Just as Oliver Sacks was finishing his autobiography, he learned he had 6 months to live.
The world-renowned neurologist — and author of books like Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat — had terminal cancer. He invited Ric Burns to document his thoughts, and interview colleagues.
Paul Allen backed the film. “Oliver Sacks: His Own Life” is a story of discovery, fascination, incredible human compassion, quirky humor, heartbreak, and the wonders of being alive.
It debuted as a hit at Telluride, sold out the New York Film Festival, and will air on PBS’ “American Masters.” It opens September 23 via streaming, and in art house theaters.
The documentary’s soundtrack was composed and created by Brian Keane. The 1971 Staples High School graduate has composed the music for hundreds of films and television shows, produced over 100 albums, and earned Grammys, Emmys and Peabodys.
Sacks was a complicated subject to compose music for. It was a challenge to find the best ways to make the film move viewers — and move the story along.
“Oliver was quirky, but very serious,” Keane says. “He was intellectual, but extremely compassionate. His patients were strange by outward appearance, but human beings trapped in a tunnel of their maladies, viewing a glimpse of light from a distance that Oliver was at work trying to connect for them.
“Oliver was deeply troubled himself, yet uniquely gifted. There is a deep sense of wonder, and fascination with life itself and with our existence, in this story. Oliver was asking ‘who are we?,’ yet this is also a story of a man who had 6 months to live.”
Sacks was also a classical pianist and music lover. At one point in the film Keane left him playing his own, slightly out-of-tune piano. Keane used the piano as Oliver’s voice, often with a live chamber orchestra for emotional intensity.
In the 1980s, Keane produced 4 records of Tibetan Bells with Henry Wolff and Nancy Hennings, and 1 with Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart.
He thought the bells’ strange, wavelike qualities would give a scientific-like feeling of a different mind, looking at different types of conditions. They too became part of the score.
“We needed pioneering electronics to devise sounds of inside-the-brain scientific discovery as well,” Keane explains. He and longtime engineer Jeff Frez-Albrecht explored their electronic creation devices to form a palette of other-worldly custom electronic sounds for the film.
Oliver was a wild child of the ’60s, so Keane included some rock ‘n’ roll — much like he played as a guitarist in Charlie Karp’s Reunion Band.
Keane scored the main theme as a waltz, for a sense of quirkiness. The melody is simple, full of wonder. It’s accompanied by the Tibetan Bells, to give a deeper sense of cutting-edge discovery, and is supported by a chamber orchestra.
The other main theme was “compassionate,” Keane says. It opens with a single note, then widens the intervals to large leaps, amplifying the emotional empathy.
Elsewhere, he says, the score simply needed to connect what was being said or felt to a deeper meaning. That’s exemplified in the credit music: a simple piano figure with chamber orchestra, and bowed metal creating eerie sounds in “a heartbreakingly beautiful, wistfully ethereal and poignant way.”
Intrigued? Click here to listen to the score. Click below, for the official trailer.
Then mark your calendar for September 23, and the release of the fascinating (and musically compelling) “Oliver Sacks: His Own Life.”