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The Alienist is an American television period drama mystery series based on the novel of the same name by Caleb Carr. The ten episode series currently running on TNT stars Daniel Brühl, Luke Evans and Dakota Fanning as a team assembled in late 1890s New York City to investigate a ritualistic serial killer who is murdering street children. The title comes from a late-19th century belief about mental illness. At that time, the mentally ill were considered to be “alienated” from their true nature. Those who studied mental illness were therefore known as “alienists.”
The titular alienist is Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl), a criminal psychologist hired to secretly conduct an investigation into the case by police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (the future President of the United States). Kreizler is aided in his task by newspaper illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans) and Sarah Howard (Dakota Fanning), the police commissioner’s secretary.
The music for The Alienist was composed by Rupert Gregson-Williams. A truly versatile composer, Gregson-Williams has written a wide range of scores for many feature films, including the Oscar-winning Hotel Rwanda for which he was awarded the European Film Award for Best Composer, the blockbuster DreamWorks animated films Over The Hedge and Jerry Seinfeld’s Bee Movie, for which Rupert was nominated for an Annie Award for his original score and the independent BBC Films’ Love + Hate, for which he was awarded the Reims International Composer Award.
Most recently, Gregson-Williams scored the blockbuster and critically acclaimed Wonder Woman directed by Patty Jenkins and starring Gal Gadot and Chris Pine; the award-winning war drama Hacksaw Ridge, starring Andrew Garfield and directed by Mel Gibson, and the international hit The Legend of Tarzan. His upcoming film projects include “Terminal,” starring Margot Robbie and written and directed by Vaughn Stein.
Having cut the cable cord several years ago, I haven’t been able to watch the show yet, but based on the soundtrack, I think I need to. From the very start with “The Streets of New York” and “Brooklyn Bridge,” there is an old-time sound that is meant to recall the late-19th century. In fact, I was strongly put in mind of the soundtrack to Sherlock Holmes (2009) which is set in a similar time period (albeit in London and not New York City).
The cue titled “Dr. Laszlo Kreizler,” which I assume is his theme, intrigued me. Given that he’s the titular character, it struck me how sinister his theme sounds with a descending three note motif that recurs in strings and piano. This could be because he studies the mentally ill and crimes committed by people who suffer from mental illness and as a result he’s “tainted” for lack of a better word by what he’s seen. Of course it could also be a musical hint that Kreizler is a villain in disguise, but I can’t say for certain (though now I want to read the book and watch the show to find out if I’m right or not).
Another cue that caught my attention is “Madness of the City” which literally starts with a growl that briefly settles back before exploding into a mad cacophony that literally sounds like someone trying to break through a locked door (which may have been what they were going for) with repeated “banging” sounds. The entire track is underlaid with raging strings (primarily the cello) that continually make their presence known. This is definitely one of my favorite tracks. “Alienated Mind” is also an interesting piece because it consists of long musical drones that remind me of a Buddhist monk chanting “Ommm…”
Finally, I’ll talk about the main title theme for the show, which is very short (only 35 seconds) but contains a wealth of detail. Instead of possessing a distinct theme as most shows do (for example Penny Dreadful, Game of Thrones, Star Trek and NCIS just to name a few), the main theme for The Alienist more closely resembles what music theorists call a “sound cloud,” that is to say a mashup of music that is loosely organized (otherwise it would just be noise) but has no distinct melody. It contains elements from several of the tracks I’ve looked at already, and it carries an air of mystery about it.
And those are my thoughts on the soundtrack for The Alienist. The soundtrack is currently available via Lakeshore Records. My thanks to The Krakower Group for making this soundtrack available for review. Let me know what you think of The Alienist and its soundtrack in the comments below!
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See also: Film Soundtracks A-W