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June 10, 2024

Lower Merion native tasked with writing soundtrack for 'road trip' documentary about U.S. National Parks

Composer Elizabeth Phillipson-Weiner sees the potential for positive impact in her work, which also includes Netflix's 'Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey' and Hulu's 'Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields.'

Music Documentaries
Lower Merion composer @elizabethpwmusic/Facebook

Elizabeth Phillips-Weiner played trombone in the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra before becoming a professional composer and songwriter.

As Elizabeth Phillipson-Weiner watched footage of the pebble beaches and lush pine trees, the music started playing in her head.

Phillipson-Weiner, a composer born and raised in Lower Merion who goes by Elizabeth P.W., had been tasked with scoring and writing original songs for the "Out There: A National Parks Story." The documentary takes viewers into U.S. national parks displaying their wildly different terrains and critters that call them home. Acadia National Park, the Maine destination on her screen, was the most eastern point in the filmic journey.

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"I just had this sense that it should be inspired by classical music, like Aaron Copland," she said about Acadia. "Just like Americana. How it would feel to arrive in America and see it from the East Coast perspective. The first thing you see are like these mountain cliffs with, like, ocean underneath and these beautiful evergreen trees ... And then as we head west, I really wanted to imbue the sense of, like, wild west and just discovery and excitement. I used more giant strum guitars and percussion and all that stuff. So the music kind of follows the like east to west progression of the film."

Putting the spirit of a setting and characters to song is nothing new for Phillipson-Weiner, who has been working on films and television for over a decade. She's contributed scores, songs and other music to documentaries including "Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields," last year's two-part Hulu documentary on the actress's exploitative experiences as a child star; "Savior Complex," the HBO docuseries on an American missionary accused of harming Ugandan children; and the Netflix docuseries "Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey," about the women who left the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. ("I've done a lot of really dark stuff," she acknowledged with a laugh.)

For "Out There: A National Parks Story," which had its Philadelphia premiere on Thursday, she did a little bit of everything.

The film's director Brendan Hall wanted a "big motion picture soundtrack" with classical scoring, Phillipson-Weiner said, and original songs with vocals and lyrics in the style of Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder's 2007 soundtrack for "Into the Wild." She strums and sings on original compositions including "The Captain," a song about the Yosemite monument El Capitan, and "Head West," a propulsive tune that kicks off the film.

"The movie is really a road trip movie," said Phillipson-Weiner, who has visited 20 national parks herself. "It's an adventure movie. And so we (approached) the music as, like, what would you put on as soon as you leave to get on a road trip? That inspired the song 'Head West.' Like, what are you putting on Spotify as soon as you pull out of the driveway?"

"Out There: A National Parks Story" follows Hall and his childhood friend/ the documentary's producer Anthony Blake as they embark on a cross-country tour. Each section is anchored by real people they meet along the way, a diverse cast of characters so distinct and memorable that their appearances almost feel scripted. (In a post-screening Q&A, Hall assured the audience he made it all up along the way.)

Consider Gary, the park ranger who proudly declares he hasn't had a haircut since 1970. There's also Jack Gladstone, the Blackfoot musician who performs inside Glacier National Park despite the thorny Indigenous history there. In one particularly memorable scene, a young girl named Lilliana talks about how butterflies remind her of her Tio Carlos, who had died.

These people, rather than the land, were Phillipson-Weiner's compass when she was arranging the score.

"Jack in Glacier National Park, he is a musician himself and he has this low baritone voice," she said. "So that really informed the use of instruments like the cello to kind of mimic his baritone and have that sense of gravitas and seriousness that his story and the history of Glacier has. That's an example of grounding the music in character and place rather than just being like, what does a mountain sound like?"

Phillipson-Weiner has called Dumbo, the Brooklyn neighborhood known for its converted warehouses and dramatic views of city bridges, home for the past seven years. Before she relocated to New York City for college she attended Merion Elementary School and graduated from Lower Merion High School in 2011. She also played trombone in the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, a formative experience that helped set her on her current path.

"I wanted to be an orchestral trombone player," she said. "That was the dream. I played in PYO and Bravo Brass (a PYO ensemble) and I think that's what really sparked my interest in classical music. It's sort of where I learned that you can tell a story through music with no words."

While "Out There" has been touring film festivals since 2023 and screened at special events at the Explorers Club and Pixar studios, it does not yet have a distribution deal with a streaming service. That's the goal, according to Phillipson-Weiner, but first the film team plans to take it on a tour of national parks so it can "play it in the places that inspired it." Funding for that journey is still underway.

In the meantime, Phillipson-Weiner has commercials, short films, a piece of musical theater and more documentaries on the horizon. Though she has worked on narrative film, the composer keeps returning to documentaries for their potential to change lives and perspectives.

"What I love about documentary is the impact it makes," she said. "I feel like all films impact people emotionally, but I feel social change is really impacted by documentary and that is something that is really exciting to me. I feel like 'Keep Sweet,' a series that I worked on, was very dark, but it also told the story of these amazing women. Their story of resilience was centered, not just their trauma and the terrible things they'd been through, but how they came through it, which I think was a little bit different than kind of the dark like crime documentary series you see.

"I look for something that inspires and uplifts. 'Cause you're putting months of your life into it and you're putting your own emotions into it. And I just want to be on projects that put something good into the world."

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