The six interlinking stories David Mitchell’s “unfilmable” 2004 novel CLOUD ATLAS make for a wild ride at the cineplex. Stories cut back and forth and actors inhabit multiple roles, crisscrossing generations and sexes. But directors/scriptwriters Lana and Andy Wachowksi and Tom Tykwer pull it off, with a surprisingly emotional payoff. The complicated, non-linear story structure meant Tykwer and co-composers Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil had to find the musical glue that binds the many storylines together.
As he had done on previous films such as PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER, Tykwer wanted the entire score recorded prior to filming. Tykwer, Klimek, and Heil composed the score over a period of several months leading up to the start of principal photography in September 2011. None of the six storylines or multiple characters get their own them. The team wrote a small number of themes then deconstructed and layered them on top of each other as adhesive for the multiple storylines. The team wrote over three hours of music. The recordings played during the actors’ first read-through of the script, as well as shooting and editing.
The film bookends with one of three main themes in the score. The tender piano melody of the “Cloud Atlas March” serves as everything from the primary theme for Frobisher’s (Ben Whishaw) work with the elderly composer Vyvyan Ayers (Jim Broadbent) to the love themes for Frobisher and Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) and Somni-451 (Doona Bae) and Chang (Jim Sturgess). At other times (“All Boundaries Are Conventions”), it takes on the martial quality that its title suggests, stately and all-encompassing, suggestive of the steady march of time.
We Are Bound to Others
The centerpiece of the score is the “Cloud Atlas Sextet,” which connects all six stories. The composers wrote and recorded an actual sextet version of the piece, according to author Mitchell’s description in the book. But that version never made it into the film. Instead, the sextet is primarily orchestral—borrowed, dissected and layered on top of other themes and motifs, as with the rest of the score. The sextet’s yearning, minor-key melody takes on different aural qualities depending on the story or character it conveys at any particular time—from its creative genesis with Frobisher to Cavendish’s (Broadbent) long lost love (“Temple of Sacrifice”) and a requiem for the genetically engineered fabricants.
Particularly impressive are the actions cues. In “Won’t Let Go” and “The Escape,” rapid sixteenth notes and galloping dotted rhythms propel the music forward. Elongated notes in the brass are layered on top, giving a sense of gravitas and impending doom.
Since the stories hop around time periods, the score combines orchestral and electronic elements seamlessly. Some cues for the stories set in the future, such as the surreal “Papa Song” restaurant or the post-apocalyptic “Sloosha’s Hollow,” are primarily electronic. Others like “Chasing Luisa Rey” cleverly mix the two, resulting in interesting textural combinations.
Much of the enjoyment of the score comes from recognizing bits and pieces of the themes in various guises. An augmented version of the “Cloud Atlas March” hovers in the background of “Travel to Edinburgh”. Snippets of the sextet punctuate “Cavendish In Distress”. This unique compositional technique keeps the score fresh and engaging.
CLOUD ATLAS is a score that continues to provide new aural pleasures with each successive listen. It’s an ingenious puzzle that takes on new lives as the characters pass through the various stories. The movie is an audacious experiment that by all rights shouldn’t work at all. A large portion of the film’s success is due to its trio of composers. By ignoring the boundaries of time, Twyker, Klimek, and Heil have created a score that is quite simply timeless.