Film scores

Soundtrack review: American pastoral (Alexandre Desplat – 2016)

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“American Pastoral” is a 2016 American crime-drama film directed by Ewan McGregor, making his directorial debut, and written by John Romano, based on the 1997 novel of the same name by Philip Roth. The film stars McGregor, Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Connelly, Rupert Evans and Valorie Curry. Set in 1960s America, a man watches his seemingly perfect life fall apart as his daughter’s new political affiliation threatens to destroy their family. The score was written by Alexandre Desplat.

So, can Alexandre Desplat bring his musical style to the land of Americana? I must admit I usually have a hard time connecting to his music but the Americana sound is something special which might help in this case. The opening cue “Swede’s story” is just a distant horn setting up the scene in a very James Horner “Legends of the fall” way; it’s quiet but it’s encouraging. Same with the next cue “Riots” where the horn keeps blowing in the background as if it wanted to wake the world up at sunrise. For me the cue doesn’t depict the riots themselves but rather the sentiment that incites them.

“Meeting Rita” is the first moment of the score when I feel that warmth inside. Desplat brings his piano craft into an almost mournful theme, beautiful and touching. There’s a shadow over this cue that doesn’t announce anything good for the characters. The slower and darker tone of this score makes me enjoy it more than I expected. I like the gentle flute in “Hotel Albaugh” and I feel once again that I enjoy quiet Desplat way more than frantic piano Desplat. I am reminded by this in the very next cue “Chasing the van” which comes back to his “Ghost writer” style. There is merit in a cue like “Dawn” which is a suspenseful improvisation that keeps me guessing.

Like many Alexandre Desplat compositions this one is more textural than anything; the music is woven deeply into the fabric of the movie and this makes the standalone listen suffer a bit for me. Being a big piano fan I find enough moments to enjoy but very few I can actually remember once the score is over. I drift in and out of this score as if I was at the edge of a slumber and my mind was undecided.

The composer cleverly introduces the crime element in his music by combining a menacing undertone with shady strings. I get a very clear Coen Brothers movie vibe from a cue like “The vow”; I hear that unmistakable dark, biting irony in the music. The strings seem to be tortured a little bit and this is quite unlike Desplat who usually gives his instruments freedom to play.

“American Pastoral” shows a Desplat darker than his usual self but is ultimately a Desplat score, simple and elegant. I cared for it more than I expected. If you are usually enjoying his compositions you will find a lot to like in this one.

Cue rating: 77 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 4 / 41

Album excellence: 10%

Highlights:

Hotel Albaugh

Fix your dress

 

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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