Soul Surfer is based on the inspiring true story of Bethany Hamilton, a young surfer in Hawaii who lost her arm in a shark attack but who, against all odds, managed to get out in the water again. Sean McNamara’s film stars AnnaSophia Robb (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) as Bethany, with support from Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid as her parents. The film is also blessed with an outstanding musical score from Marco Beltrami, who offers up a beautiful celebration of Hawaiian culture, Bethany’s Christian faith and surfing itself.
One of film music’s finest dramatists, Beltrami has hereto become known for his accomplished work in the horror genre, namely the Scream series and its numerous derivative offshoots. This is a shame as he’s far more versatile than this pigeonholing would indicate, having provided moments of magnificent, lyrical beauty in excellent scores such as 3:10 to Yuma, Hellboy, I:Robot and Mimic. Let’s not forget as well that the Scream films benefited enormously from his elegaic, haunting theme for Neve Campbell’s Sidney, adding a palpable emotional element to the stalk and slash shennanigans.
Soul Surfer, however, doesn’t just have its moments of beauty. It is consistently beautiful from start to finish, and one of Beltrami’s most accessible, melodic efforts to date. The score also highlights Beltrami’s knack for composing textural, ethnic music. Once again, we’ve heard this before -3:10 to Yuma for instance updated Ennio Morricone’s European sound -but here the composer takes it to new heights. Dotted throughout are hypnotic, Hawaiian ‘mele’ vocals, designed to reflect not only the film’s location but also the spirituality of Bethany’s journey, both before and after her horrendous attack.
Said vocals first appear at the start of Main Titles, grounding the score in a sense of time and place, before giving way to the main theme itself: a lovely, homely piece carried on strings, guitar and piano. When a massed choir carries the theme to its conclusion, it hits wonderful heights, the sort Beltrami has hinted at throughout his career. The theme is reprised frequently throughout the score, giving it a thematic backbone. Hints of Beltrami’s mentor, Jerry Goldsmith, come in the delightful action piece Turtle Bay Surfing, the strings chopping away and riding on a crest of orchestral beauty.
One of the soundtrack’s key moments comes in Shark Attack, as Beltrami contorts the vocal performances and instrumentation to suggest the monstrous assault on Bethany. An ominous male voice sounds up from the depths as all sorts of abrasive brass and clattering percussive effects tear through the previously gentle fabric of the score, reminding listeners of his terrific work on Scream, Mimic and others. It’s the score’s darkest moment, and one which alters the dynamic of everything that follows.
The remainder of the score subsequently charts the young surfer’s attempts to regain her sense of identity. Homecoming brings in the upbeat vocals again plus a whole host of rattles to give a sense of defiant optimism; while Dark Day and the gorgeous Bethany and Dad place more emphasis on individual instrumental performances, guitar in the case of the former, and tender piano in the latter. Back in the Water is one of the score’s most memorable moments, bringing all aspects of the soundtrack together to give a brilliant sense of triumph.
Things calm a little bit before more excellent action music arises in Half Pint Boards and Paddle Battle, lending a sense of urgency to Bethany’s struggle. Things reach an appropriately stirring climax in the trio of Bethan’s Wave, Awards and Bethany Gives Thanks, the haunting vocals adding a redemptive sense of catharsis to Bethany’s journey. It’s the perfect end to a carefully structured score, one which moves in peaks and troughs between hardship and celebration like the sea itself. Soul Surfer is yet another excellent effort from the underrated Beltrami, who proves once again he has lyrical intuition to rival the best of them. Truly one of the best scores of 2011.