(The soundtrack is best revisited after watching the film. Consequently the review has been updated post the film's release. See updated comments in italics after each song).
If there's one music director that perks up your anticipation then it's the king himself...A.R.Rahman! But as good as he is, the legend is a wanted man and his busy international schedule proves exactly that. So going into partnership with the maestro in the current climate can be seen as very risky business particularly in Bollywood. Let’s face it his last effort was the quite forgettable Jhootha Hi Sahi. But Imtiaz Ali is no ordinary filmmaker. We are talking about a director who dropped Pritam after Jab We Met and Love Aaj Kal which were consecutive blockbuster soundtracks! So why take the risk? Why drop somebody who gave us arguably the best rock soundtrack of this era with Life in a Metro? Or alternatively why not select other music directors with a proven track record like SEL (Rock On!! anyone)? Says the director “When I envisioned a rock music score, I didn’t want a copy of western rock instead I wanted music that adhered to the principles of rock but originated from our land and from our realities. I wanted music that was organic to the character and yet had an appeal beyond conventional Bollywood music.” So naturally he felt that in order to deliver this kind of soundtrack, he required the services of a maestro like Rahman: "Just as you cast actors, you look for the best guy to compose that style of music. Most often, the best guy is Rahman sir. In this case, he very specifically was.” So there you have the reason for Imtiaz Ali's selection of Rahman for his forthcoming musical film, Rockstar.
Notwithstanding the various delays and redrafts of certain songs (there’s no denying Imtiaz Ali did ask Rahman to rework on some songs) the end product certainly shows promise on paper. Firstly, the choice of Irshad Kamil as lyricist is compelling but one that is entirely deserved and it should serve the music well. With a bumper 14-track album you really begin to appreciate how important the music is (for the film) and given the scope on offer, one would expect plenty of variety and experimentation? Firstly there is a split of songs between background tunes and songs created specifically for the protagonist of the film, Jordan aka Rockstar. It is critical to understand this distinction. Remember Jordan’s songs are meant to suit the character in the film (a struggling musician) so don’t expect them to be groundbreaking. He’s on a steep learning curve so Rahman has created apt songs that feel ‘real’ and show Jordan’s potential. Where he (Rahman) should shine is in the background songs.
But there are also two potential limitations to this approach. It means half the songs are performed by Mohit Chauhan who has been chosen as the voice of Jordan. That is understandable given he is a current favourite of Rahman, but does his vocals really suit rock music? One sincerely hopes the usual reliance by music directors on his ‘soothing’ vocals is avoided. Secondly Rahman has already confronted our expectations somewhat by confirming that “Rockstar is a character driven film and as one can guess from the title, there will be lots of guitar". This can also be a hindrance to innovation. So the big question is can these potential limitations be overcome to make this a winning soundtrack? Was it a risk or a blessing for Imtiaz Ali to replace Pritam? And more importantly, has Rahman managed to juggle all his workload to produce a well balanced soundtrack? Let’s find out…
The expected combination of the guitar and Mohit Chauhan are utilised for Track 1 making “Phir Se Ud Chala” , an uplifting dreamy opener for the album and whilst you may get the instant rush of happiness and jubilation, the reality is there’s nothing here that we haven’t heard before. The music is bright and breezy to begin with thanks to a gorgeous mandolin (George Doering) alongside guitar strumming (by Randy Bersen) and Mohit sounds soothing for sure...but don’t we know that already? Also the music begins to dither around the 3 min mark with Mohit's annoying tutudu tutudu chants, what happened there and why? Irshad’s lines are probably the highlight of the song but on a music front, this is essentially just a background tune so enjoy it while you can but please keep your feet firmly on the ground, there’s certainly much bigger and better things to come from the album. Update: As expected the song acts as a background tune for the visit to Kashmir but also portrays Jordan's new found emotions that he releases through his singing...used quite effectively and the length is not a hindrance on the big screen either.
“Tinga linga linga linga linga…” is Rahman’s trademark style of introducing a song and this little hook line frankly ignites Track 3: “Katiya Karun”, a folksy song that plays blissfully in the background to the film thus allowing Rahman to experiment a little more. But in the music department he keeps things very simple and uncomplicated with a very soft unerring tune performed by Gujrati folk musicians and helped along by a lovely guitar strummed by Keba Jeremiah. Harshdeep Kaur gives us a further glimpse of her talents as her stunning sufi vocals just add more depth and value to the song. Get ready to hit the repeat button for this groovy little tune that has a canny knack of putting a smile on your face. Update: It acts as a background tune as predicted but has less impact than other songs on the big screen.
If you have any interest in sufi / qawalli music then you will not be able to contain your emotions listening to track 4: “Kun Faya Kun” (meaning “Be” and “It is” i.e. the creation of God) which is by far the most soulful song of the album. As a sufi himself, Rahman has a knack of producing these magical portals that spellbound you and allow you to connect with the Almighty. As well as the usual combination of harmonium and tabla(by Neelakantan and Prasad), Rahman goes one step further here and adds another layer of beauty when he introduces the guitar (by Keba) to essay the role of the protagonist along with a brilliant little cameo by Mohit Chauhan. Of course, as is the tradition for these songs, Rahman himself sings with a lot of earnest with Javed Ali providing superb support in the background. The lyrics by Irshad are touching to say the least. “Kun Faya Kun” is just superb throughout although whether it surpasses the bewitching qualities of “Khwaja Mere Khwaja” from Jodhaa Akbar is debatable. Still it’s a privilege to listen to. Update: The song is spellbinding on the sets of Dargah Sharif in Ajmer. Must see!
Getting back to the film we have a very filmi song titled "Sheher Mein" (Track 5) further portraying the trials and tribulations of the protagonist Jordan who is trying to record a song in the studio with interrupting director vocals such as "cut" etc. The concept is fresh and the music uplifting with funky beats and some cool guitars by Keba Jeremiah and bass guitar by Keith Peters. The highlight of the song are the cool interacting vocals between Mohit Chauhan and Karthik. One for the film but otherwise don’t expect much longevity from this song as a stand alone product. Update: Picturised in a recording studio as envisaged. Limited impact.
Says Imtiaz Ali “I told him (Rahman) how Jordan, the protagonist, is inarticulate, how he can express himself only through music, how his music is influenced by not only his situation but also by the music of the place he visits. So when Jordan is in Prague hanging about with gypsies, he imbibes their spirit and makes gypsy music. This is what Hawaa Hawaa is…” Technically “Hawaa Hawaa” is the most impressive song of the entire album and also according to Rahman himself “the most challenging to compose”. On a single listen you know exactly why…multiple layers of instrumentation (including drums, violin, mandolin, guitar and dulcimer) and colourful styles, all magically interwoven together splashing a fusion of salsa sounds onto the ear that in turn, signal a wonderful message to the brain and cue: delirious smile and a happy feeling followed by feet tapping! At long last Mohit Chauhan’s vocals are utilized in a fresh avatar here and low and behold they are an absolute treat to listen to but his supporting singers are equally fantastic (Viviane Chaix, Tanvi Shah, Suvi Suresh, Shalini). Lyrics by Irshad Kamil are a mixture of wit, humour and storytelling at its brilliant best. "Hawaa Hawaa" is pure magic from start to finish! Update: Sounds even better when set against the colourful backdrop of Prague..
We reach the half way point of the album and it’s looking very good indeed. Can that quality be maintained for the rest of the songs? The eerie but powerful orchestra present in "Aur Ho" (Track 7) has been used quite often by Rahman and the style is reminiscent (last used in “Behene De” from Raavan), particularly the use of additional backing vocals which on this occasion are provided by Alma Ferovic (this style was also used by Rahman in 2004 for "Dhuan Dhuan" from Meenaxi). The haunting flute (Naveen Iyer) and guitar (Keba) are the highlight but in order to contextualise the music for a Rockstar, Rahman adds drums in the chorus however you feel more was needed to make it unique and stand out. Mohit Chauhan provides plenty of emotion to portray Jordan's feelings for Heer but he is very comfortable here. Irshad's lyrics are touching but lack impact. Overall, “Aur Ho” lacks the wow factor for a seasoned Rahman fan but give it time to grow on you and it's still a decent song especially for the film. Just don't expect to be returning to it much in the future. Update: The song comes at an important juncture in the film and portrays Jordan's progression as his feelings for Heer intensify...thus his emotions infuse passion and power into his voice and music.
You know there's something going for Track 8:"Naadan Parinde" that is worth listening to purely for the fact that Rahman himself sings to it! And yes it's an instantly enjoyable sufi-pop song as long as you don't expect anything mind-blowing from the music department. The song relies instead on a simple but catchy tune and the vocals of Rahman supported by none other than Mohit Chauhan (of course). Both have a blast and it shows! The expected guitar makes its presence felt with the acoustic (Keba) played alongside the electric (Sanjeev Thomas) notwithstanding the peppy drums (Sivamani). The whole package is easy to groove and pretty infectious but you will be disappointed if you were looking for a classic here. In fact, you begin to feel Rahman’s busy schedule is getting the better of him after such a good start. Update: The final song in the film confirms Jordan's status as an accomplished Rockstar albeit one whose passion is fuelled by a broken heart...the song exudes pathos..
As Jordan’s popularity grows, there is a need for a jackass anthem song and for that Imtiaz Ali and Irshad Kamil eventually arrive at the lines “Sadda Haq, Aithay Rakh” (Track 10) and pass them over...As if to make up ground for the dip in quality (tracks 7-9), Rahman ropes in Orianthi Panagaris, one of the zaniest contemporary guitarists (who also performed with the late Michael Jackson), and her electric guitar goes into free-fall berserk mode! The hook line “Saadda Haq, Aitthe Rakh” works a charm for the protagonist who is clearly trying to portray a message with an attitude. Mind you the rest of the lines are no less bold and enthralling, kudos Irshad Kamil. Mohit nails it here with some punchy hardcore vocals. This one should be a rage on and off the big screen…and Orianthi’s steroid-pumped guitar strums are simply mind-blowing, just turn UP that volume please and enjoy the blast! One of the best songs of Rockstar and arguably THE song of 2011. Update: Saadda Haq is just amplified on the big screen where Jordan is becoming a Rockstar with an attitude, there's simply no stopping him now!
Track 11: "Tum Ho" is a very simple romantic song but we expect more than just ‘simple’ from Rahman! The music is soothing but where those beats try to make the song melodious (and achieve it to some degree), there's no denying that they also smack of a little laziness and so the song is left on the shoulders of Mohit Chauhan. Whilst he renders emotively the song is well within his capabilities and no effort is made to push his vocals. As a result his voice just sounds 'soothing' again...sigh! Irshad’s lyrics are intentionally simple but a little drab. Disappointing hear on its own.Update: The song sounds infinitely better in the blissful setting of Kashmir where Mohit's voice resonates the feeling of Jordan for Heer...eternal love. His crooning and alaaps are sheer class! The piano interlude comes in its own as well...beautiful ending to the film.
Track 12: "Tango for Taj" is a striking instrumental with a delightful accordion played alongside a piano. Well worth a listen. Same for "The Dichotomy of Fame" (Track 13) which is a pleasant instrumental with a lovely shehnai performance by Balesh and some haunting guitar strums by Kabuli. Worth a listen just to hear the way the two instruments dovetail each other. Update: The DOF works well in the film as Jordan plays his guitar with a classical shehnai performer.
“The Meeting Place” (Track 14) is the final track containing the voice of Ranbir Kapoor. It's a haunting piece but far too short to leave any lasting impression. Leave this one for the film.
To produce an out and out high quality 14-song album takes a lot of time and effort and it is evident Rahman didn’t have this privilege for Rockstar. What you do get is a lot of variety and some experimentation but even then there's no denying that a lot of the songs sound like his previous work. Furthermore, the quality is very uneven particularly in the second half of the album (songs 7-11) which is underwhelming to say the least. However, it's important to point out that the music is integral to the film and vice versa so it might sound better on screen than it does as a stand-alone album. Update: It does indeed sound so much better on the big screen, in fact the music (including background score) is one of the biggest selling points of the film.
But for a standalone Rahman soundtrack, Rockstar will only ever fit in the 'very good' category. Only "Kun Faya Kun", “Hawaa Hawaa” and "Saadda Haq" can be classed as songs that have the wow factor that we come to associate with his best music. As expected, producing a winning 14-song album is a very tough ask for sure and there's no denying that his latest fans will be happy with the outcome but overall, for those who have had a taste of his true classics, it will not be remembered as one of his best. As for Imtiaz Ali, well what are his chances of collaborating with Rahman for consecutive soundtracks? As a result, he might revert back to Pritam (or a newcomer) after this short but interesting experiment with a genius who has a bit too much on his plate at the moment. However the short experiment has paid off for the director - the music of Rockstar works best for the film and its protagonist Jordan. Soundtrack of the year? Quite possibly...
(Recommended songs: "Jo Bhi Main", "Kun Faya Kun", "Hawaa Hawaa", "Saadda Haq", "Nadaan Parinde", "Tum Ho").