If ever there were a film made for a Scott Walker soundtrack, it’s The Childhood Of A Leader. Inspired by Jean-Paul Sartre’s short story of the same name, it tracks the early years of an effeminate boy called Prescott who is forced to live in France while his dad, played by Game Of Thrones’ Liam Cunningham, helps negotiate the Treaty of Versailles on behalf of US President Woodrow Wilson.
In the process, though, what we’re actually watching are the formative years of a fascist dictator: one who lives in privilege and corruption thanks to his family, while being sexually infatuated with his teacher and rejecting authority figures on every level. Indeed, the film itself is split into three acts called ‘tantrums’.
The soundtrack brings together the two phases of Walker, so to speak: the rich, sweeping orchestral one heard from The Walker Brothers and through the solo Scotts 1-4, before morphing into the avant-garde, claustrophobic, doom-laden one from 1995’s Tilt onwards.
You always sense there’s a cheeky, playful streak with Walker. Opening track Orchestral tuning up stands at 19 seconds long and certainly doesn’t prepare you for the orchestral offensive that follows, the five-minute long Opening. Some might say Opening – and, indeed, most of the soundtrack as a whole – is reminiscent of something by Bernard Hermann – a perfectly decent comparison.
Indeed, there’s a tenuous link here between Hermann, Orson Welles and Childhood’s director, the precocious 28-year old Brady Corbet. Corbet has been something of a mainstay in the European art-house scene, having acted in films by the likes of Michael Haneke. Yet by now taking the mantle of directing at such a young age – much like Welles – some have now made the comparison between the two. Having a soundtrack that could be considered Hermannesque seems, therefore, rather fitting.
Nevertheless, while Hermann could deliver intensity and induce anxiety through his scores, Walker can do that but with absolute ferocity and near aggression. Those, coupled with the strings delivering a sort of minimalist, brutal, regimented repetition creates a typically fearful, totalitarian atmosphere from the start. Dream sequence follows, which sounds like one is plunging into some sort of hell: a dirgy and eerie sounding, often dischordant and at times chilling two minutes that no doubt mirrors what is brewing inside Prescott’s subconscious.
The majority of Walker’s soundtrack is made up of fragments lasting barely a minute – and at times it isn’t an all assault on the ears, either. The 40-second long The letter carries that ominous quality but also a sort of childlike innocence to it. This proceeds into Versailles, which creates a degree of starkness through its sole use of horns, before moving into Cutting flowers that again brings back this innocence that is also tinged with something brewing underneath.
From that point, though, things really begin to get sinister, verging on the unbearable. The meeting certainly wouldn’t feel out of place on The Drift or even 2012’s Bish Bosch, with the opening seconds akin to something from the soundtrack to the highly controversial revenge drama, Irréversible, composed by Thomas Bangalter – one half of Daft Punk. The opening minutes of Irréversible feature a swirling and utterly disorientating soundtrack that, coupled with what was being shown on-screen, were deemed too much to sit through by many. Hearing The Meeting, with its onslaught of strings, swirling around you inside a cinema would be a nauseous and claustrophobic experience. Fascism in sound, perhaps.
This then leads into Finale, which is bombastic and equally relentless and picks up on the repetition heard during Opening. Siren-like atonal loops seem to underpin the tumult of the drums and the strings: gone have the brief glimpses of innocence that came through earlier to reveal a monster in waiting.
Walker has created something that, on paper, turns what seems like a very decent directorial debut by Corbet into something of a must-watch, especially if you like your art-house cinema to be an assault on the senses akin to Irréversible and works by Haneke and Lars von Trier. Yet another reason why Walker’s soundtrack is so affecting is because it echoes the times we currently live in. It’s dogmatic, uncompromising and confrontational. In the process, it makes Corbet’s film highly relevant to these times as well: as if we’re sleepwalking back into history and failing to learn from past mistakes.