Goodbye Christopher Robin (Carter Burwell) – Film Score Review

Anthony Aguilar reviews Carter Burwell's score to Goodbye Christopher Robin...

Composer: Carter Burwell
Label: Sony Classical
Tracks: 26
Running time: 61 minutes

Goodbye Christopher Robin is a biopic depicting the life of writer A.A. Milne around the time he created the beloved character Winnie the Pooh. Some people may not be aware that the character of Christopher Robin was in fact based on a very real person (Milne’s son); fewer still are aware of the author’s difficult, PTSD-stricken backstory involving both world wars.

The story of Milne, his son, and Winnie the Pooh is intimately told (utilizing both fact and some fiction) in heartwarming fashion in Goodbye Christopher Robin. Along to score the movie is Carter Burwell, whose dramatic scoring chops need no introduction. While Burwell has scored several dramatic films in the past, his score for 2016’s The Finest Hours was truly exceptional and rightfully propelled him into many film music fans’ A-list. Turning down the bombast, Burwell gives us a more subdued dramatic score for Goodbye Christopher Robin.

Burwell’s music for the biopic is at turns whimsical, beautiful, tragic, and melancholic, with a few musical moments of upbeat joy. Strings and harp form the core of the score while piano and flute join the ensemble to provide several moments of beauty. While the score might not seem substantial at first, repeat listens reveal a well-thought-out, incredibly intricate tapestry of musically intertwining themes and motifs. Burwell’s music is brimming with both large and smaller-scale thematic ideas that reveal themselves more and more with each listen. Given the multiplicity of smaller recurring motifs, there are actually two main thematic identities at play through the length of the score, both of which are introduced in the first cue ‘Tree of Memory’.

The first is a somber tune consisting of a repeated three-note pattern that tends to mainly appear in the more overtly serious, dark moments of the score. Introduced on piano in the opening cue, Burwell very cleverly mutates and develops this theme throughout. While the theme is generally very serious, ‘First Night’ comes like a breath of fresh air as this cue presents this theme in a more upbeat, playful manner with harp and strings. It is given a much more dour, dark, string-led treatment in cues like ‘I’m Billy Moon, and I’ll Be Back Soon’ and ‘Private Milne’ before returning to its original piano-led treatment in the heart-wrenching ‘Billy Leaves’.

The second melody introduced in ‘Tree of Memory’ is the one that many will cite as the main theme, as it is the simplest and most recognizable theme in the score. It is built on two sets of four rising and falling notes that give way to an emotional, long-lined three-note passage which unambiguously resolves the theme in a major key. It is very warm and receives a few utterly gorgeous statements particularly near the final three cues.

It is certainly the main dramatic motif, giving this score much of its heart and emotional core. For those who tend to get misty-eyed when listening to these types of heart-wrenching scores, be warned: the moments that this theme reaches full steam in the final three cues on the album will just rip the tears from your eyes. While not as bombastic as something like James Horner’s Legends of the Fall, those passages form some of the most quietly emotional, gorgeous dramatic music of the year.

Elsewhere there are various little motifs that make repeat appearances throughout the album. Rachel Portman fans will delight in a jovial tune first introduced on flute in ‘Toys and Stars’. This theme reaches its most exquisitely Portman-esque heights in the stately, almost regal cue ‘Fame’. Fans of James Horner, though, will likely be torn right out of the listening experience when another recurring motif first appears at the start of ‘To the Zoo’. Complete with tinkling percussion, this theme is ripped nearly note-for-note out of Horner’s score for A Beautiful Mind. It is hard to deny its whimsical, fairy-tale-like effectiveness in this context, though, and Burwell uses the motif to great effect.

Overall, Carter Burwell’s score for Goodbye Christopher Robin is strong and full of whimsy, pathos and stirring beauty. Performed largely by strings, harp, and piano, this score will appeal to those looking for something a little smaller scale than the normal big Hollywood sound. That’s not to say that the score is always quiet, as fans of large scale dramatic scores will find moments to enjoy here as well. If you require bombast, sweeping scope, and large orchestras in your scores then steer clear. For everybody else, Carter Burwell has composed a real winner with his music for Goodbye Christopher Robin.

Goodbye Christopher Robin: Original Score is available on CD from Sony Classical from October 20th.

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