Oscar Scores 2009: Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire posterArriving with mega-hype, numerous critical awards, a Golden Globe, and 10 Oscar nominations, Slumdog Millionaire left me a bit cash poor. The story of a young Indian man (Dev Patel) from the slums of Mumbai who uses the TV game show “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” to find his long-lost love (Freida Pinto) is well-scripted by Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty), but the story feels like a Dickens rags-to-riches retread just set in an exotic location.

It is difficult not to root for this cast of amateurs and lesser-known actors but the real stars of the film are director Danny Boyle, editor Chris Dickens, and Mumbai itself.  Boyle’s muscular direction and Dickens’ seamless editing (remarkable considering the extensive use of flashbacks) keep the story flying along at a brisk pace, so much so that it can be easy to ignore the flaws in the film. The crowded streets of the city provide their own soundtrack to accompany Indian musical superstar A. R. Rahman’s Golden Globe-winning score.

Most American audiences are not familiar with Rahman’s work, which is perhaps a reason why critics have been so quick to praise the composer’s blend of Indian instruments, rock, and electronic dance grooves. Rahman’s music and songs contribute to the film’s colorful feel.

Out of the many songs featured in the film, including M.I.A.’s popular “Paper Planes,” two have been nominated. “O Saya” is sung over the opening scene as the camera careens through the narrow, filthy passageways following a pair of street urchins. A blend of hip-hop, rock, and electronica, the tune’s driving rhythm begins the film on an energetic run. “Jai Ho” is the infectious end title tune. Gone is any hint of danger as the cast earns a well-deserved, victorious Bollywood dance number.

Rahman’s nominated score as presented on the commercial CD works quite well as a listening experience. The mixture of songs and a few instrumental tracks gets the blood pumping. But the “For Your Consideration” CD of Rahman’s score that was sent to Academy members is all of 16:54 of music. The electronica used in “Escape,” “Train Sitar,” and “Reaktor” is infectious yet ultimately musically empty. The best theme is the lovely melody for Latika (Pinto).

If Rahman’s score seems slight on the commercial disc, it is even choppier and less impressive on the FYC disc. If Enchanted was disqualified last year for the amount of score compared to the songs, then Slumdog should have been as well. The film’s popularity and critical backing will probably push Rahman into the winner’s circle. He wouldn’t be my choice, but a lot worse have won Oscars.

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