The big score

Oak Park composer has a hit with 'March of the Penguins'

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When composer Alex Wurman was offered the job of writing the score for his latest film, he jumped at the chance. "The movie has a story that is positive, characters that are intricate, and I could see a love store there," he remembers. "There was an opportunity for me to write a love theme, so I was happy about that, too."

Now audiences and critics alike are giving rave reviews to the film, particularly to Wurman's lyrical and gentle score, which wordlessly expresses so much about love, about family, about hope, about sacrifice?#34;and especially about penguins.

Wurman?#34;an Oak Park native?#34;has been writing film scores for more than 10 years, and composed the music for such well-known (and widely varying) movies as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Hollywood Homicide, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. But March of the Penguins, a documentary about the mating and nesting rituals of the Emperor penguin, has brought unexpected fame to the composer.

That's partly due to the movie's success. It's now the second-highest grossing documentary ever, after Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. But the film also gives Wurman's music an extraordinary showcase, and proves the importance of the often-overlooked art of composing music for the screen.

March of the Penguins started out as a French documentary, combining heartfelt footage of penguin families with the brutally breathtaking Antarctic landscape. But in the French version, the story of the penguin families was voiced by actors playing the parts of Mommy, Daddy and Baby Penguin, while a French techno-pop soundtrack tootled in the background.

The film's American producers were enchanted by the dramatic and beautifully photographed story, but were left cold by the trite dialogue and the flightless soundtrack.

Wurman first encountered the film during a meeting with Mark Gill, head of Warner Independent Pictures, about a completely different project. "In our conversation that day, he sensed something and brought up March of the Penguins. He explained the story to me in a couple of paragraphs, and I wouldn't let him consider anybody else."

To Wurman?#34;married with a 4-year-old son and a 15-year-old stepson?#34;the story of the mother and father penguins' heroic struggle to keep their chicks alive in the coldest, most inhospitable place on Earth was "representative of any family putting everything they have toward each other's existence," he explained in a recent telephone interview from his California home. "I know a lot of families like that."

In the American version of the documentary, the astounding facts of the penguins' 70-mile trek across Antarctic ice is read by actor Morgan Freeman. But it's Wurman's score that provides the film's emotional core.

From Oak Park to Hollywood

Growing up in Oak Park, Wurman experienced the power of music from the cradle on. His father, Hans, was a classically trained composer, one of the first to work with the then-novel Moog synthesizer. His mother was a Suzuki violin teacher, and his older brother and two sisters were musicians as well. "By the time I came around, the house was already full of music, constantly?#34;the violin lessons, the practicing, my father playing his records. It was really fantastic. I always felt like music gave us a certain freedom to be who we were."

Oak Park provided a welcoming environment for young musicians, Wurman adds. "It was a fantastic place to be. I walked to Oliver Wendell Holmes school, past Frank Lloyd Wright homes. My father had these wonderful friends coming around the house who were all intellectual, open and artistically savvy. There was no oppression of the artist in Oak Park, that's for sure."

As he grew up, however, Wurman's extraordinary musical gift was counterbalanced by serious academic challenges. "I've never been a good student," he says. "Let's get that out on the table." After graduating from Oak Park and River Forest High School in 1984, he won a piano scholarship at the University of Miami (Fla.). The young composer was immediately welcomed by the school's music students. "I knew how to use a synthesizer and make it sound good. I started playing with bands with fantastic senior players."

As a freshman, he remembers staying up all night copying out complicated parts for band members. "My music was being performed by the greatest bands, but when I failed my piano class, they took away my scholarship." So he came back to Chicago, studied at the American Conservatory of Music and began writing music for commercials.

Then he heard from a friend who had moved to Los Angeles. "He had become friends with the son of a huge superstar. They wanted to make some music, and they thought of me, so they flew me out to work on some recordings. I stayed out here so long, I decided to move out here," Wurman explains.

He started out scoring student films. But within a short time, he began writing music for independent films. "I certainly have not had a career that you can say I was shot right to the top," he says. Over the years, however, the 38-year-old composer has earned a reputation as a creative and versatile musician who can craft the perfect score for anything from a broad comedy to an offbeat intellectual drama to a penguin movie.

"It is fun, but it is taxing," Wurman says. "I have to hurry up and learn a style. I have to hurry up and find the musicians, and I have to find all these new methods of getting it done. Every single movie, I feel like I'm just starting to get decent at making the music by the time I'm done."

Right now, he's working on another Will Ferrell movie, High, Wide and Handsome, which he describes, chuckling, as a story of NASCAR drivers and humility. The score, Wurman says, will be "action orchestra with blue-grass band. We'll see how it turns out."

In the meantime, his Penguins score is spurring speculation about a possible Academy Award for the 38-year-old composer. "It's really interesting to hear people talk about Oscar buzz regarding something that I did," he says.

He's already booked for one big honors ceremony: OPRF's Tradition of Excellence Award, on Nov. 4. This honor from his old high school is especially sweet given his academic struggles, Wurman says. "It's a beautiful thing that life is a work in progress. It certainly didn't look like I was going to be winning any awards when I graduated. In retrospect, I think it's really important for kids to learn that their skills and strengths will be embraced, that they will be able to put them to use and compartmentalize all these frustrations of trying to fit in, to prevent those frustrations from overtaking their lives."

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