The Grand Budapest Hotel
Composed by Alexandre Desplat
I have no clue which country, if any, “Zubrowka” is meant to represent in The Grand Budapest Hotel. I can, however, point it out on a map. Er, at least I can point out where it should be. Wes Anderson’s fictional European nation doesn’t exist outside his eighth feature but from its intricate period design to the hotel concierge’s (Ralph Fiennes) well-rounded zest for life, Zubrowka feels real.
Partial credit also goes to Alexandre Desplat, who teams with Anderson for a third time and crafts a rich, ambiguously European score both in sound and in name. Honestly, what could the title of the opening track “s’Rothe-Zauerli” possibly translate to? Apart from providing names for third-rate Star Wars villains, Zubrowkan (?) rings like a cross between Swiss and Spanish, and the track’s barbershop quartet of yodels put a point in the former. Mediterranean qualities in later numbers like “Mr. Moustafa” and “Overture: M. Gustave H.” put two toward the Spanish theory in establishing an exotic antiquity for the setting of the fictionally famous Grand Budapest Hotel. “Moustafa” specifically has a winking style that’s to be expected from Desplat’s collaborations with Anderson, but its coastal qualities and chromatic sharpness give it a cloying kind of melancholy. Rather than end definitively, it seems to sigh out of existence. (Later: “The Linden Tree” provides a Nino Rota rusticness with an accordion that sways in the breeze, and “Cleared of All Charges” swells with rom-com idyll).
Desplat’s use of the balalaika, a traditional Russian stringed instrument, begins with “Moustafa” but it returns over and over again. “A Prayer for Madam D” and “The Family Desgoffe und Taxis” quiver with the instrument under a piano you’d expect to accompany your local tavern’s screening of Nosferatu. Such an elaborate family name deserves music that does justice to Adrien Brody’s mustache-twirling, and Desplat brings Brody’s conniving theme to a declamatory head with “Last Will and Testament” before settling down with funereal organ. Preoccupations with death (and the presence of Willem Dafoe’s ruthless golem) make The Grand Budapest Hotel Anderson’s darkest to date, but Desplat adds bleakness to a world where even the saddest of deaths was once met with the pep of Van Morrison.
In fairness to his filmography, Anderson’s brushes with death have never amounted to rolling around in blackmail and murder. Desplat follows suit. “J.G. Jopling, Private Inquiry Agent” turns the “Desgoffe und Taxis” theme into a trail of clues with its methodical twangs and “The Cold-Blooded Murder of Deputy Kovacs” attacks ambient sounds from the shadows during the film’s best sequence. It’s also Grand Budapest’s darkest and most violent, its brand of melancholy resembling the steely cynicism of 1930s noir. After all, Zubrowka is at war and its inevitability pounds through in “Daylight Express to Lutz,” which bears a striking resemblance to Desplat’s “Boggis, Bunce and Bean” on Fantastic Mr. Fox. From the sugary sweet top layer of bells to the muscular low-register phrasing, both tracks seem hesitant to be ominous, but “Daylight Express” has a regality in its flirtation with major and minor keys. Within it, Desplat defines his authority figures with a bouncy bassoon over swinging snare. Later, this jazzy skeleton in “The Lutz Police Militia” gives Edward Norton’s police captain a mischievous kind of danger — miraculously so, given its conjuring from classical elements. If Anderson is Grand Budapest’s evil architect, surely Desplat is his dark sorcerer.
Not all of the eclectic sounds are so dour and Desplat’s keen on toying with traditional, jazz and orchestral modes, occasionally all at once. “The New Lobby Boy” introduces Fiennes’ protege (Tony Revolori) by adding a bluesy bassline and percussion to “Prayer for Madam D,” and a bittersweet farewell gains a snappy silver lining. “The Society of the Crossed Keys” combines many of Desplat’s flavors with another jazzy bass-snare groove, cypress tremolo, and quaint piano. It’s a “passing of time” number that crosses temporal, spatial and stylistic boundaries.
ABKCO’s release also includes “Moderato” from Vivaldi’s “Concerto for Lute and Plucked Strings.” In the film, the selection plays under the hotel’s introduction and by association, the music comes to represent the formal tradition of the Grand Budapest. Ever keen on shuffling his influences, Desplat works Vivaldi into his score as well. Combining everything from Latin chants to a sexy, John Barry style Bond flourishes in the brass, “Canto at Gabelmeister’s Peak” plays like a remix of Anderson’s vinyl collection behind the film’s pivotal sled chase, stylistically inclusive to the point of chaos. “A Troops Barracks” then is the track’s calmer cousin and as is subtitled, a requiem for the Grand Budapest itself. A traditional orientation in Vivaldi’s concerto gels with Anderson’s framing of the hotel as a historical constant against generations of change, because it’s the people that add the flavor. (Music supervisor Randall Poster’s Spotify mini-playlists pair Grand Budapest’s characters with single composers, but you get the idea.)
In first pairing with Anderson on Fantastic Mr. Fox, Desplat anticipated the soundtrack’s folk music by matching The Wellingtons’ “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” with a bluegrass lick in his title card ditty. He doubles down this time around, giving his soundscapes over to those of “Mitteleuropa mid-century.” With sprinkles of proto-jazz, silent film horror and of course, those Mediterranean vibes, the resulting mixture is more than enough to “evoke nostalgia for things which never existed.”
— David Klein