Personnel: Nils Frahm (piano, harmonium, keyboards); Jacques Gandard, Benjamin Fabre, Lea Vandenhelsken, Sayaka Fabre (violin); Christophe Briquet, Camille Borsarello (viola); Frédéric Deville, Cyrille Lacrouts (cello); Henri Lucas (double bass).
Audio Mixer: Nils Frahm.
Recording information: Durton Studio, Berlin.
Director: Robert De Niro.
Editor: Maxime Pozzi-Garcia.
Ellis is an effectual piece of work from Berlin-based composer and pianist Nils Frahm and the multi-skilled singer/songwriter Woodkid. The two talents joined forces to produce a delicate yet resounding half-hour soundtrack to French artist and photographer JR's short film Ellis. The film itself is a journey through time and memory, and tells the story of immigrants who fled poverty and discrimination, searching for better lives in the U.S. and other parts of the world. The first track, "Winter Morning I," consists of a room's eerily vast and empty acoustics, with nicely arpeggiated chords spanning the first two minutes of the track, bubbling atop notes a few octaves below. Frahm's ability to transcend key and tone is greatly constructed here. You get the sense of space and awe, with the occasional, lightly pressing percussion tapping like brushes against drum skins, and notes that are unwaveringly strong and bold in their evocation of the true sense of journeying into the unknown. However, as strong and as bold as these notes are, they undeniably flow like water, capturing the air of the empty rooms shown in the film. The track ends by picking itself up, climbing octaves in a wonderfully executed pattern among rising, sharp strings, seemingly building to a crescendo before falling away to another sequence of chords and hopeful violas before building up again.
Leading into the B-side, "Winter Morning II" is Frahm's own interpretation of the A-side, and a result of his decision to listen to the film's star (Robert De Niro, who portrays a lone immigrant wandering throughout the dilapidated Ellis Island Hospital complex); he plays De Niro's voice on a loop as he sits down at his harmonium one day. Beginning with the ghostly sound of a bell ringing and fading out into the distance above a piercing, unwavering bass tone, De Niro's intense, cracked words creep in and hang over the rest of the mix. The track is a much more ominous companion piece than the first one, consisting of more prolonged, sorrowful strings that provide the perfect backdrop to his dialogue, painting a perfect illustration of recollections that are as striking to listen to as they are to watch on film. Every now and then, certain words and phrases are anchored with heavy reverb to effectively highlight the significance of the subject at hand, not only throughout history but in more recent times, too; particularly in regard to the international 2015-2016 refugee crisis. Ellis is a powerful piece of work. Both tracks are effective in their own ways: the first half depicts hope, fear, and perseverance with one beautiful composition, while the second half reminds us that music and art should never be underestimated in their ability to encourage and inspire change. ~ Rob Wacey