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Soundtrack review: The Vietnam war (Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross – 2017)

Documentary TV

Soundtrack review: The Vietnam war (Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross – 2017)


“The Vietnam War” is a 2017 10-part, 18-hour documentary film series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick about the Vietnam War. In an immersive narrative, Burns and Novick tell the epic story of the Vietnam War as it has never before been told on film. THE VIETNAM WAR features testimony from nearly 80 witnesses, including many Americans who fought in the war and others who opposed it, as wellas Vietnamese combatants and civilians from both the winning and losing sides.Ten years in the making, the series brings the war and the chaotic epoch it encompassed viscerally to life. The music is written by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross which means is a top priority for me to listen to and write about. The last documentary they scores was the stunning “Before the flood”.

And yet their love for instrumental music started almost 20 years ago during the recording sessions for “The Fragile”; that legendary double album featured a handful of quiet instrumental pieces that gave me goosebumps. But the birth of the sound that I hear in “The Vietnam War” came with two tracks from their “Still” EP: “The persistence of loss” and “Leaving hope”, both of which were used in a documentary about holocaust. A few more years later, in 2008, they released, as Nine Inch Nails “Ghosts I-IV”, a collection of 36 instrumental poems, each accompanied by a photograph the band members took that served as an inspiration. This was only supposed to be the first volume but instead they turned to film music and I couldn’t be happier.

From the first cue here, “Less likely” is vintage Reznor and Ross with that quiet flow that to me feels like that of a half frozen river in mid winter. Their scores are usually either quietly melodic or sharp like grounded glass and this one falls in the first category. The piano features prominently and the keyboard helps with the more alert moments. I couldn’t think of a better kind of music to use for a documentary about a very traumatic period that happened a long time ago; the atmosphere this score creates is that of a lonely and quiet remembrance when the pain has faded away almost entirety but an eternal sadness and melancholy remains. “Torn polaroid” is the cue title that captures best this emotion. The cue itself is almost happy or hopeful and a rare occasion when Trent and Atticus’ music is more beautiful than tormented, when the sky is clear rather than cloudy.

Some cues mix in sound effects with the music: they mimic the propeller of a far away helicopter in “The forever rain” and I hear countless frogs in the night in the background of “Before dawn”. “What comes back” breaks the reflective mood by bringing their sound in the present; this is more a NIN track than a Reznor & Ross cue, filled with metallic sounds and electronic motifs. The electric guitar keeps the music anchored in the 70s. “Justified response” is a psychotic piece that makes me think of napalm and chemical warfare. I turned the volume highest for this one. This middle section is the more tortured of the entire album. The quiet melodic flow is gone and barbed wired Reznor & Ross return.

My favourite parts of this album are those when times stops and the most reflective of moods takes over like a never endings mist; it’s the cues where the piano is stroked gently and sparsely, the cues that I could listen to for hours and forget about myself. The 9 minute long “The right things” reminds me the most of the music of “Ghosts”. I love the way it’s constructed with a peaceful start, a moment of revolt in the middle and a quiet ending.

“The Vietnam War” is a much more varied score than I would have expected; the bursts of energy are powerful and uncomfortable while the peaceful moments are meditative and sad. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross solidify their place in film music with yet another very solid and meaningful composition.

Cue rating: 88 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 44 / 95

Album excellence: 47%

Less Likely
The Forever Rain
Torn Polaroid
What Comes Back
The Right Things
Before and After Faith

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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