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Michael Phelps is a disciplined narrator in ‘The Weight Of Gold’: Composer Simon Taufique

“It has been a magnificent learning experience,” says composer Simon Taufique, whose name is attached to the HBO documentary The Weight Of Gold, which is executive produced by Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. Since the documentary’s release, Simon notes that more people have come forward with accounts of mental distress, or even with questions about mental health awareness.

Simon, who lives in New York, had been organising a filmmaker mixer every month for the past 10 years; at one of these, he met Ellyn Vander Wyden, a producer on The Weight Of Gold which at the time was nearing completion but needed music. Ellyn brought Simon on board and the rest came together quite quickly.

When Simon started working with the director, Brett Rapkin, he asked Brett what he was trying to communicate. This was before the Tokyo Olympics were postponed, so there was a push to get the film released by the time the Olympics began. “A big part of it was to unveil what really goes on for these athletes in the shadow of the Olympics,” he recalls. “The Olympics was this shadowy character in the film. We asked about these characters who are spending their lives preparing for the Olympics and once the Olympics are over, they are left in the shadow. Brett gave me the freedom to try different things, and he was doing the same thing with the film as he knew there was a possibility that the Olympics would be postponed. This would then shift the nature of the documentary and the pandemic would play a bigger part in the message. It would allow people to look at this as not just a story about athletes but about mental health which affects us all.”

Michael Phelps is a disciplined narrator in ‘The Weight Of Gold’: Composer Simon Taufique

Sports and distress

This is not the first time Simon has worked on a project about people in psychological distress. In this respect, states Simon, music helps bridge what cannot be communicated, especially when many of those in the film have futures which depend on singular events like the Olympics.

“Brett and I zeroed in on the project having ‘persistent tension or stress’ that, on one hand, fuels you but, on the other, keeps you from doing anything else. I had to incorporate that sound into all the pieces in the score. I also didn’t want it to become so persistent that you recoil from it; hopefully it is felt rather than heard.”

The composer was conscious that the sound palette not be epic or Olympian, which can be quite celebratory through big drums, brass and ensembles. Instead, for The Weight Of Gold, there is a lot of isolation amid the grandeur. So he had to go small, focussing on solo instruments, cold-sounding synthesizers, and a lot of arpeggios to reflect the constant momentum despite the obstacles. The pace also helps slow the film’s internal clock, Simon points out. He picks a scene in which Phelps swims at night, where all these come together well. “There is no tempo to that piece, it is just a solo double bass. {Phelps} at that point, is in a place where he has to conclude if he is just a swimmer or more than that.”


Michael’s discipline

Phelps being an executive producer makes the project all the more raw. From a controversial sportsperson who has been vocal about mental health, the documentary is a remarkable deep dive. He is also the documentary’s narrator, and Simon describes his narrative style as very disciplined.

“He is a machine when it comes to training and goal-fulfilment and his narration is deliberate. It sounded like someone who has gone through a lot of struggle and has come out solid in his command of his journey. His interviews portray a sense of vulnerability but what I got from Michael’s narration was someone who is stronger because of that. This is the voice of someone who has won 23 gold medals.” Other Olympians in the film include Apolo Ohno, Shaun White, Lolo Jones, Gracie Gold, and Katie Uhlaender.

There are points in the score where there is no music at all, and Simon and Brett are big fans of letting things breathe. Simon adds that “one of the worst tendencies in composing is the need to wallpaper every moment with music, which devalues the function. Silence helps audiences digest the moments”.

Simon, whose family is from Mumbai, says The Weight Of Gold can be appreciated by Indian communities where mental health issues and highly competitive sports often converge but are rarely discussed. He is looking forward to such a social and global impact of this film.

The Weight Of Gold is airing on HBO.

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Printable version | Sep 27, 2020 2:13:07 AM |

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