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How ‘A Simple Song’ Emotionally Elevates Paolo Sorrentino’s ‘Youth’

How 'A Simple Song' Emotionally Elevates Paolo Sorrentino's 'Youth'

After cherry picking David Lang’s “I Lie” and “Maya Beiser” for the soundtrack to his Oscar-winning “The Great Beauty,” director Paolo Sorrentino approached the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer (“the little match girl passion”) to conjure a song for “Youth.” A tall order considering that the song summarizes the life of a retired conductor (Michael Caine at his most sensitive) forced to confront his mortality at a Fellini-esque Swiss spa.

“Paolo said there would be this film about a composer and the entire emotional life had to be told through this song,” Lang recalled. “And it would be present throughout the entire movie. So it was really was a beautiful problem, and, as a conceit, it’s a powerful way to tell a story.

“It took a very long time. The process was complicated by the fact that the song had to be composed before the script could be finished. This was much more philosophical and part of the pre-planning process. He proposed that a song could have that power and we had to have many conversations about what the song could do before we actually had a conversation about what the song would do.”

Lang, who is both a minimalist and emotionally direct, had no choice but to look inward in composing “A Simple Song.” But he also had one very important clue: Caine’s conductor once met Igor Stravinsky, which served as stylistic inspiration.

“Stravinsky was very averse to making music which was emotionally demonstrative,” Lang explained. “And, for me, one of the weird things was trying to reconcile those things. Stravinsky’s music is very formal, and so I thought, ‘I’m going to make a song that is incredibly structural.’ 

“Which means there is every line that comes in as a cannon and overlaps and all the measures are counted. The opening phrase, which sounds so natural, is put together with mathematical precision. And what I really was trying to do was honor the fact that he has a relationship to Stravinsky and yet the song is supposed to have this incredible emotional power for us.”

Then there was the challenge of the lyrics. Lang also had to reconcile composing text that was universally relatable for music that was deeply personal.

“The reason he doesn’t want to share this music is because for him it means something very specific,” Lang continued. “It’s an intimate conversation between him and his own love, not meant for anyone else.” 

It’s akin to a whisper. And so Lang Googled the following phrase: “When you whisper my name, I…” After sifting through all of the inevitable pornographic references, he assembled a list that formed the basis of the text: “When you whisper my name, I feel complete. When you whisper my name, I lose all control…” 

They recorded it at Abbey Road Studios in London with the BBC Concert Orchestra, accompanied by opera singer, Sumi Jo, and violinist Viktoria Mullova. 

But the greatest moment came when Lang presented his last demo to Sorrentino: “David, I am crying.”

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