• Ben Erickson


Adam McKay's Vice is a monumental success in every way. From the man who was so long associated with Will Ferrell comedies, the director's latest political drama is no less engaging than his 2015 picture The Big Short. Rejoining him are cast members Christian Bale and Steve Carell, who play Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld respectively, along with composer Nicholas Britell. Among the younger generation of Hollywood composers Britell has made some big strides in recent years, nominated for an Academy Award and Golden Globe for his work on the 2016 coming-of-age drama Moonlight. The music of Vice is to date the highest quality score the composer has produced, and it absolutely rocks the film There are a number of ideas Britell plays around with in Vice, varied and unique in their expression, performed by a 90-piece orchestra and led by a thoroughly grand theme. "The Lineman - Prelude and Development", as the theme is called, embodies the lead character Cheney with petrifying candor. Ever the servant of the people, walking around the White House with an unassuming, Churchillian countenance to his slouched, impassive features, the theme examines the politician intimately. The prelude establishes the basic harmonic progression of the theme, consisting of moving dyads atop a steady pulse that invariably allude to Cheney's humbling roots as a drunk, blue collar worker. Britell takes advantage of specific instruments for "The Lineman" to provide a quintessential American sound, like the distinct use of piano and brass. The "Vice - Main Title Piano Suite" cue performed over the title card for example uses deep octavo tremolo, just as the emergence of the theme in "James Earl Carter Jr." uses a reverbed trumpet when Dick draws his fishing line, both offering a sense of echoed history. These instruments have appeared in a number of political elite serial dramas to similar effect, like Boston Legal or House of Cards, as vehicles of respect and nobility. Another association with the American sound, drawn from Copland to some extent, are the brass swells so integral to the harmonic structure of the theme ("The Lineman in E-flat Minor"). These swells enter on the second beat of the triple meter, creating the feel of a mazurka. This mazurka dance is important, because it offsets the weight of the theme, and it appears like waves of change whenever Cheney is seen making a decision wherein the consequences of said decision are immediately shown; bombings, torture, execution, etc. The melody is intuitive in its own way, making large leaps any time the line becomes syncopated and creating an ambitious, deceptive feel to its advance. There is a B phrase to the theme as well, performed sometimes following and at other times in counterpoint with the principle melody. All in all, this is just spectacular film music. The theme paints Cheney as the the ideal American – hardworking, respectable, loyal – while acting as a smokescreen for his unethical behaviour in office.

The strings and woodwinds are normally reserved for other purposes in the score, with a different feeling in mind. The quasi-fugue idea that appears early in the film as Cheney is ushered into a safe room on 9/11 is one such example ("He Saw An Opportunity – Counterpoint in C Minor"). This fugue is technically the most intricate and articulate composition written into the score, demonstrating the many strings pulled by the Vice President to get what he wanted. It is the same idea to appear in "The Many Offices of the VP" and "The Iraq War Symphony". The latter cue, though by Haydn's standards not formally a symphony, could very well be considered symphonic in its grandiosity. Then there is the busybody figure introduced with the Carter Administration ("James Earl Carter Jr."), along with the bumbling woodwinds that daftly represent George W. Bush ("He Wants To Impress His Father"), led by a bassoon but most notably bobbing along in punctuated duets. Certain other excerpts are far more dramatic in nature, such as "The Washington Game Board" cue, with cascading keys that capture the calculated nature of Cheney's strategy. "The War in Afghanistan / His Magnum Opus" introduces a stunning string quintet, with a near-volatile cellist sawing through shifting arpeggiations below a transposed melody taken from the big-band brass cues. This quintet returns at the end of the film ("Conclusion – The Transplant"), using a bass line that might remind you of a certain Metallica song. The aforementioned big-band brass is used to great effect in a few cues as wailing muted trumpets, funk bass, tambourine, hot and heavy saxophones, and keyboard synthesizers hit the town. We are first introduced to it when we meet Rumsfeld ("Master of the Butterfly Knife"), but more and more it is used to communicate Cheney's exploitation of power as he and Rumsfeld enter into business together. The style of '70s jazz and funk is clearly meant to evoke the Blaxploitation common of this time, with Cheney pimping out America as the life of the party, so to speak. "Flipping Cards" continues with cool jazz, soft vocals, a grooving drum kit, electric guitar, and an electronic whistle while "Taking Over the Damn Place" enters the realm of psychedelic funk, with congas, tambourine, drum kit, big brass, funk bass, wah-wah pedals, distortion, and echo chambers. The final element to round out the score is the emphasis on ironic victory, providing the biggest point of comedic energy from the music. The first of these moments enters with "Scalia", wherein the young politician who later went on to become a supreme court judge revealed the idea of unilateral presidential authority, giving Cheney a much needed edge. "My Friend, My Running Mate" enters not long after when Dick surreptitiously achieves the Vice Presidency, but perhaps the best of these moments is the "Dick's Heart Is Healthier Than Ever" cue, where midway through the film we are given a psych out ending putting Dick's bad deeds to rest, with a glorious key change as the credits begin to roll. Toward the end of the film the feel good motif to open "Dick's Heart Is Healthier Than Ever" returns to celebrate Dick's personal triumphs during his term ("At Death's Door"). The "Conclusion – The Transplant" cue plays out like a suite, capping Dick's successful transplant and a Frank Underwood-style address to the camera. The actual end credits take up the song "America" from Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, in case the irony of the film had been lost on anyone up to this point. Brilliant.