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The Last Man

By Charlie Brigden

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The Last Man is not yet another adaptation of Richard Matheson’s classic novel I Am Legend, but both share somewhat of a similar story. Both protagonists find themselves apparently alone in a post-apocalyptic environment, with the potential threat of something else out there amongst the abandoned cars and empty buildings, but otherwise nothing but their own thoughts. This presents a great opportunity for music to not only fill the gaps but provide a thoughtful and emotional undercurrent for the character and the film in general, and in the case of The Last Man, this opportunity has been given to first-time film composer Charlotte Hatherley.

Before I go any further, I will say I have not seen the film itself. The Last Man, a short film written and directed by Gavin Rothery (who worked on Moon), has just premiered at the London Frightfest festival to a great reception. Having followed Rothery and Hatherley talking about the film and the score on social media – and been very interested in what I’ve heard and seen – I requested a copy of the soundtrack for review. So my thoughts are solely based on the music in its context away from what it scores. This is usually the case on Films On Wax, but I thought I’d re-emphasise it anyway.

Especially considering it’s come from someone who has never composed for film before, The Last Man is an exceptional piece of work. Undoubtedly influenced by the likes of Wendy Carlos and Vangelis’ Blade Runner, it stands alongside recent works such as Sinoia Caves’ Beyond The Black Rainbow and Mica Levi’s Under The Skin as a case of outstanding work for science fiction pictures that fit somewhere outside the mainstream. Hatherley’s score has a definite narrative arc, one that begins by illustrating the environment but tightens up to to focus on the human element and its protagonist. Opening with mechanical electronic droning, the score immediately evokes a sense of desolation, of being alone. Effects waver in the background, effects that almost sound like voices, ghosts of the apocalypse. A kind of lament, and a signal that something has gone very wrong.

But out of this comes determination. Electronic pulsing leads to a brief humanist melody, reflective and tragic and which tapers off almost as quickly as it appears. Amongst more droning, we hear sparse piano notes, a sliver of organic material juxtaposed against the city of the dead which builds with more sub-vocal effects and a wave of euphoria that is quickly erased by tense percussion. There’s an immediate sense of danger amongst the thoughtfulness, that extinction can potentially come at the expense of looking back. But remembrance appears to be a theme of the score, and we are treated to some beautiful and ethereal sections which seem to look back to a long-gone time, long sustained synth notes echoing both the melancholy and the beautiful, a smidgen of hope between the layers.

That hope lingers amongst action music, with a cool synth riff quickening the pace as we hurtle towards the finale, the vocal effects both causing momentum and conveying a sense of unbroken spirit. The resolution swiftly arrives with a forceful electronic melody that feels like a rebirth of sorts, a new equilibrium created. Despite running over five minutes, it moves quickly while still allowing you to process what has come before. Another moment where the score reminds me of Blade Runner, where there is a fast and forceful pace, and one which is similarly also very cool on a plain musical level.

In recent years there’s been a plethora of electronic scores, particularly attached to science fiction media, and Charlotte Hatherley’s The Last Man is one of the best. On the surface level it just sounds brilliant, but there’s a depth to it that examines humanity and degrees of time, and it’s a great success as a sole narrative work. What a wonderful score.

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Luckily, Charlotte Hatherley was kind enough to answer a few questions to her about her music and The Last Man.

Charlie Brigden: Have you always wanted to write music for film? Is there anything in particular that made you want to?

Charlotte Hatherley: Discovering films like Bladerunner, Alien and Solaris changed everything for me. I love all film genres but my special interest is 70s/80s Sci-Fi.

CB: Where do your influences lie, both in general and for The Last Man?

CH: I have listened to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s soundtrack to Merry Xmas Mr Lawrence SO many times, it must infuse everything I do. Bernard Herrmann is a big influence. John Carpenter, John Williams, Vangelis and Jerry Goldsmith. I listened to both the Edward Artemiev and Cliff Martinez scores to Solaris with The Last Man in mind.

CB: How did you and Gavin come to an idea about the score? Did the film have any temp music attached to it?

CH: There was temp music attached so they had something to edit to but Gav gave me references very early on and we sent ideas back and forth well before shooting got started.

CB: Is there going to be an actual soundtrack release at all?

CH: Yes – i’m sorting that out right now!

CB: Do you have any more film music projects planned?

CH: I’m about to release a solo record under the name Sylver Tongue, and then I have new projects to look forward to in 2015, including Gavin’s first feature film. All very exciting!

Thanks to Charlotte Hatherley and Gavin Rothery. The Last Man will be out sometime in the future in the Death Waltz Originals line from Death Waltz Records

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