W.E. (Abel Korzeniowski)Posted: January 13, 2012
Final Musings: Lovers of A Single Man will be glad to hear Abel Korzeniowski take that sound in a more potent, romantic direction, accordingly giving them one of the most beautiful scores of the year and a fantastic example of how simplicity can often work wonders. Unfortunately, the narrative arc of the score suffers from the classic case of “director picks on the composer” scenario. In a clash between pop and traditional sensibilities, a score with fantastic potential is slightly diminished in its impact. Nevertheless, this score is a treat that no film score fan in their right mind would miss.
America’s “queen of pop”, Madonna has often tried to spread her wings beyond her pop career, yet not always with successful results. Having been panned by critics for her directorial debut, the short film, Filth and Wisdom, it seems that Madonna did not intend to give up in this specific field. Now advertised as Madonna’s directorial debut of a full feature film, W.E. is the veteran star’s attempt at creating an artsy Oscar-bait film. Often proclaiming it as her “dream project”, Madonna’s film hasn’t really improved her standing in the film world. W.E. is about a woman in the modern day by the name of Wally Wintrhop. Wally, fascinated by the infamous affair between King Edward VIII, the only British monarch to have abdicated the throne and Wallis Simpson, the woman who stole his heart. Throughout the film, she begins to realize that it was not the perfect love relation she thought it was and finds herself connecting to Wallis through her own romantic struggles. Critics found themselves baffled by the lack logic in the over-stylized film and the overbearing precedence that is given to the fashion driven elements of the set rather than the narrative. The film has often been dubbed as a “perfume commercial, or a feature-length documentary on shopping tips on expensive designer tips. One of the more redeeming features of this project however, is Abel Korzeniowksi.
Korzeniowski is an extremely talented composer who has scored many Polish films with amazing scores (and yet often underrated) like Copernicus Star. Madonna was first introduced to the polish composer through fashion designer Tom Ford’s own critically acclaimed directorial debut, A Single Man. Bewitched by the bittersweet nature of the solo cello work and the alluring string writing from Korzeniowski’s highly effective, Golden Globe nominated score; Madonna became adamant on obtaining the same sound for her own film. After all, the singer did hope to mimic the stylized nature of Ford’s production, so why not share some of the successful production elements? And so, after having approached Tom Ford on his thoughts, the man was hired for quite the adventure.
What should you expect from this score? Now first thing is first, the score is absolutely gorgeous. Often utilizing the ensemble to its full emotional capacity, Korzeniowski really plays with the emotions of the audience. To go on, considering Madonna went to the extent of even temp-tracking her film with the score, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that much of the music here is rooted in the Korzeniowski’s sound for A Single Man. With similarly heartbreaking solo cello and solo viola elements popping up here and there, the score reprises the same sound with a more modern edge to it (with guitars and even electronic elements being present in cues like Evgeni Runs). To go on, fans of A Single Man will find themselves excited to hear the composer expand the bittersweet nature of that score by giving it additional dimensions of romantic and melodramatic sensibilities. Although the score was recorded with a 60 piece orchestra at Abbey Road Studios, it is largely driven by the string section and the piano to give it a more intimate feel. However, there are various trademark colours that Korzeniowski chooses to incorporate into the score. With beautiful bells, woodwinds and harps, the composer even gives the horn section moments to shine at the emotional climaxes of the films.
Going into to depth on a technical level with this score will pose some difficulties. First of all, there has been no official release of this score for mainstream listeners to enjoy. Although a promotional album is available at the For Your Consideration site of the film, this presentation consists of short cues and many re-takes of the same cue that add to an inconsistent album experience. Many cues are nearly identical which may deter some listeners. While the album does do a sufficient job of showcasing the main points of score, it is still poor in presentation. But let us dive more into the music
Upon his employment, Madonna really began her to exercise her newfound “qualification” as a director. Unfortunately for Korzeniowski, this is what inevitably leads to the score’s flaws. Her instructions were very direct. Keep it simple. And this is what he does. Avoiding the intricate patterns and thematic modulations that he has showcased in some of his other scores, W.E. in its simplicity, sticks to more basic harmonies. Furthermore, the score sometimes turns to minimalistic techniques (not unlike those of Philip Glass) that are accompanied by very direct piano melodies. At times, the simplicity may be jarring at moments like the Duchess of Windsor or Drive to Belvedere. But there is little that Korzeniowski can do when his director goes on claiming that “classically trained musicians are too cerebral in their approach; they need to make you feel that they’ve really written a score; they do too much. Sometimes I had to say to him, ‘stop thinking like a musician – simplify.’” With ridiculous statements like that, one would think that Madonna’s presence in the process would rarely allow the composer to soar. But the young talent yet again takes the best of his situation and uses this score to prove that there can truly be beauty in simplicity (an idea that has long been forgotten due to the modernization of film music by MV/RC and pop artists). Unfortunately, her pop sensibilities will return to implant the score’s other weaknesses.
Thematically, the score features some oddities that will beg for some questioning. Regardless, the first thing that must be noted is the sheer beauty of the themes. Korzeniowski claims that he composed the score with 6 recurring themes. There is the main theme with which the score opens. It makes the least amount of appearances in the score, but when it does, it will break your heart. In its first appearance, the A phrase of the main theme is a tragic melody on a solo viola that is followed by the lovely B phrase at 1:39 in Six Hours. Even here, one will notice the simplicity of the progression, but its grace and elegance is such a delight that no one would dare make any complaints. The B phrase shows up a few other times as rising piano motifs in moments like 0:41 in Evgeni Date 1. Both phrases of the main theme gloriously end off the album in Park. The next major theme (arguably the most prevalent of the bunch) is actually more of a harmonic progression that debuts at 2:56 in Six Hours. The composer claims that this motif is used to connect together the two interacting love stories in the film. Thus, let it be known as the bridge theme. The intriguing idea appears quite often in the score, disguised in stature as a seemingly small chord driven motif. The theme is actually accompanied at many times with a descending motif on the piano in cues like Abdication and Letters. When hearing the bridge theme blossom into full form in moments like 3:04 at Abdication, listeners will confirm that this is indeed a major idea. The beautiful theme even takes on a charming take on the accordion in Paris Walk. Speaking of French stylings, to address the French aspects of the narrative, the composer introduces a theme for the French locales on the accordion. This charming idea is first introduced in Security Office 1 and from there, is always presented with a fun attitude by utilizing small woodwind lines and plucking strings. The next major theme is what I’d like to call the charm theme. This is a very elegant idea that debuts in Charm/Cartier Montage. With the sense of joy it conveys, Korzeniowski usually infuses many of his colourful woodwind lines and harp figures to help this lovely idea truly soar and it works brilliantly. The next theme is arguably the weakest of the bunch. It is a more modern idea in structure that makes its debut at the Duchess of Windsor. It’s very rigid in structure, often taken up by the solo cellist but it truly pales in comparison to the beauty and the charm of the other themes. The final theme is a simple piano melody that can be first heard in Revolving Door so let’s call it the revolving theme. This theme is largely heard within in the first half of the score alone, in cues like Drive.
Regular readers of this site may be confused by the lack of significant thematic musings with this review (and you may have noticed the names are worse than usual). Alas, this is where we strike at one of the score’s biggest flaws. The score lacks proper thematic representation. A peculiar choice on Korzeniowski’s part is how he chooses to refrain from assigning the themes traditional functions (such as a character theme). Instead, he chooses to assign themes based on the “emotional shades” (or so he calls it) of the visuals. When one has a score of little harmonious resonance, one could argue for the emotions it stood for instead. But it is quite odd to see the composer create a score so full of rich melodies and choose not to assign any of them to a specific character or relationship. While some of the themes are given a more structured purpose in film (this includes the bridge theme that connects the two women’s love stories and the French theme that plays in the background of the Parisian locale), this score turns out to be surprisingly weak in terms of thematic representation. This is truly a shame because there is already a great sense of interconnectivity in the score. The simple progressions of the themes make the exquisite melodies quite malleable and thus in turn, easier to overlap amongst each other in accordance with the visuals. But with no significant thematic representation, the score then treads dangerously along the lines of a compilation of melodies rather than a comprehensive film score. Now whether this was under the direction of Madonna or not remains a mystery, but Madonna does prove to be the root of the next big issue, and that is thematic variation.
Madonna specifically requested that Korzeniowski compose a set of themes that receive no variation whatsoever. The composer was not permitted to change the tempo or the structure of the themes, only the orchestration. This is clearly her pop sensibilities playing against traditional film scoring. Consequently, the score ends up ultimately being redundant at times. This is apparent when comparing cues like Duchess of Windsor and Drive to Belvedere, Revolving Door and Diner or Charm/Cartier Montage and Auction 1/2. This begs the question, where is the narrative arc in this score? The lack of thematic variation accordingly portrays a lack of change and transformation. Moreover, the lack of significant thematic representation itself poses a serious problem. Perhaps the former is what caused the latter. It may make sense to assume that since he assigned themes to the emotions instead of the characters due to a specific reason as follows. If the composer were to stick with character themes, he would be unable to emotionally alter them. Thus, “Edward’s Theme” will sound exactly the same by the end. But by assigning themes to the emotions, he can portray the change in the characters without actually disobeying his orders. If this theory is true, then the composer handled the issue quite well. But even if it were so, the idea of redundancy and a slight lacking of narrative will still be felt by listeners. Korzeniowski does attempt at times to be more musically specific in accordance with the visuals. This is evident when he attempts to give Wallis Simpson (the woman of the past) the more modern-edged music that is evident in cues like Duchess of Windsor, Drive to Belvedere, I Will Follow You, Fight and etc. The composer attempts to explain Maddona’s sense of logic by claiming that “once established, a melody remains the same and repeats relentlessly, over and over again. It’s like watching multiple reflections of a person in a room full of mirrors. The person doesn’t really change, but the world revolving around it compels us to think otherwise.” The composer in a sense confirms the theory proposed above. Regardless, one can’t help but think that the score would have been more effective with character driven themes that had a narrative arc. Unfortunately, Madonna did not allow such without sacrifice and so, Korzeniowski deserves praise for doing his best.
The score and the composer deserve their due credit. Normal composers under the demanding, misled nature of Madonna’s direction would have composed a small piano score and left it at that. Yet, Korzeniowski goes above and beyond with a truly gorgeous score. And the composer truly lets the score soar at times like Charm/Cartier Montage and Park. There are simply too many stand-out highlights in this score to stay frustrated with it. Accordingly, picking 5 cues to take out of the score will be no easy task:
Muse on These:
This has arguably the most gorgeous statement of the poignant main theme. Simply listen to how the full ensemble takes on the B phrase of the theme at 1:39. Its hard not to be emotionally swayed with such tremendous beauty.
There is class, finesse and charm to this fantastic montage cue. Listen to how the woodwinds burst at 0:39 and colourfully accompany the alluring charm theme. While most of the score takes on melancholic sensibilities, this is one of the best moments in the score as Korzeniowski truly allows the score to soar with a genuine sense of magic. A must have for any lover of film music.
This cue takes on the bridge theme and uses the more bass oriented Philip Glass mannerisms in minimalism. This is a brief cue, but the power that it instills in listeners is impressive. As the orchestra explodes into a frenzy, especially at its climax at 1:17, only can’t help but be blown away (especially when the woodwinds join in).
This cue explores the lovely bridge theme in a way that is not heard before this track on album. The emotion that those simple progressions are able to implant within listeners just goes to show what talented composers can do with simplicity at hand. Listen to how the horns come to empower the cue to its epic conclusion! Amazing! Be sure to check on this cue’s ‘sister’ track, Letters, which features a beautiful cello counter-melody line.
This is the finale of the score and it’s a great way to close the score. Although the reprisal of the main theme is not quite as powerful as the brief statement in Six Hours was, the sensation is more sustained here. The lovely viola figures open to a soaring rendition of the main theme. The cue reminds listeners why its so easy to fall in love with this score.
To sum it up, Abel Korzeniowski delivers one of the most attractive scores of the year. In fact, many of the highlights are worthy “best of the year” material. It seems as if the composer had a genuine sense of passion with this film (despite the criticism it has received for its superficial nature). That sense of magic and romanticism that is ever so prevalent in the music will make you wonder what in the film could have inspired such great music. Unfortunately, on a more technical level, the score fails to live up to its beauty. Madonna is largely to blame for this and it really is unfortunate that it had to be so. This score has potential to be even greater than it is. Nonetheless, the fact that Korzeniowski took on different methods of thematic scoring in order to retain some sense of the emotional narrative (regardless of the inevitable flaws it will present) is an impressive way to handle the foolishness of his superiors. In the end, this score is a great success that serves as a model for composers burdened with production hassles everywhere. One of the more beautiful works of a great year.
Rating: * * * *