Review: the soundtrack to 'Crazy Rich Asians'
Claire Soh shares her thoughts on the highest-grossing rom-com of the decade
If you haven’t already seen Crazy Rich Asians, it’s high time you did. Based on Kevin Kwan’s novel of the same name, it follows Chinese-American economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), who visits Singapore for the first time with her boyfriend Nicholas Young (Henry Golding), and clashes with his uptight mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh).
This meeting of East and West is captured well, not only in the movie’s fantastic acting, but also in its music. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, its soundtrack is worth a listen (or a few). Music supervisor Gabe Hilfer intended this soundtrack to “keep… appealing to all generations”, resulting in an eclectic, exciting mix of music from ‘40s hits, to fresh covers of old songs, to Mandarin covers of Western pop hits, suitable for all ages .
Many of this album’s more traditional tracks are derived from mid-20th century Chinese hits. The opening track, ‘Waiting For Your Return’, introduces listeners to the throwback big-band sound that features heavily on many tracks. Chinese jazz singer Jasmine Chen anchors this track with polished and smooth vocals that soar over the lush arrangement. This is no mean feat considering the original version was recorded by legendary singer Teresa Teng, who is no stranger to a good majority of the global Chinese diaspora. This version, with its more upbeat tempo, rich instrumentation and modern styling, is a refreshing tribute that effectively sets the tone for the soundtrack’s nostalgic yet modern feel.
Chen, who also appears in the movie, sings two other jazzy covers, ‘Give Me a Kiss’ (给我一个吻) and ‘I Want Your Love’ (我要你的爱), are covers of Patsy Cline and the Louis Jordan jump blues song respectively. The latter exploded in popularity in 1950s Shanghai in the form of a Mandarin cover by Hong Kong singer Grace Chang, whose version is also featured here. Chen’s versatility is especially laudable, as she is able to alter her vocal colouring to suit Patsy Cline’s rich alto sound, the sweeter, lilting tones of Teresa Teng, and bouncy cheekiness of ‘I Want Your Love’.
The traditional, nostalgic side of the soundtrack is completed with more vintage Shanghainese songs, otherwise known as 时代曲 (‘songs of the times’), that marry Chinese and Western influences. You’ll feel transported to another era hearing ‘40s legend Yao Lee croon cha-cha style ‘人生就是戏 (Life Is A Movie)’, alongside Lilan Chen’s listenable blues-tinged ‘你懂不懂 (Do You Understand?)’, both of which belong squarely in my grandparents’ generation (or even earlier!). Hilfer’s choice to include the original versions, instead of re-working all the oldies in the mix, is excellent at giving listeners a taste of the Chinese music landscape of yesteryear. The combination of both old and re-worked tracks works well at creating a sound that’s authentic yet not dated.
The other half of the soundtrack has much more contemporary styling, and experiments musically with mixed results. Malaysian singer Cheryl K originally auditioned for an acting part, but was eventually asked to sing an energetic cover of Motown hit ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’. This should be a sign of big things to come, as she fills the track with a strong, powerful belt and moves effortlessly between the English and Chinese verses. Rapper and actress Awkwafina, who shines as Goh Peik Lin in the movie, lends verses to a more comedic second version.
Up-and-coming Chinese rappers Vava and Ty, who competed against each other on reality show The Rap of China, team up with singer Nina Wang on ‘My New Swag’. The track opens with a slightly cheesy cymbal and erhu (a Chinese stringed instrument) introduction that feels ripped right out of a Chinese period drama, but ends up layering rap with these motifs for interesting results. Less unique is Miguel’s ‘Vote’, which feels out of place as one of the tracks without any Asian styling.
Asian-American talents are not left out of the mix. Kina Grannis, best known for her acoustic pop on YouTube, appears in both the soundtrack and movie singing a mellow guitar cover of Elvis Presley’s ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’. While the song works splendidly in the movie as stirring accompaniment to the ethereal wedding scene, it’s strangely insipid on its own, probably due to Grannis’ saccharine-sweet vocals.
Much more successful is a Mandarin cover of Coldplay’s ‘Yellow’, arguably one of the most attention-attracting inclusions. Director Jon M. Chu has shared his struggle to get the song licensed for the movie – Coldplay was initially reluctant because of the connotation of the word ‘yellow’ as a racial slur. However, they eventually relented after Chu appealed to them with a heartfelt letter. His efforts were not in vain, as it’s one of the soundtrack’s standouts, and just as stirring as the original while remaining distinct. The Voice alumnus and university student Katherine Ho provides confident and assured vocals. Even if you don’t understand a word of Mandarin, it’s hard not to be moved.
Given that the movie is set in Singapore, which has produced a number of extremely popular Mandopop singers, it’s a little disappointing that this soundtrack didn’t feature any of them, let alone any contemporary faces of Mandopop, such as Jay Chou or Fish Leong. Hopefully some of these will be included in the forthcoming sequel, China Rich Girlfriend. Nonetheless, it’s certainly refreshing to see such a spectrum of styles and eras. This album is a brief but exhilarating mini-walkthrough of Mandopop, and you don’t have to speak the language to enjoy the diversity of styles and influences.