The National charts musical course for ‘Cyrano,’ ‘C’mon C’mon’
It’s a pretty clever idea, when you have two films about communication and human connection, to hire twins to write the music. Brothers Bryce and Aaron Dessner have been exchanging twin speak since they were born 45 years ago, and they’ve been making music together for almost as long — professionally for two decades with their band, the National.
Still, “C’mon C’mon” and “Cyrano” could hardly be more different. One is an understated, black-and-white drama starring Joaquin Phoenix as a melancholy reporter bonding with his nephew. The other is a full-fledged movie musical, adapted from the famous French story of Cyrano de Bergerac, starring Peter Dinklage as the “misfit” with an eloquent pen and unrequited love for a girl named Roxanne.
At heart, though, both films are about characters trying and often failing to reach each other — and, as Bryce Dessner put it, “people just trying to say what they feel.”
End-of-the-year release “Cyrano” is, by far, the more ambitious. Based on a screenplay by Erica Schmidt — Dinklage’s wife of 16 years — the musical was first conceived in 2018 for a stage workshop in Connecticut before moving off-Broadway. Both iterations starred Haley Bennett as Roxanne and Dinklage as Cyrano, replacing the comically long nose with the actor’s actual dwarfism as a central plot point.
The songs were already years in the making, and for director Joe Wright’s film adaptation, the Dessner brothers radically revised the original songbook, adding several numbers and composing a completely new score that weaves everything together.
“One of the problems I have with musicals, in general,” said Wright, “is you’ve got a dramatic scene, you’re going along, you feel fine, you feel safe — and then suddenly a song will come out of nowhere. And it can be quite disorientating when your characters start singing, and they behave really weirdly — they might even dance.”
To solve that, Wright wanted the score “to create a kind of seamless transition from drama into the musical sequences. So a lot of the score is taking elements of the songs and then developing them so that, although sometimes they’re not really recognizable, there is a kind of language that allows the audience to move between song and drama in a way that isn’t jarring.”
“Cyrano” is like a musical river. Matched by Wright’s liquid, dancelike camera movement, the audience is swept up and carried by one song and instrumental piece after the other, rushing headlong through Roxanne’s need for “waves of desire” and Cyrano’s love for her that’s so desperate he can “hardly breathe.”
That’s a fitting analogy, Wright said, “because that’s the experience of falling in love as well.”
Songs organically bob up from the instrumental score, which grooves along with repetitive patterns, broken waltzes and echoes of the song melodies. The classically trained Bryce Dessner provided the elegant, orchestral minimalism, and Aaron the folksy song quality and modern production.
Late in the film, three soldiers sing about the loved ones they’re about to leave behind — one is played by “Once” star Glen Hansard, another by the score’s fiddle player, Sam Amidon. Wright wanted the score to keep going underneath the dialogue scene that followed, and Aaron Dessner improvised a piece that deconstructed the song melody to its skeleton before it slowly builds back up and blooms again.
The director’s goal overall was “to focus each and every element of the movie on that experience of falling in love. And I think that, somehow, Bryce and Aaron have an amazing connection with that bit of themselves. Their music is so tender and pounds with such a true heart that seems incredibly connected to that place that falls in love.”
Whereas “Cyrano” wears its heart on its sleeve, director Mike Mills avoided big emotion like the plague for recent release “C’mon C’mon” — it’s “like he’s slalom skiing,” said Bryce Dessner, “finding his way around these overly sentimental moments.”
“We joke,” added Aaron, “he’s like this punk rocker who, anytime there’s like a glimmer of emotionality, he wants to torpedo it. Which is why the actual score ended up in this very impressionistic, experimental world, where you can really read it both ways.”
At first, Mills, who produced the National’s last album, wanted score only under the montages where Phoenix’s radio journalist is interviewing real kids around the country about the future. Aaron found an interesting sound in his old Korg MS-20 synthesizer, like woodwinds slowly losing their pitch.
“We built these chords to a lot of things using it,” Aaron said. “It might be this emotional chord sequence, but because it’s like detuning itself, it kind of walked the line for Mike. So that was a big breakthrough.”
The score’s role eventually expanded, creating a kind of dreamy atmosphere for this very human story. For a scene after an important moment between uncle and nephew, Mills even asked for more positive emotion — “a glimmer of hope.”
If the “Cyrano” score is a rushing river of emotion, Bryce suggested, “C’mon C’mon” is a calm ocean.
“It’s like the film is a boat, and the music is the water it’s rocking on.”