Warning: this contains some thoughts on the Interstellar soundtrack and the second part discusses major plot points throughout the movie. I can’t stress this enough – read up to the warning and come back when you’ve seen it!
Movie soundtracks as modern symphonies
As a suite of music designed to evoke a range of emotions and rhythms, original movie soundtracks may be the closest thing we have to a symphony. I know there are new classical compositions all the time, but I’m not sure they’re as well broadcast to such a wide range of people. Classical music is often seen as inaccessible, elitist and irrelevant, and I suppose given the complexity of sounds, the skill needed to read sheet music and play an instrument, it’s understandable why that view prevails.
It might have always been like this; I find it hard to imagine the circumstances where Handel’s Coronoation Anthems made it to the slums of London. But almost everyone can hum the James Bond themes, or the Star Wars Imperial March, even if they don’t recognise Carl Jenkins or Phillip Glass.
A good soundtrack is an integral part of the film, like the set design, photography, acting and the story itself. A great movie soundtrack is one that can bring you back instantly to that moment you watched the film for the first time, where you feel the same empathy in that scene. I defy you to listen to Michael Giaccino’s “Married Life” from Up without tearing up. Or even something more fierce – I remember listening to “The Battle” from Gladiator whilst marching along a busy street and having to fight the urge to whirl my umbrella like a sword.
I have a fair few movie tracks in my playlists, John Williams’ “Duel of the Fates” from Star Wars: Phantom Menace would be a good example. There are others in my playlists where I’ve not even seen the film, but the came to the track via the composer’s other works, say John Barry or Alexandre Desplat. Earlier this year I even bought the soundtrack for “Grand Budapest Hotel” before I’d seen the movie – the music in the trailer was that good.
Learning to appreciate the organ
Over the years this has led me to explore classical music a bit more, using the ability to “walk through” Spotify to find new music, including ancient music I didn’t know. I’d been getting into organ music this last year or so, partly via other composers like Bach and Mozart, but Neil Hannon’s organ oratorio “To Our Fathers In Distress” really sealed it.
I’ve been a big fan of the Divine Comedy for years, perhaps because of the stories within the songs, but also the complex melodies and use of classical instruments in pop songs. Coming from a similar background, there’s a kind of spiritual journey in his songs that match my own, so Hannon’s simple story about a typical Sunday growing up in a church family brought back a lot of memories. Presented with a selection of organ favourites it made me seek out more organ compositions.
It’s a fascinating instrument for a number of reasons, not least the way that it synthesises brass, strings and voice, acting as an analog ancestor of the Moog, Roland, or even Garageband. There’s a huge range, with big bass pipes designed to operate below human hearing and vibrate the listeners in their seats all the way to gentle flutes and choral voices. And the sheer baroque beauty of the ornately arranged great organs, the most complicated human device for a good 600 or so years, until the invention of the telephone exchange. When you’re there listening you can sometimes here the mechanisms that drive the sound, the air wooshing through; it’s a huge living, breathing creature with a unique history and personality.
All of this had me primed for Interstellar (which I reviewed here), in which the organ plays a significant role. The track notes for the soundtrack CD have been posted online, and they describe a fascinating back story, with as much meaning and creativity as you might expect from Nolan and Zimmer. Trying to move away from the sharp brass and strings that had almost become a cliche, Nolan suggested the Organ, which rekindled some childhood memories for Zimmer. He created the music on a synthesised organ (i.e. samples from real great organs), then realised it needed a bit more weight. So they fitted out Temple Church in London with recording equipment, squeezed in an orchestra and a choir, and had the virtuoso organist Roger Sayer play the organ parts.
HERE BE SPOILERS
I’m now going to talk about the soundtrack to Interstellar, and refer to the scenes in detail. You’ve been warned!
I’m still listening to this regularly, and have found it an excellent accompaniment to a 10k run. The urgency of several of the tracks really drives you, especially Coward – challenging to you keep breathing and pushing through *just* when you need that energy at about 55 minutes. Other more peaceful tracks allow you time to recover and enjoy the passing scenery, listening to your own breath and footsteps.
I’m not musical, but I will do my best to describe the lietmotifs and phrases as I’ve experienced them. I think there are two main 5 note lietmotifs: Love and Fear, I suppose. Both of these appear in the opening track “Dreaming about the crash”.
Love is “F Bb A G A”, Fear is a minor (?) version of this, becoming “F Bb Ab G Ab”. Sometimes these are played with one transitioning into another, as in “Stay”,where Cooper has to leave Murph wihout being able to say goodbye properly. Then the opposite in “Detach”, where Cooper’s fear and depair suddenly changes to hope and love, and subsequently a brand new, glorious phrase which isn’t anywhere else.
- “Cornfield Chase” brings the third lietmotif, one I’d call motivation. It seems to be A E A E B E B E C E C E D E D E. I think the organ plays this, support by the strings, and then the piano variation, perhaps representing the drone flying aimlessly. As it’s hacked it’s taken over by the organ variations, ending abruptly as it lands. This motivation theme comes back later.
- “Dust” brings slightly different feeling, this arid dry earth, arid and ready to give up. I can’t recall the scene exactly, but the organs and reverb piano come in in the second half the track, and these also come back in later tracks.
- “Day One” continues to merge these themes together but it’s “Stay” that really pulls out all the stops, starting with the simple Love, and then becoming the crushing Fear for both father and daughter as they separate, unreconciled. All the while, waves crash and wind blows in the background, whilst a single note seems to indicate the ranger, waiting for take off.
- “Message from Home” is stark and lonely, a simple slow piano phrase that doesn’t , ending on an unfinished “Love”, or is it “Fear” – we don’t know, as the note lingers and fades out.
- “The Wormhole” lacks any melodies, but evokes a clock ticking as they approach the point of no return. The organ rises to a crescendo and the echoes fade away into “Mountains”, which again has the ticking clock as they try to work out what’s happened and get back into orbit. As the realisation of danger hits them, the pace picks up and a warning blast comes from the organ. The drums rumble as the wave rises, and the choir shouts out what seems to be a warning to leave. It’s an incredible track, possibly inspired by Prokofiev’s “Midnight” from the Cinderella suite – the urgency of the ticking clock?
- “Afraid of time” seems to evoke time passing whilst they discuss their purpose. The lonely piano from “Message from Home” comes back here.
- “A place among the stars” and “Running out” are full of fear and doubt, but don’t stand up to listening on their own as some of the others do.
- “I’m going home” – I can’t remember the scene exactly but I think it’s when they find Mann. The limbo bit reminded me of Phillip Glass’ “Living Waters” from The Truman Show, a sense of limbo and uncertainty, but turning to relief. This comes back in “Detach”, but in a much more spectacular way.
- “Coward” is a magnificent piece. Straight away the mood is more sinister, accompanied by the pulsating brass and ticking clock. But the Motivation theme comes back here quietly after about 2.5 minutes, and shortly after new version which seems to elaborate on love and fear. This elaborated track actually reminds me of Tubular Bells, and I wonder if that’s intentional, with Mann as the Demon trying to take over Endurance/Regan, who in turn is spinning into self-destruction, only to be saved by Cooper/Karras throwing himself into the abyss to save her. Interesting that Ellen Burstyn was chosen to play old Murph, when she played Regan’s mother in The Exorcist. Or am I reading too much?At times it goes quiet again, with the lonely piano, then rises and rises, shifting gear and then suddenly ending. I can’t remember without seeing the film again whether the track ends with Mann’s disastrous opening of the airlock, or if it continues until they recover control over Endurance.
- “Detach” is equally brilliant, rising from a continuous discordant organ, bringing the fear theme back as heightened as it ever has been, but right at the peak it suddenly becomes Love once again, pauses for a moment in limbo, returning with the relief from “I’m going home”, but this time with an enormous joy, before fading away. Some riffs here reminiscent of Vierne’s Symphony No 1.
- “S.T.A.Y.” brings back Motivation, but sounding more like binary, ending in the dryness of “Dust”.
- “Where we’re going” comes back to “Dreaming about the Crash”, but with wind and waves, with an organ crescendo ending the film and turning it into Motivation.
As for the sound levels, I disagree with the moans, it’s supposed to be like that. At the times when the sound rises and becomes overwhelming and you think you need to turn it down, it’s just there for a second to take you with Cooper, through the singularity.
Hold your course.
I’ve seen a few reviews suggesting it’s too long, too loud, too pretentious, that it’s just an homage to 2001. But I don’t think that’s fair, as the movie caters to an audience that wants to more than cartoonish robots and Yet Another Superhero Movie. There’s also a generation of us that grew up watching people go up into space, and seeing the last Space Shuttle landing felt like we’d lost something that motivates our drive to explore.
On the surface, it’s about a dying earth prompting a need to get back on that space saddle and find a new home. This is enabled by the discovery of a wormhole hanging around Saturn, which leads to a new galaxy and all kinds of adventure. But the core story is much simpler and probably more profound than any meaning that was extracted from Kubrick’s movie.
When we had our first daughter, my first thought after the initial joy and relief was a sense of responsibility and protectiveness. An inkling of all the things she would face in her life growing up, including the struggles due to her being born a girl rather than a boy. A couple of days later, my wife asked her Dad, “When do you stop worrying about your kids?” “Never.”
This is what Christopher Nolan and composer Hans Zimmer have described as the the core fable at the heart of the film, and it’s what made me weep in the cinema, that still makes me tremble as I listen to the soundtrack. Everything else doesn’t matter, even the apparent plotholes. It’s about our fear of death and what drives us as parents, and as a civilisation. The crushing force of knowing that, as we age, we get both closer and further away from our children, and there will be a singularity we must face from which we can’t communicate back to them. This resonates more with me than perhaps your typical movie reviewer for a couple of reasons. There are days when I can’t resolve arguments with my daughter before we go our separate ways. And the notion that there could be some freak accident that means we never see each other brings a great pain. My Dad died (drowned in a freak wave, no less) when I was a kid, so the emotional scenes tear me apart by two powerful forces: knowing how he must have felt, knowing he wouldn’t see me or my brother grow up, and my sense of loss that he’s not here to see his granddaughters and all the marvels of the world we live in.
The rest, the spectacular models, the attention put into rendering the wormhole, black hole, accretion disk and the planets, the handheld IMAX camera work, the costumes, the robots, all of this is scenery to this fable. The soundtrack is crushingly loud, drowning out the dialogue at times and I think it’s supposed to make you grab your ears, draw arms and legs in and beg for it to stop.
Go, see the film, and in full IMAX if you can. Cover your ears when you need to. Scoff at the plot holes. Perhaps the whole story is just a dying Cooper on 75% honesty.