You may not have heard of Paul Buckmaster, but, trust us, you've heard Paul Buckmaster. A music arranger, he has worked with some of the most talented bands and musicians in music history. We're talking Elton John, David Bowie, Miles Davis, the Rolling Stones, and that's just to name a few. (Source)
Buckmaster won a Grammy Award in 2002 for his arrangement work on "Drops of Jupiter." Yes, you read that correctly. The man has worked with David Bowie and Elton John, but his lone Grammy Award was for his work with Train. Not "Space Oddity." But "Drops of Jupiter." Awards can be weirdly inconsistent.
Of course, we're here to discuss Buckmaster's accomplishments as a cinematic composer. His filmography isn't massive but does includes 12 Monkeys (obviously), Son of Dracula, Most Wanted, and that awesome Peter Pan and the Pirates cartoon from the '90s. (Source)
You know, the one with the crazy catchy theme song and Tim Curry playing Captain Hook? If you don't know it, check it out…we're big Curry fans here at Shmoop.
Monkey See, Monkey Tune
Back to Buckmaster. The 12 Monkeys soundtrack is kind of like a bride at a wedding; it's got something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.
The something old is the works of Argentine composer Astor Pantaleon Piazzolla. A part of his Suite Punta del Este was rearranged by Buckmaster to create the film's introduction. An accordion front-lines the piece with full, manic winds. Behind that, you can hear several percussion instruments—such as ratchets, chimes, and wood blocks—come in at off-beat moments.
The piece sounds like the type of music a street performer would force a trained monkey to dance to, upbeat on the surface but creepy in the undertones. It's the perfect start to the film.
The something new is the tracks composed by Buckmaster specifically for the movie. Following cinematic tradition, the goal of these tracks is to help the audience feel the emotions the filmmakers want in any given scene.
"Time Confusion/To the Mental Ward/Planet Ogo" is a good example of what we're talking about (and yes, that's the title on the track list). The track plays when Cole leaves the police station on his way to the mental ward. It uses shrill strings to put us on edge, and marching drums add an enforcing stomp to the tune. Add in some dark and ominous piano, and the soundtrack tells us that Cole knows he is in trouble. Although we can't see his face as he is driven away, we can feel his worry through the music.
Another great example is the final track, "Dreamers Awake." The track plays during Cole's tragic death at the hands of the police, while Dr. Peters escapes to spread unspeakable harm. The track uses slow, melancholic strings to help the audience feel Dr. Railly's grief at Cole's death.
Soundtrack to the Apocalypse
The something borrowed is the tracks borrowed from other musicians for the film. Like Buckmaster's original compositions, these songs can be used to accentuate the idea of the scene, such as when Tom Waits' "When the Earth Died Screaming" plays over Cole and Railly driving into Philadelphia.
Other times, Buckmaster chooses his tracks ironically, almost like an inside joke. For example, Cole almost comes to tears when "It's a Wonderful World" plays on the radio, but the message of that upbeat tune is undercut by the terror Dr. Railly feels at her kidnapping.
Our favorite, though, is the use of "Silent Night" as Cole explores the desolate topside of 2035. The tune carries extra weight to it when you realize that the night is silent, not because of peace on earth and good will toward men, because everyone has perished from the virus. Dark stuff.
As for the something blue…all right, you got us. The soundtrack doesn't really have anything blue in it—unless you count the mood of "Dreamers Awake."