Twenty-eight year-old actor-turned-director Brady Corbet's debut film, THE CHILDHOOD OF A LEADER, is that rarest of things to appear on the screen since the passing of artists like Stanley Kubrick: a film of ideas that's also a wonder to look at and to listen to. Corbet's vaulting formal and conceptual ambitions can't help but recall the young Orson Welles, and if he'd opted to be both behind and in front of the camera (which he could easily have done, replacing Robert Pattinson), the likeness would be even greater. The movie's title, and its binding idea, are borrowed from a 1939 short story by Jean-Paul Sartre, but just as essential to its thesis is psychologist Wilhelm Reich's prescient 1933 study, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, which found in the bloodstream of the authoritarian family the "germ cell...of the reactionary individual." CHILDHOOD, which takes place in period surrounding the 1918-19 negotiation of the Treaty of Versailles, is a genuine historical epic, at least in its sweep, if not in its budget (estimated at a mere $3mil, but every dollar is on the screen).
But what people in the professional community addressed by this blog are talking about is the music. Even considering its shoestring cost, it's like nothing we've heard in the cinema since the days of Alex North, or maybe a young Jerry Goldsmith. Like the film itself, the score has an awareness of its artistic lineage that belies the relatively spare screen credits of its creator. Its closest kinship in twentieth century concert repertoire is probably Shostakovich (particularly his 8th Symphony), and indeed, it's far more "classical" and maximalist than most of what we hear these days. But make no mistake: this is film music through and through, which makes it all the more remarkable that it's only Scott Walker's second score. Of course, Walker, who is 73, is no ingenue. As a member of 60's pop vocal group, The Walker Brothers, he experienced a few intoxicating (and for him, toxic) years of rock star idolatry. As an increasingly idiosyncratic and uncompromising solo artist in the 70's and 80's, he walked the road less traveled along with pop auteurs like Brian Wilson, Van Dyke Parks, and Jimmy Webb, although never achieving their fame or fortune, and in the 90's and early 00's--in middle age--he began to explore the use of orchestral minimalism and textural writing in the song form, always with his still-lustrous baritone voice in the lead. A true recluse, Walker had a cult following among musicians, including ground-breakers like David Bowie and Radiohead, and his output veered wildly from the weirdly accessible (English covers of Jacques Brel) to the determinedly avant-garde (e.g., Tilt, 1995 and The Drift, 2006). In 1999, he scored his first film, Pola X.
Nothing Walker did over a five-decade career, however, really prefigures what he's done with THE CHILDHOOD OF A LEADER. From the opening frames, it's evident that music will dominate the film--not because it's overbearing (although some critics will argue that), but because it's clear that Corbet wanted the score to be the thing to breathe fire into his ideas. The movie opens with, of all things, an orchestral tune-up, a bold demolishing of the fourth wall, and only gets bolder when the next title card announces 'Overture' and a CITIZEN KANE-like WWI newsreel sequence follows, accompanied by Walker's propulsive and massively stirring title cue, a piece of music that is almost guaranteed to make any cinephile rise up from the couch and say, "What the f---?" If you're looking for comparisons, a number of critics have already cited Bernard Herrmann's PSYCHO opening, but for me, the true antecedent is "The Strength Of The Righteous," the cue that leads off Ennio Morricone's score for THE UNTOUCHABLES. Other cues, including ones like "Printing Press," "Third Tantrum," and "On The Way To The Meeting," are as good or better, but it's the opening that offers the hook.