Sunday, 30 November 2014


Check it out... if you desire heartfelt, well-developed and passionate music which manages to delve into emotional depths that have never been seen by this composer prior

Skip it... if you demand or seek complex or intricate instrumentation and composition, as The Theory of Everything seeks to harness emotional range instead

"The Theory of Everything, I'm quite happy to say, is a highly developed, well-intentioned piece of music, that proves that even the most simplistic of concepts can be as entertaining, heartbreaking and resonant as an abstract and more complex creation."

As award season beckons ever closer, contenders for awards reign in from all over Hollywood and beyond. The artsy attempts to provoke and prod at higher significance flood our cinemas; science fiction films which transcend general blockbusters are greeted with mixed reactions from critics and audiences alike; but above all else, the biopics threaten to overwhelm in quantity during this competitive season. And whilst many biopics tend to fall flat in comparison to their hype and provide ill-conceived information about any given individual, there are a fair few which happen to prove informative, entertaining and heartwarming. This year, the plethora of films that could be said as such include Foxcatcher, The Imitation Game, the upcoming American Sniper, and a new Stephen Hawking biopic; The Theory of Everything. Traversing the relatively complicated marriage between Hawking and his first wife Jane, The Theory of Everything attempts to capture much of what makes Hawking such an impeccable human being, however conflicted or troubled. It catalogs his fight with the highly dangerous ALS disease, as well as his initial triumphs, defeats and challenges that he encountered during his earlier scientific career. Since its recent US release, it has garnered a great quantity of critical acclaim, and is currently accumulating support for multiple Academy Award nominations. 

Whilst it's an exciting time as a film fan, with so many motion pictures of great quality being released simultaneously, it's even more so exciting as a score fan; accompanying many of these films are highly commendable scores, whether it be Alexandre Desplat's methodical score for The Imitation Game, Hans Zimmer's extraordinary efforts for Christopher Nolan's sci-fi epic Interstellar, or James Newton Howard's invigorating return to the Hunger Games franchise for Mockingjay Part 1. Receiving far less publicity or anticipation from the community leading up to its release though was Johann Johannsson's score for The Theory of Everything, which is an exceptional biopic score to say the least. Whilst a number of his more recent efforts have been lacking in quality in regards to melodic coherence and harmony, such as last years disappointing Prisoners score, The Theory of Everything should re-instill energy for the composer's career, proving that he most certainly possesses an emotional tact that has been underdeveloped prior to this here release. Whilst relatively harmless and short, The Theory of Everything is a competent listening experience, filled with a combination of light fluff and meaningful and invigorating themes and ideas, all of which manage to effectively craft an image and story for Hawking's highly interesting and difficult life. The composer provides identities for Hawking's romance and relationship with Jane, as well as his love and dedication to science and his studies. Johannsson addresses the cosmologist's wistful hopes and dreams with an air of wonder, telling the story of his troublesome life with both uplifting heart and grace, alongside a more grounded desperation. Johannsson chronicles Hawking's attempts to better understand the universe around him, whilst also relating his scientific pursuits to his highly arduous personal struggles which continue to plague him to the present. 

The initial impression one receives of The Theory of Everything is that it is nothing unique or particularly distinctive; in fact, it's rather predictable in its structure, build and instrumentation. The story it tells, though, is highly individual, but the way it is told is distinctly not. Johannsson's minimalistic tendencies are welcome in a story which most obviously doesn't require anything resemblant of grandeur or bombast, but these same mannerisms provide little unorthodox progressions; everything, at least at first, follows a continual pattern that is rather familiar to those who have either listened to much of Johannsson's prior work, or listen to a good deal of minimalistic compositions. That is not to say that this is not enjoyable, for The Theory of Everything, I'm quite happy to say, is a highly developed, well-intentioned piece of music, that proves that even the most simplistic of concepts can be as entertaining, heartbreaking and resonant as an abstract and more complex creation. Johannsson's ability to tap into our emotional reserves is entirely applaudable, his simplistic thematic concepts proving highly evocative and poignant. Cues of the likes of 'Collapsing Inwards', a piece of music which foreshadows the inevitable issues that will preside within Hawking's personal life, are relatively simplistic, containing string motifs which move up and down in various forms before a singular 4 note phrase finally emerges. Johannsson evokes emotion best when he is constructing and delivering easily accessible and harmonious music, and that is what The Theory of Everything is all about; minimalistic efforts which still manage to stimulate a sentimentality found deep within. 

Johannsson traverses a number of key emotions, moods and tones all throughout The Theory of Everything, from uplifting crescendos, to innocent and fun staccato string phrases, to deep and mournful piano solos. Whilst this isn't overtly innovative, it is immensely effective. Wherever Johannsson seeks to go with the mood of the music he goes, doing so elegantly and with heartwarming passion. It seems as if Johannsson was genuinely invested within this story of passion, love and despair, based solely on the music. The first half of the score is more rooted in an uplifting and inquisitive tone; it is obvious that Hawking is still deeply invested within his love of physics and the cosmos at this point. His personal life manages to blend in nicely with his studies; they are, at this point in time, one. Hawking's desire to know and explore the world and the unknown more is reflected with carefully constructed pieces where the sensation of building is key. The piece 'Chalkboard' is one of the initial examples of this technique being used, as the music starts slow but quickly erupts into a chorus of piano embellishes and string staccatos. It's exciting and enthralling material that helps to put us in the head of Hawking; this sudden surge of energy is the triumph that occurs at a new discovery, or the understanding of a new theory. The happiness that embodies a man who has just discovered something new and singular. This feeling of achievement and delight is instantaneously contagious, Johannsson proving the extent of his emotional resonance. 

As Hawking is diving around within his sciences, studying and making observations, Johannsson inserts an innocent and smile-inducing sound, full of light percussion and piano staccatos. As the music becomes infinitely darker and more conflicted, string vibratos and slow, perpetually tragic piano solos emerge and very much take over the music. This darker and sorrowful tone is utilized through a vast majority of the second half, broken up only by a few certain cues shrouded amongst the large quantity of pessimistic and slow music. The sign that the score is moving into this latter region of development begins at the cue 'The Stairs', which possesses a less jubilant tone to that which is developed in the cues prior. Dark and glum, Johannsson brings out the self doubt that Hawking is undoubtedly feeling as his body begins to betray him due to his disease. This continues on to the next piece, 'A Normal Family', another cue with an immediate emotional undercurrent, powered by well executed and highly effective strings that appear to be from 'Domestic Pressures'. This mood, whilst stilted for a brief period of time by the exquisite 'Forces of Attraction', 'Rowing (Alternate Version)', and 'Camping', continues on within 'Coma' and 'The Spelling Board', accenting Hawking's pain and sorrow. Ever still, Johannsson still finds time, in between all these downcast pieces, to give over to the wondrous and uplifting side of the story, inviting hope and happiness back into the life of a man once so optimistic. 'The Voice Box' is a cheeky and innocent cue, filled with xylophone and woodwinds which are playful in nature, contrasting against the glum of the prior efforts. 'A Brief History Of Time' is once again highly adventurous and cheery, allowing us moments of relief and warmth. 

I don't think I've ever heard Johannsson this warm, and I say this in the most positive way possible. Even during the more depressing of cues, he still has a tenderness about him, which has never been so acutely present in any of his prior endeavors. He consistently displays a heart and passion about the music that is even more evident with the simplicity in regards to instrumentation and composition; in fact, this simplicity allows him greater emotional range. Johannsson embraces the sound of England; a piano-driven soundscape, which is oft-times quite sterile within other scores. At least in my time, I've found that composers seem to lack the ability to be able to fully evoke emotion out of this specific sound and its commonly associated instrumentation. Johannsson finds no such trouble within The Theory of Everything, providing music which is quite the opposite of such. From the opening cue, 'Cambridge, 1963', it is clear that he has an understanding of the film, its location, and more specifically the man it revolves around, and the emotional turmoil he has faced in his life. He takes us through the highs and the lows of the life of an immensely peculiar individual, capable of great deeds and impeccable ideas, but a man who is held down by a disease which has burdened him for much of his life. Ultimately, what Johannsson does so well with The Theory of Everything is tell the story of Stephen Hawking with heart and soul; with grace and melancholy; with pain and sorrow.

The thematic material, something of which I have neglected for much of this review, is slight, but ultimately affecting. The casual listener will undoubtedly find it difficult to decipher noticeable recurring leitmotifs, though they are present. A solemn cello and violin motif from 'A Game of Croquet' is repeated numerous times within the score, most notably during 'A Normal Family'; what one could consider the main theme is produced within 'The Theory of Everything'; light wooden guitar is produced within a number of the romantic tracks, including the absolutely gorgeous 'Forces of Attraction' and 'The Wedding'. Ultimately, though, despite a distinct lack in perceivable thematic material, this score excels in regards to its identities for its characters. It uses a mixture of specific instrumentation, time signatures and mood to accentuate who is who in the scheme of things, and it does so insanely well. For someone who is generally quite insistent in regards to thematic material, I'll give a pass here, because that is most obviously not what Johannsson was going for; in this sense, and in a lot of ways in regards to The Theory of Everything, I can compare Johannsson's style to Desplat. Whilst his work is scarce in terms of instantaneously recognisable leitmotifs, it is all about texture and the mood of the piece that really allows us an insight into what is occurring behind the music. When you're being compared to the composer of the year, you should accept it as high acclaim.

So yes, despite its simplicity, I am going to award The Theory of Everything an admirable rating. Johannsson's intentions have all been met, and they provide a stunning listen outside of context, as well as within (I have been assured by numerous individuals who have seen the film). This is exceptional composition, that somewhat reminds me of another recent endeavour which aimed less for compositional complexity and more for emotional profoundness, that being Hans Zimmer's Interstellar. Both are highly entertaining, heartwarming listens, but they contain little intricacy about them; at first glance, they are barely above average, entirely non-innovative pieces of work. I beg you though to look slightly deeper and examine the heart within. Johannsson has imbued a life and energy to this score that I can scarcely see being implemented had any other composer tackled the project (I'm probably wrong in that respect, but I'd like to think this is something that could be produced solely by Johannsson). The Theory of Everything is one of the most quaint, honest, well-structured and powerful scores to be released this year, despite any preliminary assumptions made by the listener. I desperately hope that this the path that Johannsson takes with his compositions from now on, because this is by far the best work that the man has delivered in the entirety of his scoring career. Recommended to the fullest degree. You can purchase The Theory of Everything on Amazon or iTunes, here and here.


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