Music in Film: Under The Skin and The Grand Budapest Hotel

Two very different films use strings in very different ways on their soundtracks, as Ivan explains in his latest column

Music is as much about establishing the identity of a place as it is a person – a brief spin of a Bond soundtrack is the perfect demonstration of that. Spanish guitar? Madrid. Panpipes? Any high street outside a UK shopping centre.

In this Music in Film column, we look at how The Grand Budapest Hotel and Under The Skin use their soundtracks to conjure up a unique sense of location.

Under The Skin

Ooo. Eee. Oooooooo. Those three words may seem silly now, but once you’ve seen Under The Skin, they take on a whole new meaning – one that shreds your nerves into pieces.

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That rising motif continues throughout Jonathan Glazer’s sci-fi, as Scarlet Johansson’s alien drives a van around Glasgow; an eerie accompaniment that, in horror tradition, turns a mundane activity into something far more unsettling.

The trio of notes is played on strings, but you could swear it comes from something else; that’s what makes Mica Levi’s simple score so freaky – the sense of strangeness. Rather than find an exotic instrument, or invent a new one, to express it, Levi takes familiar instruments and makes them sound unfamiliar. The strings seem to screech out in pain, a looped, unpleasant cry that makes your nerves and ears prick up. That strangeness doesn’t just feel like a theme for the extra-terrestrial herself; it feels like a direct line of what she’s experiencing too.

As Scarlet lures men onto a jet black catwalk of death, what sound like a bass drum and tom begin a rhythmic exchange, an even lub-dub that drives the victim’s final footsteps forward – and stops when their life does. This heartbeat, which Scarlet’s alien does not possess, bleeds from the darkness into the rest of the movie; a metronome that’s echoed as she appears to develop a conscience, even popping up in the cyclical clicks of the city’s railway.

Those two disjointed main themes, part-Psycho, part-The Shining, give way to something completely different, though, during scenes of physical intimacy; warm synths arrive, going down rather than up, a falling melody that captures a sense of coming closer to another being rather than stretching away into nothing.

All the while, a low pedal note throbs, an electronic noise that feels mechanical without any specific source – only to be interrupted by scurrying strings, a frantic few seconds like the static of a radio trying to find the right frequency. A signal from a mothership? A failing of machinery? An interference of emotion? The noise of life humming away?

Levi’s soundtrack is as vague as it is poetic, a harsh, unknown burst of noise that translates our human world into something for inhuman ears. For us, those three notes are a unique – and uniquely terrifying – experience. A perfect use of sound to elevate an accomplished sci-fi to a technical masterpiece.

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One can only imagine what Scarlet’s alien feels when she hears them.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a place that doesn’t exist. Or rather, it does exist – but it does so in that alternate universe inside the mind of Wes Anderson. Alexandre Desplat’s score, then, plays a vital role in helping to bring the building – and its surroundings – to life.

The surroundings in question? The fictitious Republic of Zubrowka, a mountainous state on the verge of war; a wave of barbaric chaos and death held at bay by the etiquette and order of Zero Moustafa’s old-fashioned resort, managed by impeccable gentleman, Monsieur Goustave.

Barbarism versus etiquette? The tone is familiar territory for a Wes Anderson tale and Desplat – a regular Andersonite – nails it, continuing the melancholic, absurd and whimsical mood from the director’s last movie, Moonrise Kingdom. This score, though, marks something of a departure: traditionally, Wes’ films involve a mix of original music and existing tracks – The Beach Boys in Fantastic Mr Fox, Where Do You Go To My Lovely in The Darjeeling Limited, or even Hank Williams in Moonrise Kingdom. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, though, there’s no pop music in sight. Instead, the existing tracks come courtesy of Eastern European composers. Out goes Hank Williams, in comes Nikolay Osipov. Bye bye Beach Boys, hello Pavel Kulikov.

That Slavic sound fills the entire score. No better is it summed up than by one of the final tracks, Nikolay Osipov’s Kamarinskaya. The Russian folk dance, famously the basis of a composition by Glinka, is characterised by repeated phrases, which do not progress or develop in the way you’d expect; rather, they remain the same, playing over and over as the accompaniment varies.

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Desplat dives right in with his main theme, Mr Moustafa, an alternating jingle that climbs up and down in semitones. A simple bass soon starts to leaps in fifths – an on-the-beat anchor that asserts a steady, regular momentum. A second theme interrupts, its syncopation pushing that regular pace into near-five-four time – a hint of chaos amid the prim and proper order. The two never really combine, though; they just keep beating out their own separate paths.

A Prayer For Madame D introduces the film’s other signature line, which grows out of the minor key established by Overture: M. Gustave H. Strumming strings gently wind their way in unison through a beautiful, melancholic melody, offset by a jaunty, oom-pah bass with a pointed twang.

One word sums this all up: balalaika. Balalaikas (and lutes) are all over the shop, their malleable sound washing everything in old-school charm. They’re soon joined by snare drums aplenty, who shuffle underneath The New Lobby Boy as Zero is rushed through the titular hotel – a kick up the percussion line.

That hint of farcical silliness is reversed when Zero and Goustave encounter the psychotic Family Desgoffe Und Taxis. A Daytime Express train journey through the war-strewn country sees booming organs and brass blasting out rigid minor chords – assertions of authority in tight-jacketed restraints, and another typical feature of Kamarinskaya. Loud and menacing, by the time the Schloss Lutz Overture arrives, they put you in mind of the colourful danger of Peter and the Wolf.

All this structure and orchestration gives The Grand Budapest Hotel its sense of geographic location – the kind of traditional European sound that blends seamlessly with the beautiful excerpt from Pavel Kulikov’s The Linden Tree (played delicately by Vitaly Gnutov). The choice of instruments is so careful is even makes Escape Concerto sound like you’re listening to a prison break, with wood blocks and triangles imitating tools chipping away at the bars.

Meanwhile, the film’s emotional identity – its location within Wes’s canon – stems from what Desplat does with it. He fiddles on in the shadow of Prokofiev and Glinka, combining the repeating bass lines and ostinato melodies with increasingly elaborate accompaniment (and drums) until the crowded score sounds silly. That melee of noises undercuts the peril with absurdity, balancing darkness with whimsy on Last Will and Testament – a mismatched tone heightened by falling cues, which seem to echo the characters running down stairs in pursuit from each other. Even the relatively straight snared march of The Lutz Police Militia, with its rising melody opposing the other downward notes with brass fanfares and twinkly triangles, feels funny rather than formal.

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The score climaxes with the standout track JG Jopling, Private Agent. The form and instruments are all present and correct – from the diminished chord on the organ to the drum on the first best of the bar – but Alexandre saves the final flourish for the end: the London Voices male choir, who sing what sounds very much like “rumpty tumpty tumpty tumpty”. A lot.

From this point on, it’s anybody’s game, be it the over-the-top organ arpeggios on A Troops Barracks or the hilariously ominous chants of Canto At Gabelmeister’s Peak. By anchoring everything so firmly in Eastern European tradition, each new layer becomes more and more daft; a musical farce, in which members of the orchestra run around with their trousers off. While being chased by Willem Dafoe.

And yet, when the penultimate tracks arrive, Mr. Moustafa’s theme still pokes its head up, a resilient piece of continuity despite the unrest going on around it. That’s The Grand Budapest Hotel; an old-fashioned piece of civilization located on the brink of destruction. A plucked string against an army of noise. Balalaika? You’ll bala-love it.

You can read Ivan’s previous instalment of Music In Film here

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