Review Summary: Beautiful soundtrack to a beautiful movie. A mix of post-rock, minimalism, and modern classical.The Fountain
is a very emotionally fraught movie. It is written and directed by Daron Aronofsky, who previously did Requiem for a Dream
, so if anything is to be inferred from his past, this film would likely focus on issues of sanity and compulsive behavior. And while these themes are present, they come out not in the form of drug addicts or in mad mathematicians but in a couple. The Fountain
is a love story, and also considering one of the main characters' terminal brain tumor, it's also a death story. The movie spends a lot of time on the love/death duality and by the end of the movie it is not the tree of life that Hugh Jackman's character has been looking for the whole movie that allows him to live eternally with his wife, but it is death that allows that freedom. Really, the whole movie has a certain balance to its dualities that sets it apart from other movies. In addition, the film has an unusual structure in that the Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz love story exists in the present as Jackman plays a scientist trying to find a cure to his wife's tumor via a tree-of-life chemical, in the fictional past as Weisz is a writer, and writes a novel features a conquistador, Jackman, attempting to find the tree of life in South America to aide an ailing Spain under the oppressive inquisition, and in the theoretical future, as Jackman floats through space in a bubble containing the tree of life, moving towards the nebula Xibalba. These three stories are deployed almost simultaneously. Considering the three parallel strands and the core ambiguities at the center of this movie, it's easy to see why audiences and critics were baffled and put off by the scope and narrative structure of the film. Most critics labeled the movie as passionate but pretentious, with more effort in creating the imagistic arc than the narrative arc. Overall, I felt like the critics were correct in that the underlying story is somewhat static, but I felt like the overall construction and sentiment of the piece rendered that underlying stasis as rather beautiful and moving.
Which brings me to the soundtrack, which also embraces ambiguity and multiple compositional threads. It is composed by Clint Mansell and performed by the Kronos Quartet and Mogwai. Mansell and the Kronos Quartet previously teamed up for the Requiem for a Dream
soundtrack, which really drew out the downward spiral of drug addiction through Mansell's careful use of minimalist repetition. The soundtrack was pounding and relentless and seemed to grow more insane as the film went on, finally culminating in the tragic denouement of the film. The soundtrack really suited the film, and within itself was pretty cool music. Now, on The Fountain
, Mansell is composing for a more ambiguous and ambitious work, and though he's still using similar techniques like pounding repetition and heavy strings, he has expanded his composition style to include soft and gentle piano, and more interesting harmonic progressions. His soundtrack's overall sound is bivalent, in two places at once, which renders the sound of the film both harrowing and tragic, and beautiful and touching. And to execute this, he employs the Kronos Quartet, who have been genre bending from the start, taking up projects both classical and non-classical, and Mogwai, a post-rock band. Post-rock, as a genre, sort of embodies the problem most critics had with the movie; it is generally unmoving (at least harmonically) yet there is a great detail to the overall tone and subtle shifts throughout. So, Mansell has composed a soundtrack that features similar ambiguities to that of the film, and uses two bands, one of which too has some ambiguity to their label, and another that uses a similar composition technique as Aronofsky does. In many ways, just in premise this soundtrack completely syncs up with the film, resonating all the way through.
Beyond the general value of the music suiting the movie, this music is awesome within itself. I don't feel like it can be classified as post-rock or modern classical, or really anything. There are moments that are film-like ("The Last Man") and there are songs that are firmly rooted in post-rock and Mogwai's influence is very heavy ("Death Is the Road to Awe"). I count three linchpins for this album. Mansell composes the whole thing, but most of it is performed a string quartet and a rock band, so there are soft piano moments that are completely Mansellian, nice string moments that are Kronos', and rock elements that sound like if they didn't also have strings and piano, could be on a Mogwai or Grails album. In terms of the piano, I think everything is handled very well. The piano is played with a very light touch, and everything sounds beautiful and soft. I sense that if all of the solo piano were compressed into one collection, they could be mistaken for some of Albeniz's piano suites. Overall, the piano suits the love story well as it is touching and soft music, but it also suits the death aspects as well because harmonically, it is dramatic and somber as well. In terms of the strings, they seem to be a way of elevating the drama of the harmonies. Usually strings automatically give weight and an epic sense to certain modern music, and here is no exception. The sound is much grander with the strings, but also like their presence in Requiem for a Dream
, the strings also contribute to the claustrophobic sound of the piece. The strings, when playing repetitious content have a certain pulse and drone to them that is hypnotic, and Mansell uses that effectively on certain songs like "Holy Dread." However, the strings aren't just hamhanded tools for elevation. They also figure prominently in the overall soundscape. There are a lot of songs that have the strings just enter with little background harmonizations that help fill out the sound of build it up at certain points. The strings also add weight with their softness instead of just their loudness. In terms of the post-rock elements, the fare is just off of center. Most of the songs on this album build from little ideas and have crescendos, which is a staple of post-rock, so in a narrow way, most of the songs here could be labeled as such. I feel like instead of using Mogwai's presence to make the album more rock-like or palatable, he actually uses it to just punch in at certain moments. The soundtrack is dominated by Mansell's piano and Kronos' strings, and Mogwai doesn't take center stage ever really, and often lays out for whole songs at a time. It seems as if Mansell wasn't interested in using them to make his soundtrack sound more like post-rock but wanted to make their post-rock sound more like his composition. He really just used them as tools, which is really effective, because instead of sounding like another Godspeed clone, with symphonic sounding 20-minute songs, Mansell composes rather concise yet moving songs that don't depend on a massive build or collapse of dynamics and instrumentation. The synthesis of these primary factors lead to a work that is in all of these places at once. The sound is singular and really wonderful.
Overall, the soundtrack works well with the film, and works well on its own. It uses modern classical, minimalism, and post-rock but is never dependent or too strongly in any one category. Similarly, it is technically a soundtrack, but this album could easily have been released to fans of post-rock or minimalism and it'd be eaten up as a member of whatever genre it's labeled as. The film allegedly suffered from its post-rock-like structure and genre-bending philosophies, so if you're a harsh critics of these aspects of the movie, maybe you'll also find fault in the diversity and aesthetics of this soundtrack, but if you enjoyed the film for the same reasons I did, you'll probably be able to enjoy the album in a similar way. As a final note, I want to relate a story about Aronofsky. Apparently, he didn't want to use CGI for the special effects for this film. He wanted to create a very natural feel, and didn't want the movie to age poorly. He wanted it to be timeless, fitting in with the 1000 year scope of the film. So, for his swirling futuristic backgrounds, he used a microlens to record chemical reactions happening on a petri dish. It's that crazy attention to detail and passion for the subject that makes The Fountain
a compelling movie. I don't know what weird techniques Mansell may have used, but the album too has an oddly natural, very distinct personality and a supreme attention to texture that makes this album truly special, and maybe timeless.