CD Review: “Inception: Music from the Motion Picture”

Warner Bros. Records sent me Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack to this week’s much-anticipated blockbuster Inception. Cards on the table: While I certainly respect writer-director Christopher Nolan, I wasn’t crazy about The Dark Knight, and his reputation is overinflated by his biggest devotees. But that was so 2008, and I’m moving on.

Except for this: Anyone who calls him “Kubrickian” hasn’t seen enough Kubrick to make the comparison. I’m reading a lot of that these days, and it bugs me. There’s more to Kubrick’s resume than The Shining or 2001, the usual points of reference, and Nolan may never make, or want to make, a Lolita or a Dr. Strangelove. From what I gather Nolan is happy just to be able to mount these big-scale fantasies, which is fine as far as it goes; they’re smart and classy, especially by the degraded standards of the rest of the funhouse, and occasionally thrilling when he eases up on the pretension. That makes him a good fit for filmmaking at this magnitude, and I have a rooting interest in a director who takes his subject matter, and craft, seriously. It doesn’t however make him the heir apparent to Stanley Kubrick, a mantle I see no one assuming.

Oh, and more to the heart of the matter, this quote from my own skeptical Dark Knight review. “The score, by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer, was problematic the first time around, and a seriously monotonous drone here — how have two Oscar-lauded talents gotten away with teaming up to create so little?” I know their work on the Batman films has its admirers; to me, it’s aural anesthetic, crimping the excitement at every turn.

With all this baggage, why did I bother with the soundtrack? Because, in my own cautiously optimistic way, I’m on the bandwagon. Inception has an excellent cast, led by an on-a-roll Leonardo DiCaprio, a “dream thieves” premise beholden to Dreamscape, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Matrix but offering something fresh, too, and those knockout, stand-up-and-take-notice trailers, which have been intriguing us since Christmas:

There’s something about the music in that trailer that had been on my ears for a month or two before I made a connection, when Edith Piaf’s “Heaven Have a Mercy” shuffled up on my iPod (which includes the soundtrack to La Vie en Rose, with its Oscar-winning turn by Inception co-star Marion Cotillard). Let’s have a look, and a listen; you’ll get it right away:

I enjoy a score (and a movie) that embeds a little musical puzzle in its mix, and you get it upfront in Zimmer’s soundtrack, in its first track, “Half Remembered Dream.” It recurs throughout, climaxing a nerve-jangling piece entitled “528491.” But let me say that the whole album is a mystery to me, one I won’t really be able to unlock until I’ve seen the movie. I’m listening to it as I write this, and I feel as if I’m shadowboxing. It’s unheard of for me to listen to a score before seeing the movie—I’m not one of those film music geeks (I say that with love) who runs out to buy the soundtrack to an unseen mediocrity just because Elmer Bernstein gets the composing credit.

Is the Inception soundtrack compelling in its own right, then? Absolutely, with several passages that have the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end, as if Leo and his dream thieves were trying to break into my mind (an empty vault I’m afraid, guys). Credit is especially due guitarist Johnny Marr, who is really earning his keep throughout; his languid-to-livid playing on “Dream Within a Dream” is just one standout contribution.

(This just in: The tenth track, “Waiting for a Train,” has a bit of Piaf singing “Non Je Ne Regrette Rien” woven into its epic nine-and-a-half minute length. Clearly there’s something up here with Piaf, and Cotillard, or a meta Cotillard-as-Piaf thing going on.)

I’d say Zimmer, whose Oscar-nominated score for Sherlock Holmes is one of his finest, is near to that standard again. (He has seven other nominations, including a win for The Lion King, to his credit.) This doesn’t seem to be a character-driven score, in the way that Thomas Newman’s outstanding soundtrack for Revolutionary Road helps define each portrayal with specific motifs, including one for DiCaprio. It’s more of a tangy, full-bodied page-turner to accompany the plot shifts, just a little John Barry in Ipcress File spy movie mode here, accents of Ennio Morricone and Philip Glass there, a hint of Vangelis at his ethereal Blade Runner best from time to time. Nothing particularly Kubrick about it; no droning; and, heaven have a mercy, there’s no “Love Theme from Inception” to muck it up at the end.

Or maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Perhaps there’s a way to ask Zimmer and Marr about it tonight. Some PR for you Left Coasters and adored film music geeks: The two “will perform a special concert backed by a 20-piece orchestra Tuesday, July 13th. Immediately following the film’s Los Angeles premiere, the one-time concert takes place at the official after-party on the same day as the soundtrack is released. The performance will stream live to fans at http://www.ustream.tv/inceptionpremiere. Proceeds from tickets sold to the Inception film premiere and after-party event will benefit the Alliance for Climate Protection.

Zimmer will sign copies of Inception: Music From The Motion Picture at Amoeba Music, 6400 W. Sunset Blvd., in Los Angeles on Thursday, July 15th, at 8 pm. A midnight screening of Inception will follow at the nearby Arclight Hollywood Cinema, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd.

The first 200 fans to purchase the Inception Soundtrack fan pack will receive a movie poster, the CD soundtrack, a guaranteed place in line to meet Zimmer at the signing, and a ticket to the midnight screening–the first official showing of the film–at the Arclight Hollywood. Packages go on sale at Amoeba for $35 beginning on July 13th at 10:30 am.”

The rest of us will just have to tough it out until Friday, when all will be revealed, and we can see how Inception, the soundtrack, and Inception, the film, fit together.