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Maps to the Stars (Howard Shore)

September 27, 2014

Cover_MapstotheStarsMAPS TO THE STARS

Howard Shore, 2014, Howe Records
16 tracks, 38.34

Winner of the 2014 Cannes Soundtrack Award, “Maps to the Stars” was given the award for the original score best suited to a feature film in official competition by a jury of 15 critics. Were they right?

Review by Pete Simons

What is it?

The film “Maps to the Stars” connects the savage beauty of writer Bruce Wagner’s Los Angeles with the riveting filmmaking of director David Cronenberg and a stellar ensemble cast to take a tour into the darkly comic heart of a Hollywood family chasing celebrity, one another and the relentless ghosts of their pasts. The result is a modern Hollywood Gothic at once about the ravenous 21st Century need for fame and validation — and the yearning, loss and fragility that lurk in the shadows underneath. The film stars Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Olivia Williams, Sarah Gadon, Evan Bird, John Cusack, and Robert Pattinson.

What does it sound like?

Let’s get one thing out of the way – this is not “Lord of the Rings”. This isn’t even “Seven” or “The Cell”. It is one of Howard Shore’s most unusual outings I’ve ever heard. “Maps to the Stars” is made mostly from ambient synth pads, supplemented by Indian rhythms and quirky bass lines.

Upon a quick first listen one might be forgiven for thinking this is an entirely electronic score; however it is not. Closer inspection (particularly of the booklet) reveals that tabla, harp, piano, celeste, electric guitars and various string instruments are all performed live. They provide the score with an interesting, often jazzy edge, but I would imagine that it’s the synthesizers that attract the most attention. They are very airy and breathy and remind me of Mark Isham’s “Crash”; though “Maps” is altogether more outlandish and fails to resonate as deeply with me as “Crash” did.

Whilst “Maps to the Stars” is not a melodic score, it is surprisingly coherent as Shore re-uses certain rhythmic elements and synthesizer sounds. You’ll hear the same pads, similar bass lines and percussive loops throughout the score. “Wildfire” and “Burn Out” stand out through their much less subtle, dance-based drumloops. Elsewhere, the score feels moody and mysterious. It is slow-moving and on the surface appears serene, but it’s an uneasy serenity. Perhaps it’s trying to tell us that underneath all that LA glamour, not all is what it seems. And those spacey synthesizers often feel impersonal, perhaps to enhance the sense that we’re merely observing these LA lives from a distance; without ever getting too close or too involved.

Occasionally, and especially towards the end, Shore does turn to a more ‘classical’ sound as violin, viola and cello takes centre stage in cues like “Stolen Waters”, “Fire and Water”, “Live is Stronger”, “I Write Your Name” and “Blanket of Stars”. A minimal see-sawing motif is the key ingredient to these tracks. Those familiar with Shore’s works will recognise his unique voice in the chords and their progressions. And whilst these cues may more easily appeal to a wider audience, they feel painfully lonely.

Is it any good?

“Maps to the Stars” is an interesting work; one that mesmerises. It manages to hold your attention (mine at least) even though it doesn’t seem to be doing a great deal. The quirky combination of tabla rhythms, jazzy bass lines and ambient soundscapes keeps you guessing as to what the next cue might bring. And the next cue might well bring you a more traditionally Shore-sounding string quartet. What is here, is done very well. Yet in spite of its unique combination of sounds and style, I still feel as if it’s lacking a personality. It feels impersonal, distanced and lonely. Perhaps that is the very point, but as a result I struggle to appreciate this score beyond its technical merits.

Rating [2/5]

Tracklisting

01. Greyhound (1.56)
02. Set Me Free (1.57)
03. Stolen Waters (2.22)
04. Wildfire (2.25)
05. A Little Crazy (3.21)
06. Walk of Fame (1.31)
07. Fire and Water (2.16)
08. Asylum Corridor (1.45)
09. Brother and Sister (1.06)
10. Secrets Kill (2.43)
11. Burn Out (1.57)
12. Love is Stronger (2.32)
13. I’m Sorry (2.41)
14. I Write Your Name (3.47)
15. Liberty (2.10)
16. Blanket of Stars (4.05)

 

 

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