Reviews - The Kingdom

Review by Thor Joachim Haga [2008.3]

I consider The Kingdom among Elfman's Top 10 of all time. Both on CD and in film. Seriously. What your review [Blunt's review, below] neglected to mention was the obvious post-rock vibe they were going for in the soft, textural parts (knowing Berg's connection to and preference for this particular sound in his last film, especially through the collaboration with Explosions in the Sky). I just love this etheral, dreamy soundscape that lacks the often-too-obvious punch of traditional rock. Also, the action tracks are full of the interesting percussive effects and loops that made Planet of the Apes so great, another score in my Top 10 list.
Score rating: ***
CD release rating: ***

Review by Bluntinstrument [2008.1]

Danny returns to midiland with this year's high profile score to the controversial film set in present-day Saudi Arabia. Elfman scores nearly always set up their underlying stylistic territory in their main titles cues: It would be intreguing if Elfman's sonic allusions to Proof of Life and Planet of the Apes somehow sprang from a perceived shared concern with political and emotional minefields in non-war wars, but to the casual audio observer, he is merely creating a landscape that feels like gritted teeth. The percussion is mostly electronic, and feels dense (comprising both recognisable and unrecognisable sampled sounds), foreground and coldly mechanical for all its force; live orchestra is pared right down to a relatively modest ensemble of strings, low brass (horns and trombones only), percussion and electric guitars. Such tightening of the orchestral reigns is an indication of a no-nonsense thought-provoker - think A Simple Plan, Dolores Claiborne, Proof of Life - all scores which mostly filter out much of the usual exuberent signature Elfman vibrant colour. In addition, the main titles also reduce thematic content to an urgent undercurrent of rhythm (stresses on the 1st,4th and 7th quaver of a 4/4 metre) and loose pairs of notes for strings. This textural approach is handy for films that lack heroic characters but feature much dislocated dialogue and gritty action.
The film: Helping to crush the oil/global politics taboo in the West which the fall-out from the Second Gulf War (Wiki-link) had begun to disestablish, Peter Berg's film opens with a credits sequence formed of a stunning tour de force crash course in the history of US-Saudi politics, edited with fierce gusto and underpinned by a cold, calculating Elfman score. After similar sequences for Hulk and Red Dragon, Elfman is eminently qualified for this role, but it is also important to set up a battering force which will work with the frenetic action of the film's extended battering finale. Berg follows up his credits with the set-up of a brutal slaughter in an American enclave of Saudi Arabia, breathtaking in documentary-style violent detail but more importantly unrolling beneath the intense atmosphere of an uncompromising socio-cultural-polticial divide - an aspect which is to form the core of what is ostensibly an FBI investigation against the clock. The feel for investigative reality over the gung-ho or emotionalism of a strict message movie proves the film's greatest claim for respect, and the scoring is artfully all-but invisible for most of the journey.
Elfman's choices for all his 'real life' set films are always interesting, not so much for their success but for the way a composer whose home territory is with the overblown and fantastic copes with the more mundane aspects of film scoring. 'Waiting' (track 2) shows him using an aspect of his ensemble to contradict the harshness of his opening gambit: he builds a comforting tapestry of guitars which somehow manages to sound contemporary, masculine and achingly beautiful. The rest of the score contrasts these two soundwords cue by cue. (N.B. There is a brief blur in track 11: synths and restful guitars are gradually distrupted by a return to rhythmic midi (and acoustic guitar), more upbeat than normal, then relaxing back to synths/guitars.)
The most fascinating part on disc, though, is how the guitar-led cues gradually liberate themselves from purely textural basis towards the 'Finale', which finally goes all the way into theme-led music. The unaccustomed dreamy gentleness of the instrumentation over chordal strings feels part-hymn, part-lullaby, and this is what the film needs in order to regain the thoughtful depth it might have lost to the previous half hour's orgy of violence. It is also probably only the second part of the film where the score must be heard and acknowledged: one cue plunged us into the film, and another draws us back out.
In the conclusion of the reviewer, this score works very poorly as a CD soundtrack unless the listener is anxious to relive some of the pounding adrenalin of the film without the aid of visuals or dialogue. Uncommonly for a recent Elfman score the problem isn't a continual pseudo-'mickey-mousing' discontinuity of pacing but a simple lack of binding thematic material (most of it rather blandly for Elfman in the slow guitar cues, e.g. tracks 7,9) and any sense of shape, beyond the subtle evolution of the guitar-led cues, which might provide the listener with a sense of continuum. As a result, the first and last tracks on a half hour loop might satisfy most as much as the whole disc. Granted there are variances in sample 'orchestration' but they conform so well to the unified sound of the 'Titles' music that the result does not feel new.
In context of the film, however, it does well in enhancing the action and harshness of the plotting whilst not over-dramatising the emotional elements, so that by ripping out much of the extravagance of his scoring (or perhaps investing it purely into the midi) Elfman is actually doing The Kingdom a great service in helping maintain seriousness of life, death and its consequences over the equally human glee of violence.
Score rating: * * *
CD release rating: *

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