'Death of Stalin' Composer on Resurrecting Soviet Musical Greats for Armando Iannucci’s Satire

The Death of Stalin International Trailer 2 Still - H 2017

Christopher Willis — who also scored 'Veep' — says he wanted to keep the music straight throughout the "comedy of terrors."

Anyone listening to the score to The Death of Stalin before it hits U.S. cinemas this Friday would be forgiven for thinking the film to be a bold, historical epic, let alone a laugh-out-loud satire.

Armando Iannucci’s latest feature, an all-star “comedy of terrors,” is set in the months following the passing of former Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin in 1953 and the mad and frequently farcical scramble for power among his former colleagues (and now deadly rivals) in the politburo.

The soundtrack, however, is anything but comedic, played out by a full symphony orchestra (in Belgium) and channeling the sometimes swooping, sometimes frantic strings, powerful brass sections and booming kettledrums from Russia’s classical composers of the era.

“Early on, Armando said, let’s just imagine that we could resurrect Soviet composers from the 1950s,” says U.K.-born, L.A.-based Christopher Willis, for whom The Death of Stalin is his first feature as main composer. “He said all this quite breezily — I then had to go away and spend months studying that kind of music!”

Willis and Iannucci had previously collaborated on Veep (he’s currently scoring the final season of the Emmy-winning show), the music to which he says sounds like it was written by an “imaginary American composer — somewhere between Aaron Copland and John Adams.”

So for The Death of Stalin he dived into the works of Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev, finding new discoveries along the way — including Mieczyslaw Weinberg (a younger colleague of Shostakovich) — and bouncing musical finds back and forth across the Atlantic with Iannucci (both have a background in musicology). 

“We were laughing a lot about it, because the music from that time just seems to express the weirdness of the period so well,” he says. “There are pieces that are supposed to be happy, but never seem to sound happy and always sound rather desperate.”

But while the laughs continue across The Death of Stalin’s script, especially among the central characters (played by Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin, Jason Isaacs, Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend), the plan was to play it straight musically.

“I think it can been really funny when the music is old fashioned and really going for it seriously, but there’s a juxtaposition,” Willis says, adding that he began referencing the soundtrack to Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein by John Morris, which “plays as thought it were 1930s Hollywood, with no trace of comedy.”

But at the same time, he points out that the un-ironic melodies help remind audiences of the actual somber political tones and real-life horrors being committed during the period.

“The way the extras and minor characters play the film is very straight and very tragic, and the music kind of functions like those crowds of people,” he says.

The Death of Stalin actually kicks off in musical fashion, with a scene in which radio station has to frantically rerecord a live performance of a Mozart piano concerto that Stalin has decided he wants to hear personally. And although Olga Kurylenko plays the famed Stalin-hating pianist Maria Yudina, it’s actually Willis' keyboard skills audiences can hear.

“As a nice side thing I decided to play those piano parts myself,” he says, but acknowledges Kurylenko’s years spent learning the instruments in her youth.

“You can see from her fingers that she’s playing it perfectly!”

IFC releases The Death of Stalin across the U.S. on Friday.