Soundtracks can be a tricky old business. By their very nature they’re required not to be too imposing, lest they overwhelm the film. This can sometimes lead to overuse of one theme and a multitude of reprises, that can be dull stripped of their celluloid partnering. Thankfully, Alex Somers has both a lightness of touch matched with an impressive musical instinct that navigates the problematic nature of film score beautifully.
Captain Fantastic tells the story of Ben, a father-of-six (played by Viggo Mortensen), who choses to raise his family ‘off the grid’ in a forest in the Pacific Northwest. His wife is in treatment for bipolar disorder and Ben receives a letter informing him that she has killed herself. He packs up his children and they take a road trip to their mother’s funeral in New Mexico, despite warnings from his late wife’s father that he will have him arrested if he disrupts the funeral.
So far, so grim; but apparently the movie is very much a tragicomic take on this unusual story. And the music, whilst far from comedic, isn’t a den of depression, even on a track as brutally named as She Slits Her Wrists. It’s a warped, disorientating tune that mixes strings with Vangelis-like synths, and somehow seems to capture, if only in a small sense, the profound bewilderment one might feel on hearing such news and inexplicably avoids becoming maudlin. Memories follows, and is far grander in scope. Somers’ partner, Jónsi of Sigur Rós, sings the reaching vocal that is at once beautiful and achingly mournful. It wouldn’t be out of place on a Sigur Rós record, which is no bad thing.
What Captain Fantastic repeatedly does is to blend the older, and possibly, more natural sound of strings with all manner of synthesised resonances. You can only imagine that this technique serves the films narrative well as the family enter back into mainstream society. Remembering, for example, is backed by a range of distorted vocals and electronic experiments, but its backbone is a high pitched string line, then replaced by piano that gives it an emotional anchor. It’s also a bright and hopeful tune that belies the stories dark themes.
Somers doesn’t create a theme and just run with it. This record is a rich landscape full of simple and yet effective motifs. Fell is a stark, icy track of ungraspable electronic effects which Somers manipulates in a way that makes them humane. The dichotomy that he creates between the natural sounds of age old instruments and the man made music of machines seems to mirror the conflict in the film where the main character strives for a simpler life for his family, but it also highlights the problematic nature of distancing yourself from modernity.
If the film manages the emotional reach of the soundtrack it should be a fine one indeed. This is beautiful music that can be enjoyed entirely independently, an achievement not often made with film scores. To embrace luddism would be to forego music as beautiful as this. And that is Somers’ aachievement on this record: successfully marrying the two, reconciling the old with the new.