Friday, January 9, 2015

Random Review: The "Frozen" Soundtrack

Soundtrack of the movie "Frozen"
songs by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez; score by Christophe Beck.

Alone in the English-speaking world, I have never seen the 2013 animated film Frozen. A few months ago, though, loyal reader Chuckdaddy asked me to review its soundtrack. I don’t remember why he wanted me to take on the soundtrack instead of the movie, but what the heck. I’ll review anything, once.

Chuckdaddy might have been hoping that I would tear into the songs of Frozen with the kind of misanthropic scorn I’ve been known to level at other Disney product. If so, he’s out of luck. Now, it did take me a first listen to get past the highly produced, belt-it-out-to-the-cheap-seats show-tune aesthetic that is necessarily part and parcel of musical theater, but by second listen I was really enjoying myself. The songs of Frozen are often charming, often witty, sometimes surprisingly moving, and set to a diversity of terrific instrumental arrangements. I like it, Chuckdaddy. I like the Frozen soundtrack.

In fact, I’m looking forward to seeing the movie! But I think I have a pretty good idea of the story already from the songs, which seem to carry quite a bit of narrative weight. I’m going to walk through the story as I understand it while we go, here, and you can chuckle at the various places I go astray.

There are nine songs on the soundtrack, and they go a little something like this:

“Frozen Heart” is a short but jaunty work song that morphs from chain-gang chant to Celtic jig. It’s odd but kind of fun, and sets the musical stage nicely. It doesn’t really tell me much about the story except that the setting is someplace cold, which I had already gathered from the movie’s name.

“Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” establishes that we have two girls named Elsa and Anna, presumably sisters, and that the former has physically and emotionally withdrawn from the latter. Several movie years must pass during this song, as three different vocalists, a young child, an older child, and a grown woman, sing the three verses. Each time, the immediately likeable Anna complains of being lonely and gamely tries to entice Elsa out, perhaps to build a snowman with her, or whatever. It establishes character and situation admirably, and it is really quite touching. By the end of the song, you really want to hug poor Anna, and to figure out what the deal is with poor Elsa.

Anna cheers up, however, in the bustling “For the First Time in Forever,” excited that a big event is going to be held at her home. It’s going to be a ball, and I begin to think that our girls are probably princesses living in a castle: there are apparently wings of the house she’s not familiar with, there are guards and gates, and we’re told they own “eight thousand salad plates.” That is a lot of salad plates. In addition to her excitement at the prospect of company, the socially isolated Anna wonders if romance might be in the offing. If I’m right, Anna is the interesting position of being a young woman wishing she could be a princess, even as she is in fact an actual princess. The song ends which a yip right out of Baltic choral music, which is a subtle but slick touch.

The fourth song, “Love is an Open Door,” is a pop-rock duet, but it is operatic in the sense that the song isn’t just illustrating the scenario or mood, it’s actually advancing the action. Having met a nice guy (perhaps a prince? I speculate.), Anna sings a playful, clever song with him:
(Guy: “We finish each other’s –
Anna: “– sandwiches!”). 
By the end of the song, they are engaged.

“Let it Go” sounds to me like what the Indigo Girls might have come up with if commissioned to write a big, big show tune. It is, I think, Elsa singing about whatever difficult, bitter choice she had to make to freeze (heh) Anna out of her life. It seems to be related to why the weather is so poor: “the cold never bothered me anyway,” is the repeated line that shows Elsa gritting her teeth against her disappointments. It’s a song that works because, well, Elsa isn’t the only human being who has ever felt like her life was made colder by decisions she was forced into. AmIright, readers over thirty?

"Reindeer(s) Are Better Than People" is a short, cute dialog between a male character and somebody named Sven (perhaps a reindeer? I speculate.). It helps me understand why so many people were opining on Facebook a while back that Reindeer are better than people.

In “In Summer,” we have an jolly but painfully na├»ve snowman singing about how much he’s looking forward to summer. It’s macabre, but quite funny.
Winter's a good time to stay in and cuddle,
But put me in summer and I'll be a — happy snowman!
Did I mention that this stuff is awfully charming?

Then, there’s another iteration of the “For the First Time in Forever” song. This is another operatic bit, and probably a key moment in the story. Anna has apparently travelled somewhere to find Elsa, and is trying to encourage her to come home. Elsa is still telling her to go away, and there are clues that she’s trying to protect her sister and home from a curse, which I bet involves inclement weather. What Elsa doesn’t know, is that her retreat into isolation isn’t doing any good, and Anna breaks that news that Arendell – presumably their home – “is in deep, deep, deep, deep… snow.” This is not necessarily a world-class gag, but it’s honest in context, and pretty funny when it jumps out of a show tune at you.

Well, I don’t know what happens with the whole curse thing, because there’s no more singing about it. I imagine it ends with the world perishing in eternal winter, or something. The last song, “Fixer Upper,” features a bunch of folks trying to convince Anna to marry someone other than the guy to whom she pledged her troth in Song #4. They seem to be suggesting that the reindeer fan from Song #6 would be a better choice, even though he’s “a bit of a fixer upper.” It’s another funny, clever song, and it is a little unusual among songs for children’s cinema in that it cheerfully suggests that one of the characters might be into bestiality. Well, that line probably goes over most of the younger kids’ heads.

I note that we end up with two princesses and two unattached male characters, which would certainly suggest a scenario for a conclusion according to the age-old template of comedy. But this production seems a little more adventurous than most of its ancestors, so who knows.

There is still a lot of music left on the Frozen soundtrack. There’s a radio version of “Let it Go” with a different singer, which is fine. Then there are twenty-two tracks of incidental music to the film. This probably doesn’t get listened to much, but it is outstanding stuff. The first track, “Vuelie,” is an a capella piece that mashes up African, Balkan, and Western choral styles. After that, I think it would be roughly fair to describe the soundtrack as three parts Danny Elfman, two parts Tchaikovsky, and one part John Adams, which is not at all a bad place to be if you are composing film music. The composer is somebody named Christophe Beck, and hats off to him.

So, there you are, Chuckdaddy. I hope you are satisfied with this, my review of the Frozen soundtrack, which I might add is a very ineresting soundtrack and one well worth listening to.


Elizabeth said...

I haven't seen it either, though when it was released I was not in the English-speaking world, so I don't know if that counts.

DrSchnell said...

Glad you liked it! Having two girls at home, this soundtrack was, for the better part of late 2013 and most of 2014, the most-listened-to music in our household (and in our car), and amazingly, it didn't entirely wear out its welcome, and I still really like most of the songs on it. I also thoroughly enjoyed the movie, though I think that computer animation still does a lousy job rendering people (but a fantastic job of rendering scenery and backgrounds). I won't say too much about the movie so as not to pre-dispose you in any way, but the "sandwiches" line is not only funny, but also (I realized upon the thirty-seventh listen or so) also hinting at an important plot point later on (that has little to do with sandwiches).

Michael5000 said...

That's is an excellently subtle non-spoiler, DrSchnell.

By back-channels, I have been warned against seeing the movie, not because of inherent problems with the movie but because it might not be able to hold up against the idealized "Frozen" I've constructed through soundtrack listening. I think it's an interesting point.

chuckdaddy said...

Actually, I like it too. When Marsha and I first went to the movie there were people, who seemed oldish, singing along in the back. We were wondering if this was some sort of Rocky Horror Picture Show phenomena gone Disney. We liked the movie more than anticipated, but thought the music was kind of horrible.

But as we kept hearing/watching it it really grew on me. It is clever and catchy. (I particularly like"Fixer Upper.") And then we heard it so many times it really grew into something else. I think there were a few months of my life where it was never not in my head.

I think my ulterior motive might have been the opposite of your suspicions. Instead of wanting you to rip it apart, I think I was actually hoping that my like of it could be justified a bit. Which you did! But, just so you know, you'll need to listen to it 500 more times to get the full experience!

Michael5000 said...

Chuck: I'm not sure I will need to listen to it 500 more times. After the seven or eight close listens involved in this review, I've been a little... "disturbed" might be too strong a word... let's say "surprised" by how powerfully and consistently the songs run through my head. And how often it seems like it would be the soul of wit to opine that reindeer are better than people.

I am very pleased to have provided satisfaction in this mission.