The Musical Element
The original soundtrack for The Fifth Element (Besson, L 1997) utilizes both synthesized sounds and traditional music to form a composition that generates a futuristic atmosphere whilst resonating antiquated themes. Throughout the film an audience is taken on an audible journey through varied sound-scapes that accentuate a technological transformation of humanity. Synchronous with the film’s themes of both histological and sexual human transmigration, Eric Serra’s score distinguishes characters and plot using traditional, and artificial music. In a number of instances the soundtrack diegetically pronounces narrative themes in musical arrangements that visually emphasize the substantial role the score plays in the film. This essay aims to discuss how Serra’s original score reinforces Luc Besson’s thematic intentions, how music can translate cinematic elements such as genre, character, mood and the sociological influence of pop culture, and lastly, form a conclusion as to the how the score stimulates emotional responses to the film.
The soundtrack that accompanies The Fifth Element’s opening titles introduce an uncertain mood as the sounds and images communicate an ambiguous cosmic setting. Steady and archaic heavy droning echoes through a gradual rhythm and it is not until a spacecraft enters the frame that a science fiction setting becomes apparent. Unlike alternative science fiction films such as Star Wars (Lucas, G 1977) or 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, S 1968) where orchestral or operatic symphony may indicate a dramatic effect or induce an electrifying mood, Serra’s choice of sounds promote an unsettling state of mind and do not disclose a definite notion of time or place. These early intonations produce an effectual tone that corresponds to a narrative concerning the sociological outcomes of an alternative past, present and future. For example the aforesaid ‘steady archaic heavy’ sounds resemble pre-modern construction, the movement of large stone blocks and unearthing of ancient chambers; the outdated industrial practices of archaic cultures. Blended with these heavy, organic sounds is the intrusion of sharper, digressive ringing, which suggests a surrealistic force; conceivably, an impending threat. As an audience is introduced to the filmic past and the interaction between human and alien species, the soundtrack intensifies by way of merging Middle Eastern music with an industrial-style backbeat. This junction implies a forthcoming age of industry, one that threatens to divide harmonious tradition.
As the narrative relocates to a futuristic metropolitan setting, the soundtrack releases its attachment to an Eastern style and concentrates on mechanical rhythm. This rhythm is a singular source of sound, serving as an appropriating soundtrack to The Fifth Elements genre of science-fiction. Considering the long established tradition of spectacle, central to science-fiction film, Serra’s score takes on a cathodic resonance with the unveiling of an ultra modern society. At this time the film introduces one of the key characters and coextensively to the soundtrack, Korben Dallas is audibly signified as man of the times. After a brief introduction to the film’s apparent hero, the soundtrack takes on a different note to personify another primary character, Leeloo. She is perceived as a ‘supreme being’ and is ultimately the narratives central figure and unlike Dallas, the classical music that accompanies her introduction communicates her organic connection with earth. The use of classical music for Leeloo’s awakening also exemplifies how ‘orchestral […] music could be used to suggest grandeur and awe to special effects imagery’ (Johnston 2011:20) because Leeloo’s unusual conception exhibits the more impressive of the visual affects in The Fifth Element.
When Dallas and Leeloo meet for the first time, the Middle Eastern theme resurfaces at an expedient pace signifying more than just the immediate on-screen action. Following the alliance that is made when Dallas refuses to hand Leeloo over to the police, Cheb Khaled’s ‘Alech Taadi’ can be heard accelerating in accordance with the high-speed escape from the authorities by way of rhythmic pacing and also signifying a romantic attraction between the two protagonists. The Arabic tones in Khaled’s music perform a binary function, in that the pacing of the music engages the visual activity and the ethnicity of the tune influences a deeper sentiment than the industrial droning of the cities sound-scape. The Arabic undertones are used again during the films conclusion in a consummately fashion. Eric Serra’s song ‘A little Light of Love’ blends modern pop with Middle Eastern overtones to denote the harmonious romance between Dallas and Leeloo. In this instance, Serra’s inclusion of Middle Eastern music contradicts the themes of dangerous eroticism that Western cinema has previously used this style of music to characterize, instead composing a score to symbolize healing and protection. Whilst Serra adopts Khaled’s rai music influence to express elemental themes of love, healing and protection, a techno influence is clearly discernible in The Fifth Element soundtrack to stress the destructive transformations of technology. The villain in The Fifth Element, Zorg represents technologies progression by means of destruction and because of this his scenes in the film are often accompanied by electronic music. Even during the films destructive climax, when the soundtrack pronounces a foreboding mood of devastation through an ominous orchestral score, Zorg refers unconsciously to the non-diegetic music when he says ‘I know this music…Lets change the beat’ (Besson 1997) and subsequently resets the timer of a bomb. The ominous music is replaced by the steady electronic beep of the bomb. This example exemplifies how the characters in Besson’s film are not only characterized by music, but they themselves can command what the audience hears outside the space of the narrative.
The musical soundtrack to The Fifth Element often bridges the gap between diegetic and non-diegetic music in order to convey underlying themes. This concept is demonstrated in the scene where Dallas attends an operatic performance by an alien diva. Her performance is comprised of electronically synthesized notes to match the resonance of the character’s voice in order to create a vocal line that would be impossible to for any human to deliver. Not only does this scene introduce a narrative theme of human and extra terrestrial harmony, but it also augments an audience’s emotive attachment to the narrative through Dallas’ emotional response to the performance. Intercut with the diva’s performance are scenes of Leeloo battling a fiercer breed of aliens using sub-human abilities. The Diva’s musical performance is effectively timed with the scenes of Leeloo fighting as Serra presents a part-human, part-electronic voice […] if not atonal, certainly atypical [and] strongly flavoured by chromaticism’ (Bartkowiak 2010:35). Besson proportionately engineers a harmony between alien and compassionate feminine aptitude to synchronize with the Serra’s score and due to the film’s futuristic theme one might identify the scene’s physical and audible choreography as an ‘attempt to break up the linear and medium-specific hegemony of a type of story traditionally associated with masculinity’ (Westfahl: 543). Another character that adopts synthesized music and electronic vocal tuning to substantiate his flamboyant personality is the character Ruby Rhod. His character could be considered a futuristic personification of popular presence of hip-hop in a contemporary public sphere and as such has a microphonic instrument which projects various excepts from pop culture such as verses from Lionel Richie’s hit ‘All Night Long’ and also relays the characters theme music, ‘Ruby Rap’. Whilst Ruby Rhod supplements the film with some extra comic relief, his character also attest to an assumption that all modern culture is homogenized pop. Visual evidence of this notion are ever-present throughout the film through the appearance of costumes and architecture, but it’s when an audience is introduced to Ruby Rhod and his statement ‘It must be pop, pop, pop!’ (Besson 1997) that the film’s immersion with pop culture becomes unequivocal.
Although Serra’s soundtrack fluctuates between orchestral music and electronic music, it is always clear which mood each form of music intends. In this sense, an audience can deduce the apocalyptic sound of orchestral music heard in the films opening and the climatic moments before Zorg resets the bomb and recognize the threatening theme behind both, whilst understanding that Serra’s orchestral track ‘Protect life’ that plays during Leeloo’s escape from the laboratory, is a precursor to her characters endeavor to preserve a diminishing society. The Fifth Element combines sounds of organic humanity and technical curiosity to signify a cybernetic climate, whilst injecting pop culture references to form a bridge between the narrative and a contemporary audience.
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Westfahl, G 2005, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Themes, Works and Wonders, Greenwood Publishing Group, Connecticut.