Wonderstruck (Carter Burwell) – Film Score Review

Anthony Aguilar reviews the score to Todd Haynes' upcoming Wonderstruck...

Composer: Carter Burwell
Label: Lakeshore Records
Tracks: 31

Brian Selznick is an author who is best known for his children’s books, most notably The Invention of Hugo Cabret. His book Wonderstruck is seen by many as a creative tour-de-force as he tells the imaginatively intertwining and emotional tale of two deaf children in two different time periods embarking on their own journeys of mystery and discovery, along the way unearthing revelations from their past and present that change their lives. Director Todd Haynes of Far From Heaven, Mildred Pierce, and Carol fame tackled the 2017 film adaptation of the much-venerated book, retaining Selznick as writer. Given that Haynes has a demonstrated skill for period pieces, Wonderstruck seems right up his alley since the film journeys both to the ’20s and the ’70s.

Taking advantage of the different time periods with creative abandon, Haynes and cinematographer Edward Lachman opted to film the two storylines according to the styles of their respective time periods. The scenes from the ’20s are filmed in black-and-white while the ’70s scenes are filmed using a visual style reminiscent of many films of that era. In like manner, the B&W scenes from the 20s feature a nearly uninterrupted, wall-to-wall traditional orchestral score while the ’70s scenes feature more rugged instrumentation filled with synths and electric guitar. While this combination of musical styles might seem like an impending disaster on paper, on album the two styles come together to form a whole that is amazingly coherent, moving, and beautiful.

Carter Burwell composed the score for this film and from the rhythmic patterns to his recognizable style of simple, lilting string writing, Wonderstruck has Burwell’s unique style stamped all over. If the film has not exactly garnered universal praise from critics, the same can not be said of Burwell’s musical score. Multiple film reviewers have singled out the score as one of the distinct highlights of the movie, with perhaps the highest praise coming from Richard Lawson of Vanity Fair, stating that Burwell’s music is “utterly captivating” and “the true star of Wonderstruck,” and that “the film is at its best when it lets itself be swept up in the majesty and mystery of Burwell’s compositions.” Upon listening to the soundtrack album it becomes apparent what these film critics are speaking about in their effusive praise.

Much of the film’s story is told through the eyes of one of the film’s deaf runaways named Rose. As her part of the story is mostly silent, Burwell was tasked with bringing her story to vivid life through music. As such, the score needed to musically speak to the audience for the character, to be her voice, becoming an utterly integral and inseparable aspect of the film. Burwell’s response to this challenge was to compose a poignant, tender score which never misses an emotive beat. While these parts of the film are silent, unlike silent films of old, Burwell wisely avoids writing music which responds to every single action on screen, opting instead to write music which speaks to the sentiments and emotions underlying the narrative and characters.

The resulting score is in some ways similar to James Newton Howard’s score for the 2004 film Lady in the Water. Listeners will remember how Howard’s music took center stage in many key sequences, utilizing rhythm, creative percussion, and a simple yet moving theme to speak for the main character and her plight when she herself could not speak. Burwell takes a similar approach here, especially regarding rhythm.

There is a near-constant rhythmic flow to the music, a sense of movement created in many cues by solo instruments like a harp or piano especially when the main theme is being stated. This aspect provides an occasionally mesmerizing sense of forward motion matching the main characters’ journeys yet also maintains the balanced similitude needed of a film where entire sections are silent and devoted to a single character (as opposed to the more physical, mickey-mousing approach that could have been taken). Burwell’s usage of percussion is also incredibly creative, utilizing some specialty instruments to give a fantastical and occasionally otherworldly feel to the music in cues like ‘Silent Whispers’, ‘Dioramas’, and the delightfully playful ‘Rose in the Cabinet of Wonders’.

There is another slightly less prominent side to the score that represents the side of the film set in the 70s. As explained above, Burwell opted to utilize electric guitars, synths and bass for these sections. Cues like ‘Coming to Ground’ and ‘Wolves’ present this opposing style in full force. While it is certainly jarring at first, it is gradually and very subtly interwoven with the more melodic side of the score in certain cues like ‘The City and The Stars’. Ultimately even with these two seemingly opposing styles the score comes out feeling like one cohesive work, a testament to the composer’s skill.

Burwell anchors much of the score with a main theme that gives this music much of its heart and soul. The theme is very simple, making ample use of repeated notes, yet is also very tender, lilting, and at times heart-wrenching. Burwell truly shows his command of the craft in that while the theme is certainly distinctive and memorable, it is also malleable enough to convey several differing emotions at varying points in the score.

In ‘Silent Whispers’ it is lilting and whimsical, full of wonder (no pun intended) while in ‘Talking Pictures’ it is given a more solemn, piano-led treatment. In ‘Runaways’, one of the most impressive cues on the album, the theme is turned into a more weighty affair, soaring on strings with urgency and dramatic beauty. In other cues still it is a heartbreaking theme of sorrow. The way Burwell manipulates the theme to fit various moods and emotions over the course of the score is truly masterful, taking it from a tear-jerking theme of loss and sadness in one moment to a statement of joy in the next.

There are a handful of other thematic identities that weave their way in and out of the score. Most notable is another fanciful theme based around multiple sets of repeated notes which seems to specifically apply to Rose. It can be heard dominating cues like the utterly fantastic ‘The Museum Beckons’ where it seamlessly leads into a stunning piano performance of the main theme. It is only occasionally given a thoroughly major-key treatment like in the nostalgic, conclusive ‘The City and The Stars’. Also notable is a somewhat regal motif given an enchanting yet inspiring workout in ‘Little Girl, Big City’ as and reprised in Vince Guaraldi-esque ‘My Mother’s Advice’.

Overall, while there are a few weaknesses, like the relatively short track lengths, such issues are very minor compared to the overall strength of Wonderstruck. There are many moments when it feels like this was a labor of love on the part of all involved. A great amount of thought was clearly put into the structure and thematic arrangement of the score and the results are often utterly captivating. With a main theme that is a clear winner on all fronts, gorgeous dramatic writing, some creative compositional techniques, and an overall feel of childlike, dramatic wonderment, Burwell has composed one of his strongest, most highly recommended scores of 2017.

Wonderstruck: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack is released digitally on Lakeshore Records on 20th October.

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