The Book of Life / by Charlie Brigden

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By Karol Krok the-book-of-life-image

When Gustavo Santaolalla won his Oscars in two consecutive years, many people were scratching their heads. And that had very little to do with the quality of Brokeback Mountain and Babel. It’s the fact that Academy started to display a slightly fickle tendencies when nominating some scores and disqualifying others – mostly based on the percentage of source music contained in films and score’s running time. None of which seemed to matter when both of those works received their respective statuettes. In either case, the composer became associated in the minds of film music fans with solo guitar works. Which makes his latest venture into 3D animation surprising and, quite frankly, really intriguing.

While both winning scores from this composers were quite sparse and minimal, The Book of Life expands upon his own style to create a grander work. Gustavo employs a significantly larger ensemble: an entire symphony orchestra. His compositions are Mexican at heart, although probably less deliberately authentic than they could have been. They certainly draw more inspiration from the works of experienced feature animation composers such as Danny Elfman and John Powell. Santaolalla’s guitars are, of course, at the very heart of this work. Which is actually appropriate and welcome.

The few opening tracks introduce us to this colourful world of Mexican mythology in quite a gentle and wondrous fashion (‘Special Tour’ and ‘The Book of Life Theme’). ‘Visiting Mother’ features a nice solo female vocal singing a really pretty theme. The even better vocalise can be heard in ‘Lullaby Theme’, this time joined by backing voices and guitars. This material comes back later, in a gorgeous ‘Reuniting with Mother’. These three tracks are definitely among the very best material Gustovo Santaolalla has ever written.

There is a lot of Mariachi-like trumpet writing in this score, sounding almost like Ennio Morricone (‘The Medal’). Later in this track, Santaolalla ventures into more typical animation territory, recalling works of both Danny Elfman and Thomas Newman (in brief woodwind moments). ‘Manolo vs Joachin’ features some neat heraldic brass at the very end, completely atypical for composer. ‘Ole’ brings back the of swashbuckling sections in James Horner’s The Mask of Zorro and, even more strongly, some works of Robert Rodriguez.

‘Sanchez Bullfighting History’ allows for a grander orchestral gestures, as it is one of the longest pieces on the soundtrack album. The string sections and brass are allowed to soar every now and then, between the ever-present guitar solos. The female vocals return in the latter portion of this cue to a great and almost haunting effect. ‘The Banditos Are Coming!’ throws in ominous brass and percussion into the already rich mix.

‘El Aparato/Land of the Remembering’ brings us to another world -  and a much more joyful one at that. Slightly ethnic chorus heralds the land of dead in an almost anthem-like way (think Avatar). The Spanish-flavoured brass passages add a lot of excitement to this cue as well. The same type of vocals return in an even more impressive performance (‘Going To See La Muerte’).

There is a sense of loss and broken heart to ‘Maria Agrees to Marry Joachin’. However, the second part of this track (‘Travelling to the Cave of Souls’) brings the listener into a more fantastical genre, complete with obligatory wondrous chorus. ‘The Maze’ is an exciting action piece for low growling brass, in its frenetic writing very much reminiscent of John Powell. The vocal writing of the following piece only solidifies this impression (‘Welcome to the Cave of Souls’).

‘Chakal’ changes the tone completely, with its aggressive electric guitars. While still, to some extent, somewhat rooted in Mexican sensibilities, it nevertheless feels completely out of place – at least within the context of this soundtrack album. They come back yet again in ‘Victory/Don’t Forget Me’. Thankfully, the more traditional orchestral elements soon take over in a triumphant fashion. ‘Manolo Is Alive’ is an emotional resolution for strings. Finally, the album is rounded off by a reprise of ‘The Apology Song’.

The score is very pleasant and relaxing, although there isn’t much depth to it either – harmonies are quite basic most of the time. Still, it contains plenty of melody and that will surely appeal to many casual listeners.  The 48-minute is perfect running time music like this. It’s just a pity so many pieces are really brief (the shortest one lasts mere 22 seconds). It’s definitely hard to sustain any emotion for too long with such constraints. But then, this is a problem with most animated films. In any case, The Book of Life is a proof there is much more to Gustavo Santaolalla than his most famous works would lead us to believe, even if he’s mostly building upon his comfort zone guitar techniques.

The Book of Life digital score album is out now from Sony Classical