One of the most controversial movies of 2014, Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky's intensely personal Biblical epic Noah purports to put a fresh slant on the fondly recalled Sunday School story. A bearded and brawny Russell Crowe plays the eponymous Noah, a man compelled to build an ark to save the innocent when terrifying visions of a great flood presage the destruction of the entire world. As is usual with Aronofsky the visuals are stunning, although this time understandably painted on a more epic scale in line with Lord of the Rings. Earnest and ambitious, there's no denying the film's sillier elements (walking, talking rock giants) but the fiercely committed central performance from Crowe, and further excellent ones from Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson and Ray Winstone, help atone for the plot's daft interludes.
The film reunites Aronofsky with longtime collaborator Clint Mansell, who has been involved with all of the director's films even if he hasn't directly composed the score for all of them. In fact, it was Aronofsky's experimental 1998 movie Pi that gave Coventry-born Mansell his big break in the film industry – prior to that, he was best known as the vocalist/guitarist for alt-rock band Pop Will Eat Itself.
As is to be expected from a composer with a backing in rock music, Mansell's film score work has lent itself more to the experimental, challenging side of the spectrum, often mixing orchestral, electronic and atonal sounds to unsettling effect. His most famous piece is perhaps for Aronofsky's acclaimed drug drama Requiem for a Dream (2000), the film's piercing, rhapsodic strings famously used in the trailer for Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002). Likewise, Mansell's score for Aronofsky's sadly underrated time-spanning epic The Fountain (2006) mixed euphoric, beautiful interludes with harsher textures, not exactly making for the easiest listening experience but effectively serving the demands of the film in question.
However that's not to say that Mansell hasn't produced more accessible work. His rousing, adventurous score for 2005 adventure Sahara is perhaps his most popular to date and his work on 2009 sci-fi Moon (used in the teaser trailer for The Iron Lady) was compellingly low-key and moody. Mansell's most recent collaboration with Aronofsky was his thrillingly bold adaptation of Tchaikovsky's ballet Black Swan (2011) for the film of the same name – and with Noah, Mansell continues to grow as a film composer of genuine repute.
Unsurprisingly given the aforementioned comparison, there's a great deal of Howard Shore's Lord of the Rings/Hobbit trilogies present in the Noah score, plus elements from John Debney's The Passion of the Christ and overtones of James Horner's Avatar. However, that's not to suggest that Noah sounds derivative – Mansell's own musical voice is so singular and unique that the score is immediately identifiable as his. But what does grant the score more crossover appeal than his other works for Aronofsky is the unashamedly colossal nature of many of the cues, plus the sensitively observed ethnic instrumentation capturing the film's Biblical context.
That said the score begins on a challenging note with a run of tracks capturing the brutality of Cain's descendants who are due to be wiped from the Earth. "In The Beginning, There Was Nothing" and "The World Was Filled With Violence" both present a host of growling, brooding brassy textures overlaid with an unexpectedly contemporary element for guitars and electronics. It may sound anachronistic but the tone of the score fits in with Aronofsky's desire to present a Noah story for a modern audience (actress Emma Watson has also said that the film could be set during any period, thereby freeing up the conventions of the music).
The score's beautiful central theme first becomes apparent in the compelling "Sweet Saviour" where it gets a haunting airing on the woodwind instrument the Duduk (familiar from The Passion of the Christ). In the initial stages of the score, the theme competes with the harsher textures representing mankind – only in the soaringly gorgeous "Make Thee An Ark" does it get its first proper airing, the increasingly rapturous, euphoric strings (courtesy of The Kronos Quartet) capturing the divine purpose of Noah's task. It's one of the standout cues of 2014.
The remainder of the score continues to juxtapose these heavenly, melodic sections with Mansell's more violent orchestrations as the flood is sent to purge mankind. Highlights include the increasingly grandiose timpani hits, choir and cymbal clashes of "Every Creeping Thing That Creeps", accompanying the scene where the world's animals board the ark; the heartbreakingly intimate strings of "Flesh of My Flesh"; and the thunderous timpani of "The Flood Waters Were Upon the World", underscoring the visually staggering scene where great jets of water shoot up from the Earth like massive fire hydrants. The main theme also gets another sweeping airing in "The Spirit of the Creator Moved Upon the Face of the Waters".
In the later stages of the film, Aronofsky chooses to focus on the human toll of Noah's task, as he turns from man of faith into fanatic aboard the ark. For this reason, Mansell's music increasingly juxtaposes the wavering, tender strings against the brutal music capturing mankind's darker impulses. "What Is This Thou Hast Done" is a classic case in point, as is the increasingly anguished "The Fear and Dread of You", the orchestra increasingly distorted as Noah's humanity begins to desert him. The score's climactic double-bill "And Then He Remembered Noah" and "Day and Night Shall Not Cease" then ends the score. The deeply impassioned strings of the latter are possibly the highpoint of Mansell's career to date, resolving the film's often brutal and violent narrative on a powerfully redemptive note. There's one final surprise – dark lullaby "Mercy Is" written and performed by punk rock legend Patti Smith.
Although there are plenty of melodic highpoints in Clint Mansell's Noah score, it should be stressed that the music often confronts the listener as a wall of sound, challenging them to pick out the motifs and ideas scattered within. Within the context of the film, it's somewhat more palatable given it's part of a wider tapestry including the visuals, acting and sound design; on its own terms, it's a dense but ultimately rewarding listen, Mansell reinstating his musical voice from Darren Aronofsky's earlier films whilst continuing to hone his skills with a larger orchestra. The end result is an interesting fusion of the modernistic with the old-fashioned – and in that respect the score is perfect for its respective film. Not immediately accessible, Noah nevertheless has much to offer on repeat listenings. Highly recommended.