The Overlooked Triumph of “The Revenant”: Music

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The Revenant was robbed.

For all the Oscar nominations The Revenant has received, the movie was victim of a glaring omission: Best Original Score. The score, created by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto (with additional music by Bryce Dessner of the National), creates a sonic tapestry that deepens the emotional impact of one man’s struggle against nature and other men. The score also succeeds on its own merits for delivering an affecting blend of ambient sounds and melody, worthy of your attention regardless of your interest in the movie.

The score works for many reasons. First, the music complements the tension and sadness of the story, its violence, and the film’s natural beauty instead of trying to amplify it. A more conventional composer might have “piled on” by overwhelming the viewer with lush orchestration and rousing drums to dial up the action and remind you that you’re watching a stunning vista — much the same way that boldface, all-caps, and italics often serve to underscore a written narrative, and usually unnecessarily so.

But Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto, and Bryce Dessner have something else in mind: the strings, percussion, and bass add texture and nuance to the movie’s many emotionally powerful moments.

For instance, “Goodbye to Hawk” builds slowly with a sad cello that gently suggests the emotion welling up inside the protagonist, frontier guide Hugh Glass, after he experiences a profound loss in the wilderness of 19th Century America. A single cello descends and floats for more than a minute. But at the 1:40 mark, “Goodbye to Hawk” changes course, taking on a more foreboding mood. A percussive sound repeats itself over a rising bed of strings and a thudding bass.

Within two minutes, anger and resolve overtake sadness, creating a kind of strength inside of Glass that he will draw upon throughout his perilous adventure. The strange, repeating electronic percussion sound feels something like a Native American drone. The composition is minimalist in nature — and yet signals a change in mood more powerfully than a wall of sound would have.

The score also combines melody with an unstructured ambience depending on the needs of the scene. The composers (principally Sakamoto and Noto) know when the music needs to suggest with ambient effect, rather than carry a scene with melody. For example, “First Dream” consists of a curious mixture of strings, piano, and percussive effects that narrate an otherworldly experience in which Glass dreams of his past life.

https://youtu.be/OyuKS6DxMeQ

But the score sprinkles in melody at the right time, too. “Out of Horse” is a sad but sweet excursion, with the ondes Martenot instrument creating a flute-like melody that carries a key scene in which Glass seeks an unusual form of natural refuge from the elements.

Ryuichi Sakamoto has described working on The Revenant score as “the return from death” — and he is not exaggerating. He began work on The Revenant as he was recovering from throat cancer. At first he hesitated to work on the score. As he told Fact magazine, he was afraid he was too weak to collaborate with director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who has a reputation for being a difficult work partner. But he admired Iñárritu’s work and decided to seize what might have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a 63-year-old man staring down mortality.

He explained to Fact his use an ambient music thusly: “Since the beginning, I always thought the real main character in this film is nature . . . So to respect the sounds of nature, I thought the music shouldn’t be too narrative. I wanted my music to be like a part of the sound of nature.”

In the same interview, Alva Noto added, “I think we both created a lot of sounds where you could think of nature. A lot of sounds that are like a breath. They don’t always have a melodic quality — we’re just creating a space, a feeling. So I think they’re things that people might understand as sound design rather than music.”

The strength of The Revenant score, its understated interplay with nature, may very well be why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences overlooked it. The score is just not flashy enough. There are no moments that listeners can easily latch on to and hum along with, as with the Star Wars movies.

Both Sakamoto and Nova agree, as is evident in their interview the Fact. As Nova put it, “[The Academy] couldn’t understand that these many noises had musical qualities. Which is very important, because we both come from a strong electronic background where every sound is important, not just the melodic ones.”

Fortunately, music listeners don’t need the Academy to dictate our tastes. We have the power to immerse ourselves in music on our own. And I hope you will immerse yourself in score for The Revenant.

Related:

The Fader, “In Conversation with the All-Knowing Ryuichi Sakamoto,” Ruth Saxelby, 4 December 2015.

NPR, “Review: Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto & Bryce Dessner, ‘The Revenant’,” Tom Moon, 30 December 2015.

The Wellesley News, “A Glimpse inside the Broody Soundtrack of ‘The Revenant,’ Scored by Ryuichi Sakamoto,” Ruth Jiang, 10 February 2016.

Movie Trailers Shine As Digital Stars

With the 2016 Academy Awards fast approaching, Google has created a terrific piece of event-based content by ranking the popularity of the trailers for the Oscar Best Picture nominees. Google ranks The Revenant Number One based YouTube trailer views, which is ironic given that a trailer promoting a film made for the big screen was likely watched on tiny mobile phone screens. The Google analysis also underscores the important role that trailers play in the digital era as both a promotion and a form of viral entertainment, and even user generated content.

In the days of movie-going yore (aka before the Internet), studios usually dropped movie trailers in dark theaters as commercials bunched together before the marquee attraction. Studios hoped that trailers would create natural word of mouth to complement PR and advertising campaigns.

Watching trailers in dark movie theaters remains an inevitable part of today’s movie going experience. But the trailers have become high-concept productions distributed like morsels of viral content across the digital world, becoming so important that trailer launches get covered just like movie releases do. The popularity of the trailers for another Oscar-nominated movie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, demonstrates the new reality of how we experience trailers.

The release of the trailers to promote The Force Awakens not only built anticipation for the latest movie in the vaunted series, they also became causes for celebration in and of themselves. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures enjoyed a special advantage with The Force Awakens trailers: each one tapped into a built-in fan base. The Star Wars films have been around since 1977. They have become a permanent cultural fixture like the Beatles have. So each trailer for The Force Awakens was guaranteed to generate interest among fans already eagerly awaiting the December 2015 release of the movie. (By contrast, The Revenant trailer was introducing an unknown movie when the trailer appeared on YouTube in July 2015.)

But Disney certainly didn’t take the popularity of Star Wars for granted. All the trailers were well-edited visual and sonic journeys. Taken together, the three trailers acted as a trilogy of sorts, revealing different details about the plot of The Force Awakens, giving you glimpses of new characters, and reminding us of the glorious return of Han Solo and Chewbacca. They were released months apart, with the first trailer landing in November 2014, the second in April 2015, and the third — in a brilliant masterstroke — on October 2015 during an ESPN Monday Night Football game, thus ensuring strong cross-platform viewing.

And, wow, did audiences respond. The second trailer set a Guinness World Record for the most viewed movie trailer on YouTube within 24 hours, with 30.65 million views amassed in one day.

The third and final trailer generated 130 million views across all social platforms (including 83.3 million views on YouTube and Facebook) within just six days of its release. As of February 26, 2016, all three trailers had accumulated 188,460,826 views on YouTube alone, according to YouTube analytics.

But of course we don’t just watch trailers. We like them, share them, talk about them, and play with them, as The Force Awakens trailers demonstrate. All three have earned nearly 1 million shares and 1.26 million likes. The trailers have inspired user-generated versions that became viral themselves, including recreations by a U.S. Navy crew, a Lego version, and a mash-up with the 1987 Mel Brooks comedy Spaceballs.

Movie trailers work because they not only build buzz but also contribute to the bottom line. According to a Google study, nearly seven out of 10 consumers aged 13-24 view YouTube trailers before deciding which film to watch at a movie theater. YouTube also reported that from 2014-15, there had been an 88-percent year-over-year increase in movie trailer views on YouTube via mobile devices, which is significant because 56 percent of searches for movie tickets come from mobile devices.

Trailers generate advance ticket sales, especially when they are linked to mobile ecommerce apps such as Fandango to create a seamless buying experience after you view the trailer. It’s not surprising that advance sales for The Force Awakens really did break the Internet months before the movie opened, as websites and mobile apps struggled to meet the demand for tickets. Trailers optimized for mobile devices are the perfect type of content that appeals to consumers when we experience “micro-moments,” which Google defines as moments when we use our mobile devices to decide what to do, where to go, and what to buy.

Movie trailers will continue to entertain and inspire fan-generated content. In addition, we should expect movie trailers to integrate more effectively with the mobile experience. According to Google, mobile has overtaken the desktop as the primary way we conduct searches overall. To turn those mobile searches into revenue, businesses need to do more than offer useful information such as their names, addresses, and phone numbers (or, in the case of movie theaters, movie times). To succeed in the mobile era, businesses need to convince searchers to become customers by sharing compelling content and an easy purchasing experience. Movie trailers linked to purchasing apps such as Fandango do so now. Movie trailers with the purchase functionality embedded in them will become more common.

What are your favorite examples of movie trailers that have become celebrated for their entertainment and marketing value?