Sunday, March 1, 2015

Film Score of the Week: The Last Emperor, by Ryuichi Sakamoto & David Byrne (1987)

I've been thinking a lot about film scores lately since writing about this year's batch in my Oscar picks piece last week, and I feel like the great ones never quite get enough credit for how well they create and evoke the emotional epicenter of their films. Of course everyone knows the great John Williams scores, the themes to James Bond and The Godfather, the Psycho shower scene, and a handful of others. But there are so many wonderful film scores out there that fall completely off the radar for anyone that hasn't seen the film, so I thought it would be nice to start spotlighting some of them. Hence, a new recurring post: Film Score of the Week. 

We're starting with The Last Emperor because it's an all-time favorite of mine, and I recently acquired it on vinyl. Very few films have ever looked or felt as tragically beautiful as this 1987 Best Picture winner, which approximately no one has seen or thought about since 1989. That's too bad. It's definitely not one of the all-time great Best Picture winners, but it's not a sub-par one either, and it's a resplendent sensory explosion to watch and listen to. Japanese pop star Ryuichi Sakamoto composed one half of the score, and American pop star David Byrne (of Talking Heads) composed the other half. In what is a shocking surprise to myself and anyone that knows me, I like the Sakamoto half far better. 

The two sequences to really focus on are the first and third tracks. The main theme starts about 22 seconds into track one, and it's just startlingly beautiful. It conjures the discovery of a beautiful hidden world that the beginning of the film portrays, while also having an unmistakably tragic undertone that tells you the beauty won't last. With track 3, my favorite sequence starts at about 1:39, which retains the beauty of the opening theme, but focuses far more on the loss and yearning to regain it.

For semi-completeness' sake, here's the best sequence from the David Byrne half of the score. Musically, it's probably more complex and interesting than the Sakamoto half, but it's also far less emotional and elegant. Though in that regard, it serves the second half of the film well, which has less loss and elegance than the first half. 

An earlier version of this piece was written and posted on Facebook on February 27, 2015

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