjo and bassoons.
"The Cave" is similar to "Colquhoun's Story" in that it slowly develops through strange loops and little subtle elements that creak back and forth, creating a wonderful sense of tension and suspense. There's some beautiful percussive work near the middle of this eight minute opus that is reminiscent of Danny Elfman's Night Breedscore, which builds itself up with crude intensity. Along for the ride is a swaying brass section that would normally sound funny one it's own but is simply far from anything remotely humorous. An interesting thing about this track, which is an obvious Albarn composition, it contains sampled loops from Nyman's rejected score from the light-hearted Sandra Bullock comedy, Practical Magic. So, if you want to stretch the truth a bit, one might consider this to be the closet thing to a Albarn and Nyman joint effort.
"Run" plays like a hilarious hillbilly foot-stomping good time, with some smile inducing vocal "woo-hoos" to boot. You wouldn't think someone was having his intestines eaten out of him during this scene in the film, but it happens and it is the perfect example of what this film and score is.
"Let's Go Kill That Bastard" takes some of the instrumental elements and textures Albarn introduced to the table and allows Nyman to really let it soar, with some interesting electronic work and a high end violin crescendo, intensified with some well placed jolts amongst the mix. It grabs very tightly onto your emotions, dragging them along rather fiercely and doesn't let up for a moment, aside from two slight pauses that just teases you into thinking "whew".
"The Pit" is as equally hypnotizing as some of the other hypno-tracks on this album, only in a much different way. It gracefully offers it's hands to you and sweeps you up into a haunting, moonlit waltz of see-sawing strings and a plucky harp, that feels like time has slowed down.
Although "Martha & The Horses" follows some of the rhythmic characteristics of Albarn's work on this score, I'm not sure who actually composed this one, as it also has the intense orchestrations Nyman's produced for previous film projects. A deeply reverberated drum tap teeters back and forth on a loop with some immensely disturbing piano work that reminds me of a lower end, detuned rendition of the "house" theme from John Carpenter's Halloween score. This track is the first cue that truly sounds like it's in the mind of homicidal maniac. It actually makes me quite uncomfortable, which is impressive considering some of the disturbing "arts" I surround myself with.
The second track the creeps me out to no end is the near nine minute climatic piece "Saveoursoulissa". A heavily electronically loop that slowly develops into a wall of terrifying sonic madness. The opening loop is a sample from Jon Brion's Magnolia score and it's used so well and in a completely different context, I almost want to cry from the sheer terror it projects. A very subtle haunting solo female voice enters into the mix, along with a rather prominent Jew Harp that quivers like a fluttery insect crawling up your leg. A very low vocal chanting is skillfully brought into the mix, building itself up with such precision and skill it reminds me of Jerry Goldsmith's "Ave Satani" from The Omen. "Saveoursoulissa" is pure evil and dread composed with magnificent perfection and intelligence. I don't even want to know what kind of head space Albarn got into, to develop such raw and controlled emotion.
I should note that there is a small difference between the North American and U.K. release of the soundtrack album. The U.K. release omits three score tracks and replaces them with three William Orbit remixes that aren't great, but are an interesting listen if you can track them down in MP3 form.
Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman have created an extremely impressive experimental score that is so tangled up and twisted, like the movie itself, that I can't just recommend this to everybody. If you've got an extremely eclectic taste and a great sense of patience, it really pays off with multiple listens.
The album presentation itself could have done with a few tracks and minutes shaved off, but I would assume it would be a difficult task to perform, when you're attempting to represent two different composer's work equally on the album.
It's weird, funny, scary and confusing, but what else could you do with the cannibalistic source material?
So, in closing: Bon App├ętit. :)

**** out of 5

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