Scoring “Slumdog Millionaire” with Logic: An Interview with A.R. Rahman
If you haven’t yet heard at least some of the score from this year’s Oscar-winning best film “Slumdog Millionaire,” you must be trying very hard not to.
Even before it won two Oscars for best score and best song (“Jai Ho), as well as the Golden Globe and BAFTA awards for best score, A.R. Rahman’s soundtrack—written on a Mac in Logic Studio—had registered with any reasonably alert listener during the film’s much-reported rise from Indian-flavored indie longshot to runaway worldwide hit.
If the soundtrack’s audio reach is in part attributable to the film’s sweeping success, its musical grasp is strictly the result of Rahman’s unforgettable melodies and rhythms. In fact, It would be as hard to imagine “Slumdog” without its script or cinematography as without Rahman’s score.
One of the world’s most prolific and celebrated cinematic composers and top-selling recording artists, Rahman has scored more than 110 films, starting with Roja (1993), which was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 best movie soundtracks. He is an equally avid student of cutting edge music and technology, and he uses both to turn out scores and songs that seamlessly combine classical Indian and Western sounds with modern vocal and instrumental styles.
For “Slumdog Millionaire,” Rahman blends Bollywood, hip-hop, world music and more to not only complement but significantly carry the film’s energetic plot and audience-pleasing themes. In a recent phone interview, Rahman spoke about how he used Logic and other tools to create his eclectic, ambitious score against unforgiving deadlines.
How did you come to work with director Danny Boyle on “Slumdog Millionaire”?
Well, I was really busy last year. I was doing about eight films, too many really. And I had this email saying “Hey I’m Danny Boyle, I like your work, and it would be great for us to have you on our film.” I didn’t know what to answer. But after exchanging several more emails, I met him personally in Mumbai. And when I talked to him, I had some interest and I wanted to see the film. He had a first cut of the film already, and when I saw that I was really interested and wanted to do it. So I left another film to do this one. I made time for it.
Was your work on this film different than on other films?
In some ways it was different, because it didn’t require as much work as I sometimes do for other films, but it required high-quality work. Danny usually uses many composers for a film because he wants different feels in the music. When you go to just one composer, it usually has one feel. So I took a clue from that and tried to think about what he might get from different writers with different sensibilities, always keeping something of mine in everything I wrote. He thought I wouldn't have time to do that, so he was just going to have me do a few songs, but I feel you have a responsibility to the whole movie.
Each track in this film is completely different from the other. The film needed that, because it follows one person’s life, but in many different situations and moments from that life. And for the same reason, there are different cultural elements: some are very strong Indian influences, and some are very pop influences. If you take all the good things from ten different soundtracks and put it together, it can make a beautiful soundtrack of its own.
How long did it take to compose the “Slumdog Millionaire” score?
The initial ideas were all done on this very basic idea of me singing or playing keyboards and vocals. I’d send Danny a scratch of each idea over email, several for each cue he’d given me. Danny would listen and tell me which of the numbers he liked, and he’d start placing them. That was done a couple of months back. When I had collected all of these ideas, I went to England, and we spent three weeks together and finished the score. We’d originally scheduled four weeks, but because Danny decided to mix the film early, we had that much less time to do it.
Any disagreement about the kind of score you wanted?
Normally when I work with a director I work through his eyes, and through his vision, and that’s how I worked with Danny. Ideally, he gets excited when he hears the sound I’ve delivered. At the same time, he challenges me to produce other sounds and ideas. It made the job so much easier for me than if I’d done something radically different on my own and then tried to fit it into the film’s conception and convince people.
Do you typically write both the songs and the score for a film?
Back in the day, it was common in India to be a composer and songwriter; it was always that way. You would finish the songs in four days, then the background music in four days. Today that is changing a little in India.
Describe your method for scoring a film.
I mostly don't write to specifically defined cues. I just watch the film a couple of times, stop watching it, then write something that comes to my mind from the film. This way, when I try to sync the music, the results are that much more wholesome. You get something extra that you don't get when you're looking at specific points in the timeline. The music is much more organic this way, not jumping cue to cue. It's more about counterpointing and, sometimes, walking hand-in-hand. Most of the time it works out. If you watch the picture and try to have a specific chord change here, a tempo change there, when the director comes back and wants to move picture, you find that you've wasted time. I think this way is more appealing to me and to the people watching the film. Click tracks and following the SMPTE are necessary for some things, but once you have everything in Logic, then afterwards you can edit and make minor changes.