Review taken from Kevin Lozano’s review over at Pitchfork
Ellis Island was in operation from January 1st of 1892 to November 12 of 1954. That’s 62 years, 10 months, and 11 days. Over the course of that time, over twelve million immigrants passed through the island. According to the records, 3,500 people died from illness or injury. Only 2% of incoming immigrants, surprisingly, were turned away in 62 years. That’s a little over 240,000 people. Understanding the perspective of those 3,500 dead and 240,000 turned away is a key part of Ellis, a film by the French artist JR. Known to some as the “French Banksy” (take that however you will), a street artist and photographer famous for pasting enormous black-and-white images of tragic images on city streets, he was invited in 2014 to make work for a show at Ellis Island called “Unframed.” He pasted life-size images of Ellis Island workers and immigrants on several walls of the south side of the island complex. And then a year later he invited Robert De Niro to narrate a short film (14 minutes total) about Ellis Island’s immigrants, inspired by the project.
Accompanying the film, giving it texture outside of the visual is a score composed by Woodkid, better known as Yoann Lemoine, an award-winning music video director known for his work with Katy Perry (“Teenage Dream”), Taylor Swift (“Back to December”), and Lana Del Rey (“Born to Die”). His solo music work tends towards orchestral ambient with melodramatic flourishes that have overtones of Michael Bay. The score’s co-writer is the Berlin composer, Nils Frahm, who also performed the entire piece. This is just Woodkid’s second score for film, but Frahm has been busy in the last year with scores, making one for Victoria, a one-shot club heist escapade.
The film is composed mainly of a very slow, cleverly edited, one-shot tour of the abandoned Ellis island facilities. Viewers are given glimpses of De Niro passing through rooms. He narrates everything from the perspective of a long-deceased immigrant abandoned by both parents. The narrator dies on Ellis Island, never entering the country. The script that DeNiro reads from in Ellis was written by the Oscar winner Eric Roth (Forrest Gump), and the writing for the film shares the same, strange, didactic historical view of Forrest Gump, as well as its fondness for melodrama and bathos.
There are two tracks total for the score to Ellis, “Winter Morning 1” and “Winter Morning II” (which features De Niro’s full monologue). The score is built from a single piano and the accretion of ambient noises (rain, breathing, shuffling, etc). It slowly builds up towards a dramatic armada of strings. The most interesting part of the score is probably Frahm’s use of the piano, which is supposed to mimic the sounds of a dilapidated piano they found on the ruins of the island. According to Nils and Woodkid, the natural imperfection of the piano sound made it so that the recording caught the instrument breathing, working, and heaving through the process. “Winter Morning 2” is essentially the film made into an audiobook with a slightly different sonic backdrop. The pianos are replaced with a sustained warbles and bass noises that mimic the dank and dark compositions of Colin Stetson.