Film scores

Soundtrack review: Desert dancer (Benjamin Wallfisch 2015)

“Desert dancer” is a true story set in Iran during the volatile climate of the 2009 presidential election. Many of the cultural freedoms were threatened and a group of friends risk their lives and form an underground dance company. They study banned videos of their dancing idols and learn all about it. This is a story about freedom, or at least the illusion of it. The score was written by Benjamin Wallfisch and I was recently impressed with his work on another poignant movie based on a true story “Bhopal: A prayer for rain”. The composer worked extensively with the director and with an award winning choreographer in the creation of this score.

If I close my eyes while listening to “Afshin’s theme” I can hear the echoes of the desert. The cello is the deceiving wind blowing through that empty vastness while the quiet plucked strings in the second half prick as hard as grains of sand being brought on by that wind. There’s sadness and melancholy in the music. This is a very mysterious opening and I want to peak behind the thin veil that Benjamin Wallfisch weaved.

I love how the music is constructed in such a way that it suggests delicacy and imponderability. Dancing is all about moving freely and easily, being lifted from the ground as if one was weightless and with the story also being set in the desert, all these elements had to somehow be transmitted through notes. The composer chose his softest of brushes and dipped it in the liveliest color so we could get both the easiness of the outside moves and the weight of the inside.

I am moved by how intimate and fragile “Elaheh’s audition” sounds. This is the theme written for the main female character and it hides a wealth of emotions. I hear sadness, I hear someone trying to hold back tears but still remain determined to forget everything and just dance. It’s a minimalistic cue but as poignant as they get. You just have to be opened to hear what Benjamin Wallfisch is telling you. Even if the theme is Oriental I can’t help but think of the way the Chinese heroes used their calligraphy brushes in the sand while facing a storm of arrows in “Hero”. The music evokes the most delicate of balances between strength and tenderness.

I am waiting for the explosion of passion that’s bound to come both in the movie and the music. It’s almost as if I am rooting for the characters to leave the underground and finally find a place where they can express themselves freely, out in the open. The 9 minute long “Desert dancer” cue is where it all happens. This is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve heard this year. From the beginning so fragile and moving it made my heart stop for a few seconds, through the percussion tornado in the middle where all the bottled up emotions find their way out until the end when they go back into the genie bottle they will spend eternity in, this is one of those cues that convince me to always keep my ears open for the composer who wrote it. How do all these sounds come together so perfectly? How come this feels like more than music and how can something so quiet tell me so much? I get lost in “Desert dancer” and I could find myself listening to it for hours, dreaming, fantasizing, believing…

…and it isn’t even my favorite cue from this score. “Dance if my weapon” is 6 star material, and the one track I’d recommend you listen to know what this composition is all about.

“Desert dancer” is a special kind of score. Fragile and strong in the same time, moving and relaxing in the same time and all around beautiful, it’s not a composition you will easily forget. With this and “Bhopal”, this wonderful composer already has his place on my list for the end of the year awards and I can’t wait for his next gifts. I love it when a score challenges me and makes me feel something and I love it when a score leaves a permanent echo inside me. Please listen to “Desert dancer” because it’s an oasis of delicate beauty in today’s film music world. It’s so rich that it must be an illusion. Everything else will seem empty for a while after the music stops.

Cue rating: 95 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 39 / 45

Album excellence: 88%

Highlights:

Afshin S Theme

You Danced Inside My Heart

Elaheh S Audition

We Can Breathe

Desert Dancer

Withdrawal

Silent Protest

Dance Is My Weapon

Where No One Else Can See You

About the author

Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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