CD Review: District 9

By • September 14, 2009

Composer: Clinton Shorter
Label: Sony
Suggested Retail Price: $8.99 (Amazon download)
Grade: B


Every so often a film, and composer arrive out of nowhere to promise they’ll be a formidable presence on the cinematic landscape. And that’s literally the case with DISTRICT 9, wherein an alien spacecraft shows up one day over the skies of Johannesburg, South Africa- announcing itself with the mournful ethnic-action strains of a Canadian named Clinton Shorter. I can’t pretend to having heard anything from Mr. Shorter’s active resume that’s included such soundtracks as CANADIAN ZOMBIE, SECRETS OF AN UNDERCOVER WIFE or NYC: TORNADO TERROR. But you can bet I’ll be listening now as his breakthrough score creates a real voice for the clicking language of the most impressive alien invasion to hit movie theaters in years.

The so-called “Prawns” of DISTRICT 9 have brought uncommon socio-political luggage with them for their extended, unwanted stay in the this ghetto that reeks of Apartheid. And for all of their repellent habits and appendages, these insectoids could just as well be the noble black folk who were victimized for decades. Yet if DISTRICT 9 was some heavy-handed political statement, critics and audiences would have stamped it “Return to Sender” instead of making it this summer’s biggest sleeper hit. The same can be send of Shorter’s music, which is rife with melodic analogies, but also delivers the kind of propulsive goods that are within the realms of such bigger composing fish as John Powell and Hans Zimmer. While Shorter’s gone for that sound on what’s probably a fraction of their music budgets, it’s exactly this kind of slightly dodgy charm that makes DISTRICT 9 seem completely “real” within a format that starts out as a sci-fi mockumentary, and then goes for the throat.

Like documentaries that are trying to make a heavy-handed point, Shorter quickly unloads the portentousness right off the bat with his main title “District 9,” serving up the kind of elegiac tribal voice that past scores have conditioned us to scream “Africa!” upon hearing. Then there’s the overlapping beds of dark percussion and thematic melody, mixed with a military tone that’s on every secret agent’s headphones when going on a mission in the darkest ethnic jungles. Except here Shorter’s using that de rigueur style for a goofball bureaucrat who’s evicting prawns from their hovels for a move to a bigger, better concentration camp. And it’s that combination of playing it stereotypically straight, while using the cliché for satire that makes all the difference when it comes to the film and its music. It’s so darned right that you couldn’t imagine a different approach.

Yet if you just heard these prawns as satiric metaphors, then DISTRICT 9 and its score would have just been a cool one-joke idea. It’s Shorter’s ability to make us musically care about these characters that makes them as real, and truthful as possible. The use of strings in such cues as “I Want that Arm” and “She Calls” brings out the plight of Prawn and human- unctuous creatures who are actually noble, and a despicable government pawn who finds his soul by being morphed into the other side of the tracks, as it were. Just as John Powell has did with the innumerable BOURNE IDENTITY scores that transformed the face of action scoring quicker than any swallowed alien liquid, Shorter uses memorable melody on top of rhythm to give the heroes emotional empathy, even as they’re firing alien weaponry. And Shorter has some great metallic sounds up his sleeve in “Exosuit,” the percussion clanking with an awesome, slightly weird grinding that embodies our unlikely hero’s ultimate change into alien super-weapon.

But if Powell and Zimmer have taught us anything, it’s that you’ve got to have catchy percussion when you’re blasting your way through Africa or the Middle East. And in such cues as “Harvesting Material,” “A Lot of Secrets” and “Get Him Talking,” Shorter goes into full-on Bourne mode, unleashing rhythmic African instruments over orchestral adrenalin and his alien “heavy metal” sound, an approach that evoking everything from BLACK HAWK DOWN to BATTLESTAR GALACTICA- an effective mash-up of newfangled action and sci-fi scoring that makes DISTRICT 9 rock. But where other scores of this type can get lost in the beat, it’s always the strong emotional content that makes his score something to get thrilled by, as well as to ponder. So that by the time we get the calm after the alien vs. merc shitstorm with “Prawnkus,” you’re left looking up at the skies with a subtle, yet resounding feeling that you’ve just watched, and heard something momentous. Something almost religious.

Like such genre game-changers as THE TERMINATOR and THE MATRIX (I’ll give a mulligan to ALIEN NATION if you’d like given this case), DISTRICT 9 takes any number of sci-fi and soundtrack warhorses and creates something new and exciting with them. Something you want to see, and hear more of. Like the millions of prawn shantytowns that now litter Johannesburg, Clinton Shorter has indelibly put himself on the scoring landscape. And it’s very likely he’s got the talent to stay there as the probable DISTRICT 9 sequels advance the prawns’ saga up the numerical system, not to mention the new avenues the film’s deserved success will send this new hot property on.

Play the Prawns here

Comments

By Sean on March 30th, 2010 at 11:28 pm

This album is nothing short of an “A”. It’s an absolute gem and belongs up there with the best of’em. Just like the movie, this soundtrack’s gone under the radar, but if anyone gives it a chance, they’ll fall in love with it instantly. I want to hear more Clinton Shorter!

By Abbye Jesuit on April 3rd, 2011 at 2:43 pm

Daniel,

Hello…regarding your comments on District 9, I wholeheartedly agree. Although my response may appear after the fact, I’m currently doing research on Cliniton Shorter and found your website “by mistake.”

I will resist the temptation to submit a litany of praises for the movie but the music, as you predicted, became a religious experience.

For years I have heard the voice of God through musical scores and have spent the last four writing about these experiences. How could you not love “District 9” on the big screen, but not until I watched at home did I experience the full force of this movie.

Apartheid was so obvious but what got to me were the eyes, particularly those of young Christopher, the little one. As a forced into retirement science teacher, I’ve seen that look before.

I was drawn to the middle eastern chanting and when I heard that first song it brought me to my knees. I saw the carnage, the slaughter, I felt the terror of an oppressed people fleeing from the relentless hatred of their pursuers. And then I remembered the eyes, the expression of every young child as he watches violence he cannot comprehend.

I wanted to throw something at my television and catch the next plane to Africa, but at the moment, that is not my destiny.

I cannot imagine the sequel without Clinton Shorter…what do you think?

Abbye

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