Saturday 28 October 2017

Making a good impression: The music of The Death Of Stalin

Can brutal dictatorships ever be funny? Armando Iannucci thinks so, and he's crafted a hilarious and terrifying film about the farcical circumstances surrounding the death of just about the baddest dictator of them all, Joseph Stalin, in 1953. The humour in his film The Death of Stalin arises from a few things. People act absurdly as they second-guess everything that is ever said to them. Stalin's ministers scramble for position as his body lies on his office carpet, still warm. And then there's the way with language familiar from Iannucci projects stretching back to the news spoofs On The Hour and The Day Today (old collaborator David Schneider joins him in the screenplay credits). Iannucci and friends are able to render horrible insults and threats funny by their weird specificity (see Beria shouting, from a little window, that he'll gouge out someone's eyes one at a time "so you can watch it happen"). Some question whether this grim moment in history should be played for laughs (see historian Richard Overy's po-faced critique of the film's historical accuracy, for example), but the humour heightens the horror. No one here is making light of on-the-spot executions or Beria's hideous abuses.

Most in the audience will, I suspect, find themselves too gripped by the grim spectacle of Stalin's ministers climbing over each other to advance their careers / survive (often both) to have noticed what goes on on the soundtrack. Mozart and Tchaikovsky here rub shoulders with a Shostakovich-sound-alike score from Christopher Willis, who has worked on a previous Iannucci series, Veep. I suspect Iannucci - a keen classical music lover - knows enough about Shostakovich to have asked Willis for something along the lines of the 10th and 11th Symphonies, which come from 1953 (the year of Stalin's death) and 1957 (a year after Khrushchev's "Secret Speech") respectively.  Willis has done very well, contributing music that sounds like those pieces, and which nods in their direction without borrowing too heavily from them. Listen out for a moment of muted, glassy strings, recalling a favourite atmospheric effect of DDS's, used in a number of the symphonies. There's also a mini-piano concerto which blends the nervy pianism of the 1st Concerto with squawky wind-heavy orchestration of the 2nd. Willis elsewhere mentions Weinberg as a reference point too, though I'd have to know my Weinberg better to spot quite how. Interestingly, the symphonies are the reference point, rather than the workmanlike film scores that Shostakovich pumped out during this period. The decision has generally been taken to avoid the faux-propaganda stylings we get so often, and I'm glad of that.

One element of the plot which could have been developed further involves a concert pianist, seen playing Mozart's 23rd Concerto at the start and the end, who turns out to be Maria Yudina. She's not (I don't think) referred to by her surname during the film, and I didn't guess it was meant to be her until I read the credits later. Her anti-Stalin feelings are not in question - she was a rare example of an off-message voice who was tolerated - and her intense religious faith is hinted at in the film. She's played younger in the film, though, than her actual 54 years, and rather more glamorous too. The whole, rather brilliant, opening scene of the film is based around a story from 1944 (moved up to 1953 here) of the scramble to record a version of a live radio performance after-the-fact, after Stalin requested a copy, and the on-air rendition had gone untaped. The source for this story seems to be the Shostakovich "memoir" Testimony (and you might know what I think of that), though there may be corroboration elsewhere.

Shostakovich fans can go and see the film confident in the knowledge that a particularly skillful pastiche of their favourite awaits, and everyone else can enjoy the jokes and cower at the brutality hidden in plain view.

I should also mention that the film is based on the graphic novel by Fabien Nury; proof to the skeptical, hopeful, that those things can have some value.

The image at the top is the film's best poster, I think, which uses a different visual trope of Soviet propaganda to to slanty 1920s stuff we usually see. The image is used for the purposes of review and study and falls under "fair use"; it will be removed at the request of the copyright holder(s)


David said...

I've heard such mixed things about the film, but what you write about the score is enticement enough.

Andrew Morris said...

I can imagine the tone of the film troubling some, though as I say, I found its combination of horror and hilarity spot on. It also helps that I'm a great fan of the way Armando Iannucci's writing sounds - the film fits into a tradition of comedy that I find very distinctive in its delight at the possibilities of funny language.