Oh, the moaning woman. No, not a sexy thing, the moaning woman is a device that has shown up in many a musical score from the last decade or so. She also happens to show up in Alexandre Desplat’s music for the Ben Affleck thriller Argo, which is currently getting rave reviews around the world. But is the soundtrack similarly worth the plaudits?
So yes, the moaning woman. It’s generally regarded that Hans Zimmer’s score to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator was the catalyst for her rise to prominence, with the big Z using Lisa Gerrard’s wordless painful moan as a signifier of emotion, often trauma to the listener. After that, every time something happened in a film that the audience should have feelings about or the composer needed some ethnic texture, the woman would take her place at the altar and do her thing. After Gladiator, it became a craze to the point where you couldn’t move for moaning women, even in a galaxy far, far away. John Williams tried it himself in Revenge of the Sith with mixed results, although funnily enough he was also one of the few people to actually pull it off in 2005’s Munich.
The reason I’m telling you this, as if you couldn’t have guessed, is that the moaning woman reappears in Argo. Hwever, this is understandable given that much of the film – based on the 1979 Iran hostage crisis – takes place in Tehran. Alexandre Desplat has been throwing out scores like nobodys business lately, with Argo being one of SIX scores composed for films out this year. Now with a frequency like that, you’d expect the straw to break the camel’s back somewhere, but Argo isn’t it.
That said, I’d be lying if I thought Argo was near either Desplat’s best work or the best film music this year. It’s certainly an interesting score, fascinating at points with a very appropriately ethnic sound, and while I don’t want to go on about the moaning woman again and again, she is brought out quite often. However Desplat does do some innovative things with female voices, notably using them as percussion.
For example, upon listening to ‘Hotel Messages’ you’re confronted by a moaning woman beatbox as a woman’s voice is repeated to form the background percussion, with an ethnic motif for the main melody. It’s quite a startling device, however it’s slightly lessened on two points: firstly when it’s repeated in other tracks and thus feels more like a novelty usage than part of the texture; and secondly it feels copied and pasted, so the almost sampled feel takes away from the overall naturalistic effect.
Unfortunately, the use of ethnic material does make the score sound a tad generic, mainly because we’re used to hearing this sound with every film that takes place within two thousand miles of the Middle-East. It’s almost getting to the point where the use of the moaning woman and the pounding drums and the exotic guitar is analogous to hearing that little Chinese motif that used to play when a film was set in China, or playing Rule Britannia when a scene is set in London, so it’d be a refreshing change for someone to try a different approach.
So after saying that it’s not surprising that the best tracks on the album stray away from that sound towards a more traditional colour. Both ‘The Mission’ and ‘Cleared Iranian Airspace’ share thematic material and stylistic similarity, and both can be accurately described as “Desplat knocking it out of the park”, pulling at your emotions in a genuine way while still being wonderfully pleasing in a musical sense. The only real downside is that they make the album seem a little disjointed next to such a marked difference in style, but that’s a minor thing. The album ends with ‘Hace Tuto Guagua’, a Chilean lullabye which by all accounts has a significance in the film’s finale (thanks, internet spoilers!)
Argo may be a bit generic on the whole, but it’s certainly elevated by those two wonderful tracks, the first of which is destined to be a future Oscar montage piece. On the whole it’s not bad considering it’s the two-hundred and fifty-seventh score Desplat’s composed this year. Just try and forget about the moaning woman.
ARGO is out now from WaterTower Records
Words: Charlie Brigden