Although the practice of building a film music score by selecting a number of pre-recorded songs has been well established since the 1970s, this method of “composing” was limited to specific genres, styles, and particular periods of time. It was not until the 1990s that the “compilation score” became a practice in which the directors were able to arrange a very diverse music playlist. In The Children of Men (2006), for instance, Alfonso Cuaron has put together a playlist of 24 musical works that come from disparate genres such as hip hop, 18th century choral music, classic rock, and electronic dub step. In this essay, I describe how the organization of the eclectic compilation score of The Children of Men helps to structure the film and I analyze the semantic and emotive interaction of the music in several scenes.
First of all, in order to appreciate how the different songs and themes from the composite score help to structure the film narrative, it is necessary to outline the fabula:
A. Theo enters a coffee shop where the killing of the youngest person of the world is being announced in the TV news. When he exists, a bomb explodes in a store nearby.
B. Theo goes to the government office where he works.
C. Theo takes the train in order to encounter his friend Jasper.
D. Jasper picks up Theo outside of the train station. They drive off to Jasper’s house in the woods.
E. Jasper and Theo hang out and talk inside the house.
F. Theo wakes up in his apartment.
G. While walking through the streets, Theo is kidnapped by a group of rebels called The Fishes.
H. The Fishes interrogate Theo and he recognizes Julian, a former friend, among them. Julian asks Theo for help in getting an exit visa.
I. Theo is driven in an expensive car to see his friend, the minister of culture.
J. Theo takes dinner with the minister of culture and his son, and manage to get the exit visa.
K. At a Pub, Theo meets Luke, a member of the Fishes.
L. Theo wins at the dog races.
M. Theo meets Julian in a Bus.
N. Luke drives a car with Theo and Julian. Myriam and Kee, also travel with them and Theo meets them.
O. A group of rebels attack the car in the middle of a road. Julian is shot and dies. While trying to escape the car is stopped by two policemen. Luke kills them.
P. Julian is buried in the middle of nowhere.
Q. Luke takes Theo, Myriam and Kee to the Fishes farm. Inside a barn, Kee tells Theo that she is pregnant.
R. Theo, Kee, and Myriam escape from the Fishes after Theo has discovered, by hearing a conversation, that they killed Julian.
S. Theo, Kee, and Myriam go to Jasper house in the search of help. Jasper suggest breaking into a refugee/prisioner camp in Bexhill in order to have access to the sea. They sleep in the house and start preparing their trip.
T. Theo Kee and Myriam left Jasper house when the Fishes arrive. Jasper is killed.
U. At a school they meet Syd, the soldier who will take them to Bexhill.
V. Inside the camp, Theo, Myriam, and Kee are transported in a bus. Kee breaks waters. Myriam is thrown off the bus.
W. Theo and Kee meet Marichka, who takes them to a room where they can spend the night. The baby is born.
X. In the morning, Marichka guides Theo, Kee and the baby through the streets of Bexhill in the search of a boat they can use for escaping. The whole camp has transformed into a battle field with the rebels upraise. The Fishes find them and take Kee and her baby with them.
Y. Theo rescues Kee and the baby from an apartment building block, but is injured in his guts.
Z. Theo, Kee and the Baby take the rowboat and row towards the meeting point where the boat from the Human Project, “The Tomorrow” is supposed to arrive. Theo dies and “The Tomorrow” arrives.
The Children of Men has a four-act structure in where excerpts from the eclectic music playlist have been arranged serving semantic and emotive functions. In general, it can be said that as the narration progresses, the music style becomes less eclectic and more homogenous. The first act (A to J) has the most eclectic combination of choral music, hard rock, classic rock, progressive rock, alternative rock, hip hop, experimental electronica, and dub-step. The second act (I to P) has also a very diverse range of music styles that covers from electronica to indie rock to choral music. The third act (Q to T) has accompaniment excerpts from classic rock and choral music. Finally, the fourth act (U to Z) has an homogenous style of choral works and modern classical music.
As we can see, choral music is used as accompaniment in each of the four acts. The systematic use of this kind of music through the entire film helps to elicit an emotional mood of salvation and spirituality. Not surprisingly, the majority of choral excerpts are from “Fragments of a Prayer,” the only original work that the film has. As John Tavener, the composer who scored it, explains in the inner notes that accompany the CD release of the soundtrack, “Fragments of a Prayer” is a “musical/spiritual reaction” to the state of dilapidation and decay of the world depicted in The Children of Men. Performed by the mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and the string section of a symphonic orchestra, the selected excerpts from this 15 minutes piece function as non-diegetic pit music for accompany several scenes (A, B, C, P, Q, T, V, W, Y,Z) where the characters are facing the gritty of a hopeless 2027 London siege under terror and violence. The female voice feels very spiritual, almost like a religious chant and it key for helping the audience connect with the characters of Theo and Kee.
Following Michel Chion’s terminology, the interaction of the excerpts of “Fragments of a Prayer” in all the scenes where they appear, can be understood as empathetic music. As Chion has stated, this kind of interaction occurs when the music “participates directly in the emotion of the scene, moves in sympathy with it, envelops it, prolongs and ampliﬁes it.” (430) Other choral works from the classical repertoire of the 18th and 20th century are also used as pit music in The Children of Men, such as “Alexander’s Feast/War, He Sung, Is Toil and Trouble” by George Frideric Handel (scene J) and “Kindertotenlieder/Nun Will Die Sonn’ So Hell Aufgeh’n” by Gustav Mahler (a brief moment during scene S). These pieces also incur in the kind of semantic and emotive interaction that make us feel empathy towards the characters and feel a sort of spiritual salvation.
However, the narrative necessity of setting up the time and space of London in 2027 explains the music eclecticism that characterizes the first and second acts. Music excerpts from 20th and 21st century popular music function the onscreen diegetic sound of a dystopian world. It is perhaps during the scenes where the character of Jasper appears, when the diversity of the onscreen diegetic music becomes more extreme. This character is a truly eclectic music lover who is always playing and listening to popular songs either in his car radio or in his home hi-fi stereo. During scene D, we hear three different songs from disparate genres and periods of time. First, while they are on the road, we hear Deep Purple version of “Hush”, a hard rock theme recorded in 1968. Second, when they have arrived to the hidden entrance to the woods, we hear a hip hop track recorded in 2001, “Witness (1 Hope)” by Roots Manuva. Third, when they are parking the car in front of the house we hear a cover version of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” (1966) performed by Junior Parker and recorded in 1971.
Once the action has moved inside Jasper’s house (scene E), the diegetic music changes its source to a hi-fi stereo located in the living room (this fact enables the song to circulate between the onscreen and the offscreen space). First we hear a cover version of the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” (1967) performed Franco Battiato while the camera reveals a wall covered by scraps of newspaper and magazine articles related to Jasper and his wife past work. Then, while Jasper and Theo are in the living room discussing the current social chaos, we hear in the background Radiohead’s “Life in a Glasshouse” (2001), an alternative rock/electronic theme that mixes synthesizer atmospheres and electronic beats with New Orlean-style brass horns (clarinet, a trumpet and a trombone). At the end of the conversation, and after having asking Theo if he wants to listen to “Zen music,” Jasper plays in his stereo the very noisy and loud avant-garde electronica theme “Omgyjya Switch7” by Aphex Twin, and starts to make the body gesture of playing a guitar as a punk musician.
All this diegetic music played in the radio and the stereo, and as well the music played in scene S (“There Is An Ocean” by Donovan, 1973; “Money Honey” by Pressure, 2005; and “Bring On The Lucie” by John Lennon, 1973), function as empathetic music that helps the spectator to identify himself with the character of Jasper, and therefore, to sympathize with Theo, who is Jasper’s good friend.
Other popular music tunes that serve to establish the time and space of a decadent world are heard off-screen. The Dubstep tracks “Backward” by Kode 9 and Spaceape that we hear in the pub (K), and the “Anti-War Dub” by Digital Mystikz that appears while Theo walks in the streets of London (G), reinforce the dystopian vision of the world with super-low frequencies, syncopated drums, and dark lyrics. The Dubstep electronic music style, that emerged around 2005, feels very appropriate for a hopeless gray future. A different kind of empathy is the one created while Theo is taken to the minister of culture (I) and we see images of London through the car window while hearing a version of the song “The Court of the Crimson King” recorded by the British progressive rock band King Crimson in1969. In this later case, the popular music song creates empathy by its lyrics and a sort of nostalgia with the youth political activism from the 60s and 70s.
However, not all the music from The Children of Men, creates empathy. We also encounter a unique case of anempathetic music originated by the use of popular music onscreen. As Chion has explained, this sort of music-image interaction occurs when “the music registers, with respect to the emotionally intense situation onscreen, a palpable indifference; by continuing on its own impassive, mechanical course.” (430) In the scene O, while Luke is driving the car where Theo, Julian, Kee and Myriam travel, the radio plays an alternative/indie rock song called “Wait” by The Kills. As the scene progresses and they are attacked on the road by a group of rebels, the song keeps rolling in the background.
“Tell me you’re the lucky one
How fast you can throw
Tell me all the things you’ve done
I would like to know
Why you say wait
While they try to escape driving in reverse and the rebels are attacking them, breaking the windows of the car with rocks and sticks, and shooting from a motorcycle, the song continues.
“La la la la la la la
Why you say
La la la la, la la la la
Why you say wait”
Julian is shot in her neck, blood is everywhere, Theo screams, and we keep hearing the song.
“So tell me something bad you’ve done
Tell me bout your ghost
Tell me bout the game you won
And the one who lost
Why you say wait
The police cars arrive to the location and force Luke to stop. The music however does not pause, does not fade. Theo screams “We are British citizens! We have British passports!” The policemen force them to get out the car. Luke gets out and shots the two policemen 5 times with a semi-automatic gun. Meanwhile, the radio continues playing the song.
“It’s not worth saving, when you say wait
Why you say
It’s not worth saving, when you say wait
Why you say wait”
Recorded in 2003 by the British based band The Kills, the song “Wait” function as diegetic onscreen music of 2027 London. However, in contrast to the other music that we hear in the film, either onscreen or offscreen, it does not generate any kind of sympathy, or any emotional relationship to the scene in which it appears. The highly intense action of the chase and the attacks of the rebels, and the three different murders that occur in the scene O are completely ignored by the dense mood of the song, the distortion effect of the guitar, and the angry and rough voice of the singer.
In conclusion, the music of The Children of Men is eclectic and lacks unity of style. The diversity of genres can be justified by the semantic and emotive functions that the songs excerpts accomplish in each of the scenes. Furthermore, as we have seen in this analysis, the composite score that director Alfonso Cuaron has put together or “composed” fosters the four-act narrative structure of the film and is appropriate for setting up the time and space of a dystopian London in 2027.