Tuesday, 19 April 2016

On The Jungle Book, “Exotic Instruments,” and Cultural Appropriation



By Vikram Lakhanpal

This started out as a review of John Debney’s new score for the recent remake of The Jungle Book. Overall, it’s an entertaining listen, featuring intelligent interpolations of songs from the 1967 Disney Animated film as character motifs, engaging action music, and a lovely main theme evocative of both John Barry’s epics and Jerry Goldsmith’s theme to Star Trek: Voyager. The album is bookended by performances of some of the classic songs by Christopher Walken, Bill Murray, and Scarlett Johannsson, which are pretty solid; Johannsson’s rendition of “Trust In Me” is packed to the brim with jazz and sultriness worthy of a Bond song. I think near the end of the album, you can hear Murray whisper something to Johannsson, but that’ll likely remain a mystery for years to come.

For some reason, prior to listening to The Jungle Book, I expected Debney to employ some Indian instrumentation to reflect the setting of the story. I really set myself up for failure in that department, because Indian textures are not to be found here. No sitar, no tablas, no Indian harmonium, no tanpura. To my under-trained ear, there may be some Indian percussion in the action cues, but it all blends into the vaguely “exotic” feel of the jungle. Throw in the occasional Japanese flute, and we’re left with a culturally confused soundtrack that, when in doubt, falls back on the traditional Western sounding epic/adventure style.

It’s worth remembering at this juncture that Debney’s top priority was not to portray the Indian jungle with cultural accuracy. His job was to score the film in a manner that would support and accentuate the images on screen given to him by director Jon Favreau. Debney is a veteran of composing in Hollywood, a professional through and through, and has had a long and fruitful working relationship with Favreau, so let’s not assume for a second that I think I know how to score a film I haven’t seen better than he does. And yes, let it be known at this point in time, I haven’t seen the movie, that I’ve merely listened to the soundtrack album a few times, and that I really enjoyed the music. It's understandable why, for what is presumably a bildungsroman/adventure film, Debney would go for the traditional Western combination of orchestra and choir, peppered with a few “exotic” instrument soloists to color his heroic adventure music.

Why does the traditional sound have to be symphonic though? Well, mostly because film began in the United States and Europe. Some of the earliest founders of Hollywood film music, most notably Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Max Steiner, were imported directly from Vienna, the center of classical music. In some ways, films and their soundtracks were the natural progression of Wagner’s concept of a “total work of art,” so employing a full orchestra with choir to accompany large-scale filmmaking makes complete sense. Raise and train a couple generations of new composers in that culture and method of writing music, and the medium develops over time while staying true to the same roots.

Of course, composers would add a bit of variety to add a sense of something “foreign” to the sound. Franz Waxman infused his score to the historical epic Taras Bulba with instrumentation and melodies akin to Eastern European music. Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann created a certain sound to represent the ancient Nile kingdom in The Egyptian, and that basic sound has been used ever since for ancient Egypt. One needs to go back only a couple months to Marco Beltrami’s Gods of Egypt for another epic score with that “stereotypical Egyptian sound.” There was a huge fad during the 2000s when every historical epic set in a Mediterranean country would feature a wailing woman and a duduk (see: Gladiator, Agora, Troy, Passion of the Christ (another Debney score, incidentally)). And I could spend a whole article on the pentatonic scale and blending Eastern and Western music for films set in East Asia.

In essence, utilizing non-Western instruments and styles is a composer’s way of reminding the (traditionally American) audience “Hey, we’re not in Kansas anymore, we’re far, far, away,” with something “exotic,” occasionally to the point of cliché. Imagine for a second that Debney had utilized Indian instruments and musical styles in The Jungle Book. I could see myself annoyed with him plundering Indian musical tradition as a trite gimmick. It’s not difficult for the twang of a sitar and the thwack of a table to cause some eye-rolling if mishandled in the wrong context. In fact, who does Debney think he is, for him to appropriate what he wants from Indian culture to give his American audience a cheap thrill and he can make a quick buck?

Obviously, that’s taking our hypothetical situation to an extreme. And even if Debney had used Indian music, one could argue that getting the tone of the music correct is as important an element to the production design as having costumes and sets accurate to the period and region. After all, Braveheart wouldn’t be Braveheart without the bagpipes. Then again, neither would How to Train Your Dragon. You know, the film about Vikings, who, historically, definitely didn’t have Scottish music accompanying them into battle. While we’re at it, James Horner made liberal use of Andean flute in Braveheart, and loved dropping bagpipes and shakuhachi into films that had nothing to do with Scotland or Japan.

So is applying the seasoning of regional music to your symphonic casserole cultural appropriation, or is it simply accentuating the authenticity of the film? Is deploying soloists from non-Western cultures browbeating the audience over where a movie is set, or is it establishing a unique flair and identity for your score? Does a score need to be accurate in regards to the film’s settings, or is any instrument and any style fair game for any film? I personally can’t say. But the role of “ethnic” instruments is an important question to consider when a composer tries to determine how a score should sound.