Classical, Contemporary, Film Music, New Music
ABC Classics 481 1477
Reviewed by Mandy Stefanakis, August 1st, 2015
Based somewhat loosely on a true story, Paper Planes is a film for children scored by Nigel Westlake. It’s the highest grossing Australian children’s film ever. The original true account described on the ABC’s Australian Story (see link below) is about a young adult, Dylan Parker, who is a keen distance flyer of paper planes. His friend prefers the challenge of maintaining a paper plane’s altitude. Dylan discovers that he has a brain tumour but he eventually overcomes life’s challenges with a whole lot of luck, fortitude and the backing of a strong family and friends.
There is less luck in the film version of a much younger Dylan Webber, for here, his beloved mother has recently died in a car accident. And to all intents and purposes, so has his father, who finds it difficult to do anything except watch sports videos in a relentless stupor of grief. Apart from an eccentric, child-like but supportive grandfather, Dylan is pretty much on his Pat.
Dylan (Ed Oxenbourg who plays him is a revelation) has no option but to keep living. Flying paper planes, a skill learnt from his mother, and re-introduced to him at school, is both focus and escape from an impossible place. But he has immeasurable maturity and continues to see wonder in his surrounds. Hence the song, Beauty in the World first made famous by Macy Gray but here sung by Korean-Australian singer, Dami Im, accompanies the kite-hawk Dylan feeds each morning as he cycles from his isolated farmhouse in Western Australia to school.
It is one of the major themes of the film. His mentor, a young, serene Japanese girl, Kimi, is the current junior world champion paper plane flier but suggests to Dylan that beauty and surprise are more important than winning. Everything in the Japanese settings later in the film show a reverence for the aesthetic and its first cousin, ceremony, from the making of paper, to the zen-like qualities of a Japanese garden and the folding of an origami crane.
Transport is another theme – birds rule, but also cars, bicycles, trains, planes, police mobiles – momentum in a universe which has stopped for Dylan’s father, like the derelict rusting car in his front yard. Cold Chisel make an appearance with the perfectly chosen Bow River as Dylan’s dad temporarily emerges from his deep introspection to drive his son to a competition in Sydney. These added tracks do not appear on the ABC recording, but they are well placed in the narrative.
Westlake has been charged with writing a ‘conventional’ score. He’s used to this and the parameters of music for children’s movies with work for Babe, Babe Pig in the City and Miss Potter. It is no wonder he is asked to compose for film as his musical palette is broad and deep and he easily adapts to everything affective from hijinks to grief to magic. Here he has been given the luxury of time, something only directors who appreciate the importance of the music provide. Westlake, like many, has, in the past, found himself working very long days to meet deadlines because the music has been an afterthought, not an integral aspect of the meaning being conveyed in a film. It is obvious from the meticulous detail in this score that this has not been an issue with this film.
I once slept under the stars in the centre of Australia, cajoled to sleep by the raucousness of donkeys, but awoken at dawn by two birds conversing in song over quite some distance. The call was simple, the response more elaborate, but an obvious answer to the call. Neither call changed. Their repetitions were perpetual and the responses, often after a delayed call, perfectly rhythmically placed in time and space.
The simple but beautiful melodic theme that becomes a symbolic phrase the listener craves, provides one with the vaguest glimpse of the aloneness and longing the family must feel for a lost mother and wife. In the film this phrase comes in during the second scene of the film where paper planes are first thrown in a classroom. It too, is a simple call – four notes – with a filigreed response, very much embracing the call. How can four straight-up notes be so effective? As always, it’s what lies beneath. Westlake sets up the call, which moves up from a D to an A to a Bb and back to G by establishing a G minor chord before the D is played. He uses an F major chord for the A and the Bb creating some lovely tension and then adds a suspended C chord sustaining the previously employed F to accompany the G, eventually resolving onto the E of C major. (Too much information?) It works a treat. He uses the same harmonic sequence for the response marrying the two. Westlake is able to mess with this structure to his hearts content both texturally and rhythmically as it is in a compound metre. He plays out the slow melodic riff with beautiful arrangements of the accompaniment from the simplicity of a plaintive recorder played by Hannah Coleman, harp flutters and chord keeping strings, to a full-blown brass extravaganza. He rolls it into another motif that does what Westlake always achieves so capably, this upward momentum from deep drums, horns and strings up to piccolo. And all the while there are circular flutters from, strings or flutes. It’s so beautifully orchestrated.
There are other motifs Westlake uses judiciously throughout. The opening theme again with its circular feel, is as much about life’s merry-go-round as the paper being made on cylinders to be cut later into perfect A4 pieces. It’s a rich, highly orchestrated overture which of course also infiltrates the ending.
Grief both unites and isolates father and son. Westlake has created an evocative work of contemplation, “Pavane”, initially performed on piano by Michael Kieran Harvey who keeps its underlying metric pulse on A with clockwork precision. Indeed where many mess with timing to keep the listener waiting a fragment of a second, Kieran-Harvey relies solely on touch to achieve the conveyance of emotion. He is deft. The theme comes in as Dylan appreciates the texture, thickness and weight of hand-made paper but he is also obviously contemplative. As with the opening motif it has little rhythmic variance in its melody, but the harmonic structure and the addition of strings ensures it is heart wrenching. There are small attempts at major intervals of optimism, but they are followed by descending melodic sighs. Beautiful.
One of the longest passages of the score covers a roller-coaster of scenarios as Dylan takes part in the world championships in Japan with a bully on one side of him, the mentor he admires (is keen on) on the other and a ‘better late than never’ appearing father. It provides an opportunity to rework many of the themes the composer has developed. There are aspects of the “Pavane” and the call and response. Nigel Westlake loves an opportunity to raid the cupboards for some percussion instruments and here he builds a wonderful feel of excitement, exactitude and discipline, in some ways emulating the aesthetic of taiko drum playing. This is offset by the non-rhythmic mystical and spiritual sounds from shakuhachi, which have been introduced previously by Riley Lee in “Take Your Positions”. Westlake is able to interweave them all plus the ‘competition’ and his momentum focussed “Do Emus Dream of Flying?” motifs.
Did I mention the orchestra? Westlake’s work is so expansive in its use of instruments and – I guess it’s the weather – there is a depth and inner warmth to the MSO that shines through here. They are tight and evocative, Westlake achieving the very best in the interpretation of his work. Of particular note is the incredible interplay between the various wind instruments working so hard throughout to evoke ‘bird-ness’. It is incredibly rewarding to hear the unique tone colours of flutes, piccolos, recorders and the shakuhachi, on occasions combined. Air!
It is the detail and care in Westlake’s work that makes one smile: the harp reaching out with glissandi to a flutter of flutes which follow at a distance, the intricately orchestrated variations on the motifs he has set in place so that the listener connects but forever in a new way, his fabulous use of rhythmic variation, the builds he develops with the brass instruments and his use of horns and lower woodwind. And he contemplates how best to evoke meaning through the establishment of musical metaphor. One always gets the sense that orchestras must have a grand old time playing his music.
The only piece on the album which is not penned by Westlake was written by Lior with comrades Cameron Deyell and Lachlan Carrick. It is the song “Learn to Live” and is perfectly placed here as Dylan thinks about his lost mother, whilst also wondering how on earth he can support his father. If this does not reduce you to tears you need a defibrillator.
VIEW AND LISTEN:
Fly With Me. The story of Dylan Porter
Nigel Westlake and Lior’s Compassion review: https://musictrust.com.au/2014/04/compassion/