At first glance this seems like a bit of an odd choice for British Sea Power – to soundtrack a silent film from 1934. Yet on reflection, the fact BSP have always been a somewhat capital R Romantic band, the chance to meddle with a classic of Romantic documentary film making must have been too much; and add to that that it was a documentary about man working against the forces of nature, and in reality you have the perfect match.
Man of Aran was first released in 1934 and was the work of maverick and pioneering documentary maker Robert J. Flaherty. It was controversial for a number of reasons: that Flaherty shot it as a documentary at all when in fact the film was highly stylised featuring a central family handpicked for their looks and ruggedness, that it showed hunting techniques that were the best part of a 100 years out of date, that he recklessly put lives in danger for the films central dramatic scenes. What is certain is that in the 500,000 feet of film Flaherty shot, there were some extraordinarily powerful shots of the sheer bleakness of the island’s landscapes and the destructive force of nature. And despite the slightly fabricated lifestyles, some sharp insights into how the islanders survived in the harshest conditions.
A very basic question to ask is does the film need a soundtrack? There is a real tension here, as with a silent backdrop the focus is all on the imagery, the awesome forces of nature and Flaherty’s considerable expertise as a cinematographer. As such, it would be very easy to step in with huge size nines and make a right mess of the delicate balance of the film. That BSP mostly don’t is a testament to their inherent understanding of dynamics. Generally speaking they enhance what is on offer here, or at least paint in light brush strokes and don’t draw attention away from the visuals.
In the soundtracks quieter moments there are some genuinely beautiful moments. The opening track, ‘Man of Aran’ is little more than a delicate piano figure overlain with the softest of string sections; ‘Come Wander With Me’ (a song that originally featured in a Twilight Zone episode) is quietly epic, the drama all in the suppressed horns; ‘It Comes Back Again’ ( a re-working of True Adventures’ from Open Season) is an epic – a chamber quartet buried under a sea of treated guitars; ‘Woman of Aran’ reprises the piano figure of ‘Man of Aran’ but introduces a faint trill of guitars – they sound at their most Sigur Ros like here. It’s a beautiful track that adds real gravity to the visuals – the Aran women waiting, sometimes for days, for the men to come back from perilous fishing trips. These simply painted tracks work, but it is when the band try to compete with the immensity of the forces of nature that the project is less successful…
Now it’s clear that BSP’s visit to the legendary Hotel2Tango loft space in Montreal – one time haunt of Godspeed You! Black Emperor amongst others – to record Do You Like Rock Music? was an obvious turning point in the band’s history – it gave that album the huge sound they’d been seeking, and it also drew forth a not-quite-dormant strain of post-rock that had lain behind their sound up until that point. On Man of Aran they get to indulge that strain to the full. And to be honest it’s the tracks where they most explicitly nod to Godspeed and the like that the soundtrack falls down, as the temptation to try to match the power of nature with the power of post-ROCK is too much, and well, it just doesn’t work. The two main offenders are ‘The South Sound’ and ‘Spearing the Sunfish’ both 11-minute tracks and both marred by a sort of by-numbers rendering of drama in sonic form – as the on-screen dramatic tension increases so does the volume and pace of the music, the former ending in a string driven bounce along, the latter in a thrash of squalling guitars. When you consider that ‘Spearing the Sunfish’ soundtracks an expedition to capture a 30-foot basking shark there is almost an intrinsic absurdity to the endeavour of attempting a soundtrack at all.
Which I guess is partly the point – Man of Aran was a challenge the band couldn’t turn down. There’s probably a certain amount of hubris involved but for the most part the band carry it off which is testament to their intelligence and sense of grace. It’s worth tracking down, and to me, if it makes anyone see the film then it’s done it’s job as the film is the real star of the show.