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Wall-E: The Soundtrack - A Musical Analysis

March 21, 2014

 

The movie Wall-e was produced in 2008 from the Walt Disney Pixar Animation studios. The story essentially takes place in the year 2805 and follows a robot named Wall-e (Waste Allocation Load Lifter - Earth-Class). It is his job to clean up the garbage left by the humans that have left earth due to the earth’s unsustainability. I thought this would be an excellent film to analyze the music to, as there is very little dialogue in the film due to the lack of humans until 38 minutes into the film. Even after that point the usage of humans in the film is minimal. As a result, the film heavily relies on music and sound effects. The film itself is 98 minutes long, while the soundtrack takes up 61 minutes, with repeated figures here and there throughout the film.

 

Although this isn’t Thomas Newman’s first Pixar film, (he did the music for Finding Nemo) it was his first attempt at a science fiction film. According to the documentary interview Notes on a Score, Newman shared a lot of similar musical ideas with Andrew Stanton, the director, and was never hesitant to alter his music.

 

Newman’s style of composing is quite different from many of the composers we’ve studied. With Max Steiner and Hugo Friedhofer, their primary goals were to have a theme for every character. Newman does not have character themes per say, but what Newman does do, is associate a character and their behaviour to certain instrumentation and miniature motifs. This technique allows the music to add another dimension to the story as the characters feelings can be expressed through the music when action or words are otherwise not present. Like Steiner in King Kong, Newman afflicts certain emotions that Wall-e is feeling, through certain instrumentation. For example, whenever Wall-e is exploring his surroundings, being curious, or whenever Newman want to promote sheer innocence, an oboe motif followed by a whistle is heard. (00:10:17/Track 3). This whistle (00:10:35) is also heard lightly when Wall-e is sharing his favourite things with Eve as she is now being exposed to new things and becomes curious about these objects (like the lighter) and has a sense of innocence with her child-like wonder (00:24:40). This whistling motif along with the rhythm section of this theme reoccurs when Wall-e attempts to teach another robot how to wave hello, which in itself brings out the child-like innocence of Wall-e (00:43:25/Track 18).

 

It seems as though instead of using strong repetitious character themes with variations, Newman uses minimal character themes with a mixture of event music. If there is a similar motif or theme, is it often sparsely placed throughout the movie, and doesn’t necessarily play every time a character comes back into focus. For example, when Wall-e discovers Eve, she has her own music to accompany her movement and grace (00:16:45/Track 5). Both Newman and Peter Gabriel worked on the music of Eve. Newman said that he wanted to use high strings to make the music appear more feminine. This music is used again later on in the film with a slight entrance variation when Eve is dancing with Wall-e (00:59:50/Track 22). Since Peter Gabriel created the ending credits song that talks about rebuilding the earth, he wanted to have previously-used motifs from the movie in his song so that the audience could have a sense of familiarity and allow his song to blend in with Newman’s previous work (01:30:20/Track 37). As a result, Gabriel borrowed the bass and drum figures from both Eve’s introductory music and the dancing scene to use in his final piece, making Eve’s “theme” appear for a total of three times throughout the film.

 

There is also a theme for the earth and Wall-e’s workday that is carefully placed and timed. This theme appears when the audience is first exposed in detail to the garbage-ridden earth with its neatly-organized skyscrapers of rubbish (00:03:26/Track 2). This music introduces Wall-e and the job that Wall-e has as a trash compactor. During this piece the audience realizes Wall-e’s isolation, as he is the only functioning robot left and is surrounded by “dead” wall-e robots. This piece of music is absolutely incredible, as it pertains to such a grim scene. It begins with the harp containing the melody, like many other pieces of Newman’s, against very legato strings and eerie background sound effects. The piece is incredibly dark and chilling with its cold echoing effects that emphasize the isolation Wall-e faces on earth. There is a moment (00:06:11) when the heaviness of the piece is lifted, much like the dust clouds on earth, where the glockenspiel of innocence is heard. Suddenly the music becomes warm and friendly, as if to state that the world can be a pleasant place for someone of such a warm personality like Wall-e. He sees it as his home and a place of new discoveries, for it is after this music that the playful Wall-e theme enters as he explores the treasures in the trash. This lightened music occurs when the audience is exposed to Wall-e’s home, a place filled with interesting trinkets and objects that Wall-e has collected over the years. The only other time that this earth theme appears is when Wall-e temporarily leaves Eve to return to work compacting trash into cubes and the camera shows the mounds of garbage that Wall-e has organized (00:31:40)

 

Another common musical motif featured in the film is often heard whenever a machine or object comes into the picture that was recently developed by the humans. The motif is a strong, blistering horn fanfare with high strings that, to me, boast a sense of pride in the technology that the humans have been able to develop and use successfully. Examples of this are found when Eve’s spaceship first lands to earth (00:33:23/Track 12), and when Wall-e sees the Axiom ship for the first time (00:35:15/Track 13).

 

There is another musical tie that is used for the humans. This time the musical tie incorporates the humans themselves instead of their creations. This motif is not as strong and triumphant like the horn fanfare, but is instead bouncy…perhaps to emphasize the recent physical changes the human race has undergone including obesity and lack of bone structure. Shortly after we are introduced to the humans, we see them on hovering chairs within the Axiom that move the humans around because they are practically unable to walk, let alone stand. The music accompanies us as we explore the Axiom and all of its features and also accompanies the movement of the humans in their chairs (00:39:45/Track 17). This same musical motif is reintroduced when the humans’ chairs have been programed to gather them towards the centre of the Axiom (01:19:20/Track 30). This music once again accompanies the humans’ movements through the ship’s centre. It is important to note that this is not necessarily a character theme, as it does not revolve around one character or characters, but instead this music acts as background music that occurs during similar scenarios to enhance the audience’s familiarity with the human’s movements and characteristics. 

 

An important thing to note about Newman’s music is the instrumentation that he uses. Although he uses a typical orchestral setting, he also uses electronic instruments like an electronic bass and guitar. He also features a plucked harp for most of his melodies and often makes changes from classical instrumentation to electronic synthesized music and sound effects. An example of this shift and harmonic plucking can be found in the No Splashing scene (01:02:20/Track 23) and synthesized bass in the Foreign Contaminant scene (00:39:30/Track 15). There are often moments where the instruments Newman has used have been altered in such a way, that it is hard to distinguish just what instrument or thing is making that sound. This sound alteration is considered to be a compositional trait of Newman, as he used similar effects in the Finding Nemo soundtrack. I find that this is just another beautiful way in which Newman blends in orchestral style with electronic music to complete this animated world of science fiction and robots. The usage of these mysterious sounds and added sound effects add an extra dimension of musical depth that merely compliments the robots, their sounds, and the sounds that make up their environment.

 

The style of the music is very percussive, as a lot of percussion instruments are used. The harp also seems to be used for most of the melodies as well. However, there are a few numbers from the soundtrack that do not use heavy percussion, or feature heavily synthesized sections. For example, the song “First Date” (00:29:50/Track 11) is a cute and comical number that is similar to elevator music, and is one of the few songs that feature vocals. It is a light piece that explores the strong feelings that Wall-e has for Eve. The song is light in tempo and feel, and is filled with scatting vocals. Newman uses a flute and glockenspiel (the instrument Newman used later on when Wall-e was dying [01:26:50/Track 35]), which, for me adds to the precious child-like innocence of Wall-e.

 

Another interesting piece that also features vocals is the BnL theme song, as it resembles a jingle from the 1960s. The vocals are in the style of a barber shop quartet including female voices, while the lyrics promote the idea of a corporation making your life happy and complete. The piece was written by Newman and Bill Bernstein. The lyrics are as follows: “Buy N Large, it’s your superstore. We’ve got all you need, and so much more. Happiness is what we sell, that’s why everyone loves BnL”. The song also features guitar harmonics that tend to add a sense of clarity, perfection, and friendliness to the message, even though the mighty conglomerate has stripped all competition and freedom of choice (00:03:55/Track 14). 

 

The song of M-O is an interesting piece to note for several reasons. The first being that it is an excellent example of how sound effects are being used within the music to enhance the character’s robotic features and personality, and to accompany the piece. The second is that it is a jazz-like piece featuring jazz flute, piano, and vibes (00:51:55/Track25). For me it reminds me of the Pink Panther sneaking around, which ironically works with M-O’s character, as he is often seen sneaking around and following Wall-e in order to clean up the dirt that is being left from Wall-e’s belt tracks.

 

There are only five instances where the film uses unoriginal music. Two of the unoriginal pieces come from Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is said to have been a huge influence to Andrew Stanton in the creation of Wall-e. One of the pieces is the Blue Danube by Johann Strauss II. It merely plays in the background for a few seconds as the captain’s workplace music (00:45:00). The second is Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra. It is played as the captain attempts to stand on his own two feet – a sheer miracle at best. Of course the climax of the piece is reached when the captain is fully standing (01:22:05). It is interesting to note that both of these classical pieces are not included on the Wall-e soundtrack.

 

The third unoriginal piece is Louis Armstrong’s La vie En Rose, which enters when Wall-e falls in love with Eve and becomes fascinated in all that she is (00:19:40/Track 8). He tries to keep his distance yet express his feelings for Eve through garbage-sculpting, but he often looks like a classic fool in love by having pipes fall on him and being chased by grocery carts. This song is an excellent fit for the scene because it exemplifies young love, the crazy things that love makes us do, and reminds us how beautiful life can be with the presence of love: “Hold me close and hold me fast, the magic spell you cast, this is la vie en rose.” The words in this song discuss seeing colour, pink, being in a world apart from the one you’re currently in, a world where roses bloom…this is so fitting for Wall-e because the current state of the world is grey and brown and roses haven’t existed for hundreds of years. But Eve has allowed Wall-e to experience a whole new life because of her sheer existence. The musical choice of this scene and the connection that that song has to people easily makes this scene one of the most heart-warming and most enjoyable scenes to watch and love.

 

Speaking of love, this ideal is perhaps the one thing that drives Wall-e throughout the entire film, and it is fuelled by one song. In the very beginning of the film we are exposed to the music from the 1969 musical Hello Dolly!. Michael Crawford’s Put on Your Sunday Clothes! contains an enthusiastic voice that wafts into our ears as we gaze upon images of outer space including a swirling galaxy with the words “Out there…is a world outside of Yonkers…out there…full of shine and full of sparkle…close your eyes and see it glisten…” We see something glistening on the screen that turns out to be earth covered in satellites, sandstorms, and skyscrapers made of garbage. While this bleak imagery is being shown, Crawford continues to sing about going downtown, living life to the fullest, and not coming home until finally kissing a girl. It is the idea of getting out into the world and finding adventure and romance that the story of Wall-e revolves around. He leaves earth with Eve and finds a whole new adventure, meets new friends, and lives his life to the fullest, even if he has lost half of his computer parts. This opening song not necessarily foreshadows the story, but instead gives us an insight as to how Wall-e might narrate his own adventure that’s about to be told. It’s a way for Newman to give Wall-e a voice to promote understanding that might not otherwise be able to be communicated properly. The song itself is repeated often by Wall-e as he has recorded it onto his built-in audio recorder and plays it while working. He also hums the tune often, and replays the song from his VHS tape of Hello Dolly! while at home. While aboard the Axiom, the song ends up being used as an alarm clock for the captain (00:44:23), and a rogue robot hears this song, and paints divider lines to the rhythm of the song (00:55:42).

 

What really ties the whole movie together quite nicely is the reoccurring piece (also from Hello Dolly!) It Only Takes A Moment. The song is first exposed to Wall-e through the VHS tape he has of Hello Dolly! (00:07:35), and then it is repeated throughout the movie through Wall-e himself (he records it into his build in audio player so he can replay it), and by other characters including Eve. Shortly after Wall-e is exposed to this song, he goes outside to clean his lunchbox and sees an opening in the clouds that reveals the stars. Instead of playing Put On Your Sunday Clothes!, the song that was originally associated with glittering stars, Wall-e instead plays, It Only Takes A Moment, (00:08:15). It is as if he replaces the idea of adventure being about discovering all the fancy things in life, with adventure now becoming a quest for love. This “love theme” is repeated throughout the film through Wall-e’s playback system whenever Wall-e wants to hold Eve’s hand. Eve revisits her memory of the It Only Takes A Moment Scene through her activated security camera playback, and begins to understand the concept of hand-holding (01:05:11). Another touching scene is near the end of the movie when Eve is trying to get Wall-e back to his normal self after several computer parts within him have been replaced. As Wall-e is unresponsive, Eve tries to jog Wall-e’s memory by pressing the play button on his built-in playback system, but the system is blank. Eve then hums the It Only Takes A Moment song to Wall-e, and proceeds to hold his hand (which is something Wall-e has been trying to do throughout the entire movie). She gives Wall-e a kiss through a small electric shock, which is eventually what brings him back to life. (01:28:00). The clip from Hello Dolly! plays on Wall-e’s TV back at his place, and the movie ends with this song. 

 

When I originally started analyzing the music for Wall-e, the themes didn’t really stand out. But as I continuously listened and looked at the similarities in the picture, I realized that there are miniature themes. Even the plant from earth has a four-note motif. What I did find though, was that most of the themes, aside from the music from Hello Dolly! rarely occur. These themes are often only repeated twice, unlike Max Steiner and Hugo Friedhofer’s work. I already enjoy this movie greatly, but after meticulously analyzing Thomas Newman’s music, I have discovered a deeper appreciation for the story, as the music has allowed me to see certain story plots or meanings in full clarity that I had altogether missed. At the very end I had no idea that Eve was humming It Only Takes A Moment to Wall-e until this deep analysis, which added so much depth and understanding, and was a great way to tie everything in at the end. Even though I’ve seen this movie close to forty times in my life, I’m now even more excited to watch it again, to tie in all of the musical knowledge I have gained through writing this essay. Although I practically have this movie memorized, from here on in I know I’ll be watching an entirely different movie.

 

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