HBO quietly released We Are Who We Are this September, the first television show from director Luca Guadagnino of Call Me By Your Name (2017) fame. The drama series jumps between different characters and their unique inner turmoil, but orbits around two 14-year-old U.S. Army brats living on a base in northern Italy in 2016: Caitlin/Harper, who is exploring their trans identity, and Fraser, a Vetements-wearing and Ocean Vuong-reading outcast rascal. Obviously, he worships Devonté Hynes.
We Are Who We Are is a coming-of-age love story that is also a critique of previous generations’ buttoned-up attitudes around queerness and of the military industrial complex and its culture that promotes false American exceptionalism. Officers, their wives, and most of all their children stumble through an uncertain landscape, where no one has the answers or even the words. The bind holding Guadagnino’s eight 50-minute episodes together, which feel like one very long movie and a series of short films, is the score.
Before anything was shot or even written, Guadagnino had a sonic vision: the overture of John Adams’ 1995 musical I Was Looking at the Ceiling And Then I Saw the Sky. It’s a soaring piece, rhythmic but not percussive, that suspends the notes in a glass dome ceiling just above reach. “The day in which I shot the sequence and I could put the music against it, it was so riveting for me,” the director said in an interview with Rolling Stone. “It took two years. It was like being with someone for two years and finally, that person looks at you and says, ‘Yeah, I want to be with you.’” The piece is used in the very first scene, projecting anticipation onto a grey airport lobby as Fraser twirls his badly bleached hair, one earbud in, trying to ignore his new reality. Soon, his ceiling will crack open to reveal a vast expanse of blue.
We don’t see his phone screen then, but what Fraser’s probably playing is the other critical track of We Are Who We Are, “Time Will Tell” by Blood Orange. It was part of the script that Fraser would idolize Blood Orange a.k.a. Dev Hynes, and would bond with Caitlin over the way it makes them feel. Guadagnino first contacted Hynes in real life because he wanted to shoot an actual Blood Orange concert: the kids would sneak off and hitchhike to Bologna, Caitlin armed with a self-adhesive facial hair kit and Fraser with tickets bought using his mother’s credit card. “Time Will Tell” would be the ecstatic encore. Hynes was game to break the fourth wall, and he flew to Italy for a week of filming and discussing music. Guadagnino already had a soundtrack (which included the John Adams piece he’d been dreaming about, along with contributions from Klaus Nomi, Julius Eastman, Drake, and others), but when he watched the show in full, he told the New York Times, several scenes were missing something. Did Hynes want to collaborate on a score, to create “a sort of organic addendum?” But of course.
Dev Hynes shows off his skill as a classical pianist in the resulting compositions, which play over and through the awkward spaces of adolescence and infatuation. He is sort of a virtuoso for Gen Z. Sounds are always building; high, clumsy keyboard taps set the cello and horns into motion, creating a tumble of chords that swells until it abruptly bursts. In tune with the pointedly contemporary subject matter—a Trump vs. Hillary Clinton debate flashes on TV screens in the food court; Fraser’s mother, a high-ranking commander, is married to a woman, only possible in a post-“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” world—synthesizers easily slip their way in. They add an ominous drone over more delicate instrumentation, reflecting the way American political decline is inescapable, even in a town outside Venice. In “He Just Left,” the chaos of Allegretto piano laced with vibraphones is halted by spiritual chimes and their echo. This is the “everything at once, then nothing at all” sensation, also known as “first love,” that Call Me By Your Name was praised for capturing.
Maybe the unconventional timeline of scoring We Are Who We Are worked to disentangle image from sound. Listening to the score in isolation, it becomes an ambient classical album similar to last year’s Fields, a premiere of Hynes’ compositions performed by Third Coast Percussion that ICIYL called, in part, “a collage of meditative minimalism.” With “The Last Day,” Fraser and Caitlin are gone; my own memories from running wild through an empty nighttime city break in. (I would put on “Champagne Coast” often during this time.) That’s the point. Hynes told Deadline, “The main thing I try to do when I’m composing things is not let the music stand for what the emotion is. I try and make it feel as complex as life is so you can dig deeper.” We Are Who We Are is about the depths two teens discover within themselves, and music from Hynes, Adams, and others proposes that process is a universal beauty.
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