Wolf Totem – Score Review

Release Date: 24th February 2015 (PHYSICAL RELEASE)
26th February 2015 (DIGITAL RELASE)
Composer(s): James Horner
Length: 58:57
Recorded At: recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes
Label: Milan Records


Why You Should…
The resurgence of Horner brings with him a swooning, nostalgic soundtrack, with a powerful theme and soothing highlights.

Why You Shouldn’t…
For Horner, as ever is never free from inclusions of his own works in the score at hand.

Cross-cultural films have a flair for captivating the audience in some format or the other. Anthropological protagonists (wolves, believe it or not) serves as the primary focus of the film WOLF TOTEM, or LE DERNIER LOUP in some countries. Directed by Jean-Jacques Arnaud, the film faced proverbial development hell as it struggled to find a home, and owner, with potential suitors including famed New Zealander Peter Jackson. Despite contrasting history with Arnaud’s prior offering, Seven Years In Tibet (unsurprisingly banned in China), Arnaud filled the role of director for the film. Based in turn upon a semi-autobiographical novel synonymously titled and released in 2004 by Lu Jiamin, the core of Wolf Totem’s narrative stems from the peak period within China’s Cultural Revolution in 1967 (two years prior to the film’s setting of the novel’s events). The student protagonist leaves home from Peking to work in Inner Mongolia, in an attempt to educate shepherds. There, however, the narrative’s focus veers off course, when he becomes fascinated by the wolves of the shepherds. The deep, empathic, mutual connection between the two touches him greatly, and becomes a form of plight when a government apparatchik is sent to threaten the co-habitual harmony. The novel’s storyline itself is based deeply on Jiamin’s own personal, rather somewhat frightening encounter with wolves in the wilderness.  An inadvertent decision, Jiamin found himself mesmerized by the fluid lifestyle of the wolves, and began to reflect more on them, amidst the persuasive calls of the local clan he was staying with.  Arnaud’s bleak, raw drama film was released in Chinese, even though the director had enjoyed the novel better in French. The film opened in limited release to mixed reviews.

One of the more positive mentions included James Horner’s score. The veteran, whose last release was the stellar The Amazing Spider Man, had retracted from Hollywood after personally becoming dissatisfied with the technical approach to film scoring. The harsher, minimal tendencies of modern-day interactions between the studio and the composer left Horner uncomfortable, and he reluctantly produced no work for three solid years. Wolf Totem serves as a more than satisfying return to the foray for him, but simultaneously carries with it the weight of his prior scores in tow. The composer’s output for this project will remind the more learned listener of John Barry’s Dancing With Wolves. Horner’s key advantage is the differentiation in ethnic focus, and as such, offers strong thematic material. This is the sort of output that would have graced The Karate Kid better, back in 2010.

 The album begins with “Leaving For The Country”, in which Horner introduces the main theme on horns with unrestrained majesty and grandeur in such a short time period, siphoning ethnic variations of the theme on different instruments. A wailing voice introduces the solemn, cold strings in A minor, before the horns resound in glorious fashion. The main theme itself sounds as an odd merging of his Amazing Spiderman theme and his other previous works, perhaps Wrath of Khan in some territories, and Braveheart in others. The sheer power that the theme evokes, however, is more than enough to overshadow the underlining similarities, and can be safely classed as one of the more fluid, evocative themes in films. Horner uses this theme in every opportunity awarded to him, an element that Barry’s Dancing With Wolves suffered in. An erhu/cello and mandolin accentuate the theme’s progression’s further, and wistful oboe and sparkling piano writing add beauty to the piece. The focus on the wolves is primarily exposed in “Wolves Stalking Gazelles”, Horner providing the necessary ambiguous tension on the shakuhachi flute to signify the cunning methods that wolves use to hunt their prey. The cold strings fade and reappear with precision, and tension starts to grow near the two minute mark. A steady percussion riff gives way to unclear string writing, and brute rhythmic force is unleashed at 2:26, a wild frenzy of strings prevalent in the crescendos. The dooming horns and fast sliding strings collide further in, and a melancholy, subtle soundscape is reached. One of the most admirable distinguishable traits about Horner is his uncanny ability to write for extended periods, his lengthier suites more rewarding over the years. The same can be said about “An Offering To Tengger/ Chen Saves The Last Wolf Pup”, with tinkling piano and eerie woodwinds. The varying in meter of his piano writing harnesses emotional depth and tranquillity, perfectly appropriate for this assignment. Interestingly enough, the flowing of water is evoked well within the piece, perhaps an indirect call to the motif of nature. Thematic references are welcome. Oddly enough, at the 2:26 mark, the same rhythm reappears from the prior track. Horner showcases growing tension well, and a mild flute at the 3 minute mark is a gorgeous contrast. Those high strings of his are in the field, but he opts for a more serenading approach towards the end of the third minute, fragmenting the theme in serendipitous fashion.This motif is carried well into the fifth minute, and the nostalgic identity of the film returns in the sixth, wonderfully conveying animosity and the innocence of the wolf pups. The later half toys with the theme further, and an ethnic flute is complemented beautifully by Horner’s glistening strings, closing out with a coy horn.
Horner’s subthemes aren’t enormously memorable, but induce a powerful air of animalistic rawness. In “Wolves Attack The Horses,” a careful, uneasy series of strings villainously provoke danger in the scene set. A cunning cello reminds one of Hans Zimmer-like technique, an odd element to hear in Horner’s scores. A second wolf motif is crafted early on in the piece, with sinister horns and tapping snares giving way to a series of rising and falling strings. Crashing piano is a brilliant change of pace, with vicious strings and cymbalic flourishes to marvel while listening to. One would be forgiven if the latter half of the piece reminded them of Danny Elfman’s Batman to an extent. The infamous four-note motif is prevalent here too, and screeching violins in a higher range are present throughout. “A Red Ribbon” starts off softer, with harp and weightless strings. Thematic variations are poignant on the woodwinds and horns, and nostalgia is well and truly evoked. The mandolin is picked lightly, and the more intimate approach is refreshing.

Restless strings open “The Frozen Lake”, giving one the feeling of treading on thin ice. Growing horns and muffled timpani work very well here too.  The majestic horns sound out against the fluid flute, but the repetition of the ostinato heard at the beginning becomes irritant. Thankfully, Horner changes key and pace with a sequencing of the main theme and frantic strings.  Weighted strikes on the anvil add terror effectively, and the louder portion draws to a close. The villainous motif from Avatar is also here; sadly, Horner is unable to escape the attraction of his own works. “Discovering Hidden Dangers” is a steady tension cue, with discordant reprisals of the main theme proving effective. The solemn horns are wonderfully applied for the majority of the soundtrack, and the woodwind portions recall many a vintage Horner score. The bubbly optimism is replaced by timpani rolling and horns of a threatening structure. “Little Wolf” is a showcase of the thematic identity and its variants, that four note motif sneaking its way here too. You have to admire the way Horner stays faithful to that aforementioned identity, and decorates it with lush strings fit for a romantic art-house drama. Cute pizzicato effects sound curious, perhaps conveying the innocence of the little wolf and some humorous situations. The woodwinds are on fine form here.

“Scaling The Walls” employs low notes on brass, and tremolo strings dictate tension well. Horner’s chord progressions serve as a delightful throwback to the scores of the Golden Age, but do little to deviate from his existing material. Still, the curiosity he crafts in this cue is intelligently handled. Oboes are used in lyrical ostinatos, and minimal sliding on the strings convey the wolves’ pursuit upon land. Another brief cue is “Suicide Pact”– here, Horner strays into more tragic territory appropriately, the layered string writing heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time. The theme is spun from different angles, and adds for a more bleak listening experience. The two note motif for the wolves ends the piece. “Hunting The Wolves” creates terror for the wolves, as they and their habitat are duly threatened by the apparatchik. The scratching on the strings is an innovative use of timbre, reminding of Zimmer’s Sherlock Holmes. The horns rise and fall steadily. A constant rhythm in the strings and woodwinds emulates the wolves’ hurried movement. At the 4 minute mark, the strings become relaxed, more tender. Low, octave piano crashing give way to a soulful rendition of the theme once more, its poignancy everlasting in beautiful swoons. The final two cues are the shortest and longest, respectively. “Death Of A’ba” turns grim, as the opening strings heard first in the main theme are followed by sorrowful vocals, lamenting the theme with whining violins gorgeously, in this brief but tragic cue. “Return To The Wild” is a calling card for those who have enjoyed Horner’s lengthy ending suites in the past.  Solemn horns coo the theme helplessly, a sense of finality awaiting the listener. The theme is sequenced quite wonderfully in its concise statements, ranging from sadness to peace. The A minor sections are downright beautiful, and wondrous, as the final scenes play, depicting Chen embracing his interactions with the wolves in his life. A wild timpani roll flourishes, before eerie strings take precedence. The theme is unforgettable by this point, and the soaring, glistening statement plays over the credits perfectly, each section of the four bar melody extended to increase emotional weight. The higher strings are lush as the more poignant trumpets sound out unashamedly.  The cello is fluid, and free moving in this last cue. Crescendos in major keys help build towards a required, glorious, triumphant end. The two note motif is here too, and serves as a fitting end to any cue.

Wolf Totem is somewhat of a godsend. For the people, because his nostalgic, melodramatic tendencies are as always, a refreshing deviation from the more wilder norm. Horner’s powerful theme is one that will linger in the mind for a while, its intelligent, layered concoctions garnished over strong subthemes. It’s unfortunate  that this brilliant work suffers from references to his prior scores, several motifs and themes clearly lifted and sticking out like a sore thumb. In the end, one has to overshadow these tendencies, because we are all truly grateful to have heard his voice. Wolf Totem was James Horner’s final score released before his untimely passing, and there are still two more works that await us. Until then, the listener can relish this score for its epic moments.

Music in connection to the film: [*****] 5/5
Music as a sole listening experience: [**** 1/2]  4.5./5

Overall Consensus: [*****] 5/5


Track Listing:
1)Leaving For The Country                                               (all cues by Horner)
2)Wolves Stalking Gazelles
3)An Offering To Tengger/Chen Saves The Last Wolf Pup
4)Wolves Attack The Horses
5)A Red Ribbon
6)The Frozen Lake
7)Discovering Hidden Dangers
8)Little Wolf
9)Scaling The Walls
10)Suicide Pact
11)Hunting The Wolves
12)Death Of A’ba
13)Return To The Wild

Author: Hari Haran

Fan of films, TV shows and film composers en general. I'm a fan of you too.

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