But a newly remastered edition of Thompson’s score is a pointed reminder of how well these pieces work without the movie, especially in the way they speak to our broadening and deepening conflicts with nature. Much like the film it traces, most of this music lingers in a bittersweet daze, pondering questions of right and wrong, and romance and ridicule, that Thompson knows he can never actually answer.
The minute-long preamble “Tim and the Bears” is as light as a Windham Hill feather, but there’s an undercurrent of accepted doom, too—fitting, since this is what plays in those opening moments, as Herzog offers his introductory silent obituary. Thompson’s stately arrangement of “Glencoe,” a Scottish fiddle lament written to memorialize a 17th-century massacre, is gorgeous and warm, its melody lazily sparkling like late-fall sunshine on a country lake. As Thompson lets his licks linger in the cracks of the restrained rhythm section, however, it’s hard not to feel uneasy, like someone is watching you. Unfathomable beauty and inescapable, irresistible danger—is there a simpler distillation of what drove Treadwell to his death?
Those tracks, though, follow the more familiar model for bittersweet or even emotionally ambivalent music in general—make it pretty and approachable first, then tuck the darkness into seams and corners. Grizzly Man is actually at its most stirring and enduring when it inverts this trope, adding pleasant overtones to music that feels sad or despondent. Thompson and crew nail this effect during a mid-album suite of four pieces, including his only two co-writes with O’Rourke. They mirror the way Herzog seems to see Treadwell and nature itself—skepticism and fearful respect, backed with unwavering wonder.
Notice the way that the eerie prepared piano and quiet metallic clanging of “The Kibosh,” the start of this suite, pair with Thompson’s warm acoustic line, cloaking everything they touch in sinister shadows; then notice the way all those elements slowly settle into conversation, as if warring parties have reached a promising compromise. “Small Racket,” the last of this stretch, waltzes with despair, each electric note extending another new frown. Thompson steadily lets a little more air into the lugubrious riff, harmonizing with it until it seems almost to smile. “Treadwell No More,” one of the most remarkable guitar works in Thompson’s very remarkable career, gathers up the loose threads of a Loren Connors abstraction and winds them into a long, tense, and luxurious blues, like some languid Mississippi raga. Sadness and sweetness are never far apart here.
“Human beings conscript themselves to fight against the earth,” John McPhee wrote decades ago in his canonical The Control of Nature, “to take what is not given.” He was talking about the Mississippi River and our endless efforts to manage its course, but he could have been talking about Treadwell—a tragic hero or lovable villain, depending on your vantage, who thought he was strong enough to protect animals that could and finally did kill him and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard. The bear was subsequently shot, too. Nature didn’t need Treadwell; he harmed it, however much he loved it.