How does one go about composing the background music for a man cutting off his own arm? Pizzicato violas for when he’s twanging merrily through the tendons? Or perhaps some rolling kettle drums that crescendo right up to the actual bone crack? It’s not a question faced by many musicians.
But then, there aren’t many like AR Rahman. And when the Academy Award-winning composer, producer, musician, singer agreed to compose the soundtrack to Danny Boyle’s new film 127 Hours, a biographical tale of a mountaineer trapped under a boulder, there was always going to be one particular scene requiring careful musical thought.
“We had a couple of options, and Danny liked both of them,” Rahman says from Oslo in between rehearsals for his performance at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. “But I preferred one, which was more like a loop, almost like an incantation. It’s very meditative. The character is almost dead, but has got just enough energy to do this last act.”
Rahman says that, with Danny’s involvement, the music for the amputation scene became quite complex. “We had to take stuff off it to make it thinner, but at the same time keep it driving and throbbing.”
This pulsating, meditative element runs throughout 127 Hours, a film in which the main character reflects on his life as he remains unable to move for five days, pinned by the giant rock in an isolated Utah canyon. “We decided to have these meditative qualities in the more serious scenes. It’s almost like a dream sequence, it’s not harsh, but it makes you engaged and intrigued,” says Rahman.
Silence, according to Rahman, plays prominently in 127 Hours, but rather than diminishing the effects of his compositions, makes them all the more vital. “Every cue is important. The film relies on sound design and music so much.”
And if Rahman was unsure whether he’d struck the right notes, the ultimate critic has given him a firm thumbs up.
Aron Ralston, the mountaineering self-amputee whose autobiography Boyle has adapted to the big screen, recently congratulated him on the music. “If only I’d had your soundtrack in the canyon, I could’ve lasted another 127 Hours,” he said in a note.
Before even watching 127 Hours, it’s relatively safe to assume that that soundtrack will be of a somewhat different tempo to Slumdog Millionaire, Rahman’s first collaboration with Boyle and the catalyst for a dramatic rise in worldwide appreciation for the musician, already perhaps the biggest musical name in Indian cinema. His Slumdog soundtrack picked up two Academy Awards, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA and a couple of Grammies, among many others.
While 127 Hours is unlikely to feature a “Jai Ho” moment, its soundtrack is already building up award nominations that could add to Rahman’s somewhat bulging mantelpiece. And it should, says the composer, still provide an opportunity for some toe-tapping outside the cinema.
“Normally, what I try to do is make pieces work independently from the movie I’m scoring, pieces that are musically independent that would make sense even without the movie.”
Such an approach is obviously good news for soundtrack sales, as Rahman – who had already sold several hundred million albums in India long before Boyle ever picked up the Slumdog script – is clearly aware. It’s also something Disney was no doubt considering when they brought Daft Punk on board to provide the backing music for Tron: Legacy which, like 127 Hours, is also getting its regional premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival.
While the much-belated follow-up to the groundbreaking 1984 original Tron had been generating a tornado of interest since its first announcement, word of the French house duo’s involvement sparked even more frenzied excitement. Such was the anticipation, that a Daft Punk fan with a few synthesizers and a YouTube account got industry ears buzzing earlier in the year until Disney managed to convince everyone that it was a fake.
Clearly, Daft Punk were made to write the soundtrack to the Tron sequel, their exaggerated neon-lit sci-fi visuals undoubtedly suggesting more than a nod of the robot helmet to the retro-futuristic original. Taking things a step further, the duo appear in the film itself, turning up as DJs in a club scene in a move that clearly didn’t require much change from the wardrobe department (although the director, Joseph Kosinski, has admitted that they were ‘Tron-ified’ up a little more, if that’s possible).