The Glass Castle – Film Score Review

Clara Cook reviews the score to The Glass Castle...

Composer: Joel P. West
Label: Milan Records
Tracks: 14
Running time: 41 minutes

The Glass Castle is a film based on the memoir of journalist Jeannette Walls, which tells of her unconventional nomadic and poverty stricken childhood with her siblings and dysfunctional parents. Actress Brie Larson portrays Walls and Woody Harrelson plays her alcoholic and free-spirited father. The film, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, has received mixed reviews so far in the US.

Joel P West, the composer of The Glass Castle score, marks his second creative project with director Cretton. They both worked together on Short Term 12, a film that also starred Brie Larson in the main role. For The Glass Castle, West has composed a rich, luscious and very romantic Hollywood-type of score with a bit of wildness and folksy America thrown in. His tracks are designed to reflect the characters’ experiences of growing up, but also Walls’ conflicted feelings regarding her childhood.

The score alternates between cheerful and melancholy. It contains songs and melodies that are full of longing, the tunes of home and of the past. It is a thoughtful score, at times reflective and quiet and at other times loud, boisterous and reminiscent of communal folk music, with fiddle, guitars and tambourines peaking through on some of the tracks.

American folk music has always traditionally been a genre of music that people could sing along to or songs that they would sing while working. West has captured this in a cover of Cole Porter’s ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ sung with longing by Darla Hawn. Singer and actor Roy Rogers made the song famous in 1944 as a cowboy tune. Darla Hawn sings it like it is a melancholy lullaby sung to a small child, again linking the music to the film’s themes of childhood, lost innocence and memory.

The other song on the soundtrack is Joel P West’s ‘Summer Storm.’. It is a Country style song, evocative of rural America. It contains a main male vocal (West himself) and a female harmony vocal. The tune is played out by an acoustic guitar, a pedal steel guitar, a bass drum, handheld bells and some accompanying synthesised strings. It is set in a two-time beat; a slow and steady walking pace. It contains some clever lyrics about free-living country dwellers versus city dwellers who aren’t in touch with nature and don’t understand the rhythms of the land. They harm the land without really understanding its value. The song has a folksy melody played out on a fiddle and this breaks the song free from the repetitive trudging of the guitar and bass drum continuo. The song has an almost ‘chain gang’ feeling and is reminiscent of other tunes on soundtracks such as T Bone Burnett’s Oh Brother Where Art Thou.

The rest of the tracks on the soundtrack are instrumental, but no less evocative. The track ‘Real School’ uses a full classical orchestra while maintaining the two time rhythm of ‘Summer Storm.’ The cello’s have a repetitive rhythm that suggests momentum and excitement and the melody played by violins are accompanied by horns. It is reminiscent of the big musical themes of old Wild West soundtracks filled with adventure and reflecting a feeling of optimism and potential.

Track 9, ‘Maroon Wave,’ starts with a lonely guitar solo which stops and starts and picks out a melody in minor key to a three-four time rhythm. String instruments come in with crunch chords (dissonant harmonisation) and reflect a mournful and subdued mood.  A dulcimer is introduced into the tune and meets the guitar. They intertwine and dance and twist around one another in a sad waltz. The use of the dulcimer, a traditional American folk music instrument is especially effective in reflecting the theme of old folk tunes.

One of the most effective tracks on the album is ‘Rich City Folk.’ Here, Joel P West has composed a track with a full orchestra reflecting the contrast between the urban dwellers of a city and the rural American upbringing of the film’s main character. A dulcimer is used again in pulsing pedal notes leading to a rich vibrant sound, that builds suspense, over which horns and upper strings exchange the melody back and forth.  A piano and yearning minor chords played on strings accompany the orchestra. The dulcimer is played over the strings in falling notes and shimmers like rain in a city. An autoharp continues with pedal notes like a clock ticking suggesting the ebbing of time and the rush hour in a city.

Joel P West’s score is ultimately a romantic one. It swells and sways with each track and is pleasing on the ear. There has been some criticism of the film in America. It has been accused of sanitising Jeannette Walls’s memoir, turning a harsh, traumatic childhood into something more idyllic and sentimental. The soundtrack itself reflects a melancholy but ultimately romanticised view of the past and although this is a lovely and gentle score to listen to, it perhaps accompanies the themes of the film itself rather than shedding any light on Walls’ hard won insight into her childhood as described in her original memoir.

The Glass Castle: Original Score is now available from Milan Records.

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