David Mermelstein is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Nov. 28 issue of AwardsLine.
Convincingly relating a child’s sense of wonder in a movie for grownups is never easy. But Benh Zeitlin and Dan Romer managed it handily in the music for Beasts of the Southern Wild, which Zeitlin also directed and cowrote.
Set in the wetlands of the deep South immediately before a major storm (presumably Hurricane Katrina), the film combines expected musical choices—country fiddle, accordion—with some unconventional ones—celesta and pop-music beats—to create a satisfying gumbo rich in character, mood, and atmosphere.
“I think the world looks down on these places,” Zeitlin says of his film’s setting. “I wanted to make this film about why people stay, about how beautiful and how much freedom there is in this culture. I want audiences to understand that places like this have found freedom and joy, and the music takes you there.”
To convey that sense Zeitlin and Romer used music of indigenous Cajun bands, especially the celebrated Balfa Brothers, but they also didn’t shy from incorporating other elements from their eclectic playbook. “Me and Dan have diverse taste,” Zeitlin explains. “We listen to a lot of Rachmaninoff and Michael Nyman. We both write pop music. Kate Bush was a big influence on us, also Beyoncé and Rihanna.”
Their big challenge was creating a sound that simultaneously incorporated a sense of place with a child’s sense of self. “Our star (Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy) is 6 years old, and modern pop music is what she loves,” Zeitlin says. “We wanted the score to have an indigenous texture, but also have kick-you-in-the-face energy that modern pop music is so good at, and we wanted to find a bridge to all those things.”
They found it toward the beginning of the film, as a parade makes its way through the area affectionately known as the Bathtub in the movie. The scene culminates in a fireworks celebration that also serves as the film’s title sequence. “That was pretty much the first idea we had when we sat down,” Romer recalls. “Benh wrote me that there would be a Cajun band early on. He asked what musicians should be there at the shoot. We talked about two violins and a guitar. We wanted a Cajun band playing in the scene, but then something else is playing in Hushpuppy’s head. We wanted Hushpuppy to augment the live music in her brain. To the rest of the world, it’s just a Cajun band, but in her head it’s reharmonized and orchestrated.”
The pair got the Lost Bayou Ramblers to play Balfa Brothers songs, including “Balfa Waltz” (or “Valse de Balfa”). “When I listened to that song, I realized we can do so much with it because it’s basically only one chord,” Romer says. “We can completely reharmonize this. We can add cellos or whatever. It just worked out perfectly. That was our first big idea together. The fireworks sequence is the big takeoff, blending the traditional music with the Bathtub anthem. The full anthem doesn’t come back until the credits, though it does come back in smaller bits in between.”
For Zeitlin, that cue was the movie in nutshell. “The purpose was to make you fall in love with this town and culture in a very short period of time,” he said. “We had to sell audiences on this place that they might normally be afraid of. And music was a key to making that happen. This world may look reckless or dangerous, but for Hushpuppy it’s what she loves more than anything else in the world.”