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Soundtrack review: The death of Stalin (Christopher Willis – 2017)

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Soundtrack review: The death of Stalin (Christopher Willis – 2017)

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“The Death of Stalin” is a 2017 British-French political satire film directed by Armando Iannucci. It chronicles the Soviet power struggles occasioned by the death of dictator Joseph Stalin in 1953. The film is based on the graphic novel of the same name, translated from the French original La mort de Staline. Christopher Willis wrote the score. I remember when I was a kid I watched a movie called “The inner circle”; it was directed by Andrey Konchealovsky and stared BoB Hoskins and it also dealt with the period leading to and immediately after Stalin’s death and somehow it made quite an impression on me so I might watch this one as well to see how the topic holds up.

In the case of a movie not only with such a heavy subject but also about a massive land like the Soviet Union I expect the music to give me that sensation of power, of empire, or something huge and overwhelming. The composer opens with “Moscow, 1953”, a piece that gives me all this and more with a Star Wars like orchestral sound with a bit of a Russian touch with the brass. It’s exactly the type of entrance I needed for this score. Imagine Star Wars like fanfares and jumpy action pieces only heavier, with more brass and an anthem like solemnity. I am just loving the alert pace and the symphonic grace of this score. Christopher Willis evokes very cleverly the idea of frantic times, or struggles and of hours when destinies are decided by not letting the music stale in one place; the strings and the brass tiptoe and create a mood of constant motion. The sense of urgency, the elegance of the music and the buildups make me just want to turn the volume up at every cue.

The music also has that dark violent irony I usually associate with Carter Burwell scores for Coen Brothers movies. When it takes off though, like in “Removal man”, I feel I am back in the concert hall watching the orchestra play as stormy and fiery as they can. It’s like the composer also wanted to pay an homage with his music to the greatest Russian classical composers, to the might and magnitude of their music; I remember how I read somewhere that both in literature and music the creations of people from a country match the magnitude and essence of that country, like vast, massive and heavy for Russia and lighter, less somber for a country like Austria.

Christopher Willis is also not afraid to experiment with the tones and go from that orchestral led to a solo piano improvisation, playful and joyful, like “Back from the Gulags”. This cue has a more ball room like sound but keeps with the wonderful freshness of the score. The music is chameleonic and I can think of it as comedic or dramatic and it still works perfectly. It’s rare that a score get so much hype and praise from fans, composers and such and in this case, it’s more than deserved. For sure “The death of Stalin” is one of the best scores of 2017 and right up there with “The las Jedi” as the best full orchestral score of the year. Do not miss this one; compositions like Christopher Willis’ are treasures and not as many as you would think.

Cue rating: 100 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 29 / 29

Album excellence: 100%

Highlights:
Moscow, 1953
Beria’s Plan
First on the Scene
We Cry for You
Special Delivery
Removal Men
Pall-Bearers
Back from the Gulags
Politburo
Let the People Come
He Looks so Small
Setting the Trap
Staging a Coup
Flowers
A Comedy of Terrors (End Titles)
End Credits

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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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