He Named Me Malala / by Charlie Brigden

MALALA He Named Me Malala is a documentary about a teenage female activist Malala Yousafzai who would speak for the Pakistani girl's education in Swat Valley. She was later targeted for her beliefs and shot in a head. After her miraculous survival, she became even more popular around the world and eventually won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.  Sadly, for all its noble intentions, Davis Guggenheim’s film itself isn’t quite as strong as its subject matter would suggest.

Thomas Newman’s name can be associated with tremendous versatility and never ending experimentation with strange and obscure instruments from around the world. His scores tend to impress with their richness and uniqueness. However, they often also suffer from lack of focus that makes some fans question his storytelling abilities.

While He Name Me Malala isn’t exactly the most unified of scores, it does feel more coherent than an average Thomas Newman work that experiments with more elusive and less obvious subject matters. It is worth noting that this film is his first venture in a world of documentary. The opening track (‘A Pashtun Story’) sets the warm quirky tone for an entire album. The piano is the most prevalent element, with gentle ethnic woodwind backing.

The thematic elements in He Named Me Malala feel more scattered around, as they often are in most Newman scores. The melodies are gentle and simple, hardly representing complex ideas and characters. Instead, this music focused primarily around creating beautiful and delicate textures. But then, Newman doesn’t really ever follow a leitmotivic idea of traditional Hollywood of writing long-lined tunes. His ideas tend to be abstract and impressionistic. No matter what is your opinion on this composer, his approach to scoring western films feels unique and quite unlike anything used by his more respected colleagues.

Gentle female vocals add another dimension to Newman’s score. They can be heard in an almost ghostly form all across the soundtrack album - ‘I Am Malala’ and ‘July 12’ are among the more notable examples. ‘A Fiery Speaker’ brings back that element, this time with more determination and conviction. They make a final appearance in ‘66 Million Girls’ and there is a sense of completion and denouement by the end of this track.

While there is an element of melancholy, very typical for Newman, certain tracks have more lively feel. ‘Which Camera Now?’ focuses on the percussive (sampled and live) and sounds decidedly more modern than most music on the album. ‘Headmaster’ utilises more ethnic feel and mostly live percussion while ‘Cat Burglar’ uses piano as it primary motoric element.

Not all of it is gentle and pretty, however. ‘Ideology’ is full of determination and washed over synthesisers break the idyllic mood. ‘Radio Mullah’ feels even darker, almost creating a sense of eerie mystery. ‘No More There’ goes into a more contemplative and resigned territory while ‘Refugees’ brings in the unexpected martial percussion into the mix. While those moments add more richness and variety into to the overall palette, they are also quite few and far between.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s difficult to rate this score. The sheer uniqueness of Thomas Newman’s career work is worth noting and this score perhaps feels like a slightly less melancholic take on his trademark sound. As expected, it is not tied to together with stronger melodic elements, which could make it difficult for many listeners to keep their attention. At the same time, overall soundscape feels more stylistically unified than usual and, as a result, the 53-minute soundtrack album flows effortlessly. Especially if you treat it as a relaxing pleasant background listening experience. For the autumn season, it might be just the right thing.

-Karol Krok

He Named Me Malala is out now from Sony Classical