PARIS • Youth, the first feature film by Paolo Sorrentino since his Oscarwinning 2013 ode to Rome, The Great Beauty, stars Michael Caine as Fred Ballinger, an ageing composer passing time at an Alpine resort and reflecting on his life.
Much of the drama hinges on whether he will conduct a concert of a work that made him famous, his Simple Song #3, inextricably linked in his mind to an irrecoverable past.
To score the film - and to write Simple Song #3 - Sorrentino turned to David Lang, the celebrated new-music composer based in New York whose work has been described as post-Minimalist.
The director came across Lang's compositions when he was looking for Minimalist sacred music for The Great Beauty and used one of his choral works for the film's breathtaking opening scene, in which a women's chorus sings inside the arched backdrop to one of Rome's historic fountains.
When Sorrentino started on Youth, which opens in the United States on Friday, he immediately thought of Lang. "He's able to create music that's not only complex, but also accessible, while remaining refined and intelligent. He seemed the best contemporary composer to do the soundtrack."
Usually, scores are written after the filming, when the editing is under way. For Youth, Lang, 58, had to finish before the filming began because the refrains of melody are an important plot point. Fragments of Simple Song are played by different figures: a young boy practising his violin as well as virtuoso violinist Viktoria Mullova and soprano Sumi Jo, who perform the work with the BBC Concert Orchestra on-screen and on the soundtrack.
"I had to figure out how to make Simple Song carry all the emotional story for Michael Caine's character," said Lang. "Like in an opera, you plant motives throughout the movie so that when the song comes, it feels completely new, but is something you've heard before."
The song begins with a straightforward four-note refrain and builds to a sweeping climax. Lang had to compose "something that was probably more emotionally direct than I am used to", he said.
For several months, he and Sorrentino were in long-distance communication. "I kept sending demos of the song to Paolo, things I thought were emotionally devastating," Lang said. "He would write back and say, 'I'm sorry, I am crying a little, but I need to cry a lot.'"
The breakthrough eventually came. "There's this gigantic crescendo to a big explosion towards the end of Simple Song, when the whole orchestra comes in and it's really loud," Lang said.
"In my first version, the whole orchestra comes in, but it wasn't really loud because I just thought, I don't want to be so demonstrative. When I sent him the last demo, all he said was, 'David, now I am crying.' And then I knew I had it."
While Lang's composition becomes part of Ballinger's emotional universe, the soundtrack also includes pop, such as songs by Paloma Faith, who appears in the film as herself. Youth also stars Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz and Paul Dano, with Jane Fonda appearing in a memorable cameo.
Music has always been crucial to Sorrentino's films. Il Divo (2008), his study of political power in Italy, was set to a rock soundtrack; and his first English-language film, This Must Be The Place (2011), took its title from a Talking Heads song and starred Sean Penn as a retired heavy-metal rocker in search of a former Nazi camp guard.
In creating Ballinger, Sorrentino said he read about Igor Stravinsky. "I'm fascinated by things I don't understand," he said.
Lang never met Caine during the filming, but advised Sorrentino on how a composer and conductor might behave.
In one scene, Ballinger stands in a field of cows and conducts The Wood Symphony, a whimsical piece with cowbells composed by Lang.
A conductor "has the power to make people stop playing", Lang said, "and it would show much more of the conductor's power to show him telling the cows to be quiet."
NEW YORK TIMES