OSCARS: 'Beasts Of The Southern Wild' Score

David Mermelstein is an AwardsLine contributor.

Convincingly relating a child’s sense of wonder in a movie for grownups is never easy. But Benh Zeitlin and Dan Romer managed it handily in the music for Beasts Of The Southern Wild, which Zeitlin also directed and co-wrote.

Set in the wetlands of the deep South immediately before a major storm (presumably Hurricane Katrina), the film combines expected musical choices—country fiddle, accordion—with some unconventional ones—celesta and pop-music beats—to create a satisfying gumbo rich in character, mood, and atmosphere.

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“I think the world looks down on these places,” Zeitlin says of his film’s setting. “I wanted to make this film about why people stay, about how beautiful and how much freedom there is in this culture. I want audiences to understand that places like this have found freedom and joy, and the music takes you there.”

To convey that sense Zeitlin and Romer used music of indigenous Cajun bands, especially the celebrated Balfa Brothers, but they also didn’t shy from incorporating other elements from their eclectic playbook. “Me and Dan have diverse taste,” Zeitlin explains. “We listen to a lot of Rachmaninoff and Michael Nyman. We both write pop music. Kate Bush was a big influence on us, also Beyoncé and Rihanna.”

Their big challenge was creating a sound that simultaneously incorporated a sense of place with a child’s sense of self. “Our star (Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy) is 6 years old, and modern pop music is what she loves,” Zeitlin says. “We wanted the score to have an indigenous texture, but also have kick-you-in-the-face energy that modern pop music is so good at, and we wanted to find a bridge to all those things.”

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They found it toward the beginning of the film, as a parade makes its way through the area affectionately known as the Bathtub in the movie. The scene culminates in a fireworks celebration that also serves as the film’s title sequence. “That was pretty much the first idea we had when we sat down,” Romer recalls. “Benh wrote me that there would be a Cajun band early on. He asked what musicians should be there at the shoot. We talked about two violins and a guitar. We wanted a Cajun band playing in the scene, but then something else is playing in Hushpuppy’s head. We wanted Hushpuppy to augment the live music in her brain. To the rest of the world, it’s just a Cajun band, but in her head it’s reharmonized and orchestrated.”

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The pair got the Lost Bayou Ramblers to play Balfa Brothers songs, including “Balfa Waltz” (or “Valse de Balfa”). “When I listened to that song, I realized we can do so much with it because it’s basically only one chord,” Romer says. “We can completely reharmonize this. We can add cellos or whatever. It just worked out perfectly. That was our first big idea together. The fireworks sequence is the big takeoff, blending the traditional music with the Bathtub anthem. The full anthem doesn’t come back until the credits, though it does come back in smaller bits in between.”

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For Zeitlin, that cue was the movie in a nutshell. “The purpose was to make you fall in love with this town and culture in a very short period of time,” he said. “We had to sell audiences on this place that they might normally be afraid of. And music was a key to making that happen. This world may look reckless or dangerous, but for Hushpuppy it’s what she loves more than anything else in the world.”

  1. This movie was such a snore. All I could focus on during it’s tedious sprawl was “that kid really needs a haircut.”
    Great soundtrack, but I could have bought that for a few bucks less than the price of the theater ticket.

    1. No heart here, clearly. Nor a sense of poetry, if I understand your comments correctly. This film, using a style often termed “magical realism,” tells something about real people, people you probably have never met and wouldn’t care to know. I was charmed, touched, and moved. The music score is incredible and unique integral to the entire film. The collaboration between the filmmaker and producer of the music score was close and personal, also clearly. I know Americans often “can’t focus” on anything that has a meditative or poetic quality, but that’s not something to brag about, with all due respect,

  2. I loved this movie. It was small, it was mythical, it left me with lingering thoughts about Hush Puppy, wondering would she be allright after her dad died. Beautifully done.

  3. I’ve seen BEASTS 3 times now and every time I get something different from it: story, acting, directing, placement of camera, editing and now…scoring. BEASTS is just simply, very powerful and beautiful. It is truly what cinema — visually driven / moving image narrative storytelling — is all about. I’m not a troll; not someone involved on the project. I’m a writer-screenwriter-director-content creator: storyteller…who found this movie as a ticket paying member of the audience, and it really got rid of a lot of my former jaded cynicism about the movie industry. When I look at BEASTS and BELLFLOWER from last year; two true indie features where everyone involved used what they lacked financially, to make what they finally showed in feature movie form…I feel great. It’s no longer about who you got; how much money you have or distribution in place. In the digital world now and for the future? It’s about what you choose to do on your own. And go right to the audience. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD rules!

    1. I enjoyed your comments. You can see an earlier shorer film in its entirety which is a collaboration between director Benh Zeitlin and music score producer Dan Romer on YouTube, set in the same type of location.

  4. I hated this movie. Pretentious and had the subtlety of a hammer. The girl is special, I will certainly give her credit for a lovely and brave performance. However, this was a snorefest and not executed with a deft hand.

  5. You are absolutely correct. The film was incredible, and I don’t understand why some people hate it so much online.

  6. Never have I watched a movie back to back.. The music was the first thing that captured me. And the ending is incredible. I hope they get the oscar especially quvenzhane wallis. Out of all the best actress noms, hers stuck out for me. Brilliantly perfect

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