Names like Howard Shore and Jon Stewart really need no introduction. One an Academy Award winning composer, the other a beloved television show host (I’ll let you figure out which), both have joined forces to collaborate on a cinematic retelling of Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival. Moving the best selling memoir to the big screen, Jon Stewart makes his directorial debut with Rosewater, utilising Shore’s inimitable sound to enhance his images. Taken from Maziar Bahari’s true life story, the film tells the story of his torment, danger and suffering as he found himself amidst life threatening street riots in Tehran. Later arrested by a man Bahari nicknamed ‘Rosewater’, he was tortured and interrogated over the following eighteen days.
Telling the circumstances of Bahari’s arrest and subsequent incarceration through text might seem like an apparently distanced move but Bahari’s self-penned memoir soon became a best-seller, making reality even more dangerous than fiction.
Stewart’s and Shore’s tasks were no small matters. Provided with the events as they happened, they were challenged to somehow make the bleakly realistic cinematic, to fictionalise events which really happened. Whilst Stewart was tasked with reformulating Bahari’s experiences for the big screen, it was up to Shore to add appropriate feeling to the events, to say what the figures on screen could not. In short, it was Shore’s task to take the essence of Bahari’s experience and repackage it in order that all audience members could relate to his pain.
Luckily, we’re in safe hands. From the off, it’s clear that what Shore has created is nothing less than sensitive, full of impact and musically lasting. Shore replicates the sound of the Middle East without ever being too literal; he balances perfectly sounds from the region with his own musical mark. Opening cue ‘Rosewater’ is a perfect amalgam of the entire soundtrack. Opening with spoken dialogue, the track is brooding and tense, building sinister threat in its chromatic drones. The central woodwind melody is incredibly haunting, despite its musical simplicity. The instrumental starkness of the cue represents at once the sheer threat of the film world alongside Bahari’s relative isolation in a country he calls his homeland. Moving to piano, the melody in ‘Rosewater’ is sensitive and cinematic in equal measures.
The pared down threat of this cue continues throughout the soundtrack, pulling each track together as the film narrative develops. Shore is unafraid to balance traditional Iranian sounds with more familiar instrumentation, balancing the foreignness of Bahari’s situation with the cinematicism created by Stewart. Cue ‘Maryam’ continues in a similar vein, building an eery tension that, at times, is difficult to place. The instrumentation is pared down, highlighting the stark contrast between drone and melody in the track. It’s only in the barely imperceptible chromatic shifts in the piece that things seem to move into places much darker. The sense of threat builds gradually and silently and it is only when things are turned up that you even notice the presence of danger.
The soundtrack also has more playful moments. ‘Election Day’, for example, balances acoustic sounds with gentle percussion to build a more optimistic sense of hope in the score. ‘Dust and Dirt’, whilst initially dark and insidious, soon blossoms into a similarly optimistic number, using a similar instrumentation to ‘Election Day’. Rising melodic motifs and gently rousing drum beats seem like a brief swell in the otherwise quiet, thoughtful soundtrack.
It’s not all down to Shore, though. The soundtrack also features work by 25 Band, Mahdyar Aghajani and Leonard Cohen. Cohen’s appropriately bleak ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’ seems a perfect fit in the rest of the soundtrack. Whilst taking a more blackly comic turn, it is appropriately unassuming and straight faced. 25 Band’s ‘Ye Baande Khonak’ seems less obviously a part of the rest of the soundtrack, functioning apparently as a piece of culturally appropriate music. Whilst it seems disparate from the rest of the music, it is hard to consider its function removed from the cinematic end piece. Mahdyar Aghajani’s tracks ‘New Bloom’ and ‘Vagheyi’ seem a little more functional within the musical whole. Whilst sometimes a little detached from Shore’s sound, they provide an apt sense of the film’s culture.
Shore’s work is a quiet masterpiece. Gradually and imperceptibly building tension, it moves like a shadow in the night, catching up with you only when it is too late to make a move. Shore’s score is the perfect companion piece to Bahari’s tale and should be championed for the sheer terror it instills in its listeners.