Thursday, July 9, 2015

Not just Trent Reznor's appendage

If you're watching a movie about the Beach Boys -- one that's actually allowed to use their music -- you wouldn't expect to be focusing on the non-Beach Boys music.

Yet that's precisely what I did when watching Love & Mercy, because I found an interesting name in the opening credits, reminding me who was responsible for its score: Atticus Ross.

I have previously known Ross only as a collaborator of Trent Reznor, the Nine Inch Nails frontman and my favorite working artist, who has turned lately to scoring high-profile movies. He won an Oscar for his Social Network score, and has also scored David Fincher's two most recent films, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl.

I say "he" and not "they," even though Ross worked with Reznor on each of those scores, because Reznor is known for subsuming other creative talents into himself. This is not to say that Reznor elbows these others out of the way to claim sole credit -- in fact, the opposite may be true. In the past, Reznor has listed other members of Nine Inch Nails as though they were full members, rather than what they really were: musicians who joined him for tours. Generally speaking, Reznor plays almost all the instruments you hear in the album recording of any of his songs -- the pianos, the guitars, the synthesizers, probably even the odd horn -- with only the occasional guest (say, Adrian Belew) being credited for his or her contributions. He is literally a one-man band, who has a group of revolving associates who sometimes join him for performances.

Ross has been one of those revolving associates, the most consistent one over the past decade. He has been a producer/programmer on each of Nine Inch Nails' last five studio albums, but he didn't really come out of the shadows to be recognized for his work until The Social Network, when he was of course listed with Reznor as a co-nominee.

Half of me assumed that this was just another instance of Reznor's characteristic generosity, that Reznor did all the work and just brought Ross along for the ride. After all, I didn't have any sense of Ross apart from Reznor, no notion of what any Ross solo work might sound like or even whether any existed. And since the music from their three movies sounded pretty much like Nine Inch Nails music without the lyrics, I figured Reznor was the one who deserved the credit and Ross owed Reznor a hearty thank you for allowing him to ride Reznor's coattails.

After hearing the Love & Mercy score, I'm not so sure. In fact, I might even like it better than his last two scores with Reznor.

That's not to say the score jumps out and grabs you. It doesn't. It's quite in the background, and about a third of the way through I realized I hadn't even consciously noticed it. I mean, there is a lot of Beach Boys music in this movie, understandably, as well as some other diegetic music that's appropriate to the film's two time periods. (I noted with no small amount of humor that Kenny G's saxophone breakout "Songbird" is playing when Brian Wilson goes to buy his Cadillac and meet his future love interest. It's followed by a song I like a lot less ironically, Heart's "These Dreams.")

But once I started specifically paying attention to what I knew must be Ross' contributions, I started really tuning in to some great sonic accomplishments. They are in the same mode that has been the primary reason why Fincher has used Reznor and Ross in the past -- setting a mood of eerie disconnection and creeping dread. The score announces itself in the moments when the paranoid Wilson is becoming untethered from reality, when they make the perfect complement to his encroaching mental illness. It's the score for Brian Wilson going way too deep inside his own head.

If it were only that simple, though, it might be just another installment in what I have found to be two fairly generic scores in a row by Reznor and Ross with Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl. I mean, those scores have their moments, Gone Girl more than Dragon Tattoo, but ultimately I have not listened to them more than twice each. (Only once for Dragon Tattoo, actually, though you really can't blame me -- it's 37 tracks long. That's 37 full-length tracks.) But overall those two scores have depressed me as follow-ups to The Social Network, which felt like it opened a new world of possibility for the creativity of Reznor beyond what I'd already known and loved from Nine Inch Nails.

What's got me looking forward to purchasing the Love & Mercy score is that Ross has also done some sonic arrangements that sound like a combination of Beach Boys music, static, voices, distortion, and shapeless horror. During one of his moments of dawning concern over the possible degradation of his mental faculties, Wilson puts on a pair of headphones in the studio and hears what sounds like shrieking ghouls. I'm pretty sure Ross composed that also, and I want to hear that again.

I perhaps didn't realize the extent of Ross' noodling around until the closing credits, which list the songs from the score -- and then the clips of Beach Boys songs that appear in each song. Some of the songs contain snippets from like nine different Beach Boys songs, assembled as a kind of sonic soup that's swirling around in Wilson's brain as he tries to reconcile his own artistic aspirations with the type of music he is expected to write ... with a touch of paranoia over his fears of inadequacy and irrelevance, overlaid by a certainty that any day now the song-writing muse could just vanish entirely.

The brain of a possible paranoid schizophrenic isn't a wonderful place to be on a good day. Ross' score -- which I'm getting more and more convinced I'm going to buy as I type this -- shows you just how unwonderful it can be.

Trent Who?

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