$9.99 – Christopher Bowen

Original Review by Alan Rogers

$9.99 is a stop-motion animated film from director Tatia Rosenthal and is based on a series of short stories penned by Israeli-born writer Etgar Keret. The film follows a group of people who all live in the same Sydney apartment block and whose lives are all interlinked in some way. They all have one thing in common: they are dissatisfied with their lives and they believe that by finding “something” things will be better. But none of them know what that something is. One character buys a book (for $9.99) that’s all about the meaning of life but it doesn’t help answering any his questions. Paradoxically, the answers he seeks are being played out all around him.

Continuing his collaboration with the director, American-born composer Christopher Bowen uses a small ensemble of instruments (piano, strings, percussion) as well as electronics to give the film a “small-scale”, intimate and interesting score that makes particularly effective use of plucked strings and rhythm. Bowen’s drive to give the distinctive-looking film an equally distinctive-sounding score is set out right from the start with “The Sunshine Coast”. Backed by a catchy drum percussion rhythm, the cue features what sounds like some unusual reed-type woodwinds (or perhaps an electronic equivalent). Together, they give the track an upbeat and energetic sound. This sound is quite a surprise as film reviews talk of the characters’ stories being somewhat depressing. The use of plucked strings alongside keyboards maintains the unusual feel to the score and pizzicato is the foundation for a theme that is heard numerous times throughout the score (examples include “The Truffle Shaves”, “A Girl Only Better” and “The Meaning of Life”). Although a lot of music is very minimalist in terms of the number of instruments he uses and the aural space they are given in the cues, the composer gives variety to the theme in a number of ways. For example, in “Almost Perfect”, Bowen frequently changes the rhythm of the plucked theme to give it a stilted feel and then adds further variety by adding a string ostinato. And in “It’s Everything…”, subtle manipulation of the cue’s natural rhythm together with the use of solo piano gives the track the quality of someone tinkering on the piano trying to remember an almost-forgotten melody.

What’s particularly impressive is that, with what seems like an insufficient number notes, Bowen is able to convey emotions. Regret and a sense of reflection in the music are easily suggested in “You Should Have Seen Her Dance”. But then you realise that it’s not just the techniques he uses in specific tracks that generates the emotional pay-off with the listener but it is also the music that we have heard up until that point. The style of the music and the theme he has been playing with sets up a sense of expectation in the listener that triggers a strong response in cues such as “You Should Have Seen Her Dance”. The score does have some moments when the music fills the sound space and the score almost becomes orchestral in tone. “Pigs Love Parks” and “Swim Like A Dolphin” both finish with an exuberance fostered by the layering of strings (bowed and plucked), piano and percussion. In “Swim Like A Dolphin” Bowen captures exactly the fun dolphins always seem to be having when they are shown swimming and frolicking in the ocean.

Bowen’s music in general is influenced by the quality of the sounds instruments make and this is highlighted by the way the instruments and sounds are used in $9.99. But what surprises me most (and I touched upon it earlier) is that the music seems to be so bright and light, almost whimsical, in style, when the film is meant to be so depressing (for the most part anyway). Maybe what Bowen is trying to do here is reflect the way in which the answers to the questions on the meaning of life are all around the characters but they can’t see them. The music enveloping their on-screen lives is bright and exuberant but they just cannot see (or hear) it. I find Bowen’s score for $9.99 extremely likeable (except for the final track, “Happiness”, which I actively dislike) and I would recommend it as an alternative to the majority of today’s impersonal film music. $9.99 is available as a digital download from digital download stores such as the iTunes store.

Rating: ***½

  1. The Sunshine Coast (3:29)
  2. A Buck’s Worth (1:18)
  3. The Truffle Shaves (1:14)
  4. Like Smoking Chewing Gum (0:51)
  5. A Girl Only Prettier (0:50)
  6. The Meaning of Life (1:46)
  7. Zak’s Bedtime / More Wonderful Books (0:54)
  8. Almost Perfect (1:30)
  9. You Should Have Seen Her Dance (1:49)
  10. The Balcony’s Edge (0:44)
  11. Good Things Never Last / I Pushed Him (2:42)
  12. I Want To See You Fly (1:12)
  13. Pigs Love Parks (3:04)
  14. Feeding The Ducks (0:47)
  15. It’s Everything… (1:41)
  16. Swim Like A Dolphin (2:38)
  17. Happiness (3:46)

Running Time: 30:17

MovieScore Media MMD0004 (2009)

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