Amazon Video’s 2017 Comrade Detective series opened to positive reviews and its soundtrack has just been released to download. It has a clever premise: an 80’s Romanian communist buddy cop show, once thought long lost, has turned up and been dubbed into English by some pretty well-known actors (Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Chloe Sevigny are among the hefty English voice cast).
Tatum also ‘presents’ each episode with interviews conducted by Jon Ronson in which they discuss the show’s importance. Of course, it’s all made up, Comrade Detective is entirely fake. The show is a delightful post post-modern inverted parody of 80s American TV shows and films (think of Rocky IV and you get the picture) that were happy to trot out ill-informed anti-communist propaganda. Joe Kraemer, who scored Jack Reacher and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is on soundtrack duties.
The show’s clever concept, a parody of communist era TV shows that actually satirises American attitudes to the Eastern Bloc at the height of the cold war, could have potentially been a headache for Kraemer to score. Tone is everything – get it wrong and the whole thing falls apart. Mistake satire for comedy and the onscreen action becomes farcical. We aren’t here to laugh at the characters – the joke is on us. Also, over egg the music with lazy cold war Russian clichés, i.e, tripping over balalaikas and mandolins, and you undermine the strive for onscreen authenticity. After all, this is 1980’s Bucharest; Moscow is almost 1000 miles away. Kraemer knows that the characters on screen take their world seriously and he produces a score that respects that.
The entire score is built on a foundation of cellos and oboes and other instruments from the lower end of the musical scale. This allows a sense of portentous drama to build in the key scenes. It is reminiscent, in parts, of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet as well as Geoffey Burgon’s score for the original BBC adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. However, this is more about tone rather than style. Kraemer marries these dark, icy orchestral movements with a pitch perfect 80’s theme rhythm section. The bass and drums used through the score are very familiar, they have been heard a hundred times in a hundred different films or tv shows, but this is deliberate as we instantly place the world we are hearing. It is a subtle and skilful blending of musical styles. The opening theme (repeated also in the closing credits) is dramatic and dark, structured around the plunging repetitive rhythm of the cellos. The theme is broken down as a recurring leitmotif throughout, giving the score a consistent identity.
Kraemer is a skilful writer of action music. Obviously in a show about police officers there is going to be plenty of running and fighting and these scenes need music that “punches” (don’t groan). A large part of the soundtrack is really just chasing music – used when we see a character running. The composer keeps these sections tight and within the tonal framework of the overall theme. Kraemer also scores the inevitable emotional scenes with a sensitive touch using harps and electronic piano sounds. This gives lovely texture, although these moments are quite short.
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Kraemer obviously did his homework and listened to the East European composers who scored the kinds of programmes that Comrade Detective is based on. In particular Thirty Cases of Major Zemena from Czechoslovakia was a big influence on the writers. Zdenek Liska wrote the score for that and, although stylistically there are big differences, Kramaer captures a similar tone. There are also touches of Eduard Artemyev, Andrei Tarkovsky’s collaborator, who also scored many Russian tv programmes in the 70s and 80s. His soundtrack for Tass is Authorised to Declare is a clear influence.
However, although he kept within certain obvious tone palettes, Joe Kraemer avoided creating a soundtrack that exists only as a pastiche. He wisely chose to write and record a body of work that is familiar when it needs to be, takes us to where and when we need to go, but still sounds original. As with all the best soundtracks the music he has written supports the story onscreen perfectly, but also stands up to being listened to separately. It’s a thoroughly entertaining and engaging piece of music to download and listen to.