Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 October 2020

AR Rahman and Daft Punk on film scores

The musicians who worked on 127 Hours and Tron: Legacy talk about scoring two very different films.
The Indian composer AR Rahman holds his two Oscars for Best Original Song and Original Score for Slumdog Millionaire in 2009. His latest project is the soundtrack for 127 Hours.
The Indian composer AR Rahman holds his two Oscars for Best Original Song and Original Score for Slumdog Millionaire in 2009. His latest project is the soundtrack for 127 Hours.

How does one go about composing the background music for a man cutting off his own arm? Pizzicato violas for when he's twanging merrily through the tendons? Or perhaps some rolling kettle drums that crescendo right up to the actual bone crack? It's not a question faced by many musicians.

But then, there aren't many like AR Rahman. And when the Academy Award-winning composer, producer, musician, singer agreed to compose the soundtrack to Danny Boyle's new film 127 Hours, a biographical tale of a mountaineer trapped under a boulder, there was always going to be one particular scene requiring careful musical thought.

"We had a couple of options, and Danny liked both of them," Rahman says from Oslo in between rehearsals for his performance at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. "But I preferred one, which was more like a loop, almost like an incantation. It's very meditative. The character is almost dead, but has got just enough energy to do this last act."

Rahman says that, with Danny's involvement, the music for the amputation scene became quite complex. "We had to take stuff off it to make it thinner, but at the same time keep it driving and throbbing."

This pulsating, meditative element runs throughout 127 Hours, a film in which the main character reflects on his life as he remains unable to move for five days, pinned by the giant rock in an isolated Utah canyon. "We decided to have these meditative qualities in the more serious scenes. It's almost like a dream sequence, it's not harsh, but it makes you engaged and intrigued," says Rahman.

Silence, according to Rahman, plays prominently in 127 Hours, but rather than diminishing the effects of his compositions, makes them all the more vital. "Every cue is important. The film relies on sound design and music so much."

And if Rahman was unsure whether he'd struck the right notes, the ultimate critic has given him a firm thumbs up.

Aron Ralston, the mountaineering self-amputee whose autobiography Boyle has adapted to the big screen, recently congratulated him on the music. "If only I'd had your soundtrack in the canyon, I could've lasted another 127 Hours," he said in a note.

Before even watching 127 Hours, it's relatively safe to assume that that soundtrack will be of a somewhat different tempo to Slumdog Millionaire, Rahman's first collaboration with Boyle and the catalyst for a dramatic rise in worldwide appreciation for the musician, already perhaps the biggest musical name in Indian cinema. His Slumdog soundtrack picked up two Academy Awards, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA and a couple of Grammies, among many others.

While 127 Hours is unlikely to feature a "Jai Ho" moment, its soundtrack is already building up award nominations that could add to Rahman's somewhat bulging mantelpiece. And it should, says the composer, still provide an opportunity for some toe-tapping outside the cinema.

"Normally, what I try to do is make pieces work independently from the movie I'm scoring, pieces that are musically independent that would make sense even without the movie."

Such an approach is obviously good news for soundtrack sales, as Rahman - who had already sold several hundred million albums in India long before Boyle ever picked up the Slumdog script - is clearly aware. It's also something Disney was no doubt considering when they brought Daft Punk on board to provide the backing music for Tron: Legacy which, like 127 Hours, is also getting its regional premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival.

While the much-belated follow-up to the groundbreaking 1984 original Tron had been generating a tornado of interest since its first announcement, word of the French house duo's involvement sparked even more frenzied excitement. Such was the anticipation, that a Daft Punk fan with a few synthesizers and a YouTube account got industry ears buzzing earlier in the year until Disney managed to convince everyone that it was a fake.

Clearly, Daft Punk were made to write the soundtrack to the Tron sequel, their exaggerated neon-lit sci-fi visuals undoubtedly suggesting more than a nod of the robot helmet to the retro-futuristic original. Taking things a step further, the duo appear in the film itself, turning up as DJs in a club scene in a move that clearly didn't require much change from the wardrobe department (although the director, Joseph Kosinski, has admitted that they were 'Tron-ified' up a little more, if that's possible).

Perhaps with one eye on the hype already approaching boiling point and the other on Christmas sales, Disney released the Tron soundtrack a week before the film's world premiere. And while the album may find itself lurking in many stockings in just over a week's time, the tactic doesn't seem to have paid off with Daft Punk fans.

"We knew from the start that there was no way we were going to do this with two synthesisers and a drum machine," Thomas Bangaltar said in an interview, sadly disappointing the many who were wanting exactly that.

Instead, an 85-piece orchestra was employed as Daft Punk constructed a soundtrack blending grandiose cinematic tracks with their trademark minimalist synth-led beats. "This is what Daft Punk would have done in 1700," Bangaltar said. "A cello was there 400 years ago and will still be here in 400 years. But synthesisers that were invented 20 years ago will probably be gone in the next 20."

The result is something that may indeed sound impressive behind 3D spectacles in the cinema, but falls rather flat without the film's all-important visual cues, only a handful of tracks offering a glimpse of the club-worthy repetitious beats and raw electronic basslines that Daft Punk fans had been expecting.

Essentially, the Tron score doesn't contain enough music that Rahman says he tries to create, tracks that work "in spite of the movie", music that makes sense and can be listened to even without a giant screen.

Cinemagoers will this week have a chance to see and hear for themselves the power Rahman and Daft Punk's scores have had on 127 Hours and Tron: Legacy respectively.

Daft Punk's album, their first since 2005, will undoubtedly fly off the shelves despite any criticism, and Rahman's 127 Hours soundtrack is a sure-fire bet to amass the musical legend further accolades and awards. His first major Hollywood film without an Indian theme, it'll also undoubtedly see big-name directors battling to use his talents to score various other large-scale productions.

After all, if he can create a pulsating soundtrack for a film about a man trapped under a rock for five days who eventually resorts to cutting off his own arm, an award-winning soundtrack that can be enjoyed separately from the film, it's difficult to wonder what subject he can't put to music.


127 Hours screens at 6.30pm Thursday at the Mall of the Emirates, and Tron: Legacy screens at 8pm Saturday at Madinat Arena

Updated: December 15, 2010 04:00 AM

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