Written by UTG critic Grace Duffy, Scene & Heard takes a look at the music that makes our favorite films so memorable. Whether it’s the 400-piece orchestra Christopher Nolan used for The Dark Knight, or the dozen or so bands that contributed to the soundtrack of Top Gun, there is no denying the impact music has on movies and this column hopes to highlight the best of the best.
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Given my location upon the European shores of the Atlantic, I have not as yet had the opportunity to see We Bought A Zoo. However, its reputation precedes it, or at least that of director Cameron Crowe does. He is one of the most musical of directors, perennially finding a way to embrace and celebrate his soundtracks as much as his characters. His background as a Rolling Stones scribe has given him ample credentials, and his passion is clearest in the semi-autobiographical Almost Famous – more specifically, in ‘Band-Aid’ Sapphire’s poignant assertion about “loving some silly little band or piece of music so much that it hurts.”
In other words, being unfamiliar with the film itself is rarely an issue when it comes to Crowe’s work, as the movie’s soundtrack often takes on a life of its own. The music for We Bought A Zoo was composed by Jónsi, he of Sigur Rós fame, giving fans an obvious indication of what to expect before the movie ever starts. It’s earthy, whimsical, and haunting, with a serene air of reflection that hints at something symbolic and more meaningful than the movie’s playful title might suggest. It’s fragmented and sparsely beautiful, presumably devised to suit the protagonist’s struggle with the loss of his wife, a change of scenery, and the transcendence he finds in reviving a dilapidated zoo.
The soundtrack doesn’t evolve much over fifteen songs and the better part of an hour. It remains quite elusive and airy, as one would expect of the composer, but the sound does become warmer and fuller as we reach the conclusion. Opening track “Why Not” is very fragile and scenic, centering on brief moments of vocalizing and an otherwise detached and empty backing track. It’s slightly pained, but pristine, music to absorb and thought-provoke if not necessarily leave the most fixed of marks. “Aevin Endear” is similarly elegant in its somberness, with a lethargic piano and wistful, soft vocals. It unveils something more majestic in its final minute however, with a faint female vocal soaring poignantly over the music to create something magical and celebratory. After this, “Boy Lilikoi” shows more obvious signs of life. The singing casts off much of its yearning sadness in favor of precociousness, but this is inherently more sure of itself. The music is chirpy and playful, effectively remolding the saddened notes into something newborn and hopeful.
The prevailing wonder of music such as this is how novel and glorious it can make everything seem – there’s always an inherent sense of wonder, thinly-veiled delight, and a childlike affection wavering through its glassy strands. It can be distant, but ever affecting, a soundtrack that will captivate and move you without even really trying. “Sun” is a brief glimpse of something tender, but joyous – as if underlining a moment of fulfillment or insight. “Brambles” may be named to match the nostalgic imagery the title evokes – it mirrors the moniker exquisitely with a sense of exploration, wonder and discovery vividly evident in the music. It’s carefully crafted with tentative keys and synth, creating a loving tribute to these sentiments and infusing the meandering notes with warmth and purpose.
The vocals on “Sinking Friendships” are more robust and seem to enliven their surroundings, breathing a more obvious strength into the music. The title track is accessible and overt, foregoing the restrained intimacy of the other tracks for evocative strings and palpable vocals that seem to envelop and encourage. “Hoppipolla” seems to represent a kind of newfound purpose, while “Sink Ships” sets itself sternly apart with a lovely take on the crackling record sounds of old. The piano is more of a grating whine, clearly out of place, yet adding a very fittingly spectral presence to the album.
“Humming” is a pensive piece; treading a fine line in breathless meditating. The currents of music in the background are not unlike waves breaking on the shore, and the track seems to evoke realization, even an epiphany of sorts. It evokes a beautifully understated musical climax to the soul-searching implied by the story, with shivering doubts being conquered by something deeper and more meaningful. Yet, its abrupt ending seems to suggest uncertainty, possibly reflecting the various difficulties that could derail the characters’ fledgling enterprise.
Naming this album for the movie almost feels churlish upon listening to it; its radiance demands something far more eloquent than the upfront We Bought A Zoo. It’s a layered and memorable work, with intricacies and quirks here that refuse to immediately reveal themselves and require complete immersion. There’s a kind of unassuming intellect buried in the folds of sound but it remains very personal and soul-searching, as would befit the plot of the movie, and it’s a pleasant and endearing listen.