Saturday, January 08, 2011

man of the hours

The soundtrack of 127 Hours is the best proof yet that Rahman can push the envelope for Hollywood as successfully as he does for Indian cinema.

A version of this review appeared in Mint Lounge on Jan 8, 2011.

British director Danny Boyle’s last film, Slumdog Millionaire, had an A R Rahman score that sounded like Hollywood’s idea of Bollywood, but their latest match-up for 127 Hours eliminates that awkward sense of cultural crossover. 127 Hours is an unconventional Hollywood action picture, about a man trapped alone in a canyon trying to free himself, and its music is unconventional action movie music, too.

Listen, for example, to the overarching theme on the soundtrack’s Liberation triad of songs: quick-burning pieces for guitar, building up to the regimented violence of a strings-and-electronica crescendo. These are typical ingredients for blockbuster music, but in Rahman’s hands the refrain becomes flexible, bouncing from frantic to to contemplative to an uneasy euphoria. Each of the three tracks feed back to each other in earthy loops that suggest the heat and dust of the film’s landscape, a distorted mirror of the Wild West.

Interspersed with these and other Rahman compositions are selections that span an audacious range of genres, from Bill Withers’ classic Lovely Day and a Chopin nocturne to some stunning synthpop (Free Blood’s Never Hear Surf Music Again, Plastic Bertrand’s Ca Plane Pour Moi) and Sigur Rós’ epic Festival.

They may be distinct from each other, but threaded through with Rahman’s original score, they are an intriguing ensemble. Rahman’s Indian film music integrates complex, sometimes unlikely elements into his infectious brand of cinema pop; for years now, his music has been about getting listeners to re-evaluate the unfamiliar or the ignored – unusual playback voices, once-moribund genres of film music like the bhajan and qawwali, multilingual hip-hop, Chitra’s voice on a bhangra song.

Here, as with some of his Bollywood work, he produces a score bursting with international influences. The results are perhaps at their most artless on tracks like the instrumental R.I.P, and his ethereal, much-discussed duet with Dido, If I Rise, which also uses the voices of Mumbai’s Gleehive Children’s Choir.

But artless is not Rahman’s best mode, and on others, the effect is more layered. The somber orchestral Canyon would fit right in on any Steven Spielberg-John Williams soundtrack, but the crystal clear solo guitar on Touch of the Sun is a minimalist miracle. And who other than Rahman would create something called Acid Darbari, in ambient flute-and-chime tones that recall his gorgeous Rehna Tu (Delhi-6), to play in the background of a story about a hiker trapped in a Utah canyon?

None of this may strike the hammer blow of Trent Reznor’s thunderous rearrangement of Grieg’s In The Hall of the Mountain King for The Social Network, which has probably already power-chorded itself into an Oscar nomination, but 127 Hours holds its own. Its lack of Bollywood exotica may not earn it as many plaudits as Slumdog Millionaire, but it is a much better expression of Rahman’s range than the earlier soundtrack. It may not come as a surprise to Indians who already knew and loved him as a global composer; for others, the effects will be heady.

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