GLORY AT SEA – Dan Romer & Benh Zeitlin

Original Review by Alan Rogers

Director Benh Zeitlin’s Glory At Sea is an award-winning short film from 2008 set in a post-Hurricane Katrina Louisiana. It’s a fantastical story of a community coming together, drawing on their spirit, hope and determined faith (their own faith rather than the restrictive faith of the church) to aim for a goal that seemingly is unattainable. Featuring local and little-known actors, Jake (Geremy Jasper) is a man deposited from the sea into the arms of a barely-functioning community who are mourning the loss of their loved ones to the recent storm. Jake is determined to build a raft and return to sea in order to save his lover, Tess (Meggy Tucker), one of the many souls condemned and trapped on the seabed. Jake refuses to believe the community’s preacher when he tells his remaining congregation that their loved ones have been taken by the sea for a reason. It is this refusal to accept this that leads Jake on his quest to save Tess. Gradually, the rest of the community join Jake in building his boat, hopeful that they too can save their loved ones.

Benh Zeitlin’s visually arresting film is complemented by an equally striking score composed by the director himself in collaboration with fellow-composer Dan Romer. Centred around a small ensemble of musicians, Zeitlin and Romer’s score features mainly strings (plucked and bowed) with additional colours coming from carefully placed piano, brass ensemble and additional instrumentation. The score has a strong emphasis on rhythm particularly with the use of string-ensemble ostinato figures. The choice of instrumentation, musical style and close miking all add to produce a very memorable – almost hypnotic – listening experience (even though the score has a running time of barely 20 minutes). 

After a heart-stoppingly loud start to the score in “Throw Your Arms Around Me” (a blaring chord accompanies the main title credit seen a few minutes into the film but here it used as a declamatory statement at the start of the album), plucked strings begins the score proper creating a sound that will become a characteristic motif heard throughout. It’s an upbeat device, playful, almost child-like and is at odds with the images of a forest of lost souls on the seabed the music accompanies. What the music does here is immediately throw weight behind the ever-present child’s voice-over from whose point of view we see the film. “The Ark” and “U.S.S. Jimmy Lee” continue this plucked string motif when on-screen images are supported by voice-over but also when the power of the community’s collective drive is in evidence. The use of strong, bowed-string ostinato passages (e.g., “To The Bottom of The Sea”) add another level of energy to the goal-driven will of the people. However, the score is not only an exercise in rhythm and ostinato. The inclusion of a more melodic line over the top of the ostinato works to build on the energy of the people: for example, heard when the various characters collect their “lucky things”, objects that have helped them get through their trials and tribulations (“The Ark”), or when the community first comes together to collectively construct the raft (“To The Bottom of The Sea”). These melodic string passages add a human/emotional tone to the drive of the ostinato rhythms.

The eruption of human emotion is best exemplified in the final cue, “Elysian Fields”, where an uplifting and celebratory theme is heard in all its glory (strings and brass together). Whilst what is unfolding on-screen, when taken at face value, is a particularly traumatic event, the music (as at the beginning of the film) forces the audience to focus on the human and emotional implications of what is taking place. In this cue, the theme’s happy and exuberant tone is a reflection of the culmination of all that’s happened to the people over the course of the film – in fact, the seeds of this theme can be heard in a stilted, down-trodded form in “Memorial”, a track that underscores a community without much hope. The score is rounded off with a couple of tracks that seem at odds with the rest of the score when only heard on the album. “Got Fire”, with its carnival-style brass ensemble playing, adds to the apparent craziness gripping the community at one point as they prepare for their voyage (the burning of the church here suggests a loss of morals and a rejection of their religious beliefs). And the cue “That’s All, Goodnight” is a bluesy song (sung by The Woes) played on an old cassette machine during a brief period of relaxation once their voyage has begin.

As the score for Glory At Sea runs to only 20 minutes, the digital release is fleshed out by the inclusion of music from the composers’ earlier collaboration, Death To The Tinman. Though the subject matter of the film is completely different from that of Glory At Sea (Death To The Tinman is an excellent short film where protagonist Bill loses arms, legs, torso until he is made of tin save for his heart), the style of Death To The Tinman‘s music is very much in keeping with the overall sound of Glory At Sea and makes a good companion selection (“The Town Pariah” is a particular highlight, its tempo capturing the whole feel of the film).

Benh Zeitlin and Dan Romer’s Glory At Sea is an instantly memorable score that lingers long after the music has ended. The use of the bowed string melodic lines over the string ostinato (minimalist?) motif reminds me of Michael Nyman’s music for Peter Greenaway’s films and there is one particular (short) passage (in “Memorial”) that is very reminiscent of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres. Ostinato rhythms sit well alongside uplifting thematic material for a very rewarding listening experience. The twinning of Glory At Sea with Death To The Tinman (according to the sum of their composing projects to date) showcases well the composers’ talent. This year’s feature-length film Beasts of The Southern Wild marks their third collaboration and I look forward to the opportunity of hearing this and their future projects. Glory At Sea is available as a digital download from several online stores and both short films can be found to watch on YouTube.

Audio samples can be found HERE.

Rating: ****

  1. Throw Your Arms Around Me (1:32)
  2. Memorial (1:29)
  3. To The Bottom of The Sea (2:09)
  4. The Ark (1:34)
  5. Got Fire (2:51)
  6. U.S.S. Jimmy Lee (2:31)
  7. That’s All, Goodnight (4:05)
  8. Elysian Fields (4:17)
  9. The Town Pariah (2:05)
  10. The Curse (1:44)
  11. Steal From The Rich (1:37)
  12. I Don’t Even Have A Heart Anymore (2:32)

Running Time: Glory At Sea (Tracks 1-8): 20:32 / Death To The Tinman (Tracks 9-12): 7:59

Desolation Records (Digital) (2008)

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