Sounds of Slavery: A Brief Reflection on the Soundtracks of ‘Django Unchained’ and ’12 Years a Slave’.

By Ian Currie

“If you happen to be courageous enough to watch [12 Years a Slave] twice, in a way, your emotional dominoes are already starting to fall when you hear those first few notes.” – Hans Zimmer

On the surface they have everything in common. Django Unchained was released around ten months before 12 Years a Slave. Both movies play out on the festering and sore on global society that is slavery and its many residues. Both feature a black leading man to whom the tales cling and from whom they emanate. Both these movies generated critical acclaim and mass audience appeal. Received numerous nominations from all the academies that matter. Are directed by beloved directors (albeit from different spaces and mediums) at the top of their games. Featured brilliant and understated roles from black female leads. Had a white movie star thrown in for good measure. Feature music from famed composers. Both are outstanding films.

They are nothing alike.

Django is a narrative with a climax.
12 Years a Slave lets time unfold slowly, painfully. It sits and sits and looks out at a grim world.


Jamie Foxx as Django

Django is a genre-resurrection. The spaghetti Western gobbled up and regurgitated by Tarantino’s brilliant mind. There is blood spattering onto walls at impossible speeds, more bullets than at the base of the Somme, and colour: Jamie Foxx in a new blue get-up and a multi-coloured blaze of yellow and red right at the end.
12 Years a Slave isn’t an exercise in filmmaking. It is art. It is quiet. Lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is the object of this stunning façade he has been condemned to. A beautiful tree hangs low and across the entire screen. The green shades are hushed, quiet. His feet go tap-tap-tap as he struggles slightly against the rope that is tight around his neck.

Chiwetel Ojiofor in '12 Years a Slave'

Chiwetel Ojiofor in ’12 Years a Slave’

The two movies are doing very different things. They get to the places they are going (or not) in very different ways. Take the soundtrack, for example:

Django is full of country, braggadocio and rousing hip-hop.
12 Years a Slave is spare. You hear chains and foghorns.

Django’s soundtrack is bizarre and full of tense contrasts. The songs chiefly serve to assist the plot and provide weight to moments of dazzling visual cinema. Listened to in isolation from the film, it feels haphazard and sounds captivating. Seen in the film it is calculated, driving and loaded.
12 Years a Slave soundtrack is soft and tender. One barely notices it. They aren’t songs so much as finishing touches, gentle caresses that burn the skin of your cheek. It is only weeks after – when one hears the four-note string theme clattering around your skull – when one realizes it is a crucial link to the story that allowed you to commit to the film emotionally.

The theme song of each perfectly sets up and assists the story to come.

In typical Western Country fashion the song tells a story.
“Django, have you never loved again?”
“Django, you must face another day.”

The song is hopeful, full and repeats Django’s name over and over again. It is clear who this movie is about. What it is about. This is a movie-going experience. This film is going to be awesome (denotatively) and enjoyable.

We have a man named Django. He lost his love. But there is hope. Roll Tarantino.

“Solomon Northup” is the name of the main character in 12 Years a Slave. The historical Northup’s memoirs are the text that provide foundation for the film.

Composed by Hans Zimmer and played on cello and violin, the same four-note refrain is the basis for much of the soundtrack. It is quiet and bridges the gap between the characters and the audience. It makes one weep.

The kind of banter that opens this song is typical of Django and its bravado, it’s conscientious bluster.

Rick Ross, unbelievably, gets involved in some conscious hip-hop on this soundtrack. One hears Rick Ross’ bark, the familiar snare drum,  and the deep bass clap that mark many of his tracks. Yet there is strangeness here: fleeting guitar themes, melodic whistles and a persistent chant in the background.
Songs like this help bring popular culture and a deeply disturbing theme together. It’s a part of Tarantino’s genius.

On the boat to New Orleans, after Northup has been drugged and enslaved, this piece roars out of the speakers. The double bass sounds like a foghorn, the higher strings are ominous and haunting. In the silence there is the faintest jangling of chains. This song is stripped down, bare and raw. It is also hard and relentless. It chills.

The music kicks. You want to get up and dance. The movie keeps you rooted in your seat. Django wanders around the South avenging…well, everything, it seems. You could imagine him hearing these songs as he turns history on its head.

This is one of the most moving scenes and application of score I have ever seen in a movie.

After that, nothing more need be said.

These stories have no conclusion.


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