Drumming at the Apocalypse

I didn’t vault happily into the New Year, but slunk into it by way of the cinema, on January 1st taking in a double bill whose two soundtracks offered huge contrasts with another—a sonic clash that seemed to me appropriate to the contradictions that are part of the packaging of this thing we call 2015.

First in theater four, was Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, a manic magic trick coursing with near-toxic doses of testosterone. The soundtrack kicks, whips, and goads the characters and the audience along through its phantasmagoria of theatrical action and human dysfunction, the whole unfolding in what appears to be one long take, though seamless splices and other sleights-of-editing provide a few chapter markings as one day turns into the next, the narrative spanning roughly seventy hours. The elegant, economical flow of the camera through time watches the events with a sometimes-perplexed calm that uncannily amplifies the movie’s inexorable crescendo of fragmentation.

As all cineastes and soundtrack fans know by now, the film’s sonic frenzy is literally pedal-to-the-metal stuff: the antic inventions cajoled and kicked out of a de-tuned drum set by jazz musician Antonio Sanchez. There’s the shimmer and throb of brushes on snare and cymbal as the main character, has-been batman-like superhero Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), prowls the backstage labyrinth of an old Broadway theatre, or marches through the crowded desert of Times Square to the clatter and clank of the trap set brimming with so much manic energy that you think it might just explode in a burst of flame and bronze shards.

One of the many miracles of Sanchez’s soundtrack is that it seems both carefully planned and utterly spontaneous. In fact, a meticulous and involved artistic process led to the finished product: Sanchez recorded the temporary track, then provided the final composition, before finally travelling to Los Angeles to do it once again on a drum set whose purposeful dilapidation both symbolizes and somehow sounds like the battered mental state of the characters on screen.

Iñárritu has asserted that Sanchez’s drumming music is meant to be non-diegetic, that is, not heard by the characters in the fictional world of the film. But the movie itself often renders the soundtrack’s status ambiguous, and the music comes across as the sonic read-out of madly pumping hearts and crazily firing synapses: it’s a kind of Geiger counter registering dangerous levels of mental radiation. We seem to be hearing what’s in the head of our fallen hero.

Sanchez’s soundtrack reminds me of Miles Davis’s for Louis Malle’s 1958 thriller, Elevator to the Gallows. The similarity is not purely sonic, and doesn’t simply derive from founding bop drummer Kenny Clarke’s rhythmic joyride through the Parisian dark in Malle’s gripping movie. In both films destiny is rushed along by the rhythms: the soundtrack isn’t simply commenting on individuals and their actions but seems to be driving them.

Given the startlingly original approach and execution of the Birdman soundtrack, it should come as no surprise that Hollywood’s Academy disqualified Sanchez’s work from contention for best soundtrack at this year’s Oscars. The flimsy pretext—one strenuously resisted by Iñárritu—was that there was too much previously composed music, including works by Mahler, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff. Most commentators—including me—find this ridiculous, but certainly no more egregious than previous rationales for exclusion served up by Tinseltown.

But in over-emphasizing these contributions of long-dead musical white men, the Academy’s dictates do point up another beautiful and bizarre paradox at the beating heart of Birdman: the solo jazz drumming is the diegetic “score” and the Euro-Composers’ mighty works are source music playing from sound systems within the world of the movie itself, as in the unlikely threnody of a Russian symphonic dirge heard in a grubby liquor store off Times Square or the pathos of Mahler’s world-weary song, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen rising from the street below as Thomson conjures his former on-screen superpowers and contemplates human flight from the top of an NYC building.

Where Sanchez’s drumming is meant to sound as if it was recorded on the street corner, the classical music heard in the bars and backstreets of New York’s Theatre District is pure and perfect. Yet these categories of the diegetic and non-diegetic are artfully compromised throughout the film, nowhere more trenchantly and poignantly than when Thomson rushes through the backstage warren for his final scene in the play he has written, directed and stars in (adapted from Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love). On his way to this shattering climax, Thomson passes by the drummer (ironically not played by Sanchez) doing the “non-diegetic” soundtrack in an alcove off the narrow hallway. It’s both a clever joke and a brilliantly judged boost to the breaking-down of artificial barriers and beliefs on and off screen.

Sanchez’s utterly new mixture of meticulousness and verve marks it as a milestone in the history of film music. His soundtrack has a miraculous talent for keeping things on the ground until there is nowhere to go but up.

You might think that one man drumming is a quick and easy way to crank out music for a film, something much more readily tossed off than a traditional orchestral soundtrack, scored by a composer, orchestrated by an orchestrator, rehearsed and conducted with a large ensemble in a studio. But compare the vitality of Sanchez’s first and only soundtrack to the output of six-time Academy Award nominee, Alexandre Desplat, who scored five films in 2014 alone. There’s a deceptively impressive range to Desplat’s soundtracks: in the past season he’s moved from the fin-de-siècle whimsy of the Grand Budapest Hotel to the bluster and menace of Godzilla. It has been some time since Desplat usurped Hans Zimmer’s place as the most facile of film composers.

The excitement generated by the grit and transcendence of Birdman’s bipolar soundtrack was quickly dampened by the music for my second New Year’s Day movie across the corridor in theatre three, The Imitation Game — yet another telling of Alan Turing’s cracking of the German Enigma code in World War II, and his own sexual concealments. Having already discharged himself valiantly in the service of British myth—see especially his King’s Speech score—Desplat’s Imitation Game is a Philip-Glass-meets-Ralph-Vaughan Williams mash-up: repeating, slow-motion modal figures ride on top of orchestral waves, the general effect meant to evoke the triumph and tragedy of Turing’s genius. It’s an off-the-shelf potion conjuring the grandeur of England’s war-time effort and the cycles of Turing’s epoch-making and epoch-saving code-breaking computer. When Turing, played with troubled panache by the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch, turns on his computer you can just about see Desplat doing the same at his soundtrack machine: punch in the plot and character coordinates, and the contraption dutifully spits out a soundtrack.

As we hurtle towards the present apocalypse, I’ll take Sanchez’s drums over Desplat’s nostalgic printout—even if the Academy won’t.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com