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Soundtrack review: Godless (Carlos Rafael Rivera – 2017)


Soundtrack review: Godless (Carlos Rafael Rivera – 2017)



In GODLESS, notorious criminal Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) and his gang of outlaws are on a mission of revenge against Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell), a son-like protégé who betrayed the brotherhood. While on the run, Roy seeks refuge with hardened widower Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery), an outcast herself, in a worn-down, isolated mining town of La Belle, NM — governed mainly by women. When word reaches La Belle that Griffin is headed their way, the town bands together to defend against the murderous gang in a lawless western frontier. Steven Soderbergh and Casey Silver executive produced the series alongside Frank.

I watched the show and it was amazing. For a Western fan like me this worked on every single level, from the fantastic cinematography to the script, characters and, even more important, music. Carlos Rafael Rivera wrote the score and when I mentioned my favourite scores of 2017 at the end of the year, I felt the need to mention “Godless” as well as the best score of the year not released because it would have made my end of the year top 10 for sure. I wasn’t the only one who thought so and after months of not wanting to release it, Netflix finally listened to all the comments and decided to release the score. It was the best film music related news I got in months and I couldn’t wait to recapture through music the emotional intensity of the show, and, of course, the epic climax from the final episode.

It’s not easy for a score that’s both discreet and epic when it needs to, to make such an impression in the context of a spectacular show like “Godless”; no matter how spellbinding the landscape were or how intense the play of the actors, there was always that music subtle, melodic or deep that grabbed my arm to let me know it was always there and that the show wouldn’t have worked as well without it. Carlos Rafael Rivera didn’t fall into the trap of going classical Western when he read the scripts he often got before filming; instead he thought of the story, absorbed it and created a soundscape almost in the same time when the directors were creating their images. This is why the score worked so well with the show.

The main theme caught my attention from the first time I heard it and I never used that “skip intro” button Netflix so thoughtfully puts at our disposal, because I wanted to hear that catchy and light guitar based main theme that eases us into the story. It’s fascinating really how as soon as the first discrete guitar accords of “You lost your shadow, Bill” caress my ears I am transported back into La Belle and into that barren, sepia like Western landscape. I like how “Welcome to La Belle” incorporates a more toned down version of the main theme since this strange town, now populated only by women, is the true main character of the story. The villain is first presented in “The devil himself” and once again Carlos Rafael Rivera brilliantly goes for quiet, discreet angst instead of loud. This theme is dense and chilling, without raising its voice.

“An incident at Creede” is the first cue where the music takes stride, mimicking the increased pace of a horse ride. It is a real craft to be able to evoke all these emotions, all the drama with a soft step, without making the music overwhelming while in the same time transmitting to both viewer and listener the true weight of the scene. This is why “Godless” impressed so many of us in the context of the show and why this should be the point from which Carlos Rafael Rivera becomes a constant presence on the speed dial of producers and directors.

Joy Adams’ cello fist charms me in “Roy’s gift” and short as this cue is, is instantly gets me teary eyed with the pure melancholia it evokes, with just a shadow of Americana guitar to place it deep into the bigger story. “Mary Agnes and Callie” is another tender and beautiful romantic theme that doesn’t stray away from the classical guitar sound of the score. So much of this show is emotion and character building and there are slow burning moments when we get to meet the characters and know what drives them, scenes were it feels like we live with them and so much of how well those scenes work is due to the music. The setting of the Western stories and the nature of character relationships makes this one of the genres that bring some of the most emotional and melancholic departure scenes, when the hero either rides into the sunset or takes his horse and leaves his farm, town, whatever in a cloud of dust, leaving his loved ones looking after him in the distance and I can’t imagine a better cue than “McNue leaves” to accompany such a scene; a tender, almost intimate piece of music that combines sadness with determination.

There’s also the reverse side; a cue like “Roy rides ghost”, a superb evocative, reflective ode to eternity, and one of my favourite pieces from this score, reminds me of a scene I had forgotten, a beautiful, human scene that got lost for me among the others. Carlos Rafael Rivera manages to resurrect it and I am glad that he wrote such a meaningful cue for it. I could just listen to this piece forever and get lost in it. This is the kind of musical gem that shows just how good Carlor Rafael Rivera is; the way the cue takes flight at the end as human and animal get close in communion, the beauty of the music, it’s simply perfect. “Ray rides ghost” is the kind of cue I will never get over, it’s a mix of nostalgia and gratitude and it’s one of the pieces I would recommend you listen to if my words aren’t enough to convince you to get this score.

“Breaking horses” is another one of these timeless, eternal cues that just pause the drama, the tribulations and plays a beautiful scene, evoking freedom and the life of a Western story, the quiet, melodic sanctuary for recharging batteries. I am in awe of the beauty of the music and of how at peace and happy listening to it makes me feel. Alice also gets a theme as complex and determined as she is.

There’s “Truckee” where I get James Horner “Legends of the fall” Americana flashbacks with the way it starts and once again the cello and guitar play a wordless duet as the weave a comfortable blanket to keep away the cold of the night. The pace, the pace of this score is simply amazing because the composer manages to use restraints and keep in mostly intimate, focusing on each character, carefully painting the nuances for each of them. The poignant way in which the score is written, the balance between quiet and the loud fight moments reminds me of my favourite score from last year, Michael Giacchino’s “War for the planet of the apes”. It has the same density in the quiet moments, the same depth.

Then there’s the final scene; final scene for me is the final 40 minutes of the show, where it all comes together to conclude the story. For me it starts when Whitey gets his gun in order so he can wait for the villains and only stops at the end credits. There is so much to love about how the music fits with this climax and I need to mention the exceptional way in which the final act is shot, it’s a thing of beauty, a masterpiece, as if it was a contest between filmmakers and composer as to who can raise his game to the highest level. There is a particular passage when the ladies of La Belle are in a shootout with Griffin’s men and as the bullets hit left and right the music slows down and quiets down in contrast with it, it’s a thing of beauty. “La Belle opera” is the cue that plays over that scene and I’ve watched it dozens of times already. Carlos’ guitar play is simply sublime. Then there’s McNue’s return, the dust rising, the music rising, the final shootout, scenes that deserve their place amongst the legends of the genre. Music included.

The score for “Godless” takes me through all the meaningful moments of the show, without rushing. Carlos Rafael Rivera got what the story was about and the tone it needed and gave it the soul it needed to be complete. Be it riding horses, reading a painful letter, leaving a loved place, remembering something and, of course, fighting for your life and for justice, every single element of this story, no matter how trivial it might seem, gets its own musical treatment and exploration; it’s rare that a score manages to capture all the aspects of a movie or TV show, emotional, geographical or temporary and “Godless” does all that. It is an amazing composition and I can choose to listen to character themes, or to the magnificent music from the final scenes, or to those quiet, beautiful pieces that describe scenes of life and the experience would be just as rewarding; even on its own this score succeeds at every level and will remain one I will return to often.

Imagine the most beautiful picture you can think of that evokes the Western setting. Each of you might think of a different scene…be it a sunset, a horse ride, a vast landscape with mountains in the background or a hero riding to protect a woman. You will surely choose something close to your heart, an image that makes you feel, that brings tears to your eyes or leaves you breathless with its beauty. Then imagine that someone was capable to take all that and put it into music, without losing a drop. This is Carlos Rafael Rivera’s “Godless”.

Cue rating: 100 / 100

Godless Main Theme
You Lost Your Shadow, Bill
Welcome To LaBelle
The Devil Himself
An Incident At Creede
Roy’s Gift
Thirty Horses
Mary Agnes & Callie
McNue Leaves
Doubtful Canyon
Roy Rides Ghost
The Ballad Of John Cook
A Tragedy In LaBelle
The Pox House
Breaking Horses
Dear Roy
Where The Hell Is LaBelle
Roy Digs His Grave
Fleeing A Massacre
Here It Comes…
The Battle For LaBelle
LaBelle Opera
McNue Returns
The Duel
Atascadero (Denouement)

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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  1. Scott Weber 10th July 2018

    I had almost totally forgotten about how much I enjoyed this score (and show) until I saw the score was release last week…it really is a rare treat to get such a good show and score…the quality of both was surprising and delightful.


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