Birdman is an intensely complex, often frustrating collision of three separate levels of reality. First off there’s us, the audience, watching the movie through the constantly uneasy camera. Then there’s Riggan and the cast’s struggle to get the play staged which in turn splinters into the action on stage and the action off. Then there’s Riggan’s perceptions and whether or not they match up with reality. It’s an extremely complex internal structure and the music is a vital part of navigating that landscape. It manages this by being the single thing in the movie that’s actually simple. There are two entirely distinct soundtracks; one for the play, one for everything else and both serve to enhance, and parody, the plots they’re attached to.
The play’s music is actually the easiest one to talk about. It’s all classical, taking in Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Mahler and Tchaikovsky. It’s textbook, note perfect stuff that’s deployed to create exactly the sort of constructed emotional response any given soundtrack is designed to do. Look at the way the strings soar under Riggan’s first delivery of his big monologue, the way the music acts as connective tissue between the audience, the stage and the audience on the other side of the camera. This is idealized fiction, the well-oiled machine of drama playing the emotions of its audience as precisely as the musicians pluck their strings. It’s perfect, and artificial and knows it. Just like the camera work embodies the unease of the production, the play’s score embodies the idealized dramatic reality the production is trying to reach.
In stark contrast, the original score, by Antonio Sanchez, embodies the same unease as the camera work. Where the precise, clean orchestral work is confined to the dramatic Valhalla of the play actually being performed, the rest of the soundtrack stalks around the theatre like an extra character. The combination of regimented beats and percussion with improvisation is essentially the movie’s central struggle in musical form; over there is the ideal, complete, defined form we’re aiming for.,
We’re over here.
It also serves, as so much of the film does, to explore Riggan’s perceptions of reality. The drumming’s nervous, tense energy is in line with his own but things get really interesting when the drumming, and drummers, become part of Riggan’s flawed perceptions. A drummer he passes on the street is seen inside the theatre, still playing, during his last walk to stage and Riggan hallucinates a college drumline after he’s shot himself. In both cases the unease encoded into the music becomes a visual as well as aural representation of Riggan’s state of mind. And in both cases, the music doesn’t stop because if it stops, Riggan stops and that can’t happen.
The music of Birdman is a participant rather than an accompaniment. It’s music as mindset, music as goal and music as limitation. The drums always build, always promise and never quite deliver. But they never, ever stop trying and in doing so embody the film’s most positive element; creativity of any sort is insanely difficult. But we do it anyway.