Composer Clint Mansell is a Definitely; the soundtrack is a Maybe
Review Originally Published at Blogcritics:
Prior to his breakout success composing the score for Darren Aronofsky’s groundbreaking Sundance Film Festival winning directorial debut, Pi, Clint Mansell was best known in his native England as the front-man for his band Pop Will Eat Itself. And although he earned some cult status following the success of Aronofsky’s independent sensation, it wasn’t until he composed not just the score but the masterful track “Lux Aeterna” for Aronofsky’s follow-up Requiem for a Dream that he’d completed the work which would become synonymous with his name.
Arguably one of the most gifted and inventive composers working in the cinematic medium today with “Lux Aeterna” being used in countless trailers, as the official theme for several sporting events and more, nonetheless despite critical acclaim and awards, Mansell stayed true to his indie roots. While he’s earned enough fans that Wikipedia reported Lakeshore Records was forced to issue a second edition of the Smokin’ Aces soundtrack after the filmmaker, Joe Carnahan received “blatant threats” due to Mansell’s relative absence from the original disc release, Mansell still remains one of the industry’s best kept secrets.
Having contributed compositions for such films as Barbet Schroder’s Murder By Numbers (which launched Ryan Gosling), Nicolas Cage’s directorial debut Sonny (starring a then-unknown James Franco), twice collaborating with indie filmmaker Bart Freundlich for Trust the Man and World Traveler, it wasn’t until he reunited with Aronofsky that he earned a Golden Globe nomination for his score to the otherwise largely critically panned film, The Fountain.
However, most recently, he was offered the chance to move into considerably lighter genre territory with the prospect of composing the score for writer/director Adam Brooks’ clever 2008 romantic comedy Definitely, Maybe. To summarize my original review, the film surrounds Will Hayes, a thirty-something father (Ryan Reynolds) who is coerced into revealing the saga of his romantic life to his precocious ten year old daughter Maya (Abigail Breslin). Intriguingly opting to avoid the traditional tale of his courtship with Maya’s mother, Will crafts an impromptu love story mystery that features his associations with the three women with whom he had any serious attachment: Emily (played by Invincible’s Elizabeth Banks), Summer (Rachel Weisz; incidentally Aronofsky’s fiancé), and April (Wedding Crashers star Isla Fisher). Thus, in the end, Will leaves it up to Maya to decipher which one is her mother since the names and some facts have been changed. Ultimately, like 2007’s Peter Hedges’ romantic comedy-drama Dan in Real Life, Brooks’ Definitely, Maybe turned out to be one of the most sophisticated and intelligent offerings for adults in the otherwise predictable genre overly reliant on gross-out gags and clichéd stereotypes.
Eager to work on a romantic comedy “that won’t make you puke,” composer Clint Mansell confessed on his MySpace blog that as the film provided “a new challenge… compared to recent movies,” he’d scored, he was eager to take a “different approach,” adding, “it was just what I was looking for.”
Yet despite my deep admiration and respect for Mansell’s musical genius, I wish I could say that the soundtrack was as memorable as the film but unfortunately it isn’t. Ironically, with a soundtrack that clocks in at less than thirty-four minutes, the problem isn’t with his work per se. No, rather it’s that Definitely, Maybe’s eighteen track disc plays like a clichéd high school tease as just when Mansell's barely exited the set-up and moved into the song itself, the tune is over nearly as abruptly as it began. Despite this, it kicks off on a strong note with the album’s theme-establishing standout track “Will Hayes For President!” which could just have easily been titled “Download This Immediately,” as it’s a great song on its own.
And right away, we realize that we’ve been introduced to a softer side of Mansell than the masculine, hard-edged combination of metal, steel, and computerized techno offered in his earliest work for Aronofsky. In fact, initially, it seems as though he’s working in the same vein as Badly Drawn Boy’s score for the movie About a Boy and Mark Mothersbaugh’s work for Wes Anderson’s first few films (especially The Royal Tenenbaums).
However, some of the deliciously groovy, techno entrenched hooks, romantic guitars, and jazzy drums Mansell utilizes end far too quickly, making us crave longer, more complete tracks to revel in as a rather large majority of Definitely, Maybe’s singles average two minutes or less with a few concluding after just forty or fifty seconds. Thereby, it makes it hard to stay entirely invested or differentiate between some of the titles as a few feel like lukewarm, unfinished exercises in theme variation of the romantic motif he establishes in the first track.
And indeed, in the next four songs, “Here Comes Summer,” “For Emily (Whomever She May Be…), “April (Come She Will)” and “Jane Eyre,” he builds that theme to a passionate effect that’s pleasant to listen to as pianos, guitars, and other instruments are added in to reinvent the same theme but ultimately it still feels like it’s an unanswered musical phrase.
While admittedly, this fits in with the constant questioning the audience and Maya wrestles with throughout the film as we struggle to identify which woman became his mate, however to employ this musically makes it frustrating for listeners who want the phrase answered.
Moreover, I couldn’t help but wonder if additional romantic themes had been introduced (perhaps one for each woman) or some of the tracks which flowed into one another naturally had been joined for the soundtrack, if it would’ve benefited the experience, since it’s hard to imagine roughly thirty-four minutes of music filling the nearly one hundred and twenty minute running time of the film. While some nice playful musical exploration occurs in “Cometh The Hour, Cometh The Man” along with “Summers Over” (one of a few typos included in the track list), the brevity of the disc is bogged down as the same familiar theme creeps into nearly every song.
Although, to be fair, there are a few other standouts on the album, such as the painfully short forty second “Panic Situations” that sounds like vintage Mansell, the cool jazzy cocktail lounge feel of “An Evening At The Odeon” which wouldn’t have been out of place alongside David Holmes’ scores for Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven series, and another download-worthy, full-length track entitled “The Candidate.”
But the thing that’s the most heartbreaking is that some of the tracks such as “Sunday, Sunday” — which is staged like a rock song and would’ve benefited from a longer length and possibly lyrics — would’ve probably made outstanding songs in their own right, yet when they’re all packaged together as a whole, Definitely, Maybe’s Original Motion Picture Score mostly makes for likable background music on a Sunday morning. Needless to say, given the immense talent of Mansell, this is a major letdown. However, this being said, it did make me instantly return to some of my favorite titles from the composer’s catalogue like the incredible “Lux Aeterna” and wish that Definitely, Maybe had been given the “Lux” treatment.