There’s something to be said for the fact that the soundtrack to director Alexander Payne’s deft and moving new film “The Descendants” is one of the more compelling collections of Hawaiian music in recent memory -- and the CD has nothing to do with surfing or hula. Like the film, it operates on the premise that life is messy, even in paradise.
In one scene, the KanakAttack trio sings -- and yodels (yes, yodels) -- a Jimmie Rodgers-style cowboy song in the Tahiti Nui restaurant. It’s then that harried father Matt King (George Clooney), who is struggling to hold his unraveling family together, has an epiphany.
It’s not the film’s only musical revelation, especially if what comes to mind when you think of Hawaii is Don Ho or Arthur Lyman’s “exotica.” Here, though, there’s ne’er a bubble to be found, tiny or otherwise. Rather, most of the music is in the style known as “slack-key,” largely acoustic guitars and voices, laid-back but melancholy and the perfect complement to the story’s setting and complicated emotions.
The soundtrack features some of the architects of the genre’s modern era: Gabby Pahinui, Sonny Chillingworth, Ray Kane and Keola Beamer among them, artists representing generations of fishing-village life under colonial rule (represented in the film by Clooney’s King). We see the descendants of a Caucasian land baron, and hear the descendants of those who gave them the trust of the land. Only it’s not as simple as that, simplicity being something that Payne, working from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, goes out of his way to avoid.
In the liner notes to the soundtrack CD, Payne (who previously brought us similar emotional untidiness in “Election,” “About Schmidt” and “Sideways”) says that when he first heard Pahinui’s music while researching soundtrack choices, he got the same “chills” when hearing Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” at age 18. He cites Simon & Garfunkel’s music in “The Graduate” as a model for how he wanted to use songs by Pahinui -- illuminating not just the emotions but the locales.
“For such a small area, there’s an intimidating amount to learn about their tremendous musical heritage,” Payne said in an email interview.
Music supervisor Dondi Bastone listened to “mountains of music” to find things fitting the film’s needs, he explains, and Jay Junker, a professor in the University of Hawaii’s ethnomusicology program, was brought in to tutor Payne, Bastone and music editor Richard Ford. Junker gave insights into the hard-to-translate nuances of the songs’ “references, metaphors and double-entendres,” Payne says. Junker also stressed how much the meanings of the songs were tied to specific locations in the islands.
"[He] tried to dissuade us from using, say, a Big Island song over a scene on Oahu,” Payne says. “He said that ‘old-timers’ would know the difference and object. Although in the end we opted for feeling, rhythm and emotion over locative considerations, Junker’s perspective suggested the truly deep roots that autochthonous music holds for Hawaiian people.”
A little condensed (and incomplete) history: The guitar came to Hawaii with cowboys (and cows) stocking the colonial ranches in the late 19th century. Locals embraced it, favoring open tunings with some strings loosened -- hence “slack-key” -- adapting local ceremonial chants, missionaries’ hymns and cowboys’ laments. Some of this made its way back to the mainland with a growing tropical craze in the 1920s, adding an exotic touch to early country music with its steel guitars.
The soundtrack’s oldest selection is a prime example: It’s a 1930 arrangement of the traditional “Ka Mele Oku’u Pu’wai” done by Hawaiian slide steel guitar pioneer Sol Hoopii and his Novelty Trio. As tourist trade increased, musical exchange with the mainland did too, back and forth until the evolutionary trail blurs somewhat.
But slack-key for the most part stayed put, at least until it caught the open ears of Ry Cooder -- a devotee of open tunings himself. Cooder guested on a 1975 album by modern slack-key patriarch Gabby Pahinui and his family. Pahinui, in turn, was featured on a couple of tracks on Cooder’s 1976 album “Chicken Skin Music.”
A case could be made that many elements of this music are no more native to Hawaii than the high-rise and ranch-house architecture Payne pointedly shows in the film. Is it more “authentic” than Arthur Lyman’s diversions from the ‘50s, or current ukulele dazzler Jake Shimabukuro playing “Bohemian Rhapsody”? Maybe time, and local ownership, have made it all truly Hawaiian.
Which brings us back to the yodeling cowboy song.
“You can make any case you like,” Payne says. “But my impetus for choosing that yodeling song was to have something ridiculous and grating accompanying the protagonist’s confusion and alienation.”
Perfect for the messy life in paradise.