Film scores

Soundtrack review: The wolf totem (Le dernier loup – James Horner – 2015)

wolf

I have to admit I am a little nervous writing this. I’ve been waiting for a chance like this since I started writing reviews. A chance to write about a new James Horner score… He’s been a little out of the spotlight the past couple of years and I kept waiting for something new from him, anticipating, holding my breath. I wasn’t expecting it to be a Chinese-language drama involving actual wolves, but when the director is Jean Jacques Annaud, who did “Seven years in Tibet”, everything changes. Besides, wolves have always fascinated me and the story has enough depth and mystery to bring out the best from one of the legendary composers working today. The name of the movie is “Le dernier loup” or “Wolf totem” in English.

“Leaving for the country”, the main theme, introduces us to a harsh sounding environment through a haunting Asian voice overture. The strings that follow also sound Asian and they fade into James Horner’s unique and recognizable sweeping sound. We know what we come for when it’s Horner, and two minutes into this score we get a glimpse into his wonderful world.

Somehow woodwind instruments seemed fitting for a story about loneliness, shepherds and wolves. “Wolves stalking gazelles” plays on a wind like sound, quiet and chilling. Starting from minute 2:00 action / suspense Horner kicks in and I remember hours spend listening to his 80s or 90s score written in that vein. I can almost see the wolves attack. I am sure the scene doesn’t only involve stalking. “Wolves attach the horses” is just as gripping.

“An offering to Tengger / Chen saves the last wolf pup” is 9 minutes long and has all the time to develop and weave a net of feelings around us. There’s something about the serious and beautiful sound of this cue that gets to me. I recognize Horner in here and it’s the kind of theme I could listen to for hours, lost in my thoughts. It dances quietly right on that edge between reflective and epic and slowly trickles that main theme we discovered earlier. It is beautiful and so gentle on the ears… the music just flows like sand though my fingers, leaving only that warm and delicate sensation of its passing. I am amazed and how much a cue like this can tell me while being so quiet. It sounds as if Horner took his most delicate of brushes for this score, as if not to disturb the landscape. His music is the wind that ruffles the wolves’ fur and brings them the scent of prey.

The sound of this score hides something…James Horner tries to keep the music contained but I feel it wanting to break free. The composer knows his notes and only lets out what he wants. I feel the mood of this score as if it were rage boiling underneath the surface, ready to come out blazing at the smallest sign. James Horner doesn’t give that sign yet. Even a beautiful cue like “A red ribbon” builds up within the confines her creator imposed.

The growl becomes a scream in “The frozen lake”. Horner lifts the lid and the music starts to get agitated. I hear this constant battle between silence and noise, between waiting and going with it and finally the music takes off in the sound of drums. In this cue I recognize some of Horner’s past motifs. “The frozen lake” has passages as raw and savage as we know from “Braveheart” or “Legends of the fall”. Then the lid goes back on and the cue dissolves at the end.

And yes the more I hear that main theme recur again the more I realize that once again James Horner reuses some of his motifs but its fine, because they are brilliant. For me this beautiful main theme could have been written for “The Amazing Spider Man”. It springs form the same brook, it hid right there in the most tender themes from that score.

“Wolf totem” is a beautiful and sensible James Horner composition. It’s crafted, rich and elegant. With all this though, it seemed a little distant to me. Its beauty is cold and untouchable, like a faraway place I can only hear about but never visit. I also wish James Horner would have let his music roam more freely. From what I gather, the general idea of the story is about the freedom of those wolves and returning them to the wild. I don’t think Horner gave his music that. But that’s just a thought. Do not miss this score. Listen to it and enjoy the beautiful and majestic landscape it creates. James Horner is back.

Cue rating: 91 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 36 / 59

Album excellence: 60%

Highlights:

Leaving For The Country (Main Theme)

Wolves Stalking Gazelles

An Offering To Tengger / Chen Saves The Last Wolf Pup

The Frozen Lake

Little Wolf

Death Of A’ba

Return To The Wild

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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