Some time along our ride on the American school system’s literature rocket, most of us were pounded on the head with the Bard’s work. For those who don’t recall these two particular characters from their reading assignments, allow me to refresh: they were two minor presences in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. British playwright Tom Stoppard pulled them from the stage and threw them to the wings in his hilarious Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, a sort of “X’s story told from Y’s perspective” kind of play. Although the comedy is filled with twists and turns and cleverness like you would not believe, filmmaker Jordan Galland felt the need to modify things even a bit more.
In his movie Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead, centuries of vampiric feuding are tied in an epic weave to a loser’s attempt at love, Broadway murders, and following the epidemic of vampire-fever that’s taken over the tween lime light, vampire-human romances. With a plot as soaked in hysteria, mystery, and Shakespearean fantasy as this, who but Sean Lennon to wring a dollhouse daydream, tinker-toy soundtrack out of it?
From the introductory “Title Theme”, your surroundings wash away into a whimsically dark, sparkling-with-dew setting that couldn’t be more descriptive of the film’s aura. The album features guest spots for Miho Hatori (of Cibo Matto), a voice equally of illusion and despair, and Kool Keith, a rapper who is, to say the least, musically complex.
The album is largely instrumental, following an orchestral formula. Some tracks have anticlimactic endings; they feel a bit cut off. However, for a composition mostly made of non-vocal instruments, it has exceptionally well-defined emotional grooves and shifts, carved out of the harmoniously waltz-y string backbone with tinkering robo-sounds and simple wooden taps. Lennon solidly jumps feet-first into the world of light strings and acoustic staccatos in “Elsinore”, a track that bellows fantastic aspiration and delusion of realities. While “Elsinore” dwells closer to a still yet airy melody, the ominous crescendos of “Feed” take over the album’s heavier side with more synthetic sounds leaning towards an Edward Scissorhands-esque nightmare.
It’s hard to put aside the story that this music orchestrates, therefore making it difficult not to put a backdrop to the songs. When imagined along with the storyboard, this album is a masterpiece. Not unlike the Dark Side of the Moon/Wizard of Oz combo (if anyone’s ever gotten the timings right), Lennon’s Rosencrantz… flows with the ups and downs of a quite moving story, and it’s almost as if the album is a movie within itself. And I say “almost” because, intricate instrument pairings and epic orchestras aside, I don’t believe the soundtrack can stand as tall by itself as it does with the movie backing it.
For example, “Yorick’s Skull” is a magnificent, semi-operatic (without vocals) chase scene monster, but its power rests within the story that it tells. Of course it could be telling a story with or without having a film to accompany, but it does have one, so it doesn’t tell a story on its own. The escalating piano and curious flutes make for a savagely intense soundtrack, but outside of the film are too ambiguous to take note of as an independent song. Overall, though, Lennon does an exquisite job of channeling the Shakespearean era with sort of a minimalist twist of humor. In “Charlotte’s Theme”, the occasional “boing” is essential to the comedic interpretation of the tale, and a great balance for the almost battle-like foundation.
There are a few recurring melodies throughout the album, and they are so enjoyably original that they simply add to the listener/spectator experience. One is found in “Hamlet’s Theme”, one of the more musically comprehensive tracks on this record. In it, you’ll find galloping claps flamenco-style, a friendly accordion, and the whistle-like number that sprays a bit of mystery over the whole waltz. It’s a fair representative of the fantasy that plagues the whole of the soundtrack.
While this may not be the best-selling record of our century, it’s definitely among the best soundtracks I have heard in a long while. The imagery is a work of art and the production is spotless. More importantly, the film’s subtleties are masterfully highlighted and its nudges at period are glorified in strong, imaginative tracks. To top it off, the variety in style and pace is wide, making for an appealing, enchanting soundfest. Somebody give Sean Lennon an award for Best Score.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead