CD Review: CHE

Composer: Alberto Iglesias
Label: Varese Sarabande
Suggested Retail Price: $17.98
Grade: B+

Sure Steven Soderbergh might make those crowd-pleasing OCEANS movies. But their Vegas hijinx is just a ruse to fund the art monkey on his back. Because when you give Soderbergh philandering gearheads, a sci-fi movie or doomed romance, then he’ll likely spin out something that barely fits our notions of how these typical Hollywood stories are supposed to work- let alone the kind of music we’d expect to hear in them. So while it might be a given that David Holmes is going to pump out the jazz-funk stylings you’d associate with Vegas con men, just try animal sounds for video sex, fitting glass instruments into a space station or throwing old-school Hollywood scoring into post-war Germany, and you’ll get a taste for the musical way that Soderbergh likes to upend listeners’ expectations.

Sure a lot of Soderbergh’s brainier fare hasn’t made a dime. But there’s no denying that Cliff Martinez’s scores for SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE and SOLARIS can join Thomas Newman’s THE GOOD GERMAN as some of the best work of their composing careers. They’re soundtracks that are all about subtext instead of easy, emotionally pleasing rewards- an approach that Soderbergh enforces on his collaborators.

Now his way of ordering musicians to take unexpected routes has Alberto Iglesias trudging through the jungle with the alternately eerie and melancholy vibes of CHE. Given the potential of 4 ½ hours of Commie guerilla activities to fill, it’s surprising how little music there is in both parts of CHE, and where Soderbergh chooses to put their cues. But when Iglesias rears his head, the results are challenging, especially when you consider the BOURNE-like approach that could have been take to hip-up history’s handsomest radical. Thankfully, Soderbergh and Iglesias take the high road in a way that’s consistently interesting as you try to get a grip of their musical approach, let alone get in tune with music whose determination to be anti-epic matches Che Guevera’s fatal determination to be anti-Capitalist.

It might be politically correct for Soderbergh to have chosen a Spanish composer to accompany Che’s impossible dreams for Latin-American revolution. Yet few artists of any racial stripe have shown a talent for combining ethnic music with experimental samples and sadly romantic orchestras like Iglesias- first in such unique Spanish scores as SEX AND LUCIA, LIVE FLESH, LOVERS OF THE ARCTIC CIRCLE, and then in “mainstream” films like THE CONSTANT GARDENER and THE KITE RUNNER. While Iglesias’ best work has often been jubilant, there’s also been a beautifully haunted quality that’s run through his work, something that CHE draws its power from.

While CHE deals with history-changing events, Soderbergh’s perspective is of a bunch of ragged guys trudging through the jungles of Cuba and the brush of Bolivia- places where government death is just waiting to fire from the tree line. It’s a dangerously exhausting grind that Iglesias captures with lurching, slow-paced strings, apprehensive flutes and subtle, military percussion. Though Iglesias’ tone never settles down on relaxed emotion, he’s nonetheless created a musical mindset the truly captures what it’s like to be on the kind of march you could only imagine- a journey
where all senses fall way to exhaustion- all while still leaving your determination to get to your goal intact. Soundtrack fans would have to think back to Jerry Goldsmith’s cues in PLANET OF THE APES that trudge Charlton Heston across the Forbidden Zone’s desert to hear this kind of creepy, captivating “trek” music- even if Iglesias’ approach is significantly stripped down for CHE.

Though millions view Guevera as a beret-wearing rock star, Iglesias doesn’t give in to that kind of musical lionization. And he’s really got no choice, given that Soderbergh offers precious little emotional downtime to Che, mostly limiting his dialogue to red book aphorisms. He’s a cinematic emblem instead of an identifiably human hero- causing much of Iglesias’ score to dwell on cold, turbulent tones and icy sustains, a man-alone quality conveyed with solitary flutes and guitar chords. Just as Che confronted the powers-that-be, the downright strange quality of much of Iglesias’ score will probably be too experimental for listeners who like their musical heroism spoon-fed to them. Even the near-patriotic sound of Che’s Cuban win dissolves to dissonance, not to mention the downbeat approach to his Bolivian folly that comprises CHE’s second “half.” But those who appreciate the challenge will dig Iglesias’ modern classical approach to CHE. It’s accessible through its surrealism, much like the work of John Corigliano (ALTERED STATES), a composer to whom Iglesias compares favorably.

The fact that Soderbergh leads us through both parts of CHE with precise, never-boring storytelling and musical spotting make this one of the more striking examples in his guerilla war in defying audience expectations. For where the trumpets might have been blowing at Che’s triumphs, and an orchestra tragically swelling at his downfall, Soderbergh’s encouraged Iglesias to offer something far more interesting and unsettling. His CHE score (s) refuses to either make a political statement for the left or right. Instead, Iglesias’ brand of musical revolution is in finding the challenging, melodic poetry in the harsh landscape of one man’s focused idealism. It’s a spare, elegiac approach that’s about the complicated nature of the political fight, where victory always lies unreachably ahead in the jungle.

Viva la Iglesias! here.

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