‘Cloud Atlas’ score is a beautiful work of melancholy optimism

Cloud Atlas
Composed by Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil
WaterTower Music
November 6, 2012

The score, in many ways, is the soul of a film. It’s that intangible, oftentimes omnipresent abstraction that sets the mood of a scene or conveys the emotions of the characters. It’s the composer’s duty to capture the spirit of the film and give it further life through music. Tom Tykwer, wearing three hats as a director, writer, and composer on this production, reunites with composers Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil to create the sonic landscape for Cloud Atlas. The score, much like the souls within the film, transcends time and space from scene to scene, connecting disparate stories, resulting in a truly moving creation.

Cloud Atlas transitions between six different eras, some of them centuries apart, and explores a variety of genres from screwball comedy to science fiction. The score does the same, morphing in tone in order to suit the needs of each cinematic style. “Sloosha’s Hollow”, a track accompanying the barbaric, post-apocalyptic Hawaii, utilizes cacophonous percussion, ambient synth, and distant vocal whispers that add to the eerie nature of the film’s future-most world. Contrast this with “Cavendish in Distress”, a jaunty, clarinet-heavy piece reminiscent of Henry Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk”, reflecting the inherent absurdity of the titular character’s circumstances.

What’s impressive about Tykwer and company’s work here is that while they’re able to serve each story with a distinct musical identity, they still manage to create something that sounds unified. The synth in Louisa Rey’s 1970s crime segment may not mesh perfectly with Cavendish’s farcical tale, but they still feel as if they’re a part of something more holistic, which is an incredibly difficult feat to accomplish. The score also works in tandem with the film’s editing, easing in the transitions between storylines. “The Escape” is a rousing piece that exemplifies this by chronicling the clone Sonmi’s escape from her oppressive government while Autua, a slave, proves his worth as a sailor. The film intercuts between these two individuals, separated by three centuries, both fighting for their freedom. The composers provide a tense musical through line that beautifully encapsulates the bound nature of these characters’ journeys.

Although Cloud Atlas’s score reaches out in many different directions, there are two themes that act as musical beacons, appearing in every chapter, grounding the entire universe. The first is heard in “The Cloud Atlas Sextet for Orchestra”, a work written by Robert Frobisher, an English composer and one of the film’s characters. Tykwer and company have written an elegant piece that’s faithful to the time period and flawlessly captures Frobisher’s longing for an emotional connection, something all of the film’s characters experience in their own way.

The second theme, and musical anchor for the entire film, could be referred to as “The Cloud Atlas March”. Many variations on this theme are featured in the score, but its most notable iteration begins with delicate piano work that is later underscored by propulsive strings that later take over the main melody. The piece continually builds on itself, all the while increasing in orchestral depth and texture, growing brighter with every stanza. It’s a euphoric opus and musical evidence that good doesn’t just exist, but will inevitably extinguish evil.

Cloud Atlas is a film that’s free of cynicism and wholeheartedly believes in the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. Frobisher writes a letter to his lover saying, “I believe there is another world waiting for us, Sixmith. A better world.” Tykwer, Klimek, and Heil have managed to express that melancholy optimism through their composition, creating a beautiful score brimming with tension and levity that ultimately realizes, in the unique way that only music can accomplish, the soul of Cloud Atlas and is sure to become a lasting gem of film music.

– Jeremy Caesar

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