When Christoper Nolan dropped his latest time-bending feature Tenet last year, the critics swooped like territorial magpies. Reviewers slammed the piece for its complex and unaffecting narrative, muffled dialogue mix and unconvincing character development.
While I agree with bits and pieces of the commentary, I think Tenet is best taken with a pinch of salt. There’s a moment early in the film, where the protagonist’s trainer (Clémence Poésy), while explaining the process of inversion (moving backwards through time) says “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it”. If you embraced this motto, I’m sure you enjoyed what was a beautifully odd and expansive cinematic experience. And if you haven’t yet seen it, do so, on a superbly large television with a crisp sound system.
Being an upbeat, buoyant, glass half full kind of guy, I thought it best to focus on one of the film’s shining lights, its musical score. Crafted by Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson (Black Panther, Creed, The Mandalorian), this is an auditory trip you must hear for the first time on that aforementioned system. This piece will focus solely on the score. No spoilers or scene breakdowns. We’re here for the music.
The soundtrack could be likened to a dogged industrial train chugging along, holding the very fabric of the film together. I say this, as the story is more complex than a tree’s root system. The audience need a score that’s gripping and powerful, a score that has the ability to sustain and absorb viewers, not allowing them an opportunity to scratch their heads. I remember turning to my girlfriend at one point during the saga and whispering – “this is happening, whether we like it or not”. I feel this is exactly what Ludwig was intending, a high-octane ride you can’t get off , that makes your hairs stand on end.
‘FREEPORT’ is a stellar example. Igniting with a sound that I can only akin to someone plucking strings in a place with no atmosphere, this piece feels like you’re being chased in a maze by a creature, that has the ability to see around corners. Göransson generates this unique tone by using a modular synthesis system, patching in a sequencer set to trigger the wavering rhythmic impulses you hear, brewing a level of anxiety that’s properly unnerving. This is a technique used throughout, whereby everyday sounds are run through software in order to tweak and manipulate their outcome. Rumbling storms of bass and sirens soon come to the table with devastating effect. As alluded to earlier, much of Tenet is shrouded in the unknown and tracks like this demand your attention, forcing you to soak up what’s in front of you.
“I spent a great deal of time taking familiar sounds and manipulating them — both organically and digitally — so that they reflected the complex world of Tenet. I wanted to find themes with melodies, textures, and rhythms that were reminiscent of the past yet fitting for the future…”
Before you’ve had time to breathe, treacherous violins and cello start up an urgent conversation on ‘747’. Bass drums that sound like the footsteps of an ogre, feverishly nip at your heels. After all this chaos, there’s a section of just rushing air, before mayhem returns in techno stabs high on stimulants. Embedded in these two tracks are central themes of the film itself – fragility, uncertainty and disorder. Göransson’s musical accompaniment actually does a better job of substantiating these ideas than the moving images themselves. The score is wild, imperfect and riddled with danger, just like the technology of Tenet, a force that humans have nowhere near yet mastered. Check out the insane scene this is paired with here.
Ludwig’s soundtrack isn’t all treachery and doom, like a puppet master, he has the changing moods on a string, pulling back and forth between scenes of both intensity and calm. ‘WINDMILLS’ is a masterful blend of classical and modern composition, showcasing the musicians versatility. Searching violins intertwine with other-worldly synth chords that cast the mind to thoughts of exploration and adventure. While ‘BETRAYAL’ is soaked in emotion, as ethereal strings ebb and flow for its entirety. There is a delicateness here, almost as though you can hear the air passing between each note.
Paired to the closing credits, comes quite the curveball. ‘THE PLAN’ produced by Göransson and Jay-Z collaborator WondaGurl is the only vocal record on the soundtrack, featuring none other than Travis Scott. Opening with a bass loop that’d measure on the richter scale, Scott sings drenched in his signature autotune, playfully referencing a moment where he felt like he’d been thrust back in time. Funnily enough, it’s when he hits whippets…or nangs as we know them.
“Last time I did the whippets, last time I lived reverse / Pull up ’round, hit the reverend, last time I hit your crib / Last time there was no tenants.”
When asked about Tenet as an art piece, Scott simply had this to say: “I can’t even explain it. You literally just have to sit there and watch it. It’s fire.” Couldn’t agree more Travis.
Interestingly enough, this was the first film of Nolan’s not scored by famed composer Hans Zimmer in the last 14 years. Talk about a brilliant run. From Dunkirk, to Inception, Interstellar and The Dark Knight, Hans has cast his wizardry on this time-obsessed director’s last six features. I don’t even care that Zimmer was busy writing music for Dennis Villeneuve’s Dune, this is Ludwig Göransson’s moment, one which he’s taken triumphantly with both hands. The Swede has created an auditory universe that electrifies the senses, keeping us firmly riding shotgun in what’s an outstandingly entertaining mystery.