A Wink And A Prayer

For an aspiring screen composer, scrolling through IMDb credit listings for any number of the high-profile longforms broadcast on HBO, Showtime, FX, Amazon, etc. can be dispiriting. We’re likely to see the same names repeatedly, whether as episodic composers or show “godfathers,” and as lustrous as these names are, we can’t help wondering how a newcomer ever gets a break. This is especially true if the “newcomer” lives and works anyplace but Hollywood and/or lacks a kinship with that extended musical family known as Remote Control Productions! I’ve always been partial to ingenues—new voices keep the craft vital—so I was pleased to see a name I hadn’t seen before attached to HBO’s ten-episode saga, THE YOUNG POPE. The name is that of Italian autodidact Daniele Marchitelli, professionally known as Lele Marchitelli. After watching the first five episodes, and finding myself enthralled by the combination of satire and solemnity in this very Italian production, headlined by Jude Law as both the titular pontiff and show producer, I reached out to Lele. Graciously, he responded and sent me the show's core library. 

At 61, Lele isn’t really a newcomer, but no composer ever really is. Goldsmith, Morricone, Williams, Desplat—all put in years of yeoman service on sometimes forgettable TV shows and regional films before they “hit it big.” Lele’s credits go all the way back to 1987. But as I’ve written in Scoring The Screen and never tire of saying to anyone within hearing range, no film composer ever truly finds his or her voice until they find their director. In the case of THE YOUNG POPE, the director is Paolo Sorrentino (Youth, The Great Beauty), a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar-winner for the latter and nominee for the former. Sorrentino is as close as the young 21st century has to a Fellini, and to the great good fortune of those of us who don’t speak Italian, he works (brilliantly) in English. Like both Youth and Beauty, THE YOUNG POPE achieves, in the slyest way, moments that come very close to being sublime. It’s a reverent satire, if you can reconcile that!

As with the composers tasked with writing for auteurs like Terrence Malick, Martin Scorsese and Peter Weir, Derek Cianfrance and Denis Villeneuve—all filmmakers very fond of and very good at tracking pre-existing concert music into their films—Lele Marchitelli faces the challenge of weaving his original score in and out of the likes of Arvo Pärt, Henrik Gorecki, and Béla Bartók, not to mention a number of evocative pieces of minimalist electronica—and songs. THE YOUNG POPE aims for a kind of wry religiosity (another contradiction, but a Latin one!). Often, Pärt and Gorecki furnish the religiosity, and Lele provides the wry. The fact that Marchitelli appears to be (principally) a guitar player/producer, and largely self-taught, may actually make this delicate balancing act a little easier. Like Malick’s Hanan Townsend, whose low-profile but exemplary underscore has embellished the legendary director’s last few pictures, Marchitelli never tries to outshine the “classical” composers whose iconic masterpieces he precedes or follows (e.g., Bartók’s Music For Strings, Percussion and Celesta, 3rd Movement, which—incidentally, was also the model for Jerry Goldsmith’s formative Twilight Zone score for the episode titled “The Invaders”). A few of his key cues reference the concert composer whose piece has set the tone of the sequence—something that even the great Morricone did when faced with Terrence Malick and Saint-Saens. He understands that, to some degree, he is building musical bridges—something that takes humility, a DJ/producer’s sense of the artful segue, and the arranger’s ear for texture, timbre and movement. Yet, when it is needed, he breaks through this auxiliary role and makes a statement with cues like “The Miracle” and "The Prayer."

In the last bit I wrote for this blog, I tried to make the case that “something was happening” to film music and to the film composer’s role that we didn’t quite understand yet. Some of us like it, some of us aren’t so sure. A few even hate it. This is the best way I can put it: the most vital “young” filmmakers of our era like music that is of a piece with the alt-pop, experimental, vibey electronica, and contemporary classical music that fills their playlists. They also seem to like music that feels a bit “unfinished” i.e., not too slick. In a very different way, even a film like La La Land exemplifies this trend toward deliberate simplicity. It’s a period we’re passing through now-- the film composer as handmaiden--and it’s hard to say how long it will last. But sometimes, great strength is earned through the exercise of humility, and more is heard by speaking less--as long as you are ready to rise to the occasion when called!