Elliot Goldenthal always seems to produce his best work when he’s collaborating with his real-life partner, director Julie Taymor. And such was the case with his Oscar-winning score to FRIDA (2002).
Selma Hayak lustily portrays the tortured life of painter Frida Kahlo in the captivating biopic, from Frida’s humble beginnings, her marriage to legendary revolutionary painter Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), and her affair with Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush). Hayak’s performance is marvelous and matched by Molina’s. Goldenthal’s evocative score perfectly captures Frida’s pain-filled life, reflected in her paintings.
Goldenthal described the music as “very isolated, very intimate music, almost like another character in the movie.” In addition to a full orchestra, Goldenthal chose a small ensemble of acoustic instruments: the small Mexican guitar (vihuela), standard classical guitar, Mexican bass guitar (guitarron), accordion, Mexican harp, marimba, and glass armonica (a Benjamin Franklin invention). He also found that “the guitars provided the full range of lyricism and percussion I needed.”
The main love theme is first played intimately on guitar during Frida and Diego’s first love scene. Later, a solo piano plays the theme while Frida sketches her miscarried son that sits pickled in a jar at the end of her hospital bed. The piano brings a greater sense of intimacy than even the guitar could.
The hammered dulcimer provides the fast, “optimistic” music of Frida’s youth that will be used elsewhere in the film in those rare, happy instances of her life. When Taymor’s vision extends to the bizarre, as in the medical scene with skeleton puppets after Frida’s accident, Goldenthal gives us equally bizarre music that sounds like “Bartok as if he was writing a concerto for coyotes.” The music for the scenes in New York City can best be described as angry, dissonant big band arrangements. Also important to the score are the Mexican folk songs used in the film. Some are sung by Chavela Vargas, who was once Frida’s lover, and others by the bewitching Lila Downs. Much of the thematic material of the score is encapsulated in the Oscar-nominated song “Burn It Blue” (lyrics by Taymor), which is sung over the end credits.
Goldenthal’s haunting score provides the perfect musical backdrop, giving us a sense of locale and the emotions behind the artist’s greatest work. Elmer Bernstein would have been my personal choice for his stunning FAR FROM HEAVEN score, but Goldenthal’s win was just reward for the promise shown in earlier scores like INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE (1994) and MICHAEL COLLINS (1996).