My Fair Amphibian-Man: The Music of "The Shape of Water"

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There is a style to Guillermo del Toro’s films that is simultaneously recognizable and elusive. Indeed, there are certain design aesthetics he favors, often letting the story dictate the production design rather than adapting the story to conform to a certain look.

Del Toro moves from smaller, more independent films like “Chronos”, “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” to big budget Hollywood features such as “Blade II”, the “Hellboy” movies and “Pacific Rim” with seemingly little effort. His camera work and reliance on practical sets, costumes, and props rather than CGI all contribute to the verisimilitude of each work.

One of the key differentiating factors of his films has been the composer he chooses for each.

In “Pan’s Labyrinth” Javier Navarrete’s delicate score carries much of the emotional weight of the film even when listening independently. Conversely, Ramin Djawadi’s score to “Pacific Rim” is big and brash.  Electronic instruments combine with the orchestral to reinforce the juxtaposition between the mechanical and the organic, as human pilots physically join with robotic avatars to fight giant monsters.

With all that in mind, I went into “The Shape of Water” as much a fan of del Toro as a filmmaker and storyteller, as I was of the music within his films. I was thrilled to see that Alexandre Desplat (“Godzilla”, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) was scoring the film as I have become a fan of his in recent years. I was so excited to see what the collaboration of these two artists would produce.

While I thought the film was wonderful, I left the theater disappointed that Desplat’s soundtrack seemed to be hidden among the musicals, jazz standards and torch songs contained within the world of the film. Unlike his other scores, nothing of Desplat’s own voice seemed stand out.

It wasn’t until after listening to my colleagues’ review of the film and their discussion of how all the nonverbal communication in the film the counted as dialogue, that I realized I may have missed something. It occurred to me then that I hadn’t listened to the soundtrack independent of the movie, and maybe I should.

After the first minute of listening, I realized Desplat’s score had integrated itself into the superstructure of the film. It had been there the whole time hiding in plain sight, creating a bridge between songs the characters themselves were hearing..

Sally Hawkins’ character, Elisa--no doubt named for Elisa Doolittle from “My Fair Lady”--is a mute who communicates to the other characters through sign language. Translated in-world verbally by her friend, Zelda (played by Octavia Spencer) and her friend and next door neighbor, Giles (played by Richard Jenkins). Additionally, Elisa and Giles often mimic the steps and the physical movements from the films--mostly musicals--they continuously watch. The dance-step call and response between them as they watch television conveys their own brand of sign language.

In the film, Elisa’s movements are graceful, gliding through each scene as though she--like the audience--can hear Desplat’s score. Each step conveying that she is living in a world of her own and hearing music no one in her world can hear.

The establishment of these various forms of nonverbal communication, whether or not accompanied by music, is then applied to her attempts at communication with—fellow mute--the Amphibian Man, played by Doug Jones. She first teaches him to eat a hardboiled egg and to sign the word “egg.” She sneaks records into the lab to play for him. They dance both independently and together, she in the lab and he in his tank.

I want to say now that I have purposefully not read any articles by del Toro or Desplat before writing this blog so as not to influence my own interpretation of what I saw onscreen. Based on what I saw it seems that del Toro and Desplat have created a musical of sorts.

“The Shape of Water” is sort of amalgam of “My Fair Lady”, “Frankenstein” and “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” Except in this telling, it is Elisa who is the instructor of etiquette, for lack of a better term. It is she who steals the monster--in keeping with the analogy--releasing him from his bonds rather than him breaking out of them.

She brings him to her apartment and floods the bathroom to create a pocket of his world in hers where they dance and--yes--have sex. This abnormal situation she tries to work into a normal life culminates in a fantasy dance number to the Irving Berlin song “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” from the movie “Follow the Fleet” while they are having breakfast at her kitchen table.

It should be noted that within the movie, “Follow the Fleet”, Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers engage in a sweeping, nonverbal movements reminiscent of those of Elisa both with and without the Amphibian Man.

Full disclosure, while I didn’t do any research on Desplat or del Toro, I did revisit the soundtracks to “My Fair Lady” and the other films referenced within “The Shape of Water.” I wanted specificity to my deductions as I was somewhat, but not entirely familiar with many of the older musicals to which this film was paying homage.

As a fan of science fiction and horror, I am familiar with those movies of old and in my research I neglected revisit the soundtracks of those films. Beyond the intense strings and horns that accompanied the action elements, there was a very clever Easter egg, at least to my ears.

In the opening music of the soundtrack and movie—also titled “The Shape of Water”--Alexandre Desplat himself whistles the melody that accompanies the bandoneon, strings and glockenspiel. The latter are instruments which are common in older romantic movies and musicals.

As first I thought the whistling paid homage to the song, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” from “My Fair Lady.” Upon further listening it occurred to me—that given the Cold War era of the movie—that his whistling paid homage to something else, the Theremin.

The Theremin is an electronic instrument that was really popular and was most definitely a staple in early science fiction films, from which, ”The Shape of Water” also draws its inspiration. It should also be noted that the Theremin is played by moving one’s hand between one or two metal antenna, never actually touching the instrument itself. In effect the musician is using sign language to control the pitch of the instrument.

Whether all these references were intentional or not, Desplat was successful in evoking them, a least for me. In my mind, Alexandre Desplat has written the perfect soundtrack for the science-fiction-romantic-musical-fantasy movie that he and Guillermo del Toro have created with ‘The Shape of Water’.

 

Apocalypse, Now What? Romero and the Music of the Dead

George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” is incomparable. It is the quintessential zombie film that set the standard and most of the rules for every zombie film that followed**. For me, however, George A. Romero’s masterwork was his 1978 film, “Dawn of the Dead.”

“Dawn of the Dead” is a study of the human condition in the face of extinction; characters deal with what happens once they have survived the unthinkable, or as I like to say, “Apocalypse, Now What?” It also serves as Romero’s commentary on consumerism. Its relevance has only grown in the decades since it debuted, and its focus on the burgeoning cultural icon of the suburban indoor shopping mall seems eerily prescient today.

In the film, four people--Peter, Francine, Stephen and Roger--escape a zombie infested Philadelphia in a helicopter and find an oasis in a large indoor mall. This safe haven contains all the amenities they need, as well as many luxuries they would never have been able to afford. All the material things they could ever want are suddenly theirs for the taking.

Once they have secured the mall, they make themselves at home. Expensive clothes, gourmet food, video games, furniture, high end electronics are all theirs to enjoy. As time goes on, however, they begin to realize that survival is not enough. They are--in fact--prisoners of their own sanctuary, living a life empty without a purpose beyond merely existing.

I could go on and on about the socio-cultural themes of this work of speculative fiction, but this blog is about music. While “Dawn of the Dead” is famous for its visuals, it is the music--and at times the lack of music--that really provides the emotional reinforcement of the chaos, peril, elation, desperation and despair.

Romero used a combination of original music composed and performed by the Italian group, Goblin, and stock music from the De Wolf Music Library. Periods of silence contrast these  perfectly to reflect what is happening to our characters--on an emotional level--throughout the film.

NOTE: I will be using the U.S. Theatrical Version that I first saw and--in agreement with George Romero--it is my preferred version.  

"L'alba Dei Morti Viventi"
[The Dawn of the Living Dead]

L’alba Dei Morti Viventi” is the first piece of Goblin’s music in “The Dawn of the Dead” as well as on its soundtrack.

The music begins with a swelling keyboard pad and kick drum whose rhythm mimics that of a heartbeat. These create a drone upon which everything that follows is layered. The music slowly builds as the bass doubles the kick drum, but with a slight stagger so that the heartbeat now has more of a groove. Once the drone is fully established, the winding melody of a lead keyboard enters the piece, providing a moving contrast to the steady drone. The melody develops and is eventually punctuated by a carillon bell. The piece then continues to build as a distorted guitar and additional--ornamental--keyboards and percussion join the chorus building to a climax which slowly diminishes in the final seconds of the music.  

The droning nature of the piece and the winding melody convey the monotony of “Apocalypse, Now What?” The slow and unrelenting rhythmic pattern whose layers continuously build mirrors the unrelenting hordes of the slow moving dead.

The film begins with a close-up of Francine waking from a nightmare into a nightmare world where the dead walk and civilization is in decline. She works for a local television station, and the studio is in chaos. Two men discuss the situation on the set of a makeshift talk show while camera operators and others in the studio are screaming their opinions back at the host and his guest.

Other people are yelling at one another in a panicked effort to keep the station running. Others leave their posts and go home while station manager screams about keeping lists of out of date rescue stations running so that the viewing audience won’t tune out. Maybe he’s still worried about ratings because he’s an example of corporate greed--which would fit into Romero’s condemnation of consumerism--but I like to think that he’s in denial of what’s going on. That he believes the crisis will pass. This is one of many reactions shown in this chaotic opening scene.

The audience is thrown into a world in disorder, so it begins without any music to detract from the natural sounds of the setting. Slowly and intermittently Romero adds music to the cacophony of the studio. The ethereal backdrop of a stock selection from the De Wolf Library is contrasted with the intentionally relevant excerpts from “L’alba Dei Morti Viventi.” This interplay allows the audience to hear all the naked conversations which are then underscored by the unobtrusive stock music. Finally, everything is punctuated by Goblin’s music written specifically to provide “The Tell-Tale Heart” beat that comes from the chaos both within and outside the studio walls. As the title of the piece suggests, this is the music of the dead.

“La Caccia”
[Hunting]

La Caccia” provides contrast to the dark drone of “L’alba Dei Morti Viventi.” While the title translates to “Hunting,” I like to think of this upbeat piece as “our plan is working.” The characters have come up with a clever plan to secure the mall, and “La Caccia” plays while they are implementing it, when all seems to be going well. For the audience, the music inspires confidence and even a sense of fun, however temporary.

The piece begins with a staccato bass line. The bass guitar is doubled by a synth bass to give it a little extra brightness. The keyboards and guitar play a major-key chord progression giving way to an equally optimistic melody.  

The bridge is a visceral release as the bass becomes melodic and fluid, contrasting the rapid staccato pattern of the mandolin. With each repetition, the music grows in intensity as strings double the mandolin, and the keyboard melodies return over the strings.

When “La Caccia” is first heard in the movie, Peter and Roger have just hotwired tractor trailers and are moving them to block the entrances to the mall. Stephen is flying the helicopter to monitor their progress and keep watch. Francine is on the roof with a scoped rifle to provide additional cover.

The scene is very exciting and this piece adds tremendously to that excitement.

“La Caccia” ends when Peter and Roger return to the truck yard. The eerie library music returns, emphasizing the danger of the yard where dead are lurking. But Roger has become cocky. He’s certain of victory, and leaves the door of the cab open while hot wiring the truck. Zombies slowly surround him. Just in time, Peter saves Roger from getting bitten and the duo begins their second run. This time instead of “La Caccia” playing, “L’alba Dei Morti Viventi” makes its return, foreshadowing impending disaster. This second run culminates with Roger getting bitten.

"The Gonk"

Herbert Chappell‘s "The Gonk," is the most significant piece of music from the De Wolf library to appear in this movie, and one of the more famous pieces of incidental music in popular culture. It is a particularly chipper piece that begins with bright fanfare, a melody played on the xylophone and solo trumpet, and a percussion section whose centerpiece is a drumhead tambourine.

The first time “The Gonk” is played is in the aftermath of the film’s climactic battle, a battle that involves zombies, a hostile biker gang, a pie fight, and the death of Stephen.

As the piece plays, we see zombies reclaim the territory our heroes had won at great personal cost. The implications of the visuals are dark, but the music juxtaposes how really funny it is to watch zombies wobble--seemingly in time to the beat--around a large indoor mall.

The quirkiness of the piece speaks to the absurdity of the situation. Likewise, it speaks to the self-awareness of this movie.

The music is temporarily distorted as it is revealed that Stephen has joined the zombie horde. It soon resumes its playful melody and tempo, however, contrasting the undeniably dark image of a zombie Stephen leading the horde to what had been the trio’s safe haven.

In the final scene of the movie, Peter shoots Stephen in the head after he breaks through their defenses. Francine and Peter then escape from the mall in the helicopter, flying into the dawn of a new day and an indeterminate fate. The film ends as “The Gonk” plays over a montage of zombies waddling around the mall, the embodiment of unbridled consumerism.

As the credits end, “The Gonk” fades and is replaced by the chimes of the mall’s clock tower. The clock chimes call back to the carillon bells of “L’alba Dei Morti Viventi,” bringing a bleak and somber note to the end of the movie.   

George A. Romero

For most of George Romero’s career, he made movies with very small budgets and decidedly limited resources, yet he always surrounded himself with a talented, resourceful team of artists--friends and family--all of whom shared in his vision. His passion and the dedication of those around him inspired financiers to support these films as well. Even so, the money financed was below what a low budget movie--even at that time--would have had.

According to people who worked with him, George Romero was a kind, generous person, and a focused visionary. He encouraged those around him to contribute their ideas freely, and would integrate those contributions into whatever film he was working on. He was also a man who trusted the people he worked with. He’d lay out his vision, solicit ideas, and give his people the freedom to execute them. His films were true products of cooperation.

Romero’s first film, “Night of the Living Dead,” is one of the gold standards for filmmakers with limited resources and low-to-no budget. For more than a year, he and his team—including his writing and producing partner, John Russo—would spend their weeks making commercials for local businesses and their weekends on the labor of love that would become “Night of the Living Dead.” They would drive out to a rural farmhouse and spend their weekends living and filming in a house without running water. Romero once commented about having to bathe in a local stream.

Each week they would have to restore everything they had taken down the previous week. Their weekends began with rebuilding sets, gathering the extras they needed, and feeling fortunate they were always able to get their lead actors back.

The details of continuity were painstakingly maintained over the course of the year. If you look closely at the boards and planks covering the interior windows and doors of the farmhouse, you can see markings the crew drew to indicate their placement. This was done to ensure that they knew exactly how every piece fit together when they returned the following weekend, and the results speak for themselves.

In “Night of the Living Dead,” Romero used Bosco chocolate syrup for blood, as anything red would not have been as clearly visible in black and white. The darker color of the syrup provides a great contrast when used on a lighter surface, such as the basement wall at the end of the movie.

Last fall, when we made our first live-action short titled “Reflections of Childhood Through Porcelain Shards,” we specifically used chocolate syrup for blood and filtered those scenes in black and white as an homage to Romero. However, limited budgets and resources are things we deal with at The Lost Signals as well, and the store brand chocolate syrup was a third of the price of a bottle of Bosco. I think George would have understood.

It was indeed a personal thrill to be setting up the shot on the patio while Scott and Ian were in the kitchen preparing a quart of chocolate blood. We discovered that syrup straight from the bottle was too viscous, so they slowly incorporated water until they got the consistency right. I wonder if Romero and his team found that they needed to do something similar.

George Romero would go on to inspire so many filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. He would help the careers of those he worked with in his films such as Ed Harris, Tom Savini and Greg Nicatero.

For a man who would inspire so much and so many, George Romero would often struggle and fight to get his movies made. Even though financiers and studios were hesitant to invest, those people whose careers he helped and whose works he inspired would always come back to help him in whatever way they could.

We’ll miss you George, but you’ll always be with us through your work and the work you inspired.

--Chris Morgan, July 2017

**The idea that zombies eat brains came from Dan O’Bannon’s zombie satire, “Return of the Living Dead.” Funny enough, the movie’s premise was that “Night of the Living Dead” was based on a real incident in a Pittsburgh hospital and Romero just changed the details in his film. A fitting meta-tribute.

Dan O’Bannon, we miss you, too.

DIES IRAE: THIS SHINING EXAMPLE

My original intent was to have this article finished and released in time for The Lost Signals’ second season of “MOTS-O-Ween,” but time is fleeting and all work and no play makes Chris a dull pedant.

 

Dies Irae” (That Day of Wrath) is a Gregorian Chant which dates back to the 13th century. It is probably one of the oldest and most recognized pieces of early music, and its use throughout the ages has been predominantly for religious music, starting with Catholic and then other Judeo-Christian masses.

The melody of “Dies Irae” later appears--in various forms--in the works of secular pieces by composers from the Classical and Romantic eras up to and including modern day soundtracks.

One such example from the Romantic era--making its appearance starting about 3 minutes in--is the 5th movement, “The Dream of the Witches’ Sabbath,” of Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique.” This symphony is a musical narrative, or program piece, which tells a story of unrequited love. Towards the end of the piece, the protagonist poisons himself and dreams that he has killed his beloved. He is subsequently executed, goes to Hell, and is tortured.

Probably one of my favorite examples in modern film scores is John Williams's use of it in "Star Wars" (1977).  When Luke returns to his family’s farm to find the burning bodies of his aunt and uncle, the theme can be heard here [starting at 1:41] carried by the lower registered brass instruments.

Combining its past use in music and text and its application in modern cinema, I am going to discuss its use in the opening credit sequence to Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” This is my interpretation and personal observations of the work in relation to the movie “The Shining.” I have not--beyond refreshing my music history of the piece itself and its text--researched the connection between this movie, the music, and its text.

The version performed by Wendy Carlos in the opening credit sequence to "The Shining" is very reminiscent in orchestration to that of “Symphonie Fantastique,” except it is performed with electronic instruments instead of traditional orchestral.

The camera follows Jack Torrance's car as he makes the long trip up mountain roads to the Overlook Hotel, where he will be interviewed for the hotel’s winter caretaker position. The music foreshadows Jack’s descent as we watch his ascent. Whether or not the Overlook Hotel is ultimately Jack’s Hell or Purgatory is open for interpretation.

Along with the music, the text of “Dies Irae” also foreshadows what will happen to Jack, his wife (Wendy), his son (Danny), and the supernatural entity of the hotel itself.

 

The following translation comes from the “Treasury of Latini Prayers” and I have abridged this translation in order to highlight the relevant parts:

 

THAT day of wrath, that dreadful day,

shall heaven and earth in ashes lay...

 

What horror must invade the mind

when the approaching Judge shall find

and sift the deeds of all mankind...

 

Now death and nature with surprise

behold the trembling sinners rise

to meet the Judge's searching eyes.

 

Then shall with universal dread

the Book of Consciences be read

to judge the lives of all the dead.

 

For now before the Judge severe

all hidden things must plain appear;

no crime can pass unpunished here.

 

While the text refers to the Judeo-Christian God, I am considering the hotel itself to be the judge in this case. The Judge/hotel invades Jack’s mind, twisting and corrupting it. Crimes against the hotel--like crimes against God--cannot pass unpunished. An instance of this is the scene in the bathroom when Grady tells Jack that he needs to “correct” Wendy after she tells Jack that she wants the family to leave the hotel. To punish Wendy, Jack must kill her as Grady did his own family after his daughters tried to burn the hotel down.

The “Book of Consciences” is applicable as Jack is also a writer hoping that a winter of near solitude will allow him to finish writing his novel. When the book finally “be read” by his wife, Wendy,  it is revealed that Jack has simply typed “All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy” over and over again. It is after this point that Wendy starts seeing all the phantoms in the hotel, that “all the hidden things must plain appear.”

The intentions of Stanley Kubrick or Wendy Carlos with regard to the use of “Dies Irae” in the film may differ from my interpretation, but “The Shining” has been the subject of many observations and theories; I have just added my voice to the chorus.

Addressing one conspiracy theory, I want it to be known and clearly understood, that I do know the United States did go to the moon and do not subscribe to the theory surrounding Danny’s rocket sweater.

For more on The Lost Signals’ analysis of “The Shining” you can listen to our podcast from October 2015.

--Chris Morgan

MUSIC AS A SUPPORTING CHARACTER IN "STAR TREK BEYOND"

***SPOILERS***

In our podcast about "Star Trek Beyond," I argued that Michael Giacchino's score could be considered a supporting character. He teases the main theme throughout the movie, using its buildup [0:00-0:42--theme starts 0:43] and variations to support the progression of the story, as well as character locations, emotions and actions.

For those who haven’t seen “Star Trek Beyond”, or are not familiar with Giacchino’s score, I will give an example of a better known score that supports character actions and locations within a film.

 In Steven Spielberg’s film, “Jaws,” John William's iconic main theme helped to give the audience a sense of where the shark was geographically and the threat it posed at any given time. Starting ominously with the slow pulse of the bass instruments, the tempo and intensity of the music would build as the shark got closer or was in a more threatening position.

In both "Jaws" and "Star Trek Beyond," music provides information about a character that cannot be seen: location, intention, emotional state, etc. Some of the narrative themes in "Star Trek Beyond" are those of internal doubt, external separation and the strength found in unity, and Giacchino’s score helps to punctuate and track all of this.

At the very beginning of the movie we hear a soft version of the main theme to introduce it to the audience during the pre-film title cards. Then as the title cards continue, Giacchino teases us with what is the actual build up to that theme, essentially reversing its order.

In the first act of the movie, Giacchino plays with the main theme, moving it from strings to piano to woodwinds and providing a backdrop as Kirk tours the Enterprise. He is giving his Captain’s Log, discussing his daily life and the lives of the crew in the tedium of deep space travel. This scene also gives the first hints as to Kirk's personal doubts.

After making a brief resupply stop at the star base Yorktown—an enormous spherical station with winding cities, open malls and looping canals with real water—the Enterprise disembarks on a mission to find an alien vessel within a nearby nebula. However, it is a trap. The Enterprise is attacked by the villain, Krall, and his swarm of ships.

The Enterprise is destroyed and the crew abandons the ship, fleeing separately to the nearby planet. Kirk soon finds Chekov, Spock reunites with McCoy, Scotty meets a new ally, Jaylah, while Sulu and Uhura are captured and held with the rest of the surviving crew in Krall's camp.

While all the characters are equally important to the story, the main focus of the narrative and music is centered on Kirk. It has been his emotional journey that we’ve been following throughout. As he and Chekov work to to find the rest of the crew, the main theme is softly teased in melodic variation.

Eventually Kirk and Chekov meet up with Scotty and Jaylah. Jaylah has been working to repair an old crashed Federation ship, the Franklin. Now that they have a means to escape the planet, the reunited crew members work together on a plan to locate and rescue the remaining crew. As they work, the main theme’s introduction is played, softly, before it diminishes as the scene changes.

From here the pattern continues. McCoy and Spock are found and brought into the fold, bringing new information to help rescue the crew from Krall. Once again the introduction is played, this time more intensely, but still not completing its journey to the main theme.

Uhura, Sulu, and the rest of the ship’s crew are rescued, and the seven main characters are reunited aboard the Franklin. Uhura and Sulu share what they have learned of Krall's plans. The main crew--reunited and stronger than ever in the movie--form their final plan for escape and defeat of their enemy. The introduction is played at full volume and intensity, but once again it stops before the main theme as the ship escapes the planet and heads toward the Yorktown.

Throughout the movie the constant teasing of the main theme creates a sense of anticipation, a sense of excitement, the feeling that the movie is building to its climax. It is getting closer but is not quite there.

The Franklin pursues Krall's ships into the Yorktown. Giacchino ramps up the excitement by constantly moving between the chase music, Krall’s theme, a variant of the main theme, back to the chase music and Krall’s theme. Then--without any buildup, introduction, or other musical cues--the main theme swoops in, full intensity and orchestration, as the Franklin rises from one of the canals on the Yorktown to stop Krall’s ships.

This theme has been a long time coming. It has followed the crew throughout the movie while eluding the audience. It has been a source of both excitement and frustrated anticipation. The return of Giacchino’s theme here at the film’s climax provides a visceral sonic release that compliments the visual in celebrating the success of our heroes.

It seems fitting that I write my first article for our monthly newsletter as Star Trek celebrates its 50th anniversary. This particular journey began on February 27th, 2015, the day The Lost Signals recorded our first podcast, and the day Leonard Nimoy died. It is a day I look back on with both joy and sadness.

Star Trek has been an inspiration to me as a musician, a writer, and a person all my life. I am beyond grateful to now have the opportunity to combine all those inspirations in one article.

-Chris Morgan, September 2016