Musings About Music In Film

Houdini (Vol. 1 & Vol. 2)

By Mikko Ojala la-et-st-adrien-brody-houdini-miniseries-history-20140721

Title: Houdini (Vol. 1 & Vol. 2)

Composer: John Debney (additional music by Sebastian Arocha)

The Film: Houdini is a two-part, four hour History channel miniseries written by Nicholas Meyer starring Adrien Brody and directed by Uli Edel, which follows the story of Harry Houdini as he emerges as America’s first bona fide world-renowned superstar. It explores the man behind the magic as he finds fame, engages in espionage, battles spiritualists and encounters the greatest names of the era and chronicles the life of a man who can defy death through his stunts, his visions and his mastery of illusion.

The Score: Debney's approach eschews the instrumentation and feel of the time period by going to the opposite direction (rather like Cliff Martinez' The Knick, another recent period tv series score) and he composes a soundtrack featuring heavily in-your-face electro-industrial music and blending it with smattering of orchestral moments all the while bending genres and styles in rapid succession.

Distinguishing Features: In this score the rhythms, beat and pulse rule supreme, the contemporary eletronics adding to the cool factor of the main character and treating him as a superstar in modern terms. At whiles the electronically manipulated sounds of heavy industrial music or atmospheric sound painting give away to some more melodic moments like the cello led ”Money for Nothin'/Halloween Dinner”, Thomas Newman-esque light quirkiness of ”Proposal/Wedding Night”, temp-track inspired ”Hitting the Road” (hello Hans Zimmer's Sherlock Holmes!), ”Lady Butler”, ominous ”Bess Parties with the Kaiser” or the poignantly resigned ”Bess Goodbye/No Escape”. All these varying elements create a truly eclectic musical mix, which speaks of Debney's inventiveness and ability to tackle just about any type of genre.

Final Thoughts: Even though the end result of Houdini shows off the composer's chameleon-like versatility, the almost continuous aggressive electronics become something of a chore to listen through in the 2 disc, 2 hour incarnation of this soundtrack as the music was released on not one but two discs containing most of the score for the series. The score is focused on the grinding at times abrasive electronic textures with a nary a thematic hook in sight. Debney electronically manipulates all his sounds one way or the other and there are only a very few moments of engaging emotional content in the whole 2 hours that would humanize the character musically or made the musical structure easier to grasp. All we get it glitz and cool of a rock star and despite the single minded application of the industrial music as the unifying element amidst the blending of genres and styles, the score never comes together in a very satisfying way. For listening purposes there is a decent 45 minute album lurking somewhere in these 120 minutes of music but alas in this form I find it hard to recommend this soundtrack to anyone except die hard Debney fans or absolute aficionados of the miniseries.

Houdini is out now from Lakeshore Records (digital download only)