Favorite Film Scores of 2015

With the books closed on 2015, it’s time once again to share my favorite film scores of the year. As usual, while these may not be the best film scores of the year (although I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of these earn Best Original Score nominations this month), they’re the scores I’ve had on repeat over the last year.

Previous entries: 2013, 2012, 2011.

Let’s begin our 2015 musical journey.

11. JUPITER ASCENDING — Michael Giacchino

Before the movie was released, I tweeted, “Michael Giacchino’s Jupiter Ascending score kiiinda makes me want to see that beautiful trainwreck of a film.” Well, I did end up seeing the film for its score. And the film did end up being a beautiful trainwreck. But the score certainly wasn’t. With its rich themes, large scope, and brimming excitement, this score launched a stellar year for Michael Giacchino who continues ascending in his own right.

10. ANT-MAN — Christophe Beck

I’ve written in the past lamenting over the lack of musical cohesiveness between the Marvel films and the disappointing thematic representation of the characters. And when Christophe Beck was announced as the composer of ANT-MAN, I tweeted, “Ant-Man has a composer, and it isn’t Brian Tyler. Will the Marvel scores continue to be a mess?”

While I’m not optimistic for what the future holds musically for the Marvel Cinematic Universe—especially since Brian Tyler, my pick as house composer, was sort-of-but-not-really replaced on AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON and Henry Jackman will most likely be back to rehash his abysmal CAPTAIN AMERICA: WINTER SOLDIER score for the next film—Christophe Beck did not disappoint with his score for ANT-MAN. Beck wrote a jazzy, snazzy caper score that was fitting for both the character and Alan Silvestri’s and Brian Tyler’s established musical world. Many of Beck’s scores tend to err on the generic side, but he wrote an inspired and enjoyable score for ANT-MAN.

9. WOLF TOTEM — James Horner

It’s difficult to reconcile 2015 will be the last year of new James Horner music (unless the story of him secretly composing music for Antoine Fuqua’s upcoming MAGNIFICENT SEVEN yields a surprise score later this year). Thankfully, 2015 included a score as good as this one from James Horner. With its beautiful and sometimes haunting melodies, lush orchestrations, and sweeping scope, this is James Horner at his best. It’s disappointing there won’t be more of this.

8. THE MARTIAN — Harry Gregson-Williams

Going into this movie and score, I wasn’t expecting much from the music given the rather derivative and uninspired scores for Ridley Scott’s recent films. After composing additional music for Scott’s last few movies, Harry Gregson-Williams was given the opportunity to compose the full score. And, unlike some of his previous ventures, fully compose he did. His score is contemplative, industrious, and, well, sciencey. He seems to have scienced the shit out of this score.

7. STEVE JOBS — Daniel Pemberton

A recurring theme in my list this year is enjoying scores by composers who have disappointed me in the past or by composers who are new to me. Daniel Pemberton falls into the latter category. Prior to this score and his MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. score, I had not heard of him. But he’s now on my radar thanks to this eclectic score that delightfully took me by surprise. Given the varied styles running throughout the score, choosing one track to include here was difficult. The score has some electronic parts, some operatic parts, and some dramatic parts. And all of those parts form a rather pleasing whole.

6. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — ROGUE NATION — Joe Kraemer

As the JAMES BOND films have become more like the JASON BOURNE films, the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE films have become more like the JAMES BOND films of yore: espionage, gadgets, and a grand, stylish orchestral score.

This film’s score is by Joe Kraemer who, like Daniel Pemberton, I was previously unfamiliar with but now eager to hear more from.

In addition to the bold, flavorful orchestrations, what makes this score great is that it honors its past with generous use of Lalo Schifrin’s original themes (the trill Kraemer inserts into the main theme in the first and last cues is rather tantalizing). The use of existing themes in a major franchise is refreshing as too often new-to-the-franchise composers don’t use other composers’ existing, established work for a franchise. For example, the post-John-Williams HARRY POTTER scores often seemed to forget the themes he composed. Sure, the later films were much darker, but a talented composer could take Williams’s themes and twist them into brooding, minor-key renditions. In the case of MAN OF STEEL, Hans Zimmer could have easily paid homage to John Williams’s work, but he didn’t. And in the case of Iron Man, he’s had three different themes from three different composers in three different films. So for Joe Kraemer to use Lalo Schifrin’s original themes not just bookending the film but all throughout is a welcomed change.

5. PAN — John Powell

PAN was going to fly right by me, but then I learned who was scoring the film: the semi-retired John Powell—one of my favorite film composers. Given his absence of late, it’s great to have a new John Powell score. It’s even better to have a new John Powell adventure score.

Strong thematic material, rich orchestrations, and sheer fun. These are all hoped-for things in a John Powell score. And he didn’t disappoint.

4. INSIDE OUT — Michael Giacchino

This score cruises through various emotions. Joy and sadness, of course, make appearances. As do excitement, hope, love, anxiety, and wonder. But even as Michael Giacchino writes for specific emotions, the score never feels disingenuous. As it runs through its ups and downs, the score feels authentic. And it doesn’t fail to put a smile on my face.

3. CREED — Ludwig Goransson

This score was a definite surprise for me. Prior to listening to it, I had not heard of Ludwig Goransson. But after this score, I’m interested in hearing more from him (the third instance of this on my list). The score is powerful, exciting, and a worthy successor to Bill Conti’s ROCKY scores. Though the score makes solid use of Conti’s original themes, the new themes Goransson composed are the stars and easily stand alongside the originals. They’re memorable, stirring, and noticeably come from the same family as Conti’s themes (especially noticeable when they’re used as counterpoint with Conti’s themes and vice versa). Overall, the music has a crisp and fierce sound. And it doesn’t fail to make me want to go out and find a punching bag.

2. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS — John Williams

Without a doubt, this was my most anticipated score of the year. I was expecting a healthy dose of the Force theme—my favorite of the series—and I wasn’t disappointed. While I might have also hoped for a return to the greatness of his THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK score, John Williams’s writing is in a different place these days, and this score has more in common with the prequel scores than the original scores.

But that doesn’t detract from the dazzling work on display here; John Williams composed an outstanding addition to the franchise. Rey’s theme, developed as the score progresses, appears in several different treatments and is gorgeous. That theme and the Resistance March won’t leave my head.

1. TOMORROWLAND — Michael Giacchino

As if Frank Walker’s jetpack were strapped to it, this score rocketed to the top of my list early and remained there all year. There was only one other score that could have knocked it from the top. But THE FORCE AWAKENS didn’t, and here sits TOMORROWLAND as my favorite score of the year.

This score works incredibly well in its film—and outside of it—evoking the same sense of futuristic nostalgia and hopeful optimism as the film. The themes are as catchy as they are inspired. And the track above, “Pin-Ultimate Experience”, is hands down my favorite track of the year.

Too bad TOMORROWLAND wasn’t a bigger commercial and critical success because both it and the score deserve more recognition. Perhaps, like with another Brad Bird film that enjoyed success after its run in theaters, the future will bring a return to TOMORROWLAND.

With three of his four scores this year making my list and the fourth (JURASSIC WORLD) just missing it, it’s clear 2015 was The Year of Michael Giacchino for me.

What else is clear from my list this year: there are still directors who desire bold, orchestral scores for their films. And there are composers who can still deliver those scores. So here’s to some more orchestral magic—and some more pleasant surprises—in 2016. Huzzah.

P.S.: if you’re so inclined, here are selections from each of my favorite scores. I hope you enjoy. I sure did.

My Top-Five Eight-Favorite Film Scores of 2013

As 2013 comes to a close, I present to you my annual end-of-the-year list of my favorite film scores of the year. As with my previous lists, these scores likely won’t be considered the best scores of the year (and only three of these will receive an Oscar nomination next month for Best Original Score), but they’re the scores I had on repeat throughout the year.

And if you’re so inclined, here are my favorite scores of 2012 and my favorite scores of 2011.

Guilty Pleasure of the Year:
The Lone Ranger
Hans Zimmer and Geoff Zanelli

As usual with a Zimmer score, there are cues that were obviously mail-ins that have no originality or brains. But then there are several cues that drip fun as they either pay homage to western scores of yore or aptly plow forward with the steady, propulsive determination of a locomotive.

And then there’s the cue “Finale” from Geoff Zanelli. This cue, which is easily the most fun cue of 2013, is a rollicking ten-minute arrangement of Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” infused with Zimmer and Zanelli’s themes from the film. Tremendous.

5. The Book Thief
John Williams

A no-nonsense Williams score showing off what he does best. Nothing novel here, but great to hear new Williams material—and a score that doesn’t eschew proper orchestral and thematic developments—in his semi-retired state (especially for a non-Spielberg film).

5. Escape from Tomorrow
Abel Korzeniowski

Abel Korzeniowski has been producing some gorgeous scores in the last few years, and Escape from Tomorrow is one of them. What’s interesting about this score is the sort-of classical approach the music takes on for a film that’s somewhat experimental.

4. Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World
Brian Tyler

I wrote last year lamenting over the lack of musical cohesiveness between the Marvel films and the disappointing thematic representation of the characters.

Enter Brian Tyler. For both Iron Man and Thor, Tyler not only created a theme that aptly represents the characters but crafted a score that kept up with the film. Starting with a solid orchestral foundation (something not always present in previous Marvel scores), Tyler added something extra for each: Iron Man got a slight rock edge to his theme, and Thor got a heavy dose of what can only be described as epicness. (Thor 2 also featured a delicious quoting of Alan Silvestri’s Captain America theme (a theme that pleasingly now appears in three Marvel films).)

As both scores showed, Brian Tyler’s musical style excellently suits the Marvel universe. For that reason and for the sake of musical consistency, he should be Marvel’s house composer going forward.

3. Star Trek Into Darkness
Michael Giacchino

Michael Giacchino returned to the Star Trek world with a score that’s sharper, more driving, and more percussive than his original. And once again, a highlight of the film and score involves the Enterprise rising from something as Giacchino’s main theme is unleashed in all its glory.

2. Saving Mr. Banks
Thomas Newman

For a charming, magical film, Thomas Newman created a charming, magical score. All of Newman’s usual, eclectic orchestral mannerisms and colors abound in this delight of a score.

1. Gravity
Steven Price

My surprise of the year. Prior to seeing Gravity, I had not heard of Steven Price. I went into the film not expecting much more than a typical, simplistic Zimmer-derivative score for this blockbuster. I was wrong. Steven Price delivered a masterful score that expertly charted and complemented the chaos and emotions of the film. With no sound effects for the destruction in space, the film relied on the score to ratchet up the tension. And because of the skeleton cast, the film also relied on the score to ease that tension that might otherwise have been eased through multi-character banter or interaction. All this is capped off with the final cues where Price unleashes the full force of the orchestra and his main theme to craft a powerhouse of an ending. Thanks to his Gravity score, Steven Price is no longer an unknown for me. And thanks to this score, I look forward to hearing more from him in the future.

And speaking of hearing more in the future, here’s to more orchestral magic—and some more pleasant surprises—in 2014.

Ostinatos, Kryptonite, and Hans Zimmer

For a film-score fan like me, a film’s musical accompaniment has the ability to foster increased enjoyment of its film. For example, the delightful How to Train Your Dragon. Add in John Powell’s should-have-won-an-Oscar score, and it’s now the utterly delightful How to Train Your Dragon.

Of course, the opposite is true: a film’s score can tarnish or even sink the enjoyment of a film for me. In the case of the former, the later Harry Potter films with their disappointing scores lacking appropriate thematic development and eschewing musical continuity; in the case of the latter (and no pun intended), Titanic with its score’s amateurishly cheap-sounding vocals attempting to ripoff Enya and exceedingly grating overuse of that damn song’s melody.

The former is also the case for Man of Steel (coincidentally partly for the same reasons as the later Potters). The film itself was fairly underwhelming (save for a terrific cast) while simultaneously being over the top. Add in Hans Zimmer’s disappointing score, and the film struggles to earn a three-star rating from me.

Calling Hans Zimmer’s Man of Steel score a disappointment, though, is being kind. His score is overly simple, thoroughly generic, and astoundingly devoid of any intelligent ideas.

Once again, Zimmer scores the film he wants to score and ignores what other composers have established for the genre and, in this case, franchise. I’d be more forgiving of Zimmer’s blatant disregard for a film’s musical genre (see: the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Gladiator, Man of Steel, etc.) if the music were actually good (see: Pirates 3, Gladiator). Zimmer’s music used to be a novelty; now it’s just the mark of a lazy composer unwilling (incapable?) of composing anything else.

Jonathan Broxton at Movie Music UK has a thorough review that I’m in agreement with. I’ll add this:

I understand John Williams’s iconic theme for Superman couldn’t be used in this reboot/reimagining of Superman. It simply wouldn’t fit.

But given Zimmer’s affinity for ostinatos, he could have—no, should have—used the Williams Superman ostinato. Here’s the ostinato driving the main titles as arranged by John Ottman for Superman Returns:

The most frustrating part of Zimmer not using Williams’s Superman ostinato? It would have easily fit. Slow it down slightly, and it could have easily been layered underneath Zimmer’s Superman “anthem” heard here:

The track already has ostinatos underneath. Why not replace one of them with Williams’s? Here’s the ostinato paired with Ottman’s Lex Luthor theme (again from Superman Returns):

Sure, the bright-sounding trumpets wouldn’t work with Zimmer’s style for the score, but he could have kept the rhythm and changed the orchestration. John Powell in the two non-Superman superhero films he has scored used the ostinato. Here it is starting at 0:24 in this cue from X-Men: The Last Stand:

…and here it is throughout the first part of this cue from Hancock:

Why couldn’t Zimmer in an actual Superman film use it? Pride? Laziness?

Whatever the reason, Zimmer’s Man of Steel is an enormous missed opportunity and joins the increasing list of his recent scores that have lost most of the intelligence and inspiration that his past scores like The Lion King, The Last Samurai, and even Pirates 3 exhibited—scores, unlike Man of Steel, that he clearly approached not just as a job but as an opportunity.

Curiously, his score for The Lone Ranger sounds more inspired and fits the genre and franchise far better than his Man of Steel score. Not surprisingly, it’s also his most enjoyable and entertaining score in years. But will it prove to be an outlier amongst his recent bland efforts or the beginning of a course correction? Can Zimmer break free from the shackles of his kryptonite: his laziness? I hope so.

Favorite Film-Score Cues of 2012

We’re already 11% through 2013, and I’m just getting around to posting something 2012 related. Oops.

Anyway, for your enjoyment, I made a playlist of my favorite film-score cues of 2012. The tracks are sequenced for musical flow (they aren’t ranked in any way). You can head over to the playlist’s page on YouTube and press the “Play all” button or press play on the embed below to listen to the playlist. Enjoy.

The track listing:

  1. “Sab Than Pursues the Princess”
    John Carter
    Michael Giacchino
  2. “Grand Bazaar, Istanbul”
    Skyfall
    Thomas Newman
  3. “Saving New York”
    The Amazing Spider-Man
    James Horner
  4. “Imagine the Fire”
    The Dark Knight Rises
    Hans Zimmer
  5. “Re-Animation”
    Frankenweenie
    Danny Elfman
  6. “The Premiere”
    Hitchcock
    Danny Elfman
  7. “Cristeros”
    For Greater Glory
    James Horner
  8. “Cleared Iranian Airspace”
    Argo
    Alexandre Desplat
  9. “The Peterson House and Finale”
    Lincoln
    John Williams
  10. “Tsimtsum”
    Life of Pi
    Mychael Danna
  11. “Life”
    Prometheus
    Harry Gregson-Williams and Marc Streitenfeld
  12. “Apotheosis”
    Journey (video game)
    Austin Wintory
  13. “Time Machine”
    Safety Not Guaranteed
    Ryan Miller
  14. “With a Beat”
    Silver Linings Playbook
    Danny Elfman
  15. “A Promise”
    The Avengers
    Alan Silvestri
  16. “Mysterious Island Main Titles”
    Journey 2: The Mysterious Island
    Andrew Lockington
  17. “Calling the Guardians”
    Rise of the Guardians
    Alexandre Desplat
  18. “Merida’s Home”
    Brave
    Patrick Doyle
  19. “Cloud Atlas Finale”
    Cloud Atlas
    Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil
  20. “Once There Was a Hushpuppy”
    Beasts of the Southern Wild
    Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin

My Top-Five Eight-Favorite Film Scores of 2012

Updated 31 Jan 2013 to add Beasts of the Southern Wild to the list

Here we are at the end of 2012—which means I present to you my now annual end-of-the-year list: my favorite film scores of the year. Like last year’s list, these probably wouldn’t be widely considered the best scores of the year (only one of these will receive an Oscar nomination), but they’re the scores I had on repeat the most this year.

(One note: some of these embedded tracks are a little long if you’re just looking to breeze through some samples, but I tried to pick out the best, most-representative tracks from the scores.)

Here we go.

5. The Dark Knight Rises by Hans Zimmer

I loathe what Hans Zimmer has done to the film-score industry: the over-simplification of music, the jettisoning of unique thematic identities, and the proliferation of ghost writers. And he’s become lazy: several of his latest scores—even, to an extent, this one—make him seem like he’s just out to collect a paycheck (see especially Pirates of the Caribbean 4). But, yes but, when he puts forth even some effort, the results can be enjoyable. As they are here. Last year, my guilty-pleasure-score-of-the-year went to one of Zimmer’s goons. This year it goes to him.

4. Safety Not Guaranteed by Ryan Miller

If you told me at the start of the year this list would include the sophomore film score from the lead singer of an alternative-rock band, I would have thought you were crazy after my, umm, distaste of a certain Oscar-winning (ugh) film score from the lead singer of another band. But, here it is. Miller’s score is just as quirky and charming as the film. I just wish there was more: the score is only about 15 minutes long. Still, an unexpected and enjoyable effort. Rarely do I finish watching a film and feel compelled to immediately purchase the score. That happened here.

4. The Avengers by Alan Silvestri

This score is a definite improvement over his Captain America: The First Avenger score, but it lacks the same punch that made, say, Back to the Future and The Mummy Returns so enjoyable. Don’t get me wrong; this score is still enjoyable, but it’s borderline Alan Silvestri on autopilot—though Alan Silvestri on autopilot is still better than a slew of other composers doing their “best” work.

What could have made this a better score are themes for the individual Avengers. This is more of a complaint against Marvel than it is Silvestri, though. In the five films leading up to The Avengers, there were five different composers with five different musical styles (Iron Man even had a different theme in both his films). As cohesive as the films were from character to character and director to director, there should have been more cohesion with the music. If the same composer couldn’t have scored each film, then at least a similar musical style should have been used. And with that similar musical style, each Avenger should have received a strong theme. Then, in The Avengers, when the character was introduced and did something heroic, their theme could have played. Instead, only Captain America (since that was Silvestri’s project) and Black Widow (I guess since she was such a strong character in the film) have individual themes. And when these two characters do something heroic, their theme plays. The other characters, though, have no individual musical identity here. Curiously, Thor had a strong theme in his individual outing, but it isn’t used in The Avengers. And lastly, after Silvestri’s back-to-back scoring duties for Marvel, I thought he would become their resident composer, but Iron Man will receive his third composer for his third film—and likely his third theme. Anyway, I’ve gone off on a tangent. Back to the list.

4. Beasts of the Southern Wild by Dan Romer & Benh Zeitlin

Speaking of charming scores from newcomer film composers, Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin’s score for Beasts of the Southern Wild is a late—but welcomed—addition to my list. Even with some buzz throughout 2012, somehow this score escaped me. But after the film was nominated for Best Picture, I checked out the score, and I’m glad I did. Infused with bayou flavors and dreamy textures, the score is enchanting and even a bit uplifting. And the last track (embedded above) is infectiously delightful. I haven’t seen the film yet, but I hope it’s every bit as splendid as its score.

3. For Greater Glory by James Horner

Gone are the days where I would berate and bemoan James Horner for self-plagiarism. Here’s a score that is littered, peppered, and otherwise filled with self-references, recycled ideas, and his damned four-note danger motif he’s been using since his Willow score in 1988 (in this regard, his scores are sometimes the musical equivalent of taking the ingredients of a taco and making an enchilada instead: something different, but still kinda the same thing). But it all comes together in a surprisingly refreshing way—refreshing not in the sense Horner is doing much that is new, but refreshing in that here’s an “old school” film composer still creating evocative orchestral film music.

3. The Amazing Spider-Man by James Horner

Apparently I have something wrong with me. This list not only includes more than one “non film composer”, but it includes TWO James Horner scores. Whoa. Where For Greater Glory is something of a greatest hits for Horner, The Amazing Spider-Man is something unique—and, again, refreshing—in his filmography. Horner clearly had fun with this score. Not only are there very few self-references (maybe just one?), his main theme (at 6:32 in the clip above) excellently mirrors Spider-Man as it ascends and descends just like the character swinging through the city.

2. John Carter by Michael Giacchino

Most of my favorite film composers started composing far earlier than when I started listening, but with Michael Giacchino, I’ve been able to follow along with his growth and rise in the film-score industry. Listening to his evolving sound and his quest to find his own musical voice has been enjoyable. In his earliest scores, he evoked other composers (John Williams in Medal of Honor (video game), Ron Goodwin in Secret Weapons Over Normandy (video game), and John Barry in The Incredibles), but thanks to his work on six seasons of Lost, he found his own voice. And that voice is on full display with this score that’s filled with orchestral adventure and fantasy. His work on Lost may be his biggest achievement in terms of the amount of music and themes, but his work here may be his biggest achievement in terms of the level of symphonic epicness. Too bad the film did so poorly because this score deserves some greater recognition.

1. Lincoln by John Williams

Last year, I said Williams’s War Horse was his best dramatic score since Schindler’s List, but this score supplants it. The film was terrifically spotted. Large parts of the film were left unscored, and many parts with music were accompanied by a restrained score, but when the film needed that classic Williams lyricism, the score expertly rose to the occasion. From the period-inspired theme to the folksy, jaunty piece to the masterful dramatic swells, he writes at a level both technically and lyrically unmatched by his decades-younger peers. About War Horse last year, I wrote, “No other score reached the emotional and orchestral heights both in and out of the film like War Horse did. I hope to say the same about Williams’s Lincoln this year.” Well, I can. Without hesitation.

And like his two scores last year and Giacchino’s John Carter and Horner’s The Amazing Spider-Man this year, this score serves as something of a giant middle finger to Hans Zimmer and the film-score industry as it drifts toward the Zimmer-ification of film scoring. Eschewing Zimmer tendencies, these scores harken back to the grand symphonic romps of yesteryear. And for someone like me, that is indeed quite a treat.

Here’s to more orchestral magic in 2013.

My Top-Five Seven-Favorite Film Scores of 2011

2011 came and went but left several great film scores. Below are my favorite scores of the year. These aren’t necessarily the best scores of the year, but they’re the scores I had on repeat throughout the year.

5. Thor by Patrick Doyle

The Zimmer-ification of film-score land continues. 2010 gave us a Zimmer-inspired Daft Punk score. 2011 gave us two Zimmer-inspired Patrick Doyle score (the other Rise of the Planet of the Apes). These scores layer Zimmer and Zimmer-clone mannerisms and styles (power anthems and string ostinatos) with an added musical sense not heard in most Zimmer Group works. Patrick Doyle skillfully merges his traditional orchestral talents and sound with the Zimmer-Group sound and propels it beyond the capabilities of the Zimmer Group. I’m not a Patrick Doyle fan, but, like the film, this score is surprisingly very enjoyable.

5. Soul Surfer by Marco Beltrami

Yes, there are two number fives. This is my list; I’m allowed.

Another surprise for me was Marco Beltrami’s Soul Surfer. Beltrami usually hangs out in the horror genre but occasionally makes waves elsewhere. The score is heartfelt and melodic and beautifully integrates Hawaiian chants to create an inspirational whole.

4. The Greatest Miracle by Mark McKenzie

I’m far from being a religious person, but even I can appreciate and admire the majesty and the power of this score. Like Mychael Danna’s The Nativity Story a few years back, this music is beautiful and impressive even if it accompanies religious fare.

3. Your Highness by Steve Jablonsky

This score does nothing to advance the art of film music nor will it win any awards. But damn is it fun to listen to. Even in film-score land, guilty pleasures exist—and boy is this score a guilty pleasure. Like most things in life, when someone is inspired and having fun doing what they do, the evidence is plainly seen—or heard in this case. Steve Jablonsky saw something in this critically-derided film that inspired him to write a rollicking score. He combines the sensibilities of his Steamboy score with the Zimmer Group sound of his original Transformers score and wraps both up in an epic-sounding package.

2. Kung Fu Panda 2 by Hans Zimmer and John Powell

No favorite-scores-of-the-year list of mine would be complete without a score from John Powell. While both Hans Zimmer AND John Powell were credited, many of the tracks are decidedly John Powell material with his zany musical style featured abundantly. This score makes up for the disjointedness of the first film’s score as the themes and styles are presented in a more cohesive and more enjoyable package.

1. War Horse by John Williams

For Steven Spielberg’s best dramatic film since Saving Private Ryan, John Williams writes his best dramatic score since Schindler’s List. The man is nearly 80 years old, but with War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin, he proves he’s still the master composer and is untouched by the Zimmer-ification of film scoring. The two main themes are soaring and majestic, the action music is stirring, and emotions evoked are powerful. This film showcases Spielberg at his best. This score showcases Williams at his best.

1. The Adventures of Tintin by John Williams

Speaking of Tintin, this score makes my list, too, after seeing the film and hearing how excellently the music works in context. As I write this, Williams’s score is on repeat. This score couldn’t be more different than War Horse. And while there is nothing stylistically new here, Williams provides orchestral and technical mastery not heard by most if not all film composers today. This score is a little Indiana Jones, a little Harry Potter, and a little Hook with a splash of the jazzy Catch Me If You Can opening. This 79-year-old proves he can still out-compose the rest of the industry. While War Horse is a slightly superior effort, this score is more fun to listen to.

While this list is composed of my favorite scores of 2011, it also includes what I consider the best score of 2011: War Horse. No other score reached the emotional and orchestral heights both in and out of the film like War Horse did. I hope to say the same about Williams’s Lincoln this year.

Academy Award for Least Deserving Score

I knew going into last night I would be disappointed about the outcome of the Best Original Score award. Last night’s outcome is added to the long list of the Academy awarding a lesser-deserving score.

Can you hum the theme from Midnight Express? No? But what about Superman?

Certain scores, like certain films that went undeservedly unrecognized, are now more appreciated as time has passed. That they weren’t Oscar-winning scores now seems like a mistake. Here are a few:

1978: Midnight Express over Superman
1979: A Little Romance over Star Trek: The Motion Picture
1980: Fame over The Empire Strikes Back
1981: Chariots of Fire over Raiders of the Lost Ark
1986: ‘Round Midnight over Aliens, Hoosiers, and The Mission
1995: Il Postino over Apollo 13 and Braveheart
1998: Life is Beautiful over Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line
1999: The Red Violin over American Beauty, Angela’s Ashes, and The Cider House Rules
2000: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon over Gladiator
2005: Brokeback Mountain over Memoirs of a Geisha
2006: Babel (a mind-boggling back-to-back win for composer Gustavo Santoalalla) over everything else
2010: The Social Network over How to Train Your Dragon and Inception

How to Train Your Social Network 127 Hours after Inception of the King’s Speech

Five film scores are up for the Academy Award for Best Original Score. One is a safe-and-nice-yet-ultimately-throw-away score, one is a solid-effort-but-there’s-no-way-it’s-going-to-win score, one is a very-smart-and-not-a-surprise-it-was-nominated score, one is a slightly-more-useful-than-a-hangnail-on-a-hobo score, and one is a delightful surprise.

Let’s start with The King’s Speech, composed by Alexandre Desplat.

This is exactly the type of score that gets nominated every year by the Academy. The music is safe, undemanding, from a dramatic film, and driven by piano performances. The best thing I can say about this score it that it’s nice. Is that a compliment? Maybe. Is that a back-handed compliment? Probably. Desplat can write good music. This is okay music, but the Academy had to fill its piano-music quota with something.
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Really, though, this score probably shouldn’t be nominated. Or even eligible. The last two tracks encompassing pivotal scenes in the film are scored not by Desplat but instead by Beethoven. It’s always my fear that Academy voters get swayed by nice-sounding classical music. “Hey! Classical music! I will vote for this score! I will feel sophisticated!” Lame.

I imagine if The King’s Speech is sweeping all its other categories, Desplat will be going home with an Oscar, too—as in, Oscar voters won’t be voting for the music but instead for the movie. Also lame.

Moving on to A.R. Rahman’s 127 Hours.

Thus far known only for his Oscar-winning score and songs to Slumdog Millionaire, Rahman is still something of a newcomer to the Hollywood composing scene but no stranger to Bollywood. I suppose that makes him somewhat “exotic” to Academy voters something else they like. “Hey! Diversity! I will feel sophisticated!”

Rahman’s score brings a fresh voice to Hollywood film scores. This particular score is decent, sometimes difficult to listen to, but has some solid moments.
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A solid effort, but Rahman won’t be taking his third statue home.

But Hans Zimmer could walk away with his second. In a no-brainer move, the Academy nominated Zimmer’s Inception score. Absolutely deserving.
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Zimmer created a smart, driving, sometimes bombastic score with its roots firmly planted in the style he has been developing over the last several years with his scores from The Da Vinci Code, The Dark Knight, and others. Did the 2010 Zimmer go back in time and plant an idea in the mind of the 2007 Zimmer? BWAAAAARRRGH.
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I’m not saying his Inception score uses material from his other scores, but he’s been developing a particular style, and in this score, his style coalesced into something unreached in his previous efforts.
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Zimmer’s Inception score is smart and definitely worthy of a nomination.

Neither of which are true for Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s The Social Network score.

I cannot for the life of me understand why this score is even for a fleeting moment considered one of the best scores of 2010. Impossible. Ridiculous. Inconceivable. This score is the film-music equivalent of Sarah Palin: An undeserved, controversial hack mucking up the landscape while mind-blowingly winning attention and a following of supporters that makes me say “what the fuck.”

This score, and I use that term very lightly here, is nothing more than ambient electronica. I have no doubt this music has a place somewhere. In a film is questionable. Nominated for best score is dumbfounding. This is nine-inch nails on a chalkboard. It’s the music you might hear in your head after you are mugged, beat over the head, dragged behind a car, dropped from a bridge, and left for dead as buzzards are picking your eyes out.
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A musical theme is nothing more than a collection of notes strung together in a coherent musical fashion. The theme from The Social Network really is nothing more than a collection of notes strung together.
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I can’t imagine this music was composed specifically for scenes in the film. There’s just no way. More plausible is that Reznor watched the film, started composing some ideas afterward, and that music was then edited into scenes in the film.
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I don’t think I would have as much hate for this score if it hadn’t been nominated for Best Original Score by the Academy just after winning the Golden Globe for Best Original Score. As with The King’s Speech, if The Social Network sweeps the Oscars, Reznor and Ross will be Oscar-winners—undeservedly so.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh. Music, after all, is highly subjective. But my point is this: the Oscar for Best Original Score should in fact be decided amongst the best original scores. This score is nowhere near the best and nowhere near original when tracks from the score are reworkings of previous Reznor material. If this music wins Best Original Score, I will set my hair on fire.

The good thing, though, is that I wouldn’t need to actually light my hair on fire. I’ll be so angry from John Powell’s How to Train Your Dragon score losing that I’ll likely combust automagically.

I’ll combust from rage because Powell’s score is so good, so original, and so deserving.

John Powell has a knack for composing scores for animated films. He crafts music that is as frenetic as it is heartwarming, as serious as it is jovial. Because of the layered complexities and frenzied nature of his compositions, I often wonder if he has a touch of ADHD. Unlike most everyone else who graduated from the Hans Zimmer school of composing, he has been able to branch out on his own and forge his own style. And with How to Train Your Dragon, he brought all this together to construct a masterpiece of a film score. The score’s opening:
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Powell created a musical world with a rich thematic integrity throughout. While certainly not short on heroic music, the score also includes some lighter fare.
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But it’s the big, bold bombast that makes this score. Not only is Powell’s How to Train Your Dragon my favorite film score of the year, it contains my favorite track of the year.
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You can listen to the whole track here.

How to Train Your Dragon is easily the best score of John Powell’s career, and surely one of the best animated scores in some time. Given its originality, its thematic cohesiveness, and its likeability—no, lovability—this is easily the best film score of 2010.

Will John Powell go home with his first Oscar? I won’t hold my breath, but I’ll be sure to keep a bucket of water handy to extinguish my hair. But when I douse my head, I guess I will have to hold my breath.

There are a few composers that won’t be holding their breath either on Oscar night. Because their names aren’t in an envelope. Because their scores weren’t nominated. But they could have been. No, should have been.

For starters, there’s James Newton Howard’s score for The Last Airbender.
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It’s a shame that the movie was so awful that it tainted the score’s chances at a nomination. This is a score that doesn’t get written much these days, and it evokes fantasy scores of the past.
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Howard created a vivid and thematic score for The Last Airbender, and it’s easily one of his best scores.
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Then there’s James Horner’s surprise score for The Karate Kid. He was a replacement composer, but he created a masterful work. I wrote more about the score  last year.
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But one score deserves to be on the list if only because of how well it worked within its film: Daft Punk’s Tron: Legacy score. The film really should have been billed as “Tron: Legacy, starring Digital Domain and Daft Punk (and also starring everyone else).” Daft Punk’s score was an additional character in the forefront of the film driving the narrative.
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Just like Trent Reznor, Daft Punk are novices in the film-score world. But unlike Trent Reznor, Daft Punk competently scored their film and brought a fresh yet somehow retro sound to their film.
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Any of these three scores could have replaced one or more of the nominated five. But they didn’t. And life will go on.

I just hope life for John Powell goes on with a shiny, golden statue. Perhaps then he can say, “Hey! An Oscar! I feel sophisticated!”

Soundtrack Review: The Karate Kid

karate kid

After so many years of ranting against, detesting, abhorring, and otherwise loathing James Horner, I found myself in great enjoyment of his score for Avatar.   Sure there were similarities with past works (standard for a Horner score and what I most derided him for), but the pieces came together in a magical and magnificent package.

But could my new-found Horner liking last into another score?   His score for the 2010 remake of The Karate Kid would test that liking.   The verdict?   Yes, another great Horner score.   I must be sick.

James Horner’s score for The Karate Kid is terrific, memorable, and balances light-heartedness, tenderness, and otherwise kick-ass-ness.

Originally, Zimmer-goon Atli Örvarsson was to score the film, and we’d likely end up with some half-baked mishmash of crap like Marc Streitenfeld’s Robin Hood score.    Thankfully, we are treated to a proper score.

“Leaving Detroit” opens the score with a light and fanciful recurring theme:

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“Kung Fu Heaven” wouldn’t be out of place in John Debney’s score for The Passion of the Christ:

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“The Forbidden City” includes some lush string writing:

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In “Journey to the Spiritual Mountain,” Horner gives us some sumptuous travel music:

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I imagine “Hard Training” accompanying a training montage:

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Then we arrive at the ten-and-a-half-minute “From Master to Student to Master” which is undoubtedly the highlight of the album.   Roughly six minutes of the cue is soft, reflective music featuring a lovely solo piano. The rest of the cue is balls-to-the-wall epicness.    Horner lets loose with a magnificent, multi-part theme that repeats with varying instrumentation and arrangements.    I have no intentions of seeing the film, but I’d love to know what is happening during this cue.

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The track concludes with a rousing Horner ending:

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“Dre’s Gift and Apology” slows things down a bit and reprises on solo piano the theme first heard in the opening track:

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“Final Contest” gives us another full dose of the epic multi-part theme in “From Master to Student to Master” and splendidly finishes out the album:

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As the film takes place in China, Horner takes care to include some Eastern instrumentation.   There aren’t any explicitly-Eastern cues, but traditional Chinese instruments are effectively used as texture throughout the score.   And as usual, the Japanese shakuhachi Horner’s favorite ethnic instrument makes an appearance in the score.

Always the question with a Horner score is how much did he plagiarize himself.   I am surely not a Horner expert and am only familiar with his more mainstream works, but I don’t hear much that jumps out and screams, “Hey! I’m the theme from such-and-such movie that Horner ripped off!”   Certainly there are echos of his past works, but this is more likely his writing style coming through (e.g. his crashing pianos make an appearance) rather than a true “Hornerism” of copy-and-pasting himself (surprisingly and thankfully his trademarked four-note danger theme is absent from the album).   Even without the self-quoting, this is definitely a Horner score from start to finish.

The Amazon page for the score says, “A release date has not yet been set for this title,” but you can pre-order the score.   If you’re not willing to wait indefinitely, you can purchase the score via iTunes.

And you should, because with his score for The Karate Kid, James Horner has provided another terrific score and is slowly making me a believer.   His tender, solo piano themes and his epic, full-blown orchestral might leave me wanting more.   James Horner kicks-ass with The Karate Kid.

4.5/5

LOST in Michael Giacchino’s Musical World

(Before LOST ended, I saved the website and article I discuss below for after the show was over, but I forgot about them.  Fortunately, Instapaper did not, and now they are found again.)

An indelible part of the six seasons of LOST was the musical score provided by Academy-Award-winning composer Michael Giacchino.  With his purposely scant ensemble of strings, trombones, and percussion, he crafted a sometimes subtle, sometimes striking, and often moving musical counterpart to the mysteries and the characters of the island.

The first five seasons of music are available to purchase (hopefully the sixth will be soon, too).  But if you want a closer look at each theme and each motif Giacchino created for characters, events, and specific situations, check out the website Music by Michael Giacchino.

On the site’s special LOST page, each episode is listed with samples of the themes and motifs that episode introduced.  Every theme and motif quite an impressive undertaking by whomever is behind the site.

Some of my favorites:

Giacchino’s Oceanic Six theme is probably the finest theme he wrote for the show.  Beautiful.

Finally, if you’re interested in a little behind-the-scenes action, Maria Elena Fernandez of The Los Angeles Times blog Show Tracker featured exclusive video of a rehearsal for a LOST concert with Giacchino and his ensemble.  Below is one of the videos, but be sure to check out the rest.

Jacob’s LOST Ark

One of my coworkers this week (thanks, Steve!) enlightened me to something deliciously interesting about the musical theme Michael Giacchino wrote for Jacob on LOST.  Here’s Jacob’s theme:

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The main construct of the theme is a suspended note followed by two ascending notes.

Now here is John Williams’s theme for the Ark of the Covenant from Raiders of the Lost Ark:

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The main construct of this theme is a suspended note followed by two descending notes.

Very clever.  A theme for a mystical, god-like person paying homage to a theme for a mystical, god-related object.  Nice work, Michael.

Soundtrack Review: Robin Hood

From the Robin Hood trailer, the end goal of Ridley Scott and Russel Crowe seems pretty obvious: make another Gladiator.   While they may have matched the look and perhaps the feel, they certainly didn’t match the sound.   Marc Streitenfeld’s score for Robin Hood is only slightly better than five hours of non-stop, out-of-tune bagpipes accompanying baby cries and cat wails.

Back in January when I discussed 2010 film scores, I wrote this of Streitenfeld composing Robin Hood:

This is a Ridley Scott film, so I assumed Hans Zimmer would be composing.   Officially, he’s not, but since Marc is one of Hans’s goons, no doubt this will sound as if Zimmer composed it.   And I’m sure I’ll be very pleased.   Will this be in the vein of Zimmer’s masterful Gladiator or the less-serious-but-still-exciting King Arthur?   Here’s hoping for the former.

Unfortunately, Robin Hood is in the vein of neither maybe the lower gastrointestinal track of one of the two, but certainly not in the vein.   The music is uninspiring, unexciting, and utterly devoid of any apparent effort.

Marc Streitenfeld comes from the Hans Zimmer school of composing   or, as I usually say, Marc Streitenfeld is a Zimmer goon.   Zimmer’s studio, Remote Control (formerly Media Ventures), churns out similar sounding music for almost every film they touch.   For most films, the main, credited composer has a band of merry men to supply additional music, so in most cases you cannot be entirely sure who actually composed the score.   With this many composers collaborating together, you might think the goons should output some great stuff.   You would be mistaken.

Usually for films that are solely credited to Zimmer, I rather enjoy the scores Gladiator, Angels and Demons, The Last Samurai, and Pirates of the Caribbean 3 to name a few.   But when his goons step up, I set myself up for extreme letdown when I expect something more than their last effort.

To be fair, not everything that has ever come from Media-Ventures/Remote-Control is terrible.   The first Transformers score, while unoriginal, was still exciting and afforded repeated listens.   And of course, Media Ventures produced John Powell who is easily one of the top composers in the business today.

Streitenfeld’s Robin Hood, though, fails to provide anything worth praising, just like Ramin Djawadi’s Clash of the Titans score.   (I didn’t write a review of it, but I wrote on Twitter, “Ramin Djawadi’s Clash of the Titans score is a miserably generic, sub-par heap of mediocrity. Is the film this uninspiring?”)   There is barely any thematic content in Robin Hood.   The only passable theme is a warmed-over theme from every other goon score:

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Then there’s this “action” music:

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Yes, I feel and see the intensity of battle in my mind   so intense I thought cutting my toenails might be more interesting.

And then there’s whatever the hell this is:

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The only track that’s worth anything is the last track, “Merry Men,” which combines the warmed-over theme with some much-needed and desired jauntiness:

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Shameful that the last track finally offers something to draw you in to the score but then ends leaving you feeling more cheated than these salmon.

What’s amazing to me is that music this uninspiring whether it be this specific score or any other mediocre effort makes it past the approval process.   Do no film directors or producers stop and say, “Hey, that’s some pretty shitty music.   Shouldn’t we hire someone better?”   Or do these directors and producers not notice the stench of awful music because the rest of the film reeks even more?

A film this big deserved a better score a decent score at least.   Marc Streitenfeld’s score is not a decent score   not even close.   If you liked Zimmer’s Gladiator or even Jablonsky’s Transformers, stay away from Streitenfeld’s Robin Hood.   This isn’t music; it’s cobbling together some notes in a subpar effort to get a job done.   And what a terrible job it was.

1/5

Soundtrack Review: Avatar

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Rarely do I see a 2.5-plus-hour film and not want the film to end and then when it does want to see the film again immediately.   This, however, was the case with Avatar.   Written and directed by film-making-pioneer James Cameron, Avatar is a phenomenal film and an amazing and spectacular visual and technical achievement.   Providing the score for Avatar is past-Cameron-collaborator James Horner who composed a fantastic and very effective score, one which will likely and deservedly win him some hardware come awards season.

I’ve been listening to the score for a few weeks, but I decided to wait until I saw the film to write about the music.   Film scores, of course, are primarily intended to exist as a cohesive part of the overall motion-picture experience.   Many scores, though, work just as well outside their corresponding film as they do inside it.   James Horner’s score for Avatar works wonders both in the film and out of it.

The score starts with a somewhat unsettled mood in “You Don’t Dream in Cryo….”   In “Jake Enters His Avatar World,” we are treated to a musical interpretation of the film’s visual and thematic juxtaposition between the human world and the Na’vi world.   As paraplegic-main-character Jake first experiences his avatar body in the confines of the human laboratory, the music is very troubled with hammering pianos and pulsing shakuhachis, but as Jake escapes and experiences running again, the music segues to a fantasy-like dreamscape with tinkering harp, uplifting brass, and rhythmic percussion.
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“Pure Spirits of the Forest” gives us our first taste of the musical ideas and textures Horner created for the Na’vi people and the forest as Jake first interacts with both; “The Bioluminescence of the Night” continues this.   The music is often very dreamy, ethereal, and relaxing just like the spectacular visuals on screen.
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Finally in “Becoming One of “The People”, Becoming One with Neytiri,” we are treated to the first major statement of Horner’s main Avatar theme (previous tracks flirt with the theme).   This statement is layered with ethnic-sounding percussion and vocals to great effect:
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“Climbing Up ‘Iknimaya – The Path to Heaven'” continues the Na’vi-inspired magic, again using percussive elements very effectively:
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…as does “Jake’s First Flight”:
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After these few tracks that heavily favored the Na’vi music, we have a few tracks that bring the musical world back to the human world.   “Scorched Earth” and “Quaritch” with their frantic chanting, percussion, and brass is a 180-degree-turn from the previous track:
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In “The Destruction of Home Tree,” we are presented with some oft-tragic, distressed action-based music:
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The final track in this group is the unsettling, mournful track “Shutting Down Grace’s Lab.”
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Then we arrive at my favorite track on the album, “Gathering All the Na’vi Clans for Battle.”   The track starts slowly, but the second half is pure Horner magic.   When I first started listening to the score before I had seen the film, I had a fairly good idea of what was happening in the film based on the track’s title and the music.   When I was watching the film with the music in the forefront of this particular scene, I had a huge smile on my face from the combination of the inspiring music with the sequence.   I saw the film with my dad, who knows how much I enjoy film scores, and he leaned over to me and asked if I had the music from Avatar yet because the sequence with the music was that good.   The music is stirring and propulsive, serving the scene extremely well:
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“War,” the final score track from the online-download version, is a behemoth of a track both in terms of length and content.   The track starts with music that accompanies the human mobilization for war and continues with music from the battle between the humans and the Na’vi.   Horner wrote some exciting, tense, and, at times, heroic music for the battle, and this track is easily one of the best on the album:
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The online-download version of the album concludes with the song “I See You,” performed by Leona Lewis.   The song is serviceable and is a nice rendition of the main theme.

For those who bought the Avatar soundtrack in stores (or found the track online), the album concludes with a bonus track, “Into the Na’vi World,” which makes me want what else was left off the album given the rousing quality of the track.   I was listening for the correct placement of this track in the film, but if it’s in the film somewhere, I missed it.
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Speaking of missing music, there is, of course, some missing from the album, notably music from after the battle.   All of the major pieces, though, are on the album, but I would still gladly purchase an expanded edition of the score.

To someone who has known me for several years, reading my gushing portrayal of James Horner’s music for Avatar would likely come as a major surprise.   Just a few years ago, I despised Horner and his music.   I felt and still do that he was lazy and ignorant for frequently repeating past musical ideas and blatantly quoting themes from his other scores.   Avatar, to no one’s surprise, continues this nasty habit with the inclusion of Horner’s notorious four-note danger theme as well as an interpretation of his theme from Glory that here is used for the Na’vi.   I’m not very familiar with lesser-known Horner works, but other reviewers have mentioned other scores that had material lifted from them for Avatar.

These days, though, I have taught myself to overlook Horner’s misgivings simply because he can and often does write some kick-ass music.   Great music is great music.

And Avatar is great music.   Horner masterfully created a music world for Avatar, including magical sounds for the forest and the Na’vi.   The percussive elements he layers with the rest of the orchestra are terrific.   My only issue with the score is that the main theme isn’t stronger and more memorable.   Otherwise, from the mystical tones for the forest to the lighthearted and gleeful music for the Na’vi to the epic call-to-action set piece to the propulsive action music, James Horner has written a grand and magnificent score, one which unquestionably deserves recognition come awards season.

4.5/5

“No Good About Goodbye”

I came across something today I was unaware of: a rejected theme song for the Bond film Quantum of Solace.   As I noted in my review of the film (which was also a review of the music), the title song was performed by Alicia Keys and Jack White and was written by White.   In my review, I wasn’t shy about my distaste for the song and its lack of a discernible melody that composer David Arnold could use in his score for the film.

Well, today I learned that not only did David Arnold write a song for the film, he used pieces of the song throughout the score like a Bond score should when a decent tune is written and recorded the song with the legendary Dame Shirley Bassey, who is no stranger to the Bond universe with performances of the title songs for Goldfinger, Diamonds are Forever, and Moonraker.   Arnold’s song, though, was rejected.   Thankfully, Bassey has included it on her new album, The Performance.

Some wise YouTube user decided to strip the title sequence from Quantum of Solace of its gag-inducing song and replaced it with the Arnold/Bassey song.   I posted the title sequence for Quantum of Solace a while back, but the YouTube video I linked to was taken down, so for comparison’s sake, here’s the original:

And here is the title sequence with the Arnold/Bassey song:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Liy0rR3fkQ0

The song, titled “No Good About Goodbye,” is a classic Bond song with sweeping strings and a sultry voice and is far superior to the mess of a tune that was the White/Keys “Another Way to Die.”   Perhaps the film’s producers didn’t think this song fit the edgier feel of the film, but the song fits with the classic Bond persona and is a nice throwback to the Connery films: edgy film (as compared to latter entries in the franchise) plus Bassey anthem.

If you’re interested in a digital copy of the Arnold/Bassey song, unfortunately, as of this writing, an MP3 version isn’t available from either iTunes or Amazon.   Hopefully one will be available soon.

(Nod: Movie-Wave Capsules)

Soundtrack Review: Gods and Generals

While I was on my road trip and traveling to multiple Civil War battlefields, I had a theme from the score from Gods and Generals in my head, so as I was driving, I listened to the full score several times. What a fantastic score written as a tribute to the events and the men depicted in the film and in the larger war and era.

Gods and Generals is a 2003 film based on the Jeff Shaara novel of the same name. Jeff Shaara’s novel is a prequel of sorts to his father Michael Shaara’s novel “The Killer Angels,” which the 1993 film Gettysburg was based on. Gods and Generals covers the Battles of First Manassas, Chancellorsville, and Fredericksburg (three of my road trip stops). Gettysburg featured a score by Randy Edelman, who employed an obvious and distracting array of synthesized instruments in place of a fully orchestral score. Edelman returns in Gods and Generals for a few tracks, but the majority of the work for the film is done by John Frizzell. Both composers thankfully use an entirely orchestral ensemble.

Not having seen the film, I am unaware of what or who themes in the score represent, but from a purely musical viewpoint, the score is remarkable.

The score begins with the titular track, “Gods and Generals.” The theme introduced in this track is an emotional heartbreak of a theme appropriately set in minor key.
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The theme returns elsewhere in the score, notably in the track “Loved I Not Honor More” in an almost haunting rendition.
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The second major theme of the score is introduced in the track “You Must Not Worry for Us” with a beautiful horn solo.
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This theme is a beautiful companion piece yet absolutely opposite of the first theme. The most extraordinary performance of this theme is the track “To the Stone Wall.”
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Other tracks of note include “Lexington is My Home” which gives listeners a delectable taste of the South.
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“The School of the Soldier” is a fitting military period piece.
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Finally, “These Brave Irishmen” pays tribute to the Irishmen that played a large role in these battles with a moving piece with ethnic instrumentation.
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Gods and Generals is a powerhouse of an emotional journey from start to finish. Frizzell remarkably captures the essence of what one might think a Civil War score should sound like in the 21st century. His themes are somber and heart-wrenching, hopeful and heartwarming. For film score and history enthusiasts alike, I can’t recommend this score any higher. Absolutely a five-out-of-five score.

5/5

Giacchino on Giacchino

I’ve been listening to Michael Giacchino’s score for Land of the Lost, and something I noticed on my very first listen was a curious quotation of a motif from another Giacchino score. Subtly included 19 seconds into the second track “The Lighter Side of Archaeology” is one statement of the island motif from the TV show Lost, also scored by Giacchino. Curious. And subtle. But the motif is definitely there. I wonder why.

How’s the rest of the score? More later, but the short answer is if I were making a movie, Giacchino would be scoring it.

Soundtrack Review: Up

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Michael Giacchino is back with his second feature film score of the year, this time composing the score for Disney/Pixar’s latest film Up. Giacchino again soars with his musical accompaniment to the endearing and delightful story of love, loss, companionship, and adventure.

Giacchino’s score for Up marks his third score for a Pixar film, following The Incredibles and Ratatouille. For The Incredibles, Giacchino wrote a super-hero-esque-slash-John-Barry-scoring-James-Bond-sounding score, and for Ratatouille, Giacchino wrote a charming-and-heartfelt-yet-energetic score. Up falls more closely with the mood set in Ratatouille, so if you enjoyed the latter, you’ll likely enjoy the former.

Throughout the score are two prominent themes: Carl’s theme for the Ed-Asner-voiced crotchety old man and Muntz’s theme for the Christopher-Plummer-voiced, old-time explorer/hero character. Carl’s theme is a delightful waltz usually orchestrated very lightly save for a few heroic outbursts. The theme gets generous use in the track “Married Life”:
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The theme also gets an energetic rendition in “Memories Can Weigh You Down”:
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And an all-out orchestral rendition in “Up with End Credits”:
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Muntz’s theme, performed with lyrics in “The Spirit of Adventure,” is, appropriately, more adventurous than Carl’s theme.   The theme:
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And the song, which, appropriately, sounds like it was recorded in the 1930s:
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In “Walkin’ the House,” we’re given a motif for the adventurers’ walk through the jungle.
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The track “Canine Conundrum” is the first to feature the music for Muntz’s dogs. This music is part savage- and Conan-the-Barbarian-sounding, and for some reason is strangely familiar to me. I can’t, though, pinpoint why the music is familiar-sounding; perhaps this is an homage to something else I know?
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More comes later in “Seizing the Spirit of Adventure”:
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Giacchino supplies listeners with a healthy dose of action material for Up, including “Escape from Muntz Mountain” (with a short muted-trumpet burst of Carl’s theme:
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And “The Small Mailman Returns”:
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And as is his usual custom, Giacchino treats us to a wonderful end credits suite of the film’s themes and motifs followed by the aforementioned “The Spirit of Adventure.”   Curiously, the track title of the end credits suite follows the naming convention of his two previous Pixar-film scores: melding the title of the film with “credits.”   The end credits track title in The Incredibles was “The Incredits”; in Ratatouille, “End Creditouilles”; and in Up, “Up with End Credits.”   Another naming convention tradition he maintains here is naming a track “<#> <object> Dash.”   In The Incredibles was “100 Mile Dash”; in Ratatouille, “100 Rat Dash”; and in Up, “Three Dog Dash.”   Very nice, Michael, very nice!

Michael Giacchino’s score for Up soars with energy, charm, and fun like his previous Pixar scores. The fun-factor in the music is definitely a reflection of the fun Giacchino must have had composing this decidedly feel-good music. Another terrific score from Michael Giacchino.

4/5

Soundtrack Review: Angels & Demons

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Ron Howard and Tom Hanks are back in this The Da Vinci Code sequel (even though the novel Angels & Demons was released first), and they again bring along Hans Zimmer and his usual band of goons to provide the score.   Zimmer’s score for The Da Vinci Code was terrific; the score included tension, elegy, brooding gothic chants, and a magical theme for the revelation scene at the end of the film.   For his Angels & Demons score, Zimmer brings all that and more to create a score more enjoyable and better composed than his The Da Vinci Code score.

One’s enjoyment of this score, however, is likely predicated on one’s opinion of the composer.   Zimmer, much like composer James Horner, instantly sparks controversy amongst film score collectors.   Zimmer often is heavy on synth sounds and frequently employs the use of ghostwriters while taking full credit for his scores.   Most of his Angels & Demons score is purely orchestral, but a few tracks employ synth textures that, fortunately, do not detract from the score.   And of course, Zimmer’s happy band of goons (this time it’s Lorne Balfe, Geoff Zanelli, and Atli Örvarsson) assist him here as usual.

The score opens with an exciting and frenetic action-packed choir piece humorously titled “160 BPM,” as in 160 beats per minute, or the tempo of the piece.   A definite highlight of the score, this track serves as a fantastic opening and sets the mood for a great listen.   The track has an almost-dueling quality to it with the different layers of chorus as bells punctuate the action and organ undertones propel the energy.   This music accompanies Robert Langdon’s pursuits around Rome and is thus split-up throughout the film.   Only during the end credits do we hear this extended piece.
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Following said explosive opening, the score slows down a bit with “God Particle,” in which we’re treated to a lovely rendition of the “Chevaliers de Sangreal” theme from The Da Vinci Code.   This is the first track to feature violin solos by Joshua Bell, and he doesn’t disappoint (this is the actual musical opening of the film).
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In the film, there is a soft, religious-toned choir interlude between the Bell solo and the rest of the track, but sadly this piece is left off the album.   The track continues with a markedly different mood, one of more technical-ish sounding tones and textures but concludes with a haunting piano solo of the “Chevaliers de Sangreal” theme.

Next is another highlight of the score, the nine-minute track “Air” that accompanies the second Illuminati killing to great effect (nerd alert: there’s a close-up shot of a car headlight in the film, and when the headlight turns on, a sudden and forceful burst of choir fills the theater with masterful visual and aural effect).   Part brooding, part propulsive, part haunting, this track returns to the excitement that began with the opening track and features some familiar-sounding material from The Da Vinci Code.
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“Air” is followed up with “Fire,” another solid track.   Two great additions here are the choir and the tolling church bells that chillingly break the silence throughout the brooding and action.
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“Black Smoke” gives us some more action with some synth layers.
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We then get to another highlight, “Science and Religion.”   This over-twelve-minute piece features gorgeous religious-esque choir and is nothing like the mood of the preceding tracks.   The music features Joshua Bell again to terrific effect as he accompanies the camerlengo’s flight and aftermath.
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In “Immolation,” the mood becomes frighteningly dark with this brooding piece…
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…but in the penultimate track, “Election by Adoration,” the mood lightens up, and we hear another motif from The Da Vinci Code score, again performed by Bell.
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Finally, in the ultimate track, “503,” we get the “Chevaliers de Sangreal” theme unleashed to beauteous heights not achieved elsewhere on the album.   This track is extremely gratifying yet blisteringly disappointing.   Joshua Bell returns with a dazzling violin solo, and the magic captured in “Chevaliers de Sangreal” is back, but the track is frustratingly short.   Part of the magic of “Chevaliers de Sangreal” was the extended build-up to the climax of the piece, but with the brevity of “503” and the quicker tempo, some of that magic is lost.   Still, though, if you appreciate a) the theme and b) Bell’s gorgeous performance, you’ll have this track on repeat.
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“503” isn’t the only thing that is frustratingly short.   If you enjoy this score as much as I did and do, you’ll want more.   While we aren’t likely to get any kind of officially-sanctioned expanded score, we have as a consolation prize a downloadable-track titled “H20.”   This track fits nicely after “Fire” and has a very trying, strained performance of the “Chevaliers de Sangreal” theme.   Even though the track only adds just under two minutes to the score, the track is a nice addition if you’re looking for more music.
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More music aside, with Angels & Demons, Hans Zimmer proves once again how good he really can be when he tries.   All the magic and heights he achieved with his The Da Vinci Code score are matched and surpassed with his Angels & Demons score.   For Zimmer-detractors, this score isn’t worth much, but for Zimmer-enthusiasts, those who enjoyed The Da Vinci Code score, or those who appreciate orchestral music of the dark-and-brooding-yet-action-packed-and-divine variety, you’ll enjoy Hans Zimmer’s part-angelic and part-demonic Angels & Demons score.

4.5/5

(P.S.: back on 15 May I mentioned I had listened to “503” 42 times.   Well, that number is now at 97!)

Soundtrack Review: Star Trek

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Composer Michael Giacchino provided the score for the latest Star Trek film, and he did a terrific job.   On a personal note, seeing Giacchino attached to such a high-profile film pleases me, as I was an early fan upon hearing his score for his first Medal of Honor video game.   I’ve followed his musical career closely as he has developed with additional video game scores, TV scores, and now film scores.   His music has evolved over his several projects in his thus-short career, and when he’s needed, Giacchino doesn’t disappoint and that goes for his latest score, Star Trek.

I concede, though, I was at first slightly disappointed with Giacchino’s Star Trek score.   Prior to purchasing his score, I had been repeatedly listening to James Horner’s fantastic score for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.   Horner’s Trek score is easily one of his best, with its high-octane, seafaring-esque attitude.   Then I listened to Giacchino’s score for the first time, and not having a stirring, captivating main title composition was disappointing.   The main title composition unleashes the main theme and sets the mood for the remainder of the score.   Jerry Goldsmith did this wonderfully with his Star Trek: The Motion Picture score, as did Horner with his Trek 2 score.   Added to the absence of the hit-you-over-the-head main title music in Giacchino’s score on first-listen was that his Trek theme didn’t really get started until track 4, “Hella Bar Talk,” where the theme is in a more muted, reflective mood.   I recall during my first listening thinking, “Where’s the theme?”   But then I arrived at “Enterprising Young Men” where the theme is unleashed in all its glory.   Once I heard the theme in this track, I was satisfied (and hit repeat on this track), and the disappointment of not having a strong main title cue subsided (little did I know at the time that this track doubles as the film’s title music). “Enterprising Young Men”:
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Giacchino’s Trek theme is unlike Goldsmith’s and Horner’s, but not in an unfortunate or unsatisfactory way.   Instead of a major-key, brass fanfare, we’re treated to a more introspective-yet-powerful theme, heard as a beautiful horn solo in the first track “Star Trek” and in other renditions and orchestrations throughout the remainder of the score, including the aforementioned “Enterprising Young Men” cue with its exciting brass rendition.   For any listener, the success of this score may depend on whether or not you enjoy his Trek theme because of its generous use throughout the score. “Star Trek”:
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Doubling as Kirk’s theme, Giacchino’s Trek theme gets a healthy and musically pleasing workout throughout the score.   In between the various renditions, though, are a full library of other themes, motifs, and set pieces.   Spock gets a theme, which is a light, other-worldly theme performed by what may be an erhu.   Spock’s Theme:
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The bad guys get a bad-bad-brass-heavy motif that’s as propulsive as it’s thudding.   Giacchino also ensures his action music is always tight and never boring, with the track “Nero Fiddles, Narada Burns” a standout:
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And “Nero Death Experience”:
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What I find most impressive about the album is the “End Credits” track, where Giacchino assembles a nine-minute montage of the film’s themes and motifs mixed with an exciting rendition of the Alexander Courage Star Trek theme:
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Modern film scores and films have lost the art of creating a separate and original composition for the end credits.   Most films these days simply mix preexisting cues together to form an end credits suite.   Gone are the days of John Williams’s Star Wars scores where he exceptionally weaved together his themes in custom-composed end-credit compositions.   Giacchino has thankfully brought this practice back, not only with his Star Trek end credits composition, but with compositions for the end credits of The Incredibles and Ratatouille.   In addition, the Star Trek “End Credits” track features an awesome few seconds that use Courage’s Trek theme as counterpoint to Giacchino’s Trek theme:
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What I find least impressive about the album is the length: about 44 minutes.   The film is just over two hours, so clearly there is missing music, including the exciting fight scene on the drill platform and the terrific musical moment with the USS Enterprise rising above the clouds on Titan.   I have no doubt an expanded album is up someone’s sleeve somewhere.   And I’ll be happy to purchase it.

With his Star Trek score, Giacchino finally finding his own musical voice is evident.   In a handful of cues on the album, a few seconds of the music sound like it could either be from one of his Lost or Medal of Honor scores.   This doesn’t mean he is merely copying himself, but rather he has developed specific musical styles and textures.   Hearing these textures in multiple scores signifies Giacchino’s personal development as a composer in his own right.   In many of his earlier scores, though, he sounded like another composer: John Williams in the original Medal of Honor score, John Barry in The Incredibles, Ron Goodwin in Secret Weapons Over Normandy, etc.   Not until his later Medal of Honor scores and his work for Lost did Michael Giacchino start wholeheartedly sounding like Michael Giacchino and not another composer (both situations are a testament to his skills: on one hand the ability to incorporate other composers’ sounds; on the other his development as his own composer).

Michael Giacchino’s Star Trek score is Michael Giacchino’s Star Trek score and no other composer’s.   As a result, I can see diehard fans of the Star Trek scores of past, particularly Goldsmith’s The Motion Picture and Horner’s The Wrath of Khan scores, being disappointed with this score.   Giacchino’s score, though, aptly fits this more character-driven film.   Giacchino has created his own world of Star Trek music, a world I am delighted to boldly go through with each repeated listen.   Bravo, Michael!

4.5/5

Movie Review: Quantum of Solace

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I saw the latest Jason Bourne James Bond film this weekend.   Although not as much as Casino Royale, I thoroughly enjoyed Quantum of Solace, and I will be seeing it again.   What follows are some lengthy thoughts and reactions.

Since any cinematic experience for me heavily involves the music, I’ll begin there.   The title song, “Another Way to Die,” was written by Jack White and performed by White and Alicia Keys.   While hailed as the first duet in Bond music history, the song is terrible.   When I first heard the song several weeks ago, my first listen left me cringing and shuttering in disbelief.   The song has grown on me significantly, though, and I actually enjoy listening to it.   As a Bond song, however, it’s only slightly better than Madonna’s atrocious “Die Another Day.”   White’s and Keys’s voices during the song don’t mesh well, and because they cover about the same vocal range with slightly different timbres, they seem to almost clash with dissonant cacophony.   Instead of singing the chorus, they shout it; the orchestrations throughout are barren, and in the full version of the song, the intro meanders almost incoherently while stealing the same notes from “You Know My Name,” the title song from Casino Royale.   Aspects of the song are catchy, hence my continual listening to it, but overall it fails.

Performance aside, though, the most damning aspect of the song is the lack of a usable, discernible melody to use with the film’s score.   The best Bond title songs are those which can be weaved into and interpolated throughout the score proper.   When this extended use happens, the song becomes more than a seemingly-disjointed, tacked-on prefix to the film; instead, it becomes a more intricately developed musical identity to the film.   Composer David Arnold returns to write his fifth Bond score, his first being Tomorrow Never Dies in 1997.   Throughout his tenure, he has had (at no fault of his own) mixed success with song melody utilization.   For Tomorrow Never Dies, he wrote a classic Bond song titled “Surrender” (performed by k.d. lang) that was skillfully and successfully woven into the score.   The song’s melody served as a propulsive base to several action cues throughout the score.   The song, though, was replaced at the last minute by a sub-par song, titled “Tomorrow Never Dies” and performed by Sheryl Crow; “Surrender” survived, though, to appear during the end credits.

For The World Is Not Enough, Arnold wrote a song performed by Garbage.   This song remained in the title sequence and, although not as often as “Surrender,” appears during the score.

Die Another Day was a musical amalgam of awfulness.   Arnold had nothing to do with the song; instead, Madonna wrote and “performed” the song, which was nothing more than a cesspool of techno filth (and the words “die another day” were spoken a sure-to-make-anyone-say-enough-already sixteen times).   Arnold, slowly descending into techno madness from his brilliantly modern-yet-classic-Bond score for Tomorrow Never Dies to his not-as-good-but-still-enjoyable score for The World Is Not Enough to his disappointing score for Die Another Day, seemed to attempt to out perform the song’s techno nonsense.   Because of the overly techno feel and the absence of a strong melody, other than the “James Bond Theme,” to focus on, the score suffered immensely.

But for what Die Another Day lacked musically, Casino Royale more than made up.   Arnold collaborated with Chris Cornell to write “You Know My Name.”   The song was a fitting answer to the “re-invented” Bond, giving him a modern, harder edge song to fit his new rougher, edgier persona.   Several melodies found themselves masterfully sprinkled in the score numerous times, and the way the song melodies intertwined with the classic four-note Bond chord progression made their appearance in the score better than the appearances from “Surrender” in the Tomorrow Never Dies score.   The song served as more than just a song to accompany a beautiful title sequence; it served as a musical identity to the rest of the score and therefore the film as a whole.

The score for Quantum of Solace shares much of the same musical identity with Casino Royale except for a strong melodic line to create a cohesive whole.   The action pieces, the reflective pieces, and the sleuthy pieces all are strong and enjoyable, but the score could have been stronger and more enjoyable with a unifying melody.   While two cues on the soundtrack quote a “melody” from “Another Way to Die,” the quotation is relegated to a softer, sleuthy rendition, far from the outstanding usage of song melody in Tomorrow Never Dies and Casino Royale.

What I find most interesting about my reaction to the Quantum of Solace score is regardless of how much I love the theme, I don’t miss an outright, bombastic performance of the “James Bond Theme.”   A statement of the theme like its abundant usage in Tomorrow Never Dies just doesn’t seem to fit with this new Bond.   Is that good or bad, though.   If you consider the Bond theme to be overused, then I suppose its absence, save for the several skillful additions of the Bond chord progression and the famous guitar line rendered for strings, is welcome and allows for other musical ideas to take shape and precedence.   Like Casino Royale, though, the end credits feature a rousing rendition of the theme.

The title song, if not a part of the score, is, of course, the underpinning of the Bond title sequence.   Since GoldenEye in 1995, Daniel Kleinman has created the stylized and themed title sequences.   I was shocked to learn he had been replaced for Quantum of Solace but was cautiously optimistic that MK12, who designed the wonderful end title sequence and in-film motion graphics pieces for Stranger Than Fiction, was designing the sequence.   Unfortunately, though, the Quantum of Solace title sequence was underwhelming.   The sand and desert theme is an appropriate and obvious tie-in to the film’s climax location, and the women emerging from the sand was an interesting effect.   Unlike previous title sequences, the names of the cast and crew didn’t just fade on, they had a cool animation to bring them on screen, and the best name animation was for Dame Judi Dench (her name appeared from circles animated identically to those of the gun barrel sequence).   But the sequence as a whole meandered and wandered through its desert-like setting.   The latter half seemed to throw a non-congruent slew of swiftly animating elements, from silhouettes of naked women to lines in the shape of a globe amongst some stars.   Unlike the Kleinman sequences, this sequence seemed at a loss for a driving purpose and focus.

In addition to the title sequence, MK12 designed the in-film motion graphics associated with the Microsoft Surface touchscreen and the satellite-phone-call/villain-database-search wall in M’s office.   These animations were superb and inspiring.

But enough with the music and the design.   What about the rest of the film?   Overall, the film was good, but not on the same level as Casino Royale.   In Quantum of Solace, the film seemed like a never-ending chase sequence; there was a car chase, a foot chase, a boat chase, and an airplane chase.   All this action is great, but there could have been some more exposition and character development (especially since the film shockingly came in under two hours).   A few scenes (the ending comes to mind) could have benefited from a couple more minutes to explain the unanswered questions that arose from them.   The action sequences, though, were great, and the stunts performed were top-notch.   Several times I cringed at the intense physicality Daniel Craig put himself through for the role.

Although the scene didn’t involve intense action, one of the highlights of the film was the Tosca opera scene.   Bond is doing some actual spying, trying to discover what he can about the mysterious group who wear “Q” lapel pins (fashioned in the same font as the film’s title).   After Bond finds out what he needs to, he encounters the bad guy and the sound drops from the film.   Instead of bullet firings, shouts, and destruction, we only hear the music from the opera sung over the scene of Bond fleeing resulting in an unexpected and incredible scene.

The main Bond girl Camille, played by Olga Kurylenko, was an interesting psychological counter to Bond.   Both are seeking revenge, but what Bond learns from Camille helps shape him into the more familiar Bond character.   Mathieu Amalric as Dominic Greene played a non-typical Bond villain.   Instead of the supervillain intent on seeking world domination, Greene was a philanthropist-posing, dastardly-scheming corporate boss, and he played his character well.   But for me, other than Craig as Bond, the best performance came from Dame Judi.   She, apparently being the only authority figure in Bond’s life, was crisp, forceful, and yet funny.   One of her best lines (and I’m paraphrasing, as I don’t remember the exact quotes): she, through her aide on the phone with Bond, asks about someone Bond was to investigate; he responds the guy was a “dead end”; M, in an outburst of surprise and fury, says, “that means he killed him!”   The delivery of this line and several others made me laugh.   When producers decided to reboot the series with Casino Royale, I’m very pleased they kept Dame Judi as M.

Also with the rebooted Bond came a more Jason-Bourne-like persona.   While I’m sure this persona will get mixed reactions, it doesn’t bother me.   Like Bond, Bourne is a spy; and now like Bourne, Bond deals in a more realistic, edgier world than the old Bond did.   No invisible cars here.   Thankfully.

Couple other notes: as with Casino Royale, I fail to comprehend why one of M’s aides couldn’t have been Moneypenny instead; I hope we see more of Felix Leiter in forthcoming films; the Goldfinger reference with Fields was outstanding; Mathis and the dumpster was disturbing; the gun barrel seemed tacked-on and lacked the sophistication of Kleinman’s Brosnan gun barrel sequences; and Universal Exports makes a Bond-geek-pleasing return.

And, as customary, the credits end with “James Bond Will Return.”   I’ll be eagerly waiting.   I just hope that Q, Moneypenny, Daniel Kleinman, and David Arnold as title song composer return, too.