Tom Recknell

Music Theatre Film Musings from a Muso

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'Chasing Pavements', 'I Can't Make You Love Me' and 'Get Lucky'

with some ‘Beauty and a Beat’ and ‘Suit and Tie’ thrown in.

Two Voices, Two Pianos, One Session. LIVE.

Filed under Tom Recknell Parry Hall Jonah Hauer-King Hauer-King Recknell Adele Bonnie Raitt Daft Punk Justin Bieber Justin Timberlake Duet Live Piano Pianos Arrangement Arrangements Pop Music Session Recording Video Music Video Bon Iver Cover Covers Unsigned Chasing Pavements I Can't Make You Love Me Get Lucky Relax

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Written for a short film by actress and director Bonnie Wright (Harry Potter) and starring David Thewlis (Harry Potter and others), this film follows the story of a young girl who happens to be brave enough to step out of her front door alone.

The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival 2012.

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Filed under Tom Recknell Bonnie Wright Ginny Weasley Cannes Film Festival 2012 David Thewlis Separate We Come Separate We Go Harry Potter Short Film Corner Short Film Soundtrack Film Piano

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Is this one of the greatest pieces of film music?

Dario Marianelli’s Oscar and Golden Globe winning score for ‘Atonement’ in 2007 was critically acclaimed, and rightly so, for some spine-tinglingly beautiful and jaw dropping moments. Critics focused in on his original use of typewriter sound effects within his score, which were almost taken from the film as source material. Another moment when Marianelli takes source music from the film and weaves it into his score is during the standout sequence from the film at the aftermath of Dunkirk.

Firstly, if you didn’t notice, this shot (starting at 0.28 seconds) is a single tracking shot lasting five minutes. As a piece of film making, without music, it is masterful. The organisation, the timing, the smooth movement and most of all, the way Joe Wright takes us from the focus on the lead characters, from them to individuals on the beach, to a choir singing ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind’ where suddenly we have been transported into a national crisis and moment of mourning, and finally back to McAvoy’s character Robbie before the breathtaking final reveal. This is film making at its most visceral and artistic.

Now add the music.

Marianelli’s structuring of this cue is sublime, with a mournful solo cello melody bookending either end of the centre piece of the music which is the hymn tune. Once again using the source material within his own orchestrations, the deliberate coming together of the score and the onscreen/on set recording of the Parry hymn tune provides an irresistible emotional climax. This uplifting hymn tune provides such a contrast to the mournful strings, and with Marianelli’s re-harmonisation never quite reaches it’s highest point.

For me, this is one of the greatest moments in film music. The poise, the elegance of the orchestration and the simple melodies combine in one outstanding cue. I don’t think there is another better, more mournfully English soundtrack, which is ironic seeing as it was written by an Italian. However, if Vaughan Williams and Parry had worked on this together, they would have struggled to better it.

PS. Try listening to the CD soundtrack version too, as the mixing is slightly different during the climax and the power of the string section is really let rip, which it isn’t when combined with the sound design on the film.

Filed under Dario Marianelli Atonement James McAvoy Joe Wright Oscars Golden Globes Score Music Soundtrack Elegy for Dunkirk Dunkirk WWII Hubert Parry

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An Artsy Sunday Afternoon in Eton College

It is Sunday afternoon, and I am sitting in Eton College, it is snowing, and those parents who have chosen to brave the weather are catching up briefly with their sons who have been away from home at school for nearly two weeks. Sitting in a cafe on the High Street in Eton, families come and go swiftly with most of the boys claiming that they’ve “only got an hour or so” before they have to be somewhere else.

I’ve seen this family scene play out many times before, and the reaction of the mother is always telling. Often enough, her son says he cannot stay for long, and is followed by, “Oh, but I thought you were free for the afternoon? You’ve only just got here!” which is accompanied by a facial expression that contorts with maternal desire to spend longer with her son and disappointment at the brevity of this encounter. Naturally, following the teenage standard, the boy is oblivious to his mother’s emotion, and the father adopts a ‘let’s make the most of this then’ approach. Sooner rather than later, the boy stands up, states his need to leave, gives his parents a farewell hug and swiftly leaves the cafe, before running down the street to avoid being late to his next appointment. 

Normally, the mother and father look at each other, with a few moments of silence, before one will say “Well he seems well, doesn’t he?” - the other will reply “Yes, good that he’s keeping busy.”. Part of the system of cogs that was working so well when all three were together is broken for a moment, and it takes a few minutes before conversation restarts between the couple.

(Notably, the non-Etonian patrons of the cafe’s favourite past time is gazing out of the window and debating whether the surprisingly normal looking boys walking past the window are actually Etonians. Then a boy wearing a Barbour coat walks past and “he MUST be an Eton boy”.)

This is not a scene that is unique to Eton. Other full time boarding schools provide activities on a Sunday that are often compulsory. The benefit of this extra time at weekends is found in the high standard of music, drama and other creative arts.

The boy who leaves his parents in the cafe may be heading off to rehearse with the school orchestra, rehearse a theatrical production, spend time in the art department or design technology suites, or a number of other activities that are put on by the school.

[Note: I am not intending to leap into the State vs. Private argument (I am aware of the great work that many state schools do, and also aware of the dislike that many people have towards private schools), as this argument is not particularly relevant to this discussion.]

Every Etonian parent knows that by sending their son to a school like Eton they are investing in the chance for their son to engage in a wide range of extra opportunities that aren’t always available at day schools. To take a rather extreme, but not uncommon situation, of a musical student who may be involved in a play (either acting or music), their Sunday schedule can run to something like this:

9.25am - Choir Rehearsal

10.30am - Chapel Service

11.45am - Orchestra Rehearsal

1.15pm - Lunch

2pm to 6pm - Play Rehearsal

7.30pm - Dinner

8.15 - 10.30pm - Run of the Play/Rehearsal (and if not, then time for homework).

10.30 until collapsing asleep - Homework for Monday morning (especially if rehearsals ran until 10.30 pm).

That’s an extra 14 hours beyond a teenager’s normal call of duty on a Sunday (excepting, of course, that students who spend Sunday at home still need to do homework). All of these events and rehearsals are run by teachers at the school who are expected to work through the weekend. (But who get rather extensive holidays!).

It is this kind of immersive education that give parents a hard decision when deciding to send their son to such a school - it is worth noting here that all of these kind of schools offer generous bursaries and scholarships to enable any student who is sufficiently able enough to attend. To quote the Eton school website:

"About 20% of the boys currently at the school are receiving financial support, and some of them are paying substantially reduced fees or indeed no fees at all. Financial support can come through a scholarship or through a bursary. No parents with a talented boy should feel that Eton is necessarily beyond their means."

The opportunities on offer are second to none, but the family sacrifice is not inconsiderable. Across the country, families may be sitting down to a Sunday lunch together, and this is not really possible at these 24/7 schools. Parents can go for weeks without seeing their son, only intermittently getting phone calls and texts.

The resulting success of creatives who grew up with this kind of system can be seen very easily by reading a list of recent Etonian graduates who have chosen to be actors, including Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston and Harry Lloyd as discussed by the Guardian:

And, for a more immediate response, I can quote an e-mail that I received from a fifteen-year-old cast member after the final night of a play I was working on at Eton College:

"I just wanted to say that I can’t stop thinking about how lucky I was to be part of such an awesome production…during last night’s performance, I felt as if I could keep doing the show forever. I was just so happy with what we were doing on stage and I will never forget that feeling, a feeling I’ve never felt before, a feeling beyond all earthly comparison."

Need anyone write a better argument for the inclusion of arts in the education system? To have such an impact on the life of a teenager, who may or may not have a similar experience again, has no counter. Introducing students to the creative arts in such a way has the potential to spark the origins of many a career in theatre, music or elsewhere. Indeed, many of these school actors may choose a career in public speaking, and it has often been noted that the boost in confidence given to those who act at school gives them an advantage in politics and business.

For further interest, see Ken Robinson’s inspirational TED talk.

Creativity in education can change and shape lives and careers.

As a part of this system, and being able seeing the impact that it can have on the lives of the teenagers that are lucky enough to be part of it, I would urge parents to seriously take into consideration the benefits that a school like this can offer beyond academic results. For every moment that a parent may regret not being able to spend more time with their son, they know that they are gifting their son the opportunity to pursue more than GCSE or A-Level results. This may be a sacrifice, but one that could lead to greater success and happiness during, and after, school.

In an ideal world, all schools would be able to offer this kind of support and opportunity, but in reality I am aware that this is near-on impossible. Many day schools do offer wonderful opportunities to their students, and these schools have much to celebrate. But if, as a parent, you are faced with the dilemma of whether to send your child to a school which takes him/her away from you for long periods of time, I beg you not to miss out - the benefits are endless.

Filed under Eton College Arts Education Eddie Redmayne Tom Hiddleston Harry Lloyd Full Time Boarding Theatre Music Ken Robinson TED Talks Creativity

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A morning thought or two…

Waking up unusually early for me, I thought, what can I spend these extra couple of hours doing? Flicking my bedside lamp on, within my immediate grasp (it’s rather cold, don’t want to get out of bed if I don’t need to), are two books, Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’ and Iain McGilchrist’s ‘The Master and his Emissary’ - the second is a rather expansive book on why the brain is divided into two hemispheres. How much greater my knowledge would be if I picked up either of those right now and started reading. Instead, I reach for my laptop, still buzzing away from when I fell asleep watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail last night. Open Firefox - Bookmarked link to Facebook.

Of course my thirst for social curiosity wins over the quest for knowledge - my only excuse is that is was 6am, and no-one wants to wrestle with the concepts of space-time, when wrestling with the horrors of the early morning is quite enough.

After checking Birthdays and seeing what my friends have been up to, I lighten upon a link to this video:

I thought, well I can always do with a bit of Stephen Fry musing on the important questions in life to wake me up. I start watching. He’s a wonderful, wonderful man, and he’s one of very few people I feel I can watch and nod and think “Yes. That makes perfect sense.”

It’s a great little video. But I wanted to pick up on something he says:

"Damned if I’m going to have the extraordinary battles won by enlightenment over the past four hundred years…abdicated by a new dark ages. The battle lines must be drawn."

I suppose when one thinks of ‘The Dark Ages’ the images that are conjured up are of Vikings and longswords, a constantly greying and cloudy sky and general rapine and pillage, so I was intrigued by this (for me) new concept.

Fry, in this video, talks about the potential for a new dark age within the confines of philosophy and religion, with science thrown in to battle too. A new dark age would be one of ignorance and false information - creating belief in something for the sake of believing.

Putting it simply, the most important underlying rule that the great minds of the enlightenment followed is that everything must be questioned until empirical proof is found and confirmed. One cannot assume or believe purely because someone has told you to do so. Despite the amazing work done by scientists and thinkers across the globe, as a society, we might just be letting this slip.

Ironically enabled by scientific developments in video and social networking online, people are able to impart their ideas and beliefs, however factually accurate or inaccurate, to millions of people. In many cases, those who quietly sit and lay out the facts we once so yearned for are blasted out by those who can, frankly, shout louder than them, believing that doing so makes their view more valid as a result. It is easy to shout and curse against truths you don’t want to hear, even if all the facts are stacked against you. Take the recent Gun Control debate in the USA -  Alex Jones (c/f the famous Morgan vs. Jones video) embodies this kind of argumentative approach in a, rather loud, nutshell.

Importantly, people like these are protected, and rightly so by our idealised society construct of tolerance towards each and everyone, no matter what their views. However, tolerance does not equal defeat - just because he is tolerated, does not mean he is right. Being able to reason and debate, through freedom of thought, allows the pursuit of truth to continue. And continue it must, because the saturation of the internet with false information and unsupported beliefs may indeed start to send us towards a new dark age, one we can only fight by questioning. Also, it must continue because frankly, I don’t like the look of Viking fashion.

The title of Fry’s video is ‘The Importance of Unbelief’ - and how important it is. To not believe something until you know it’s true should be the bottom line of all bottom lines.

PS. In the spirit of the subject matter of this post, can I just say that these are all my opinions, and don’t necessarily represent true factual accuracy. You don’t have to believe me.

Filed under truth Stephen Fry New Dark Ages Empirical Alex Jones Gun Control The Enlightenment Unbelief Morning Thoughts tolerance reason debate freedom of speech Religion Atheism Humanism Philosophy

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Why it is possible to enjoy the singing in Les Miserables

Since its release, both critics and the general public have been debating furiously over the quality of the singing performances of Hollywood A-listers in Les Miserables.Each of the leads, and in particular Russell Crowe, have had their fair share of damning critique from professional reviewers and social media websites alike. The opinions of singers (whether professional or not) and career musicians spark my interest, as I suppose, such experts in music should really have the last word in this debate.

Comments from this expert demographic of my Twitter and Facebook feeds include:

"Where were the singing teachers on Les Mis?"

"Why weren’t singers cast in Les Mis? It’s sort of important in a musical."

"Javert (Russell Crowe) deserved to die for his poor performance.”

And there are many more like it. Now, I am a fan of Les Miserables, the West End musical, which for some is enough to discount my musical integrity in itself, so when I sat down to watch the film, I wanted to enjoy it but like many, I was worried about the singing. The film does suffer from the same weaknesses of the musical, which for me is poor pacing of the opening and an ending which for the sake of rounding everything off neatly, rambles on for too long. However, the epic narrative is told so perfectly through the struggles of the lead characters, I have always been able to overlook these issues. This, combined with some of the most acclaimed and most regularly performed songs to be found in the musical canon, makes for a engrossing theatrical and cinematic experience.

One of the huge challenges of the 23 year old theatrical version is to find a cast with enough vocal prowess to carry huge roles like Jean Valjean (originally crafted in London by Colm Wilkinson) and also comparatively fleeting characters like Fantine or Eponine, whose tragic character arcs force concentrated and brief moments of surging emotion, giving actors the unenviable task of creating audience sympathy almost immediately before each in their turn dive into the depths of musical despair. Without this emotional sympathy, the purpose of songs like 'On my Own' and 'I dreamed a dream' are rendered useless. Part of the success of Les Miserables has always been that audiences subconsciously understand that they have to be receptive to the rollercoaster-like emotional nature of the plot. It reaches out to theatre goers who want quick-fire (well, reasonably quick, it’s a long show) and direct injection of emotions tragic, comedic, love, and pride. It really has everything packed in. The most successful casts have to combine considerable acting, as well as singing talent to achieve such results.

So, when Tom Hooper brought together a cast of well regarded Hollywood actors to attempt this not inconsiderable feat, I can admit to being skeptical of the ability of Wolverine, General Maximus and Catwoman to share the responsibility of carrying the vocal challenges of the score. The acting quality on offer was undeniable, but I questioned whether some of the great Broadway or West End vocalists would have been more suitable for the cast list, despite their lack of cinematic pedigree. Upon a more in depth look at the list, however, the lesser characters are full of these names, including Colm Wilkinson (The Priest) and Samantha Barks (Eponine) and others such as Aaron Tveit and Killian Donnelly (both West End leads). It was immediately noticeable when one of these minor characters started singing as the gulf between them and some of the leads was thrown into perspective. However, rather than being irritating, these little gems of vocal performance add a depth of singing talent to the cast. At points in the theatrical version where I have found my attention slipping, the film cast ratchet up the stakes and engage the listener further. Characters that previously didn’t interest me became as interesting as the leads, and shone from a musical perspective. The old saying you are only as good as your weakest link comes to mind, and the minor roles in the Les Miserables film are as strong as any and can be celebrated.

It is not inconceivable that the weakest link might be found in the lead roles, and of course, this is where critics of the cast focus their attention. I cannot deny that Russell Crowe’s musical performance is sub-par, or that Hugh Jackman’s vocal in ‘Bring him home’ is one of the weakest I’ve heard, but to immediately damn these performances based on the quality of the singing is, I believe, to misunderstand the film makers’ artistic interpretation of the piece. The sets, the costumes, the make-up and the world that Hooper creates is deliberately realistic, something that cannot be done for the stage show.

"I wanted the film to feel real and visceral" - Tom Hooper

At no point does the director break from the realistic setting. It would not have been inconceivable for some of the solo numbers to ascend into a world of flashbacks or idealist imagery. ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ could easily have incorporated imagined visions of a happy mother and daughter, but instead the director chooses a long uninterrupted close up of Anne Hathaway, trusting her performance and the music to carry the audience through an otherwise static four and a half minutes, a directorial decision that reminded me of Butch’s one-sided conversation with Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction.

The sound design too was “real”. In big chorus numbers such as ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’ there was no uniformity in mix levels as we are accustomed to hearing in other Hollywood musicals. If the camera was facing a large crowd directly, the chorus filled the front speakers as if we were stood in front of them, as one would expect. This shot would cut away to Eddie Redmayne, climbing a carriage and singing out of time due to the delay caused by the space between the crowd and his position. The crowd sounds more distant, making full use of the cinema surround sound, and his vocal becomes the central focus along with the camera. Finally a distant shot over rooftops placing the crowd far away from the camera and the audio adjusts to compensate, putting the crowd at a distance in the audio to match the visual. This results in a mix that on a soundtrack studio record would be awful, but when combined with the film was a masterful choice. At no point did it seem as though any of the singing had been recorded in a recording studio. The choice of recording all the singing live has been well documented and is breathtaking in its honesty, performance and realism. 

"I was so passionate about doing it live, I made it clear that I wouldn’t do the film unless I did it live.  That was my level of belief that live singing was the way to go for this particular story.  It came out of a lot of thinking about the musical form, partly it was personal, but even in the great musicals I have to get over the lip-syncing issue; I have to forgive the lip syncing issue.  I feel a slight feeling of embarrassment when people lip-sync unless it’s done absolutely perfectly.  And I didn’t want any of that falsity in this film.  I wanted it to be very real." - Tom Hooper

With this choice of realism over fantasy, I believe it follows that, in the real world, all men are not born fantastic singers. It did not matter to me that Javert, the prison guard and inspector, had a gruff and at times, agricultural tone because he was being portrayed in the film as a real person. I am not saying that Crowe is a good singer, but I am arguing that in his case, it didn’t matter because as a character, he was real. He is not the exception either, Helena Bonham Carter and Sascha Baron Cohen combine for a rough listen, as their characters might well do, and the women in the factory and the prostitutes also don’t come across as angelic, fully trained singers. Even the experienced Colm Wilkinson has blemishes throughout his performance. Hooper is quoted as saying “this is a world like ours but where people communicate through song” and, as if the real world decided tomorrow to sing rather than speak, I can completely forgive any of the cast for their level of vocal ability. In fact, I applaud it.

Whether you are a musician or not, the passion lying behind the vocals from all departments of the film’s talent, casts the need for vocal perfection into insignificance. In a music industry that has often come under attack for auto-tuning and the rise of the ‘talentless’ pop star, it is refreshing to see a mainstream production dismiss the tricks and secrets of modern audio techniques and return to the raw, unadulterated, one take performances of old. After all, would Bob Dylan be half as acclaimed if he could sing like an X Factor winner. Les Miserables is a film of real performances (I certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed, or been able to sing whilst being doused with gallons of rain water) which does not hide from the imperfections of its leading actors which, for me, makes watching it all the more engrossing.

This may be a difficult idea to swallow for those who argue that the musical is an artform that lives and breathes on the suspension of disbelief. Of course, there is no orchestra following real people around, and of course, we don’t sing through our daily lives. However, the decision to make Les Miserables as authentic as possible only adds to the impact of the film. Be assured, critics, it would be a much more painful watch if the broken and just ravaged Fantine stood strong and belted ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ with arms stretched open wide, however willing our suspension of disbelief may be.

The vocal performances, whether strong or not, are supported by an acting tour-de-force and in particular Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Eddie Redmayne throw in performances at the top of their game. Hathaway’s Oscar nomination is well deserved indeed. The choice to record all the vocals live is well rewarded here, with a standard and quality of acting that wouldn’t be out of place in many a well acclaimed film without a musical soundtrack to compete with.

Another aspect for a musician or music lover to really enjoy is the re-orchestrated score. Rather than dig in deep and stick with the original orchestrations, Claude-Michel Schonberg agreed to new orchestral interpretations to be created after the filming was complete. This freedom gave the film’s orchestrators a blank canvas to restructure the score around the onscreen performances and breathes new life into a very well-worn orchestral accompaniment.

Les Miserables will continue to divide the opinions of musicians and singers and this argument of realism will not assuage the purist singers who want to hear perfection in a vocal performance (and that doesn’t exclude emotional perfection). Les Mis is, after all, a musical work which demands much from a singing perspective, and whether Hooper’s decision to put realism and acting first can stand the test of time is yet to be seen. However, Hooper and his A-lister team can be proud of their film, acting and singing, as at the end of the screening I attended, the room erupted in applause - something I have not witnessed in a UK cinema, and don’t expect to again for a while. I certainly heard the people sing.

Filed under Les Miserables Russell Crowe Anne Hathaway Singing Eddie Redmayne Hugh Jackman Tom Hooper Film Musical Critique

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I suppose it was going to be inevitable in the weeks after the Adele Skyfall release that we would be treated with some remix attempts. I’ve heard a couple and this is the best so far - it manages to keep the epic nature of the original, just replacing the Hollywood strings with some synths.

Yesterday Azedia also released a new track - Remain As You Are - great moment around 3.45.

Go listen, go listen!!

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Always liked Jessie J, but for anyone thinking she’s just another ‘Katy Perry’, check this….