The Lego Movie (Mark Mothersbaugh)

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Who would have thought that an idea which seemed as crass and commercial as Battleship could have been such a joy? Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller took a basic concept and turned it into box office and critical gold with The Lego Movie, providing a heavy mix of rapid-fire gags, pop culture references, and genuine heart – so much so that the studio immediately greenlit a sequel, always a sign of success in franchise-happy Hollywood.

Lord and Miller brought along their regular musical collaborator Mark Mothersbaugh, who had scored their previous films Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street. Despite being an experienced scorer of TV, films, and video games since the 1980s, Mothersbaugh is still best-known for his role as the lead singer and co-founder of the new wave rock band Devo. The composer had taken on similar projects before, from The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle to Rugrats, and he brought along his full set of acoustic and electronic sounds for the assignment.

Naturally, though, the piece of music everyone will remember–and quite possibly be unable to get out of their brains–is The Lego Movie‘s satirical ode to conformity and optimism, “Everything is Awesome.” Written by Shawn Patterson with a large team of collaborators and produced by Mothersbaugh, the song is insanely catchy pop brilliance: in satirizing bubbly upbeat cookie-cutter songs, the songwriters created one of the best yet. The album features no less than four versions of the tune: the opening (and best, though it could have done without the rap interludes) version by Tegan and Sara, a shorter version by Jo-Li, an acoustic version belted out by songwriter Patterson himself, and a karaoke rendition of the Tegan And Sara opener. Mothersbaugh incorporates the song into his underscore at several key points as well.

Outside of the song melody, the composer provides a theme of his own that’s first heard in counterpoint to “Everything is Awesome.” First appearing in full during the quirky “Emmet’s Morning,” the theme is thereafter heard in almost every cue, providing the musical thread that holds score and film together (much like the approach Mothersbaugh took in Cloudy). It’s catchy, and the theme is put through a dizzying variety of paces: from joyously anarchic spaghetti western in “Saloons and Wagons” to unmitigated tragedy in “Wyldstyle Leads” to dazzling triumph in “I Am A Master Builder.”

Mothersbaugh uses a few other brief motifs here and there: a menacing four-note electronic tag for the dastardly Lord Business and his men, a bouncy laughing vocal for Ben the Spaceman, and an ascending victory motif heard whenever things are going the heroes’ way. For the balance of the album, though, the composer writes in the David Newman vein of frenetic, tuneful mayhem, rolling with the film’s punches and nonstop sequence of gags. There’s surprising breadth there, though, as exemplified in the album’s most straightforwardly dramatic cue, the lovely “My Secret Weapon,” which blends light electronics with piano for the most touching moment in the film–and score.

One thing that’s worth noting for prospective listeners, is Mothersbaugh’s use of electronics, especially compared with his much more acoustic approach to the earlier Cloudy. He has a considerable orchestra at his disposal but blends it with synths in nearly every cue, adjusting them to be bubbly or harsh as demanded by the onscreen action. They are generally used deftly, but their sometimes-harsh quality, combined with the music’s mile-a-minute pace, can be off-putting. In general, listeners’ response to Mothersbaugh’s synths will color their appreciation of the whole album, and it will perhaps be a bigger hit with fans of electronic/acoustic mixes or those familiar with the composer’s many video game works.

Whether you come for the songs or the score, The Lego Movie offers an eclectic sound that’s sure to have something for everyone. Depending on your preferences, that could mean picking out a few choice cuts to download or relishing the whole of Watertower Music’s generous 60-minute album. Mothersbaugh definitely gave the film the score it needed, and it comes with a solid recommendation.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Doom (Clint Mansell)

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It has become something of a running trope that Hollywood has never been able to make a good movie from a video game and Silicon Valley has never been able to make a good video game out of a movie. There’s certainly something to this: games and the stories they tell are shaped by the interactivity of the medium, and inexpertly stripping that away to make a film (or inexpertly adding it to make a game) often winds up losing whatever appeal the original had. Such was the case with the 2005 film Doom, adapting the epochal 1993 first-person shooter which helped make that genre the behemoth that it is today. Despite the presence of heavyweights like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Karl “Lord of the Rings” Urban, the film fared poorly at the box office.

For film score fans, Doom represented British composer Clint Mansell’s first mainstream score after he burst onto their radars earlier that summer with his excellent score to the similarly (and unfairly) reviled Sahara. Mansell had, of course, been involved with music and scoring far earlier: as the lead singer of Pop Will Eat Itself to 1996 and filmmaker Darren Aronofsky’s regular collaborator with cult-hit scores to Pi (1998) and Requiem for a Dream (2000). Doom seemed like a prime opportunity to merge the newly-minted orchestral and thematic strength of Sahara with the more hard-edged pop/electronic sound of Pi and Requiem into a guilty pleasure of a score.

On paper, the ingredients are all there: a sizable orchestra with veteran orchestrator Bruce Fowler, Mansell’s own array of synthesizers and rock instruments, and even a choir to reflect the fire-and-brimstone demons from hell that the space marines do battle with. And yet Mansell turned out a score that is ultimately, and surprisingly, boring. Far from being an enjoyable ruckus, most of the album is given over to very quiet, at times almost inaudible, music for suspense and conversation with only occasional brief blasts of rock music to offer anything to keep listeners awake.

Worse, when the later portions of the album use Mansell’s rock sound more extensively (in and around the film’s much-derided “first person shooter” segment), it sounds extremely mundane, even generic, without any of Mansell’s grungy flair as demonstrated in Pi or Requiem. It is as if Mansell was told to replicate the sound of original Doom game composer Bobby Prince’s sparse MIDI music with a larger ensemble. Prince at least had the excuse of embryonic (and often inconsistent) PC sound card hardware for his stripped-down and occasionally simplistic sound; Mansell, either of his own accord or at the behest of the producers, was content to simply phone in the sound.

The orchestra and choir are such minor presences as compared to Doom‘s electronics that they may as well not even be present at all. In particular, the orchestra is mixed extremely low in comparison to the other elements, often inaudible even when the score is at its loudest. And while the choral parts of the finale track “Go To Hell” represent the best part of the experience, they are still very dim and difficult to pick out. Certainly, there is nothing approaching the clarity and creativity of Nicholas Dodd’s orchestrations for Mansell on Sahara.

Other composers have produced interesting scores fusing electronics, rock, and an orchestra for risible video game movies–Jeff Danna’s overachieving guilty pleasure score for Resident Evil: Apocalypse being perhaps the preeminent example of this. But whether by accident or design, or perhaps as a sly recognition of the very low quality of Doom as a motion picture even in its genre, Mansell offers nothing compelling for fans of the film, fans of the game, score fans, or rock fans. Small wonder, then, that the Doom score album was a prominent sight in remaindered Varèse Sarabande discount bins at Family Dollar stores.

Rating: star

The Tree of Life (Alexandre Desplat)

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Terrence Malick is one of the most respected and most divisive directors working in film today, and his works have aroused strong feelings, pro or con, in everyone who has viewed them. His 2011 film The Tree of Life was no less so, earning nominations in several Academy Award categories while simultaneously being savaged by many viewers and critics. Despite (or perhaps because of) his reputation, Malick had attracted a variety of top-flight musical talent to score his projects, from Ennio Morricone on Days of Heaven to Hans Zimmer and co. on The Thin Red Line to James Horner on The New World.

For The Tree of Life, Malick recruited French composer Alexandre Desplat, who was in the midst of an extremely busy year. 2011 saw seven movies scored in whole or in part by Desplat, including his Oscar-nominated score for Best Picture winner The King’s Speech and a score for Best Picture nominee Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Desplat is often strongest in his contemplative mode, featured in scores such as Birth and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, than his disappointing attempts at epic fantasy writing as in The Golden Compass and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The Tree of Life represents in some ways the ultimate evolution of the former style, with his usual waltzes and melody supplemented by Philip Glass influenced minimalism.

Fans of Glass will probably enjoy what they find here, especially in “Circles,” the album’s longest and most impressive track. Cellular composition, repeated motifs, and a cyclical and evolving feel make the 11-minute centerpiece cue a true tour-de-force without losing Desplat’s distinctive voice. Echoes of Benjamin Button and Birth are to be had elsewhere, often in the most melodic and piano-led cues like the desolate “Childhood” and warm “Awakening,” although it’s by and large a score of textures more than melody or theme. Those expecting the empty bombast of Desplat’s Compass or Potter will be disappointed, though the composer does include his signature waltzes in the pair of “Motherhood” and “Fatherhood.”

Desplat also blesses the score with an air of impressionistic darkness in many cues. The aforementioned “Awakening,” for instance, includes a sinister full string section under its gentle piano melody, skillfully intermixing optimism and unease in a similar way to the deep electronic pulses from Birth, before building to an unnerving crescendo at the end. He uses other innovative techniques, like a solo and vaguely out-of-tune leading string in “Good and Evil” or discordant, Elliot Goldenthal style shrieking strings in “Temptation” (perhaps the score’s darkest cue).

From the minimalistic opening piano of “Childhood” to the inviting cyclic minimalism of “Circles” through the darkness of “Awakening” and “Temptation,” to the final innocent and childlike “Skies,” Desplat’s album truly feels like a musical journey. With only his signature musical voice to bind the score together, the composer nevertheless manages to create a cohesive musical narrative that can stand well on its own. This was perhaps the wisest decision Desplat made, given Malick’s history of tinkering with his films’ soundtracks: creating an album that can exist completely independently of its film, a contemplative masterpiece perfect for engaged listening or as a backdrop to writing or other creative endeavors.

There is one downside to the album: anyone looking for the classical pieces that were inserted into the film to replace the majority of Desplat’s original music will be disappointed. Malick, despite working with the very best original composers that Hollywood has to offer, often uses very little of the score they prepare, with what is used often chopped up and redistributed. This led to many angry viewers upset with the album from Lakeshore records, which includes only Desplat’s original score instead of the many classical pieces by John Tavener, Arsenije Jovanovic, and many others. This led to many reviews roundly trashing Desplat’s album for what it is not, rather than what it is.

Still, as long as listeners know exactly what they are getting into (and the available sound samples represent an excellent cross-section of Desplat’s music) they won’t be disappointed. It may be closer to a quasi-rejected score, or an instrumental “music inspired by” album, but The Tree of Life is still a musical journey well worth taking by one of Hollywood’s strongest musical voices. Lakeshore Records’ score album has become rather scarce the film’s release, commanding slightly inflated prices, but it is still readily available in digital form.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

Kingdom Hearts II (Yoko Shimomura)

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When Yoko Shimomura left Square Enix and went freelance during Kingdom Hearts II‘s development period, many feared that the composer would choose not to return to the series as had happened with Nobuo Uematsu and Final Fantasy that same year. Such was not the case, of course, and fans got their wish when Shimomura was hired to score the sequel. One could be forgiven for thinking this automatically guaranteed a home run–after all, the original Kingdom Hearts is one of the finest game scores of Shimomura’s–or anyone’s–career. Unfortunately, the end result was decidedly mixed.

The resulting album has a number of strengths. It introduces a theme for the character Sora, something missing from the original, and the resultant track (creatively named “Sora”) is a heroic and upbeat anthem that, while brief, is a highlight. The Gummi Ship music has gotten an overhaul as well; a whole suite of driving, quirky, and often beautiful tracks (such as “Shipmeisters’ Rhapsody” and “Cloudchasers”) with the lovely counterpoint of “Shipmeisters’ Shanty” leading the way.

In addition, many of the best tracks from Shimomura’s score to the Game Boy Chain of Memories title have been carried over and upgraded, most notably the jazzy “Lazy Afternoons” and off-kilter “Sinister Sundown” tracks from Twilight town, and the “13th Struggle” battle theme for the mysterious Organization XII. Shimomura builds on this darkness , as well as themes she introduced on the Final Mix album, to conjure up a suite of intense battle music on disc 2 (“The Encounter,” “The 13th Dilemma,” “Sinister Shadows,” “Fight to the Death”), though the final battle (“Darkness of the Unknown) is sadly limp, lacking the choral majesty that made its predecessor so impressive.

On the other hand, much of the material from the original Kingdom Hearts is reprised, often without much modification. The worlds of Agrabah (“A Day in Agrabah,” “Arabian Dream”) and Halloween Town (“This is Halloween,” “Spooks of Halloween Town”) in particular feature music that is almost identical to the original tracks. Others, like “Rebuilding Hollow Bastion” feature new material added to tunes from the previous game, which often is a jarring contrast–half of “Rebuilding” is the ominous music that was a fan favorite, while the other half is upbeat and joyous! Fans and detractors of the Pirates of the Caribbean score will note with some amusement that the single cue from that score, “He’s a Pirate,” results in no less than three composer credits, including one for Hans Zimmer himself, but none for the score’s credited composer Klaus Badelt.

Some of the tracks are live recordings–the finale march (which features a lovely orchestral rendition of Sora’s theme) and reprises of “Hand in Hand” and “Destiny Islands” are spectacularly moving. On the other hand, the less said about the songs that begin Disc 2, the better: Howard Ashman is spinning in his grave. The obligatory title pop song is also disappointing, even when compared with its underachieving teenybopper predecessor.

One more thing of note is Takeharu Ishimoto’s synth programming; it’s very inconsistent, and occasionally downright poor. The result of this is that many of the returning songs from Kingdom Hearts are inferior to their predecessors (compare the Kingdom Hearts Final Mix version of “Disappeared” to the Kingdom Hearts II version for a good example). In addition, due to being squeezed onto two discs, many of the best songs loop only once instead of the industry-standard twice. One would think that, after its success, Kingdom Hearts II would be allowed the coveted three- or four-disc treatment, but this isn’t the case. Many songs are missing as well, most notably the flying carpet minigame theme (later released as “Arabian Daydream” in the Complete Box) and the lightcycle race theme (later released as “Byte Striking” in the Complete Box).

In the end, there’s enough good material to justify an album purchase, though the music is not anywhere near the home run that its prequel was. It’s not clear if this was a case of Shimomura being content to rest on her laurels, or if the development team insisted on the current sound. Either way, remarkable though the game itself is, on balance the music does leave something to be desired. The later Kingdom Hearts Complete Box expanded the soundtrack to four discs, with full loops and unreleased tracks, but it is harder to locate and far more expensive than the original release, and has the same problems with regurgitation, occasionally dodgy synth, and dreadful singing performances. Buy it if a solid extension of Shimomura’s Kingdom Hearts style is enough to convince you to ignore subpar album presenation and synth, as well as considerable recycling from the first album, but don’t expect the same excellence as the earlier title.

Rating: starstarstar

27 Dresses (Randy Edelman)

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The 2008 romantic comedy 27 Dresses wound up following every cliché in the rom-com handbook with its tale of someone who is literally always the bridesmaid and never the bride. It nevertheless did decent business during its release, though it was certainly a step down for the film’s writer (who had adapted the much sharper The Devil Wears Prada two years earlier). More than anything it showed once again that, by filming a film cheaply and using the rom-com stars du jour at the time, there was profit to be had in even the most inane formula.

Veteran composer Randy Edelman was tapped for the film’s score. Edelman has a solid track record in the genre, with scores like While You Were Sleeping, and Head over Heels on his resume, but by 2008 the composer had not written anything in the genre for several years, with most rom-com assignments going instead to younger composers like Theodore Shapiro or Rolfe Kent. Edelman’s output in general had declined in the 2000s with relatively few assignments compared to his salad days of the mid-1990s, with 2008 being the last year to date the composer had more than one major assignment.

Much like the movie itself, you know exactly what you’re going to get with the score. Edelman’s music is gentle and melodic, the sort of “sensitive piano music” with an ensemble backup that has become de rigueur for romantic comedies. It’s sunny when it needs to be, twinkling and introverted when it needs to be, and contains absolutely no surprises. It’s the sort of thing Rachel Portman or the aforementioned Shapiro or Kent could pull off in their sleep. Save for a few passages that adopt a more percussive quirky sound akin to watered-down Thomas Newman, the entire album is a highly consistent listen.

If this seems like damning with faint praise, keep in mind that Edelman is always professional about the sound and that he has a songwriter’s natural gift for attractive melody and harmony. The music may not be the most complex, and it may adhere to almost as many romantic comedy clichés as the film itself, but it is always highly pleasant and highly listenable. Just don’t expect themes as strong as Edelman’s defining work in Gettysburg or Dragonheart, which were strong enough to overcome a sound that was at times almost unbearably cheap. 27 Dresses never sounds cheap, but it never ascends the same melodic heights as those other scores.

While Edelman would have another rom-com hit two years later with the very similar Leap Year, the next few years would see him diminish his output even further, with only three scores in the subsequent five years. The 27 Dresses album suffered from low demand thanks to its score-only nature, with none of the needledropped rom-com songs found in the movie, and was eventually remaindered to Family Dollar stores in the 2010s, with copies often only $3-$4 each.

Rating: * * *

Freddy vs. Jason (Graeme Revell)

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After their final cinematic outings in 1993 and 1994 respectively, it seemed that the 1980s Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises were completely out of gas. The slasher genre of the 1990s would be defined by movies like Scream, much more subversive and self-aware than its 1980s forebears even at their campiest. Enter directer Ronny Yu, fresh from revitalizing another 1980s horror staple with Bride of Chucky to give the aging horror icons one last hurrah by combining them in the vein of Alien vs. Predator. The resultant Freddy vs. Jason attracted decent notices and box office receipts, but it was not enough to prevent remake-happy Hollywood from “rebooting” both franchises later in the decade.

New Zealand film score composer Graeme Revell had a history in the horror genre with titles like From Dusk till Dawn on his resume, and he had also worked with director Yu on the earlier Bride of Chucky. Revell was faced with the daunting musical history of the two series to inform his attempt to score the crossover; the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise in particular had never used the same composer twice, with scores from Charles Bernstein, Christopher Young, Angelo Badalamenti, Craig Safan, Jay Ferguson, Brian May (the Australian composer, not the rocker), and J. Peter Robinson–a veritable who’s who of horror composers for film and TV–each bringing their own distinct style and themes to the wildly varying tone and quality of the films. The much schlockier Friday the 13th films had been much more consistent in their (low) level of quality and their generally overachieving scores by composer Harry Manfredini (save for Fred Mollin’s score and tracked-in Manfredini needledrops for parts 7 and 8 of the series).

Revell chose to tackle the film with a straight-up classical horror score in the vein of many films of the old slasher era, a mostly orchestral and mostly atonal cocktail of effective, rambunctious, and noisy tracks with an occasional role for electronics and electric guitar. There was a time when that sort of score might have been called a cliche, but by 2003 horror and slasher films were increasingly bearing overprocessed scores in the vein of Hans Zimmer’s Media Ventures/Remote Control studios, textual efforts that were more sound design than traditional scoring. In that context, Revell’s music is an impressively entertaining thowback even as it breaks no new ground for either series or orchestral horror scores in general.

Most impressively, the composer pays significant tribute to the earlier films in both series. The orchestral, occasionally gothic sound of his score isn’t a million miles from some of the finer cuts from the Nightmare on Elm Street series, for instance, and Revell incorporates singsong children’s voices uttering the doggerel rhyme from Nightmare directly into his score on occasion. He also pays tribute to Manfredini’s Friday scores by using, with full credit, the latter composer’s original (and iconic) echoing “kill, kill, kill, kill, die, die, die, die” samples. These homages are only present in a minority of the cues, Revell being generally content to rely on his own ideas, but they form a very pleasing tip of the hat to the film’s forebears. Compared to Steve Jablonsky’s dire efforts for the “rebooted” Friday and Nightmare scores in 2009 and 2010, though, Revell’s effort is a breath of fresh air.

In 2003, a score like Freddy vs. Jason with occasional references to classic motifs from the schlocky earlier films was easy to dismiss as a weak, paint-by-numbers effort; a decade of awful scores for similar films wound up putting it in context as a much stronger effort than people give it credit for. Graeme Revell would get a few more horror assignments in the 2000s and 2010s, but none of the later efforts (mostly vile “reboots” themselves) approached the same level of satisfying cliche as Freddy vs. Jason, and indeed the composer took on far fewer assignments in the 2010s in general. Due perhaps to weak demand for the orchestral score as opposed to the irrelevant “songs from and inspired by” album, Revell’s music was later remaindered by Varèse Sarabande to the Family Dollar discount chain and can occasionally be acquired for as little as $3.

* * *

Gridiron Gang (Trevor Rabin)

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Gridiron Gang was a 2006 sports film which depicted, with considerable dramatic license, the story of the Kilpatrick Mustangs–an American football team made up of teens convicts from a juvenile hall. Though it’s doubtful that the actual 1990 Kilpatrick Mustangs came close to resembling the ones in the film, and their coach certainly had little in common with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the film was a solid performer in the “inspirational sports story” genre.

The 1990s Trevor Rabin presents a contrast to the composer in 2006 as well. The former member of Yes had transitioned to writing film scores in the mid to late 1990s and had exploded onto the scene with multiple high-grossing blockbusters like Armageddon and Enemy of the State, often working in collaboration with members of fellow former rocker Hans Zimmer’s Media Ventures (and later Remote Control) studio. But by 2006, Rabin’s biggest Hollywood collaborators, Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer, had largely moved on to using Zimmer and his associates for their films. Rabin responded by taking his distinctive sound into new genres; his success with the 2002 film Remember the Titans in particular leading to a profitable sideline for sports stories like Gridiron Gang.

Rabin provides an effective sound for the film that mixes his action style of the 1990s, the same one that had a significant influence on the development of the MV/RC “blockbuster sound,” with more relaxed and acoustic material more reminiscent of Thomas Newman than anyone. Much of the meaty 55-minute album is taken up with very sincere and functional, if unspectacular Americana in the vein of The Shawshank Redemption, albeit simplified and streamlined to fit Rabin’s compositional style and instrumental choices. It’s the sort of soft inspirational music which is very easy to do adequately but very difficult to do well.

There are, of course, definite moments when Rabin’s 90s action style comes rip-snorting to the front–most notably in the three lengthy “We’re Better Than This” cues that punctuate the album. Rabin moves, not always gracefully, from his Americana sound to his Wall of Sound–orchestral players blaring in unison and managing to sound like cheap synthesizers
in the process (another element that was developed by Rabin’s former MV/RC collaborators). While this music is noisy and satisfies the dramatic requirements of the film, it has some baggage: it sounds very dated, with Rabin’s techniques on display here little different from those he used in the 90s, and thanks to the ubiquity of the MV/RC sound it manages to appear almost like a knockoff (despite the fact that Rabin has been practicing his own blend of masculine music as long as Zimmer and company have).

Ultimately, Gridiron Gang is an adequate, if somewhat underachieving, score that plays it safe. It provides exactly what the film requires, no more and no less, and does so with Trevor Rabin’s distinct style. Given the unavailability of many of his best sports scores on album (like the aforementioned Remember the Titans and Coach Carter), Gridiron Gang also serves as the most easily obtainable representative of the composer’s sports score style. Thanks to copies of the score being remaindered by Varèse Sarabande to the Family Dollar chain, in fact, Gridiron Gang is often available for as little as three dollars.

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Matchstick Men (Hans Zimmer)

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From its early days as Media Ventures to its current dominance of Hollywood blockbusters as Remote Control, Hans Zimmer’s musical studio and proteges have a reputation for giving producers exactly what they want (albeit often at the expense of what they–or the film–really need). What director Ridley Scott wanted for his light and quirky 2003 film Matchstick Men was Nino Rota, specifically the sound that the award-winning Italian composer had conjured for director Federico Fellini during the latter’s purple period. Unfortunately for Scott, Rota had died in 1979; rather than approaching Danny Elfman, the latter-day master of that sound with a heavy (and admitted) Rota influence, the director approached his erstwhile collaborator Zimmer.

Zimmer had a long history with Scott, with their collaboration stretching as far back as Black Rain and Themla & Louise, with such blockbusters as Gladiator, Hannibal, and Black Hawk Down under their belt. But, true to Scott’s desires, Zimmer and his army of collaborators provided a highly quirky and Rota-esque score for Matchstick Men, full of nervous and off-kilter energy to match the odd and obsessive-compuslive lead character. In fact, Zimmer and his Remote Control crew went so far as to license Rota’s theme for the Fellini film La Dolce Vita, which appears in six tracks and serves as the score’s defining motif.

While the Remote Control crew can’t compete with Rota’s keen melodic sense, the resulting score is fun and breezy with only the slightest traces of Zimmer’s “wall of sound” technique. Relying on specialty sounds from whistling to beatboxing to accordion, the composer and his confederates succeed in establishing just the sort of European mid-century sound that Scott wanted, even when not directly quoting or adapting Rota. There are a few places where the rather dark and troubled twist of the film is addressed–”Shame on You” in particular–but for the most part the music is handled with a deft, light touch common to Zimmer’s Remote Control comedy and animation scores (and often notable absent from his blockbuster efforts).

A fair portion of the Varése Sarabande album is given over to licensed music that further enhances Scott’s tone of choice and generally fits in well with the original and adapted score Zimmer and company craft around it. Despite the film’s contemporary setting, a pair of period pieces from Mantovani, the master of easy listening orchestral music, mesh nicely with the Rota-esque material despite having a much less pristine sound. Two Latin pieces by the Herb Albert & The Tijuana Brass serve a similar lively purpose, as does the single George Fornby song “Leaning on a Lamp Post.” The only overtly vocal song (aside from whistling and beatboxing, naturally) is the Bobby Darin staple “The Good Life,” which opens the disc. It’s to the album’s credit that, unlike most scores that are interrupted by songs or source pieces, Matchstick Men remains cohesive despite the embarrassment of cooks stirring the musical broth.

In short, buy Matchstick Men on the lengthy (and, thanks to the label’s Family Dollar inventory clearance, very cheap) Varése album for some of Hans Zimmer’s most affable music in years–a throwback in many ways to his early 1990 days as a scorer of contemporary romantic comedies like Nine Months and a style that is arguably a much better fit for him than superhero films. Matchstick Men would prove to be (for now) the final collaboration between Zimmer and Scott; after bowing out of Kingdom of Heaven in favor of Harry Gregson-Williams, Zimmer would be supplanted by his former protege Marc Streitenfeld as Scott’s composer of choice. Streitenfeld had served as music supervisor for Matchstick Men and Kingdom of Heaven, and would go on to score Scott’s next five films with very mixed success.

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The Fourth Kind (Atli Örvarsson)

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Many films use the term “based on a true story” very loosely, but few have ever taken advantage of the term as much as the 2009 feature The Fourth Kind. By co-opting real disappearances in and around Nome in Alaska, circulating fake stories from real newspapers, and presenting “real” and “staged” versions of the same scenes to try and build interest, the filmmakers were only able to get themselves sued. Audiences largely responded with a yawn.

Despite the faux verisimilitude in The Fourth Kind, the filmmakers still commissioned an original score by Icelandic composer Atli Örvarsson from Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control music studio. After serving as an assistant, orchestrator, and additional music composer for Remote Control, Örvarsson began taking on smaller solo scoring projects in the late 2000s. Following the path of many of Zimmer’s proteges, these assignments like The Fourth Kind and Babylon A.D. gave listeners a chance to hear the composer’s musical voice without being saddled with the added duty of trying to sound like Zimmer himself.

The Fourth Kind album begins very promisingly, with beautiful wordless vocals from Thórhildur Örvarsdóttir (presumably one of the composer’s close relatives) setting an icy, mournful tone in “Flight to Nome.” It’s an incredibly effective and beautiful theme, and its reprises later in the album (the lengthy “Northern Lights” in particular) form the definite highlights of Örvarsson’s score. The composer also provides a string fugue of similar tone that often bleeds into and out of the vocal theme.

And after such a promising beginning there is…nothing. Other than a few dark ostinatos that are de rigueur for students of the Remote Control school, virtually all the rest of the music in the film and on album is sound design. Dark, completely devoid of melody, and serving more as a sound effect than any kind of coherent musical score, Örvarsson is unable to (or, more likely, was directed not to) incorporate even the slightest fragments of his earlier theme into the bulk of the underscore. There’s instrumental creativity there to be sure, with instruments from duduk to double bass, tabla drums to slide guitar, but it doesn’t translate into anything meaningfully listenable.

Perhaps the faux-documentary nature of the film makes a more traditional score inappropriate, but given the beauty of Örvarsson’s vocal theme the rest of the album has to be regarded as a disappointment. Download the vocal songs, “Flight to Nome” and “Northern Lights” in particular, and leave the rest in the film. Despite the The Fourth Kind‘s tepid response, Örvarsson’s career has seen a steady increase in high-profile assignments–including a reunion with the latter’s director–and one can hope that he will eventually be able to craft the outstanding vocal writing on display in the best parts of the album into a more fully enjoyable score. The Varèse Sarabande score CD was one of many remaindered to Family Dollar stores beginning in 2012, and can be had new for as little as three dollars in the right location.

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Kingdom Hearts (Yoko Shimomura)

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When Kingdom Hearts was announced out of the blue in 2001, the idea of a Squaresoft/Disney collaboration that would blend Final Fantasy with Mickey Mouse was met by disbelief, uncertainty, and bemusement. But against all odds, the action RPG turned out to be a superior product and a smash hit on release in 2002–not only reaching platinum status itself, but spawning a franchise that continues to this day. Not bad for a project that started as an elevator pitch, only possible because Squaresoft and Disney shared the same office building in Japan!

When fans first heard that Squaresoft composer Yoko Shimomura had been assigned to score the project, reactions were mixed. While Shimomura had had success bringing new life and creativity to established worlds through her work on Super Mario RPG and Legend of Mana, many feared that the album would be overrun with the poor-quality arrangements of Disney themes that many Disney-only titles suffered from. Luckily, this was not the case, and Shimomura developed Kingdom Hearts into her greatest score to date both on album and in game.

Anyone who was afraid that the entire score would be terminally cute has only to listen to the complex and dark tracks that begin and end the two-disc collection. Built around heavy choral use and the Italian word “Destati” (literally “Awaken”), tracks such as “Dive Into the Heart -Destati-,” “Fragments of Sorrow” and the climactic “Guardando nel buio” are filled with gothic atmosphere and powerful instrumentation. That same gothic feeling is present to a lesser extent in several other fine tracks, like the organ-dominated “Forze del Male” and the fan-favorite “Hollow Bastion,” which features stunning harp work.

Of course, being a Disney game as well, not everything is gloom and doom. Surprisingly, the arrangements of Disney tunes are both sparse and well-done. In fact, it’s quite nice to hear some familiar tunes (like Danny Elfman’s “This is Halloween” from The Nightmare Before Christmas or the Sherman brothers’ bucolic Winnie-the-Pooh) in-game, and the borrowed tunes are all arranged to fit in nicely with Shimomura’s originals.

The original, lighthearted tracks are generally excellent, from the Russian-sounding “Monstrous Monstro” to the kooky “Merlin’s Magical House” and the jazzy, laid-back “Traverse Town.” The Traverse Town battle theme, “Hand in Hand,” is easily an album highlight, action-packed but sad and hopeful at the same time, and has been extensively arranged in this and the sequel album. Also of note is the lovely, understated piano title theme, “Dearly Beloved,” which went on to be a series staple, and the wonderful orchestrated tracks at the beginning and end of the album.

In fact, there are almost too many highlights to list, and nearly every track is looped twice for maximum enjoyment. On the other hand, the synth programming (by Ryo Yamazaki) is sometimes inconsistent. Sometimes it’s stellar, the equal of any other PS2-era game, but it falters at other times, especially where brass is concerned. The album, like its sequel (with the regrettable Takeharu Ishimoto operating the synths) but to a lesser extent, could have used a better synth programming.

There are also a few duds, generally repetitive pieces like “No Time To Think.” The “Kairi” tracks are also somewhat weak; as the only character theme per se, one would expect more varied performances, but the three such tracks are largely identical. Another annoyance is the fact that several tracks were left off the release, particularly the dark, brutal “Another Side, Another Story” and “Disappeared.” With a little creative rearrangement, there would have been room on the album for these and the remixes of Uematsu’s “One-Winged Angel” and Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” as well–instead, fans have to seek out the rare Final Mix or expensive Complete Box albums for these songs. And the pop songs that open and close the album are forgettable fluff, notable only for their skillful arrangement into instrumental themes elsewhere.

Still, when all is said and done, Shimomura’s work on Kingdom Hearts is truly remarkable, and easily a career highlight. The album is everything video game music fans could hope for, and brings a level of maturity to the wonderful game itself. And while Shimomura would return for all subsequent sequels to some degree, the original Kingdom Hearts remains her best work for the franchise. It’s a highly recommended purchase For anyone willing to give a strange hybrid of Disney and Japanese styles a chance, and the resulting music is enchanting and among the strongest of Yoko Shimomura’s career.

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