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Soundtrack Listening: War Machine

Original Music by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis

Expectations were high when Brad Pitt and David Michôd announced they’d be pairing up for Netflix’s 60 million dollar satire War Machine. Loosely based on Michael Hastings’ book ‘The Operators’ the film recounts the journalist’s time shadowing a 4-star General sent on a mission to end the war in Afghanistan. War Machine marks Netflix’s first endeavor into the realm of big-budget filmmaking. Based on the early reviews, the film is an uneven affair and may go down as Netflix’s first big bust too. Our own Josh Oakley labeled it “bombastic” and “manipulative” in his review.

Whatever War Machine‘s problems are, you can be certain the film’s original score by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis is not one of them. Charged with capturing the film’s satirical edge and its dramatic undertones, Cave & Ellis deliver a stunning collection of ambient electronic music unlike anything they’ve recorded before.

Of course, the ambient part of that statement is to be expected. After scoring films like The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007), The Road (2009) and last year’s Hell or High Water, Cave & Ellis have built a reputation on providing powerful, non-evasive music for films of any genre. It’s the near exclusive use of electronic instrumentation throughout their War Machine score that sets it apart. And the pair build a moody, atmospheric soundscape under War Machine’s pitch-black satire by trading in their guitars and strings for loops and synthesizers.

Cave & Ellis kick off their synthetic excursion with album opener ‘Ah America’, an attention grabbing experiment in minimalism that’s built around a simple, pseudo-percussive loop playing over a gentle wave of synth. ‘Ah America’ is piece of music at once familiar and completely foreign to Cave & Ellis’ repertoire. And it deftly sets the tone for the compositions that follow.

The album’s second track ‘Humble Man’ opens with hushed electronic noodling before giving way to a veritable string quartet of voices about a minute or so in. Those voices lend the meandering electronics a spiritual, almost ritualistic energy that carries through song’s vast spacial terrain. That terrain is broken by the tinkling toy piano that opens the ‘The Bubble’. Sparse and propulsive, maudlin and buoyant, ‘The Bubble’ is a dazzling, stream of consciousness style composition that blends the minimalist grandeur of Badalamenti with the expansive energy of Mike Oldfield. It’s like nothing you’ve heard from Cave & Ellis before, and nothing that follows even comes close to matching it for innovation or impact.

Not that you should stop listening once ‘The Bubble’ chimes to a close. Quite the opposite, in fact. Just a couple of songs later, Cave & Ellis take a stroll through the vast nothing of the Afghani desert with the mesmerizing ‘Badi Basim’. Then they bring a smorgasbord of instrumentation to the campy, 43 seconds of ‘The Moon Landing’. They build a wave of emotion behind the piano/synth sparseness of ‘Jeanie’. And they finally bring the menace on ‘Thousands of Parades, All Over America’, a brooding beauty that blends their signature sound with their new synthetic toys.

Ultimately, that’s what Cave & Ellis War Machine’s music is all about, contrasting styles and sounds. That approach may not have worked for David Michôd’s film, but damn if it doesn’t make for one fascinating album of music.

War Machine is now available to stream on Netflix. Watch it at your own risk. Or don’t. But even if you do skip it, you should still give Nick Cave’s & Warren Ellis’ astonishing original music a listen. Their score hit digital platforms last week via the soundtrack gurus at Lakeshore Records, so check it out today. And if you like what you hear, keep an eye out for a physical release (CD and Vinyl) later this year.



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Patrick Phillips is a Staff Writer for CutPrintFilm, looper.com and geekinsider.com. He reads a lot, drinks too much coffee, buys too many records and loves writing about movies. Find him on Twitter at @savagedetectiv. Follow his movie tastes right here - https://www.taste.io/users/patphiltaste/ratings.