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Soundtrack review: In dubious battle (Hauschka – 2017)

Film scores

Soundtrack review: In dubious battle (Hauschka – 2017)


“In dubious battle” is a 2016 drama directed by James Franco. In the California apple country, nine hundred migratory workers rise up “in dubious battle” against the landowners. The group takes on a life of its own-stronger than its individual members and more frightening. Led by the doomed Jim Nolan, the strike is founded on his tragic idealism-on the “courage never to submit or yield.” Published in 1936, In Dubious Battle is considered the first major work of Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Steinbeck. Hauschka wrote the score and his music is always exciting to me.

I am always curious to hear what he writes because his music is usually experimental and he finds intriguing ways to combine sounds and instruments. The opening cue “One dollar address” is a perfect example as haunting solo string motifs, both cello and violin, create a menacing mood on top of an electronic heartbeat. I see dark clouds in the distance and a lot of emotional confusion, I get the feeling of people rising up as the cello motif strikes like a club. Very powerful opening. For me the use of a trembling string section is one of the best ways to express unrest and uncertainty and Hauschka uses a motif like this in “Apples” before starting a very pleasant orchestral electronic cue.

There are many ways to create tension through music and the way Hauschka does it in “Bolton orchards” makes me think of a Guy Ritchie movie with the sombre cello and the constant sound of what could be wooden pieces beat one against each other. This is “In dubious battle”, a constant contrast between lovely piano or cello melodies and the dry sound of wood. I enjoy it the most when the composer sticks with orchestral like in the piano theme “Quarters” and the string theme “Doom and gloom”. The middle section of the score leaves the experiments behind and focuses on pure musical emotion.

The score for “In dubious battle” is, well, dubious; there are sublime emotional moments when the strings and piano make me almost shed a tear and there are the uneven, convulsed moments when the strings are tortured and mix up with electronic sounds. I listen to “Hold the baby” and I want to go hug mine and keep her safe. I hear “Falling off ladder fistfight” and it’s as uncomfortable and chaotic as the title says.

What’s best about this score is the way the composer expresses turmoil musically; he manages to use instruments and, I am sure, objects that are not musical instruments to create an atmosphere where things change rapidly, move, fall, while never forgetting about the human, emotional element that’s expressed by haunting cello and piano solos. The music ranges from the dripping “Burial speech strike” where the tortured strings are barely heard in the background and the cello is just as softly touched to create the most suffocating feeling of unrest, to sweetly emotional as in “Romantic”.

As always, Hauschka writes an usual and experimental score that makes me feel as if I am in the middle of the turmoil. I am sure that in the context of the movie the music words even better. The standalone listen was captivating on its own.

Cue rating: 88 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 22 / 48

Album excellence: 45%

One Dollar Address
Doom and Gloom
Hold the Baby
Fight Apple Orchard
Driving Through the Blockade
Go Get Doc

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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