You know that time of the year, when suddenly jingle bells (the actual thing…and that damn song) started appearing in every shopping mall you visit? The television channels starts to air cheesy Christmas-themed comedies and cartoons every 7pm (I think this is the 9th year in a row I remember seeing Elf staring Will Ferrell getting a re-airing on TV), and you start to overhear Michael Bublé-performed Christmas carols being played in car radios as you strolled along your home street.
Christmas certainly has its commercialised tunes and spectacles, and if there’s anything you learn in marketing seminars: eventually, you will learn to dislike anything you see or hear one too many times.
Thankfully, despite my family not being one to celebrate Christmas (at least not in the traditional sense…we don’t decorate the house, showcase the tree and hang stockings. But we do indulge ourselves with an extra hearty dinner during the night), I’ve been able to find my own Christmas sounds; albums, music and films I listen and watch during this period of holiday cheer. Hey, when you spend your white Christmases standing in line, desperate to get your daily treat of jumbo shaved ice and lemon iced tea before your entire body gives out from the heat, you would forgive me for wanting something different on the musical side. Something other than singing about chimneys (don’t have those) and snow. (HA! Snow in Sydney? in 2016?!)
Outside the traditional Christmas carols, there are plenty of stuff that can really sell the generously warm spirit of this occasion. And I am here to share some of my favourites with you. Here are 5 collections of film music, albums and music videos that define the spirit of the season.
The Piano Guys: Christmas specials
Over the years, this YouTube musical group has taken over the world with their stylistic merging of classical pieces and contemporary beats. Along with stunning visual production values that legitimises their choice of platforms, The Piano Guys reins as one the top YouTube-centric music bands. A proudly Christian group with a certain flare in finding the best in their instruments (trademark piano and cello duo) and…increasingly bizarre methods of ‘playing’ them, here are 2 samples of their outings.
First, an old but much loved hymn ‘Silent Night’, performed with the world-renowned tenor Plácido Domingo and the TPG Children’s Choir.
It is actually borderline impossible for me to describe…but in my six years attending an Anglican high school, this was always one of my favourite hymns to sing during chapel and when I was performing with the school’s choir group. The melody is humble, hopeful and incredibly radiant behind a full choral ensemble. Domingo’s performance is tasteful, his on-stage demeanour fully complementary of the welcoming warmth that is associated with the occasion.
Next, we have what I consider to be the premier example of what defines The Piano Guys: self-aware in their fun loving performances.
With a curious mix of a multitude of traditional Christian hymns and carols, the piece is performed by the main members on a single piano, utilising the versatile instrument as a multi-pitched keyboard, cello, guitar and percussion. Paired with an incredibly nerdy intro and a charming location, this video production is a triumph in the spirit of the season.
The Polar Express | When The Best Is Forgotten
Much of Alan Silvestri’s masterful music written for the 2004 animated film was lost to the public, due to the lack of a wide release. Instead, a compilation album branded with the film was released, chock full of typical Pop-inspired reliterations of carols. However, what IS avaliable of Silvestri’s music is proof that you should look around harder, in search of that rare album that includes the entire score (which I’m staring at in my music folder right now…tsk tsk).
The suite included at the end of the commercial album is 6 minutes of pure bliss, introducing Alan Silvestri’s main themes for the film in perfect unison. A perfect mix of adventure fantasy, childish fun and boundless sentimentality, the film’s music showcases the best of the orchestral realm of melodic creation.
In fact, I will link you to two more songs from the film, composed in conjunction with the musical themes Silvestri created. Yep, the sheer beauty of these melodies even gave birth to a collection of perfectly solid carols, and they are far and away the best things about the commercial album. Believe (Performed by Josh Groban) | When Christmas Comes to Town (Performed by the main cast). You can hear the main melodies of these songs take orchestral form in the suite.
Rise of the Guardians | What Says the Moon?
The first film music album recommendation goes to Alexandre Desplat’s venture with Dreamworks’ 2012 feature film. Ultimately, the film’s thematics explores more territories than Christmas itself; the values of childhood innocence and wonder, as a matter of fact.
In response, the composer penned a classy score that can sit comfortably in Santa’s sleigh and slid gracefully through the endless tunnels of the Easter Bunny. I think you might’ve already heard the absolute stunner of an end credits song ‘Still Dream‘, performed by soprano Renée Fleming. As for the rest of the score…you can only imagine.
The commericial album includes more than 60 minutes of Desplat’s score, plus Fleming’s song. Worthy listen, if you want to relive some childhood memories.
Hugo | Capturing Dreams on Camera
Ok, by now, I think you can already notice that I am venturing beyond the immediate fencing of ‘Christmas’. While Hugo is not strictly a Christmas-themed film, I feel that the values of the holiday were paramount in the film’s exploration of the beginnings of cinema and the childlike wonder and creativity that spawned from the art form. In fact, this recommendation can extended a bit further from just Howard Shore’s wonderful music. Go make this masterpiece your yearly Christmas family film. You won’t regret it.
Howard Shore’s score is filled to the brim with warmth and harmonic beauty. The end credits song performed by Zaz, is pure class. The wonderful track ‘Winding it Up‘ takes up the second half of the credits, cycling through the main ideas of the score.
Ratatouille | The Artist
“Not everyone can become a great artist. But a great artist can come from anywhere.” This has always been one of those movie lines that stuck with me through the years. I wager that this animated film’s values cannot be truly realised, without spending a few years in artistic limbo first, like I did. I’ve experimented with so many creative pathways, some of them fun, but unfulfilling, others strangely satisfying, but ultimately lacked longevity or that sense of progress.
This is the second family Christmas film that I propose to my readers. Funny how this was also set in Paris. That strange myth-infested city.
Michael Giacchino’s second venture in a Pixar production is a triumph in regional charm, aiming for that tongue-in-cheek sense of crude joy, aiming to replicate the atmosphere of the romanticised city in a shotgun approach.
I hope you find a different flavour in your Christmas this year.
Second entry into my Funomenal Month of Christmas column for 2016.