Apr 23, 2011

CLINT MANSELL (and Pyotr Tchaikovsky) / BLACK SWAN

If you went anywhere near a magazine stand, the television or the cinema last year, director Darren Aronofsky’s psychological thriller Black Swan needs no introduction whatsoever.
One of the most anticipated films of 2010, Swan was one of the few films to actually live up to the buzz it generated before it’s release. The film graced us with wonderfully disturbing performances, beautifully shot and choreographed dance scenes, a strong sense of storytelling & direction and of course the much talked about psycho-sexual scene involving co-stars Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis.
Black Swan tells the story of a ballet dancer, Nina (played by Natalie Portman) who is so obsessed with being the best at what she does, she seems to lose focus of who exactly it is she’s trying to impress. With nearly every single scene shadowed with some sort of reflective surface, it gives off a feeling like eyes are always on her, whether it’s her own or an unseen audience only Nina knows. The few scenes that don’t feature a reflective surface are the sparse moments Nina seems to be at peace with herself. Each character in this tale are terrifyingly intimidating in their own way and most scenes are shot in a claustrophobic style, the entire film seems to suffocate you in such an unsettling and effective way, you’re almost glad it’s over, just so you can catch your breath and give some thought to what you’ve just seen.
Aronofsky’s disturbing style of storytelling has always been wonderfully complimented with the music of the former frontman of the alternative/industrial act “Pop Will Eat Itself”, Clint Mansell. After working with Aronofsky on all of his films starting with Pi in 1998, followed by Requiem For A Dream, The Wrestler and many more, Mansell’s made a name for himself in the film scoring business and to a certain degree the pop score industry too, along with John Murphy, Steve Jablonsky and Hans Zimmer. Showcasing his orchestral talents has been something Mansell has never really been able to do, apart from the impressive action score Sahara in 2005. Beyond that, he’s been mostly known to score with a prog-rock, minimalist method that seems to be quite favorable to the average music listener, thus setting him into the pop-score category. Using those same orchestral talents from Sahara, Mansell puts them to good use with Black Swan.
You couldn’t make a film with ‘Swan Lake’ serving as a backdrop and not include Tchaikovsky’s iconic music. What Mansell does here is he cleverly adapts and violently distorts it when the action onscreen deems it necessary. What is unclear for a great deal of the film (and very unsettling) is whether or not the score is what we the viewers are hearing as underscore or what Nina is constantly hearing in her head. The score seems to blur the lines of reality and storytelling with wonderful results. It’s actually very well done and thus Mansell receives top credit for using it in such manner.
By hardly changing a note in the actual "Swan Lake" moments in the score, Mansell manages to orchestrate it in such a way that it retains it’s beauty and easy flow but hints at discomfort and neurosis with some bizarre, yet small changes in the orchestration.
Like Nina, we get lost in the beauty of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and soon forget that we aren’t listening to it, until Mansell attacks us with threatening electronic slashes and crashes, immediately snapping us back into the cruel world that is depicted into the film. The very first thing we hear is “Nina’s Dream” which is a note for note adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s “Introduction” from the first act of his ballet. It doesn’t take long for Mansell to insert some unsettling effects to distract us from the beauty of the music and remind us of it’s not just about "Swan Lake". This cue just touches the edge of the different methods and techniques Mansell uses over the course of the film to engulf us into the insanity of the narrative.
While “Mother Me” doesn’t quote anything directly written by Tchaikovsky, Mansell manages to emulate his compositional style so well it’s almost as if the classical composer is haunting Nina even in the moments of her life that aren’t showcasing the ballet. Mansell uses this in a few cues later on and it works so well blending in with "Swan Lake", most reviewers and listeners didn’t even realize it was Mansell’s original work.
“A New Season” cleverly quotes only the first three notes of the 'Swan Theme' with a brass instrumentation and repeats it like a broken record, sounding somewhat incomplete but works quite well simultaneously.
My favorite cue throughout the entire album is “A New Swan Queen” because of the way Mansell adapted Tchaikovsky’s work and turned into something almost unrecognizable. For the first half he uses a portion of the fourth act in an uplifting manner but quickly changes things over into a rather sinister bit that is incredibly clever. While he does use Tchaikovsky’s music, he only uses the brass section from the first scene of the first act. While in it’s original context it’s quite delightful, here without the fluttery string and woodwinds it comes off as very scary in this version. A haunting descending piano motif comes into play as the percussion lightly taps away like something gnawing into your head. And on film “something” is gnawing into Nina’s head….Mansell uses this as Mother’s theme. Very creepsome.
The terrifyingly erotic “Lose Yourself” and “Opposites Attract” are the only two cues that are pure Mansell compositions, that instantly remind me of his scores for Smokin’ Aces and L’affaire Farewell. Making use of erratic electronic withering and synthetic textures, they serve as the only two scenes in the film where Nina completely forgets about her career and lets loose, only to face horrible consequences.
Mansell showcases his unique ability to shift from the inspirationally stimulating to downright creepy and discordant with ease in just flashes of second in “Night Of Terror”. This cue is what I believe defines Mansell’s score as a schizophrenic musical character in the film. It never really breaks but gives off a steam-rolling tension of ‘ready to snap’ at any given moment and that’s the general terrifying feeling the entire film seems to emit.
The beauty of "Swan Lake" and the grinding madness of Mansell’s Black Swan begin to meld together even more as we come closer to the end with “Stumbled Beginnings”, “It’s My Time” and “A Swan Is Born”. The lines begin to blur and everything becomes so insanely unpredictable that you keep waiting for it to let go and allow you to lose everything.
It all comes to a soaring, sweeping climax with the aptly titled “Perfection”. It’s perhaps the longest passage Mansell uses from the original "Swan Lake". Here he makes a bold, dominating statement with the Swan Theme that’s so magnificent and powerful you can’t wait to stand up and cheer before it’s over and the curtain closes.
While “Perfection” is the high point of the album it just doesn’t feel complete without “A Swan Song (For Nina)”. It sort of withers away and feels like a requiem for your sanity. It’s almost like one final exhale from all the tension that’s built up and slowly let loose as you watch the world fade away. Making use of some beautiful piano playing, it slowly becomes more morbid as Mansell adds in layers of unsettling dissonance, breaking glass (reflective surfaces, perhaps?), scattered cello chords and a very small hint of a dying heartbeat. It eventually envelops into a dark and very depressing closing that fades away in a cello hell that reminds me of Angelo Badalamenti’s darker scores for David Lynch.
In the end it is very apparent that Tchaikovsky’s "Swan Lake" takes center stage with this film but Mansell comes in every now and then and shatters the flow with such precision and violence it becomes a whole new monster of it’s own name.
It’s a shame, because of the use of non-original material, Black Swan was not eligible for awards and therefore Mansell remained empty-handed for one of his most innovative works to date. Of course, working in the business for so long, he would have realized that before he started and he still poured his heart and soul into this and that is good enough. It proves he’s not in it for the business but the music.
Clint Mansell created one of the most effective scores of 2010 and possibly one of the most controversial as well. Classical enthusiasts shunned it for messing with a classic and score enthusiasts shunned it for being too much like Tchaikovsky….I reward it with praise for having the balls to approach such a project.

4 **** out of 5

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