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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The Hunger Games, the latest literary sensation to take the box office by storm, is something of a surprise package in its choice of soundtrack. While the titular games provide a rugged and gruelling onscreen focal point, the soundtrack is a barely-there, removed, and largely soothing affair. It opts for reflective, tender songs, most with distinctive country or blues vibes which infuse the turmoil depicted onscreen with a strong sense of heart and courage. The songs act as a window into the mind of lead character Katniss – intensely introspective, they underscore the solitude of her struggle, while hinting at the depth of emotion and loyalty that compels her to act first as provider for her family and later, to fight in her sister’s stead in the games.
The overall sparseness of the sound belies the dystopian world in which the story is set, while mimicking the threadbare life many have outside the Capitol. In this regard, the country style of many of the songs reflects a rural, remote existence and the sense of being removed or cut off from the rest of the world. “Tomorrow Will Be Kinder” by The Secret Sisters is a fine example. It features a lone, poignant female voice picking her way through an almost non-existent musical landscape. What vacant notes do linger are extremely minimal, creating a hushed atmosphere that is at once intensely sad and forlorn, yet accepting and hopeful. Such is also evident in Neko Case’s “Nothing to Remember,” which contents itself with wispy, evanescent hints at courage in the arresting vocal refrains and determined drums.
Many of the tracks use female vocals, usually from a solitary performer. This ensures the music never strays from Katniss’ viewpoint, lingering always within the confines of her plight and adding heart and depth to her story. Taylor Swift was an exquisite choice in this regard. Often overlooked or dismissed on account of her sentimental approach to songwriting, Swift is nonetheless an artist uniquely talented and incisive in capturing the emotional resonance of her audience. “Safe and Sound” is a beautiful song, as heartfelt and moving as her best work. It’s a little more exposed and shaken than we’re using to hearing her be, but she draws on all her ability to craft a rich, evocative track that trembles with vulnerability. The ominous rolling of the drums is the only visible source of power in an otherwise intimate, cautious layout, with the wayward vocalising in its latter half hinting at the untamed nature of the District. “Daughter’s Lament” by The Carolina Chocolate Drops takes this glimpse of potency and builds upon it dramatically. A careful blend of country sensibilities with folksy lyrics, the lone singer is piercing in the absence of any tangible musical accompaniment. A chorus is buried very discreetly in the background, adding a stark and haunting bite to an atmosphere that’s all the more striking for its bare, cold set-up.
However, what’s perhaps most memorable about this soundtrack is the fact that a Maroon 5 song may well be the best thing on it. Yes, I’m biased. I’ve never been a fan and cringe audibly whenever they cross my path. Yet, between Adam Levine’s guest appearance on Gym Class Heroes’ The Papercut Chronicles II and the profoundly gorgeous “Come Away to the Water” here, I may have to bite my tongue. The longest song on the album, it has more time than the others to slip stealthily beneath your skin. It is a hushed and quietly enthralling affair, building from nebulous beginnings to become atmospheric and captivating. The simple and focused lyrics are delivered by a grim dual vocal harmony that evokes a grave sense of purpose. It’s vaguely unsettling but in the most delightful way, and will linger longest with you when the credits roll.
The few tracks on the album with some bite stand out quite easily next to this ghostly bunch. “Abraham’s Daughter” by Arcade Fire may seem lethargic, but its rough choreography reflects a turgid wilderness and primal instinct. The beat absorbs and intoxicates while Régine Chassagne’s ethereal vocals add a mystical undercurrent to the music. Kid Cudi’s contribution, “The Ruler and the Killer,” is visceral and aggressive, the first true evidence of something monstrous at work. There’s something primeval in its blank vocals and snarling guitars that more vividly showcases the untrammelled, ferocious aspects of Panem than anything else here. Glen Hansard’s vocal performance on “Take the Heartland” is also searing and gritty – a rendition far more representative of the steely sense of purpose imbibed by the characters.
Divine as both an album and a soundtrack, The Hunger Games barely puts a foot wrong in its arrangements and choice of songs. It is at once stirring and intimate, mirroring the theme of a lone arduous journey and ensuring the listener’s hearts and minds are always with Katniss and her compatriots. It’s not huge, expansive, or particularly cinematic but it brings a deeply personal perspective to a huge production, and rigidly grounds a world of chaos.