Composer: Alexandre Desplat
Label: Concord Records
Suggested Retail Price: $15.99
Few composers understand fantasy in its most beautifully primal, fairytale form like Alexandre Desplat. In scores like BIRTH, THE GOLDEN COMPASS and his themes for MR. MAGORIUM’S WONDER EMPORIUM, Desplat has applied a lyrical, and perhaps utterly French sensibility to Hollywood’s often uneasy take on the genre. For where some Americans might pound in the wonder of it all, Desplat’s gift for lilting string-and-piano melodies make the stuff of childhood dreams fly with the grace of butterfly wings.
That being said, it’s almost inevitable that David Fincher sought out Desplat to score THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, a film that might be the ultimate story of being young at heart- here given the modus operandi of an 80-plus year old who ages backward (something which no one in the film seems to find particularly odd). It’s a lifespan that Desplat charts with typically astonishing beauty, even if the overall effect of the film it accompanies is more commendable than tissue pulling.
In his album notes, the composer tells how he wanted his score to “be carefully positioned at the crossroads of emotions, always on the razor’s edge.” While you might wish that Fincher had gone against that to cross from a film of amazing technical aptitude into something truly heartbreaking, Alexandre Desplat has fulfilled his given mission par excellence with this mesmerizing score. Desplat serves here as a sympathetic observer of Benjamin’s condition, finding Benjamin’s detached, ironic wistfulness as he observes the passing of years as a march of black-humored fate and star-crossed love.
Threading it all together is a main theme that would sound the same if played forward or backward, a cool trick that’s probably more apparent for Desplat than the listener. But then, subtlety is everything to this flowing score, which has a gorgeous, ethereal use of romantic melody that truly cements Desplat as film scoring’s answer to Claude Debussy and Erik Satie. If there’s a particular score of his that BUTTON hearkens back to, then it’s the gossamer, eerie progression of BIRTH, though with a decidedly lighter tone.
As Benjamin’s pilgrim’s progress travels from New Orleans to Russia to New York and back again, Desplat subtly brings in a jazz horn, African drums, and a Far Eastern Cimbalom to give the score a sense of place, the cues always having some sense of gentle progression to them. It can range from the frantic race of “Mr. Button” to the percussive danger of “Submarine Attack.” Even “The Accident” is treated like a lightly comedic chain of circumstance. But most of the time, Desplat’s notes have the beauty of falling snow. Imagine the quality that Danny Elfman gave to ice sculpture sequence of EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, then remove the bigger stuff, and you’ll get an idea of the wafer-thin transcendence that Desplat is capturing here. It’s kinder, gentler, and no less effective “fantasy” sound- a ballet instead of a foxtrot. And if Fincher had decided to push it a few degrees to the right, then the tears would start flowing.
Even if BENJAMIN BUTTON’s emotional detachment and length don’t allow it to become the classic film it could have been, the overall effect is mesmerizing- completely in the case of Desplat’s astonishing score. It’s the kind of musical stardust that makes you feel just how themes can be things of wonder, from the gentle stroke of a harp to the light tap of a piano key and the lush, flowing strings of an orchestra. And it’s a melodic never-never land that Desplat knows how to tread with otherworldly skill.
With Desplat’s score comprising one CD of Concord’s BUTTON release, the other disc is devoted to source music that traverses 1918 to the 1960’s. The Dixieland tunes do get tiring after a while, but the nonetheless well-chosen “source” cues become a far more interesting listen halfway trough with the inclusion of Louis Armstrong, The Platters and Randy Kerber’s “Bethena Waltz.” And that’s not to mention a number of classical pieces- whose timeless elegance fits right in with Desplat’s score proper. His BUTTON is one of the year’s best, especially for those who prefer wonderment to crying.
Age 60 minutes with Alexandre Desplat here.