Thursday, September 12, 2013

Soundtrack Suggestion: Argo - Alexandre Desplat

by Alexandre Desplat

I wasn't expecting much from this movie when I first heard about it, given the director was going to be Ben Affleck.  Now at the time of this article's writing, the buzz online is all about how much it sucks that he's going to be Batman in the coming Superman movie, but I'll ignore that for now and focus on the fact that Ben Affleck did surprise a lot of people by coming up with a very well crafted movie.  Argo excites!  Argo embraces tension!  Argo has drama and comedy and yet never confuses what it wants to do.

And deliciously, so does the soundtrack to the movie which was done by Alexadre Desplat.  Some of you might recognize his name but most will appreciate his body of work, which includes uncredit work in The Twilight Saga soundtracks,  the Moonrise Kingdom soundtrack and the scores of movies such as The Queen and Coco Before Chanel.

The soundtrack is composed of 17 tracks and runs a total of 58:38 minutes long.  The soundtrack is a mix of traditional Middle Eastern motifs with a nice blend of orchestral cores.    The soundtrack has a mix of pulse-building sequences and calmer atmospheric hues which can nicely fit many games, so long as the Persian touch is welcome.

Argo (Track 01) opens with an evocative mood that brings to mind a mysterious desert landscape, and this thematic thumbprint becomes a foundation for the many later tracks that follow.  A Spy in Tehran (Track 02) quickly carries the pace forward, adding more action to the emotional yearning of the opening song.  Scent of Death (Track 03) opens with a repeating synthesized voice, and the recognizable wailing female voice that marks typical Middle Eastern soundscapes.  The Mission (Track 04) shifts gears and slides back into the more familiar patriotic hues of any Hollywood production.  The signature swells and rising uplifting tides are here. Hotel Messages (Track 05) opens with a vocal play which reminded me of performances of groups like STOMP, but then nicely blend back into the leitmotif which the first track created.  The end result is a nice exotic tunnel which works very well.  Held Up By Guards (Track 06) opens with a base groan and a solo piano, which sounds bleak and cautious, lending an uncertain feel on whether or not one is safe or in trouble.  But as the piano gives way to more traditional Persian instruments, the song gains traction and clearer identity.

The Business Card (Track 07) and  Tony Grills the Six (Track 09) opens with a clear play on tension and danger.  The songs could actually slip into the Battlestar Galactica soundtrack and they would still work.  Breaking Through the Gates (Track 08) sort of slips into a more expected action-sequence punch with vibrant touches mingling with almost bazaar like energy which reminds me of movies like Bourne Identity but the way vocal touches are mixed in to the song gives it unexpected layers that make it stand out in a very good way. The Six are Missing (Track 10) and Sweatshop (Track 11) are easily my favorite tracks as they very effectively blends the vocal stylings with music for a cathartic and almost haunting atmosphere.  

Drive to the Airport (Track 12) starts with a punchy pace, then at the 1:30 mark, almost gives a sense of calm, before diving headlong back into tense waters til it hits another lull at the 2:40 mark, and finally one final swell before the calm of the 3:15 mark.  The track overall carries a sense of hope.   Missing Home (Track 13) opens soft and introspective but the shift to active at 1:40 seems a tad jarring, which kind of goes in opposition with the rest of the soundtrack.  Having seen the movie, however, I totally get how this track works.  I'm not much of a fan of Istanbul (The Blue Mosque) (Track 14) since I feel it seems less well-thought out in its use of voices and the mix feels a tad more closer to a slight cacophony than a well-composed piece for me.  When the strings enter at 1:20, I feel the piece gets even more lost in what mood it wants to convey.  It feels almost like a Western attempt to define the soundscape of a Middle Eastern idea.  Worst of all, it ends oddly.  Feels very unfinished.   In contrast, Bazaar (Track 15) is a deep blend of harmonies that almost bring one to envision a religious experience and  Cleared Iranian Airspace (Track 16) never lets up with the rising tide of hope and danger.  Both feel very carefully crafted (some would say almost manipulatively so) to accomplish specific results.  The soundtrack ends with Hace Tuto Guagua (track 17) by Familion as a hummed melody which reminds us of the fragility of life, the enduring power of hope and the strength that comes from courage within.

Argo OST track suggestions:
WTF moment: None
Introspective/calm moment: Argo (Track 01),  Tony Grills the Six (Track 09), Istanbul (The Blue Mosque) (Track 14)
Tense/mystery moment: A Spy In Tehran (Track 02), Scent of Death (Track 03), Hotel Messages (Track 05), Held Up By Guards (Track 06), The Business Card (Track 07)
Combat music: Breaking Through the Gates (Track 08)
Hopeful moment: The Mission (Track 04), Drive to the Airport (Track 12), Hace Tuto Guagua (track 17)
Drama/sad moment: The Six are Missing (Track 10), Sweatshop (Track 11),  Missing Home (Track 13), Cleared Iranian Airspace (Track 16)

Best Used In: You will note how many tracks in the album are for tense scenes so games with such moments are perfect.  I can imagine this soundtrack working for games like Night's Black Angels or multicultural games like Aeon Trinity.  I've also used the soundtrack wonderfully to score a few sessions of the board game Pandemic.  Mileage may vary, however, depending on how broad a soundscape you want to explore.
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