Film scores

Soundtrack review: Whalerider (Lisa Gerrard – 2003)

Whale-Song

“Whalerider” is a New Zeeland drama about a twelve year old Maori girl who wants to become the chief of her tribe. Unfortunately her grandfather believes that role is only reserved for males. The ultimate proof or worthiness is actually riding the back of the largest whale there. The movie received universal acclaim and won numerous awards. I find it fitting that for a story like this Lisa Gerrard wrote the score. She mentioned that recording for this movie was one of the most intimate experiences of her artistic life.  I have a friend who attended a seminar with her in Australia and he told me that she is also a wonderful person.

And yes I imagine Lisa really connected with a story so ethnic, emotional and rooted in nature as this one. Her haunting and unique vocal qualities that often play like echoes that never leave you bring the mystery and magnificence this movie wanted to evoke. “Paikea legend”, the opening cue, makes me feel as if I was in the dark on the shores of an ocean listening to whales’ calls. The music comes out, rises and submerges again just like those amazing beasts.

In “Journey away” her voice is quieter than usual and blends with the musical texture. Even when her voices takes a more reserved role I still recognize her trademark eerie experimental composition. There’s something unique and unmistakable about her hypnotic and almost tribal music. The actual nature sounds add to the mysterious and genuine feel of this score.

“Rejection” brings the tone I always look for in Lisa Gerrard’s creations. This is the mood that shined in “The insider” or “Immortal memory”: a slow burning, unforgiving and piercing vibe. I can taste rejection in that cue; I can taste the bitter disappointment and dark shadows that follow that feeling. Even when the mood is happier, like in”Biking home”, the depth and silence of the music will never let it completely defrost. I always feel that Lisa’s music keeps an eternal veil of thin ice above it, preserving it and sometimes making it turn into mist.

“Ancestors” is even more poignant. This music is not for the ones who appreciate pace and energy. This is reflective music at its best, almost trance like. The piano echoes from somewhere very deep and it makes me shiver. “Suitcase” is a natural continuation, a very lonely minute. “Pai calls the whales” makes me feel like I am there, part of the story… The actress who plays the main role chants the cry of the whales while Lisa Gerrard paints the eerie landscape that surrounds the scene.

“Whalerider” almost feels like a collection of prayers. The music is never what it seems and I get a sense that everything is just an illusion. Lisa Gerrard’s music has the power to alter reality and bring surreal images out of nowhere. It glows in ways you wouldn’t dream of and every single cue is a gem you need to look at from every angle to marvel at the different things you’ll notice.

Since Lisa’s music is morose even in the best of times, imagine how “Disappointed” sounds. This cue takes a slow drill to your heart and feels immense and dark. When the instrumentation gets too much the piano comes and brings a few drops of hope. It’s just the prelude to “They came to die” which becomes my favorite piece of this album.

The rest of the score remains in those dark and addictive waters under that sky lit sky. Lisa Gerrard never leaves those depths and she never should because that is her land. She is the queen of this unique and mysterious territory that is rarely reached by someone else. She is all alone there and this makes her music even better. I am a frequent and faithful visitor of those depths and I like to sit there and reflect from time to time.

Every Lisa Gerrard fan should listen to “Whalerider”. They will cherish every second of it. I imagine the people who saw the movie will love this one as well. In context this score must sound amazing.

Cue rating: 91 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 19 / 41

Album excellence: 45%

Highlights:

Rejection

Biking Home

Ancestors

Suitcase

Pai Calls the Whales

Disappointed

They Came to Die

Pai Theme

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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