Whenever I go to the cinema (which has been quite a bit lately) I have at least half an ear trained on the score. This is hardly surprising, given that this is a music blog, but I am often dismayed by how little attention is paid to film music by a lot of mainstream film criticism. I don’t think I’ve read any reviews that mention quite how music is used in the film The Lost City of Z (out now in the UK and I think coming shortly to the US), and perhaps the failure to notice the snatches of Ravel and Stravinsky that pop up in the film reveals something about the musical tastes of most film critics.
The Lost City of Z is a slow, meditative account of the Amazonian explorations of Percy Fawcett who, in the first quarter of the Twentieth Century, paid three visits to the Bolivian jungle and became convinced he’d stumbled across the remains of an ancient civilisation. The film touches on the uproar caused by his theories, the implication being that an ancient and advanced culture tucked away in the rainforest would challenge the then-prevalent assumptions about the unique achievements of European “civilisation” (very much used in the singular).
It’s not done that well in the UK and I can see its pacing and fragmented narrative diminishing its commercial appeal, but I liked the film a lot. It looked to me like director James Gray wanted to achieve something of the tone of the infamous box-office failure Heaven’s Gate (which I actually rather like), with perhaps a touch of Terrence Malick on a good day. The lead, Charlie Hunnum, is something of an uncharismatic presence, but some fine supporting roles, particularly Sienna Miller and Ian McDiarmid, make amends.
The music, though. I had a dawning realisation during an early scene, that the chugging of a train was underpinned by a certain famous driving and stabbing moment from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I kept waiting for the next bit, but it became clear that it had been recomposed to peter out in a gentle, conventionally filmic way that left me a little troubled. Why troubled? I’m well aware that existing music is used all the time as background score in films and television. Doesn’t The Rite of Spring, though, deserve more than being repurposed as a musical backdrop, as though its only so-many-feet of filler? It’s not as though the use of the music suggested any meta-textual meaning, in the way that pop songs often do in film, nodding or winking at the audience to make a connection not otherwise apparent.
Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe – specifically the glorious sunrise – gets a more extensive outing, suggesting the heavenly wonder of the jungle towards the end of the film. The filmmakers have, though, chopped it and looped it to avoid reaching the music’s climactic point too early, which rather took me out of the moment. The use of the music seems more justified, particularly given that they’d have struggled to find a film composer who could match Ravel’s abilities. In this case, it’s been sensibility and mostly respectfully handled, but I’m sure the composer of the rest of the film’s music, Christopher Spelman, could have come up with some chugging, driving music to avoid the repurposing of Stravinsky’s incendiary masterpiece.
It’s a very good film and well worth seeing in the cinema, if you can. In an age of franchise megablockbusters, it’s heartening to see films like this can still be made, films that don’t pander to short attention spans and formulaic plotting. If filmmakers are going to appropriate great classical music, though, I’d like to think it’s because the moment really demands it.