If anyone can turn a classic 10-sentence children’s picture book into a successful film, it’s director Spike Jonze and co-screenwriter Dave Eggers. Reviews for WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE have been mixed so far, especially for the screenplay, but expectations are still high for Maurice Sendak’s beloved story.
Karen O, lead singer for the indie rock band the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, provided the songs for the film, while Carter Burwell wrote the background score. On his website, Burwell details the process that resulted in the score eventually being composed by two people.
O, who is Jonze’s ex-girlfriend, has been with the project since filming began in 2005. Her songs are a mixture of acoustic folk and heavier rock entries. She gives the score a contemporary sound, and her melodies and hooks are infectious. In the video at the bottom of this post, Jonze talks about O’s “childlike” quality and how they didn’t want a polished, pitch-perfect musical performance from the kids. While this approach gives the music a raw energy it may have not had otherwise, the practice grows old with each succeeding track.
Though the music could best be described as rambunctious throughout most of the disc, O takes a breather with a couple of haunting ballads. In “Worried Shoes,” a slightly out-of-tune piano accompanies O’s breathy vocals, while the reverb that is added to “Hideaway” gives the song a poignant air of loneliness. I could easily see either or both of these songs up for Oscars next year. Though given the Music Branch’s increasingly odd rules, they could just as easily be ignored.
The disc is best heard in small doses. After awhile, each track begins to sound the same, and the off-pitch singing of the kids wears thin. The playful atmosphere of screaming and howling may add a childlike atmosphere to the film, I wish they’d given those kids some Ritalin.
I could have done without the snippets of dialog as well. Since the disc is not telling the story of the film, the dialog doesn’t add anything (when does it ever?) and it interrupts the mood that O has created with her music. Whether or not you like her contribution, you have to give O credit for creating a unique musical sound for the film. Now I’d like to see what she can do on a score without children.
Though Burwell had composed the score for Jonze’s two previous feature films—BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and ADAPTATION—Jonze told him early on that O would be composing the score for the film. In 2007, Burwell was brought in to view the film and give his advice before eventually being hired to compose the underscoring.
Burwell’s score needed to fit in with the pre-existing songs. Since the “tone of the film was dark…in a way that was sincerely reminiscent of childhood itself,” the music is no mere child’s play. Electronics are used subtly and fans of Burwell’s music will notice some of the open harmonies that characterized earlier scores such as FARGO.
“Lost Fur” (the only track that also appears on O’s soundtrack) was the first piece that Burwell wrote for the film, and states the score’s main theme in a simple syncopated melody for piano. Guitars, a haunting child’s (thankfully only one) wordless vocal, and a 4-note motif in the celeste accompanies Max’s sailing.
But not everything is dark and serious. In tracks such as “Max Joins” and “Dirt Clod Fight,” Burwell cuts loose with the tempos and electric guitars, contributing energetic instrumental tracks that easily blend into the timbre of O’s songs.
If I had to categorize the two styles, I said O’s songs were all about “play” while Burwell’s score focuses more on the darkness and loneliness of Max’s world. When all was said and done, both Burwell and O each contributed roughly 50% of the music.
I found Burwell’s score to be a haunting listening experience that grows on me with each listen, and the music successfully meshes into O’s pre-existing sonic landscape.