In 2012, the film “Beasts of the Southern Wild” earned recognition at the prestigious Sundance and Cannes film festivals in addition to garnering four Oscar nominations, bestowing “universal acclaim” upon director Behn Zeitlin from viewers and critics alike—the oft-overlooked score that smoothly transitions the audience from feelings of tears to triumph was co-produced by Zeitlin himself.
“‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ is truly a visceral sound experience and a spectacle,” said Aaron Greenwald, executive director of Duke Performances. “An interesting aspect of the film is that Zeitlin directed the film and composed the score, which is a testament to his capacity as a filmmaker and artist.”
Zeitlin intended the score to reflect Hushpuppy, the feisty heroine of the film, blending a contemporary take on traditional Cajun music—featuring Louisiana’s Lost Bayou Ramblers—and classical components, making for an exuberant folk-infused backing track filled with jubilance and valor but also a cosmic sense of mystery indicated in the protagonist’s persona.
“The movie score needed to show a much more mystical side of her personality, and the Cajun music functions in the film when it's happening in real life,” Zeitlin previously stated in a 2013 interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “We take this piece of live music the musicians are playing onscreen, a very traditional South Louisiana song, and then as Hushpuppy starts to think about it, the actual musical score re-voices that Cajun song into her type of music. A mixture of this traditional thing and a much more mystical thing.”
The eclectic film, presented by Wordless Music, will grace the screen of Duke’s Reynolds Industries Theater Sept. 8 and 9 at 8 p.m. with a live performance of the score by the North Carolina Symphony and the Lost Bayou Ramblers. The show will emphasize the strong sense of identity and solidarity within the fictional Louisiana town through a sense of refined Cajun flair.
“The Lost Bayou ramblers are actually from Louisiana and performed the music for the film, and the North Carolina Symphony is a group of very talented musicians from Raleigh who haven't played at Duke for almost ten years, so we are very excited about that,” Greenwald said.
Indeed, the Ramblers identify as a progressive band rooted in Cajun traditions, highlighting a deep sense of southern culture and a mystical fascination with the natural world that the film presents. Greenwald further contended that the film imagines a place that is different than the place we live, but its themes still hold a sense of familiarity.
In focusing on Hushpuppy’s curiosity, naivete and altogether fierceness, Zeitlin composes the score to reflect her thoughts, her speech and her emotions, adding a unique touch to the film in that the score does not reflect merely the action but rather a six-year-old taking on a world—her world—that is seemingly being destroyed before her very eyes.
“When she’s looking inward and analyzing herself, her place, analyzing nature—that is when you’re hearing music,” Zeitlin said in the interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “When she is unstable, those are a lot of the silent parts of the film, because she is not in a space to contemplate and analyze the world. She is a very quiet person onscreen. It isn’t like she has tons of friends to talk to, it's not like her dad is a conversationalist. So, we knew from the very beginning that the way you were going to get to understand this girl was by being able to understand her thoughts, and her thoughts are a combination of the music and words.”
Greenwald also argued that the film screening will strike a chord with people from across the country, especially as the citizens of Houston have lost homes, possessions and loved ones due to recent flooding that has devastated the community. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” parallels these events with the tragic flooding of the fictional Bathtub, La., forcing the characters to take measures necessary for survival, all the while remaining defiant and optimistic in the face of adversity.
“I think it is truly a generational film, it’s not quite in our time but is connected to events going on in our country, a large conflict in the film being an environmental disaster,” Greenwald said. “As many of us know, obviously what has happened in Houston is absolutely tragic and the events in the film parallel current events and relate to the current state of things, all the while offering a beacon of hope.”
This performance follows the success of last year’s screening and live score of the film “Birdman,” featuring Antonio Sánchez on the drums—Greenwald, who has spearheaded the Duke Performances program, notes a greater appreciation for arts at Duke and adds that tickets are selling especially quickly for this event since they went on sale Aug. 29.
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“As with ‘Birdman,’ and I’m sure with ‘Beasts,’ audiences come away from the experience of a live symphony playing through what is essentially a film stripped of its music audio with a heightened understanding and emotional connection to the story and its characters,” Greenwald said.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” will be screened with a live rendition of its score, presented by Wordless Music, North Carolina Symphony and Lost Bayou Ramblers, Sept. 8 & 9 at 8 p.m. at the Reynolds Industries Theater.
Correction: A previous version of this article misquoted Aaron Greenwald. The article has been updated with the correct quote. The Chronicle regrets the error.