‘Swiss Army Man’ lets it rip with a great soundtrack
John Darr | Wednesday, August 24, 2016
Arguably the greatest farting corpse movie to hit theaters this summer, “Swiss Army Man” exploded onto the scene at the Sundance Film Festival and sped off into the sunset with a Best Directing Award in tow. The buddy-comedy-survival-adventure-dramedy is bursting at the seams not only with gas, but with passion. From meticulously-assembled sets to inspired performances from its leading actors, “Swiss Army Man” exploits its resources as efficiently and effectively as could be expected of any castaway. With legendary music video director duo Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan (aka “Daniels”) at the helm, it’s no wonder that the film’s soundtrack is loud, glorious and aromatic with exquisite craftsmanship.
Given the rather corporeal nature of the film, it comes as no surprise that the soundtrack is a celebration of the human body: the score is almost entirely a capella. This choice not only allows Daniels to strengthen one of the key themes of the film, but also allows them to pull off sometimes powerful, always amusing scenes where characters begin spontaneously singing on screen. At the songwriting wheel is Andy Hull and Robert McDowell of Manchester Orchestra fame, and both musicians are at the top of their game here. The cathartic highs and lows of Manchester Orchestra’s work are employed at nearly reckless frequency throughout the film, matching the breakneck emotional twists of the movie step-for-step. This pacing is one of several elements that allows the original motion picture soundtrack (OST) to transcend its status as an accompaniment and stand triumphantly on its own.
Sterile, reverb- and compression-heavy overproduction has recently plagued several genres of music; however, those tools are used to perfection on “Swiss Army Man OST.” The grandiose ebbs and flows of a capella music are excellently suited for crystal-clear, reverb-laced production. Additionally, lead actors Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe lend their rather untrained voices to much of the soundtrack. Their imperfect, slightly-pitchy performances add much-needed humanity to the film’s score, making for some surprisingly down-to-earth moments among the epic crescendos.
Additionally, the soundtrack boasts an unrelenting maximalist approach to its compositions. The a capella genre lends itself to harmonies, but the vocal layering arranged by Hull and McDowell takes that inclination to its logical extreme. Single-voice runs to evolve into sections where seemingly infinite voices are stacked on top of one another, yet an exquisite mix keeps any one sonic peak from muddying. This playful ambition is also present in epic a capella covers of classic melodies from unlikely sources including “Cotton Eye Joe” and “Jurassic Park.” Nowhere does the soundtrack feel lazy or restrained, and from this approach the film and music benefit immensely.
Finally, the soundtrack maintains a sense of unity through motifs that hit the sweet spot between being underutilized or repetitive. From the delicate acoustic lullabies that run through “Cave Ballad” and “A Better Way” to the recurring melodies in “Montage” and “Underwater,” “Swiss Army Man OST” manages an excellent balance of newly-introduced and reutilized ideas.
Ultimately, “Swiss Army Man OST” presents a viable, transportive alternative to the bizarre movie it accompanies that functions nearly as well outside its original context as it does with it. For those who’d rather not see a man ride a flatulent corpse across a glimmering ocean, there’s still a way to hear the magic.