Gravity Rush (Kohei Tanaka)

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Japanese developer Keiichiro Toyama was behind the first Silent Hill for Konami and its spiritual successor the Siren series for Sony; in 2012, he was asked to tackle a much different project: an open-world game based around the manipulation of gravity. Originally developed for the Playstation 3 and entitled Gravité, it was moved to the portable Playstation Vita during development as a launch title, making use of the handheld’s built-in gyroscope to allow players to manipulate gravity simply by tilting the system. Though its plot of an amnesiac girl given gravity-shifting powers by a mysterious cat to save the floating city of Hekseville wasn’t shortlisted for any writing awards, Gravity Rush (known as Gravity Daze in Japan, a much cleverer title) was among the best-reviewed PS Vita launch titles. Only the portable system’s spectacular marketplace failure kept it from reaching a wider audience.

Toyama had collaborated with a diverse stable of composers for his previous games; Silent Hill fans remember Akira Yamaoka’s fan-favorite industrial-ambient music, while the Siren series saw Toyama switching between Hitomi Shimizu and Kuniaki Haishima. For Gravity Rush, though, Toyama went for a more tonal and melodic approach to the music and retained the experienced Kohei Tanaka. With a long resume in film, anime, and video game composition stretching back to the 1980s, Tanaka’s lush style is well-known among enthusiasts but the composer is probably most familiar to mainstream audiences for his score for the Enix SNES RPG Paladin’s Quest (Lennus in Japan), the PS1 Alundra series, and the PS3/Xbox 360 Resonance of Fate (End of Eternity in Japan) co-composed with Motoi Sakuraba.

Tanaka’s approach to Gravity Rush is eclectic; while his lush personal style is often in evidence and performed with gusto by a (partially) live ensemble, he also throws in entirely synthesized tracks, rock instrumentals, and textural dissonance. That is the biggest issue with the album up front: it lacks stylistic cohesion in many places, and while Tanaka does compose a main theme, its applications are relatively limited in the music that differs from the composer’s usual orchestral or synth palette.

Tanaka had experimented with jazzy saxophone interludes in Resonance of Fate, but his finest work for Gravity Rush takes that sound to a whole new level. Inspired by the jazz age aesthetic of Hekseville, he composed a number of excellent orchestral tracks around his lively sound. “Pleasure Quarter” is the standout track of the whole album, blasting with lively muted brass and honky-tonk keyboarding; almost as potent is the end credits song “Douse Shinundakara” (“You’re Dying Anyway”) which features lively lyrics delivered in a spot-on imitation of a speakeasy swing singer. The more straightforwardly orchestral tracks often include an infusion of smokey Parisian jazz as well; many also feature variations of the main (and only recurring theme) first heard in “Discovery of Gravitation.” The more synthesized tracks had a few highlights as well, like the delightful piano/synth “Ruined Paths.”

The music is at its weakest when Tanaka is outside his usual wheelhouse, and meaty portions of the album are given over to rather mediocre attempts at rock or dissonant ambience. The lengthy, grinding “The Lowest Quarter” is the low point of this approach, sounding more like a second-rate Yamaoka imitation than Tanaka. The relatively few attempts to fit the superior jazz age sound of the highlights with rock instrumentals winds up sounding incoherent and ridiculous in places like “Assault Cnida.” And a few of Tanaka’s orchestral tracks fall flat as well; critics were often unimpressed by the combat in Gravity Rush, and tracks like “Evil Shadow” and “Decisive Battle” back up that assertion with limp organ and orchestral meandering.

Gravity Rush winds up being a little frustrating, with some of Kohei Tanaka’s very best work mixed in with failed attempts at a more diverse set of styles and a general overall lack of cohesion. It still merits a recommendation for those delightful jazz age highlights like “Pleasure Quarter” and “Douse Shinundakara,” though, and with the creators promising a sequel despite the PS Vita’s continuing struggles, Tanaka may very well return to expand upon the best parts of his sound. As with many Japanese video game soundtracks, Gravity Rush received a full album release overseas and is available as a (pricy) import.

Rating: starstarstar

Cutthroat Island (John Debney)

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There have been cinematic shipwrecks since the first films set sail for the commercial waters, but few have run aground as sharply or as deadly as Cutthroat Island. It seemed like a surefire treasure cruise at the time: Renny Harlin, who had helmed the profitable galleons Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger was directing, his then-wife Geena Davis of Thelma & Louise and A League of Their Own was in the wheelhouse, and they sailed under the banner of Carolco Pictures, a studio that had underwritten such voyages as Rambo and Terminator 2. But an old-fashioned swashbuckling pirate tale was out of fashion in 1995, and the film’s marketing push failed to sell it to audiences. The movie cost up to $150 million doubloons to make but returned less than $20 million pieces of eight worldwide, a flop the likes of which would not be seen again until the wreck of the good ship Pluto Nash in 2002. Among the drowned: director Harlin’s blockbuster career, star Davis’s career as a leading lady, and studio Carolco’s very existence.

Renny Harlin had originally sought to engage rising young British corsair David Arnold to score his pirate extravaganza. Arnold was a sound choice, with his Stargate score from the year before having plenty of buckle and swash. Scheduling conflicts forced Arnold to back out of the voyage, though, and on the strength of a swashbucking synthesizer suite, Harlin brought Cap’n John Debney aboard as scoremaster. Debney’s career was, like Arnold’s, on the upswing in the early 1990s, having done yeoman’s work on modest hits like Hocus Pocus as a late replacement for James Horner. Cap’n Debney threw himself into the score for Cutthroat Island with a singular destination in his spyglass: to make the most of his scurvy crew from the London Symphony Orchestra and the London Voices to craft a modern homage to Admiral Erich Wolfgang Korngold, whose scores for classic swashbucklers like The Sea Hwak and The Adventures of Robin Hood.

While Admiral Korngold is the one given a 21-gun salute by Cap’n Debney, he happily plunders the very best of modern orchestral scoring for Cutthroat Island, taking inspiration for some of the orchestrations from the flourishes used by David Arnold and Nicholas Dodd in Stargate, John Williams in Hook, and James Horner in The Rocketeer. That’s not to say that the score is a cut and paste job, but rather that Cap’n Debney is able to load his guns with the best powder that modern film music has to offer, powering up Korngold’s piratey ideas with flourishes both orchestral and choral that the old admiral would never have had the budget or the equipment to match.

The themes and motifs Debney blasts out with a double-powder charge are almost too numerous to name, with a soaring main theme for the piratess heroine (“Morgan’s Ride”), a tender love theme (“Discovery of the Treasure”), and supporting musical ideas for the evil Uncle Dawg and the Morning Star pirate ship. The music is anchored by towering and rambunctious statements of these themes, with the “Carriage Chase” cue being perhaps the finest example of piratey swashbuckling ever recorded, a 7-minute tour-de-force of rollicking, thematic brass and percussion that builds a ferocious head of steam as is progresses. “Setting Sail” is one big rousing love letter to The Sea Hawk, while the massive concluding suite of “Dawg’s Demise” and “It’s Only Gold” is almost breathless in its intensity.

Cap’n Debney brings all of his Golden Age influences squarely into the modern era, with a crisp recording and none of the Hollywood treacle that Korngold was occasionally forced to write in between his magnificent statements of theme. The only real drawback to any listener looking for a piratey good time is the film’s breakneck (or cutthroat) pace: the moments of softer music are few and far between, making the lengthy score at times a bit of an endurance test in its unflaggingly adventurous pace. Pirate scores of the 2000s often suffered from the same problems, but the clarity and sheer overwhelming piratey spirit of Debney’s work makes this more forgivable than in some of his fellow Cap’n Zimmer’s less-inspired voyages.

The foundering of Cutthroat Island put an end to pirate movies, whatever flag they sailed under, for over a decade until the genre was refloated and salvaged by Pirates of the Caribbean. But Cap’n Debney was the last scoremaster to attempt to bring aboard the classic Golden Age Erich Wolfgang Korngold sound in a modern guise; future pirate movies would sail under the flag of Cap’n Zimmer and his Remote Control crew, whose very different ideas of piratey music would come to dominate the genre. Debney, though, was perhaps the only crewmember of the doomed vessel to escape unharmed: his score continued to be respected as a modern swashbuckling classic independent of the disastrous foundering of the film to which it was chained. A very generous album 70-minute album bubbled to the surface from the hold of the wreck in 1995, while the complete 150-minute score was brought into port 10 years later by Prometheus Records. Either release is highly recommended to all scurvy dogs that ply the seven seas; while Cap’n Debney has had many successful voyages since then, many still wait for his opportunity to sail under the Jolly Roger once more.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (Harry Gregson-Williams)

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The character of Sinbad the Sailor has his origins in a group of Arabic tales, but is probably most familiar to Western audiences through the massive cinematic spectacles of 1958’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and 1974’s The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, famous for their Ray Harryhausen stop-motion effects. It was perhaps this spectacle that Dreamworks Animation sought to capture with their 2003 film Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, though the film mistakenly places the Islamic tale in a Mediterranean world of Greeks and their gods. Despite being helmed by a capable captain, Tim Johnson of Antz, and Dreamworks’ usual crew of celebrity voices, including Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Joseph Fiennes, audiences were in no hurry to board. The Sinbad brand had been in drydock too long, and the harbor that summer was crowded with other vessels, but the Dreamworks rear admirals blamed the film’s sinking on its 2D animation (much as their enemy admiralty at Disney had done with Treasure Planet the previous summer), and they dedicated themselves anew to 3D films with quickly dated pop culture references and flavor-of-the-month voice actors.

Dreamworks Animation had tried to outgun the enemy Disney fleet by bringing on many veterans of that armada for their animated division, and that meant bringing Cap’n Hans Zimmer and his scurvy crew of proteges aboard. Zimmer himself had taken the helm on many of the projects, but his mates Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell had been responsible for many as well, including such hits as Antz,, Chicken Run, and Shrek, all of them energetic and creative voyages that had little in common with Cap’n Zimmer’s evolving “wall of sound” approach. By 2003, Powell had sailed for warmer ports and would go on to become the primary musical voice for rival Blue Sky studios; it therefore fell to Gregson-Williams to skipper Sinbad for his old skipper solo as a scoremaster cap’n of his own. Newly promoted Cap’n Gragson-Williams responded enthusiastically, with a swashbucklery that hadn’t been seen since Cutthroat Island nearly a decade ago, creating in the process a sound that would serve his other efforts for fantasy/adventure blockbusters for the rest of the 2000s.

Cap’n Gregson-William’s primary idea for Sinbad is a piece of rousing orchestral swashbuckling derring-do, soaring to life in “Let the Games Begin” and “The Sea Monster.” While the theme is a rousing bit of seafaring excitement when it’s in full-on heroic mode, the real treat is to see how skillfully Cap’n Gregson-Williams steers it into other waters. Sinbad’s theme is present in a dizzying variety of guises, from playful romance as in “Chipped Paint” to melancholy contemplation as in “Is It the Shore or the Sea?” and even a vague Latin lit in “Rescue!” It’s mixed into nearly ever track as a primary idea or counterpoint, and the sheer number of ways that the composer twists and manipulates the theme keeps it from becoming played out or seeming repetitive–an extraordinary fit of seamanship that would make any other scoremaster on the high seas proud.

As incongruous as it was to see Sinbad and Greek myth sailing in formation, it was almost as odd for Cap’n Gregson-Williams to take much of his inspiration from the piratey scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold (perhaps filtered through Cap’n Debney’s Cutthroat Island), as Bernard Herrmann, Miklos Rosza, and Roy Budd had left their own distinctive stamps on Sinbads past. And it’s true that Gregson-Williams’ primary idea for the heroic sailor is as piratey and swashbuckling as they come, but much more so than Debney he put his own stamp on the music through his incorporation of female voices and light electronic enhancements. The electronics are generally subtle; pulses and synth tambourines in “Rescue!” and an electric violin that directly prefigures the sound Cap’n Gregson-Williams would use in his Narnia scores.

But it’s the vocals where Gregson-Williams really turns the swashbuckling formula on its ear and steers the sound into his own waters. Frequent collaborator Lisbeth Scott is behind the solo vocals in Sinbad, and they are a delight, pure and simple: used to represent the film’s villainess, Eris the goddess of chaos, the snarky and staccato vocals give the music a playfully dangerous edge that is excellent counterpoint to the more straightforward heroics of Sinbad’s own malleable theme. Cap’n Gregson-Williams combines the theme with oboe and woodwinds for Eris’s mischief in places like “Let the Games Begin” and “Eris Steals the Book” to great effect, but when combined with the full power of the orchestra and the London Metro Voices, the effect is electric. “Sirens” is undoubtedly the score’s high point, combining Scott’s cooing Eris vocals with sharp statements of Sinbad’s theme across a sea of sound both alluring and dangerous. As with Cap’n Debney’s own Cutthroat Island, the only real drawback is the sometimes overwhelming volume and length of the music, but Cap’n Gregson-Williams is able to break things up with some gentler music to the extent that it’s even less of a problem here than in Debney’s piratey classic.

With the failure of Sinbad,, the Dreamworks admiralty pulled back sharply from any movie, and any score, that might make waves, with a succession of mostly safe and bland 3D blockbusters to follow. For his part, Gregson-Williams would serve as scoremaster for many of these subsequent voyages, sequels to Shrek that sailed with depressing regularity and without much of the spark that had animated Sinbad’s swashbucklery. But he would have the opporunity to use many of the skills he’d honed on the project with scores like Kingdom of Heaven, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Prince Caspian; while none of these later scores matched Sinbad,, its stylistic fingerprints are easy to see. Still, as with his shipmate Cap’n John Debney, many of Gregson-Williams’ fans wait anxiously for the day when he will abandon the textual scores that have become his recent bread-and-butter for a return to swashbuckling adventure on the high seas.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Hans Zimmer)

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There must have been a time when there wasn’t enough gold left for the Spanish treasure galleons to keep making their voyages, but Walt Disney Pictures apparently thought there was enough precious metal in their Pirates of the Caribbean franchise to justify a fourth voyage in 2011. But not all of their crew signed on for the voyage; only Johnny Depp and exactly two of his fellow actors reprised their roles, and director Gore Verbinski jumped ship in favor of Rob Marshall (an odd choice for a skipper if ever there was one, his filmography before and since being dominated by movie musicals). Partly based on an unrelated novel and featuring such piratey staples as Blackbeard, zombies, and mermaids, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides was nevertheless savaged by critical broadsides and domestic audiences were hesitant to come aboard, resulting in tepid pox office. But there were galleons of gold overseas, which makes it likely that Jack Sparrow will sail again.

Even without Gore Verbinski at the helm, Admiral Bruckheimer was still in command of the squadron, which meant that the return of Cap’n Hans Zimmer and his scurvy crew of Remote Control Studios swashbucklers was never in any real doubt. The earlier Pirates trilogy followed Cap’n Zimmer’s 2000s methodology of extensive collaboration within his studio, but by the 2010s the salty German composer was much more interested in bringing in collaborators from outside his studio and using his existing crew and their style to bind together a much more disparate set of collaborators. From the authentic Gypsy jams of A Game of Shadows to the towering drummery of Man of Steel to the so-called Magnificent Six and their gummy attempts at webslinging in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, all of Cap’n Zimmer’s external collaborations began with On Stranger Tides and it was that style that would dominate his voyages for the rest of the decade.

For the film, a crew of experienced musical hands was recruited of whom few, if any, had any experience in the waters of film scoring. The appearance of Spanish personalities in the film led to the retention of the popular Mexican flamenco fusion guitar players Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero, better known as Rodrigo y Gabriela. Rather than relying entirely on his old mate Geoff Zanelli for choral arrangement, Cap’n Zimmer brought aboard respected American choral composer Eric Whitacre who was well-known in the concert hall for warm and complex choir pieces like “Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine” but who had also never written a note for film. Eduardo Cruz, brother of actress Penelope Cuz (who appeared in the film as Blackbeard’s half-Spanish daughter) contributed a tango. And the crew manifest also included Remote Control mates old and new: Ben Foster, Bruce Fowler, Ed Neumeister, Elizabeth Finch, Gavin Greenaway, Geoff Zanelli, Guillame Roussel, Jacob Shea, John Sponsler, Kevin Kaska, Matthew Dunkley, Matthew Margeson, Nick Glennie-Smith, Nick Phoenix, Rick Gioninazzo, Suzette Moriarty, Thomas Bergersen, Tom Gire, and Walt Fowler. If nothing else, the sheer amount of collaboration blew the other Pirates scores out of the water.

Whereas the previous voyages had each taken themes from the previous ones, there’s not much returning piratey material in On Stranger Tides. “Mutiny,” “Blackbeard,” and “End Credits” feature the most, with rather limp arrangements of “He’s A Pirate,” material dating back to Curse of the Black Pearl. Jack Sparrow’s theme sets perfunctory sail in “Guilty of Not Being Innocent of Being Jack Sparrow” It’s thoroughly outweighed by new material which has the same Remote Control “wall of sound” feel to it (achieved without the doubled synths of Black Pearl thanks to flat orchestration) but with none of the swashbuckling spirit and orchestral fireworks of At World’s End.

New material crops up in the form of a love theme for Jack Sparrow and Angelica, but it’s tepid waters at best; for all the hullabaloo over Rodrigo y Gabriela’s involvement as co-composers, their guitar-led contributions sound like Gustavo Santaolalla at his most wallpapery filtered through the trademark Remote Control sound. It’s got none of the lively life of the duo’s solo cruises, being instead reduced to so much ballast. The Blackbeard theme, credited to Cap’n Zimmer himself, sounds closest to the dire Kraken theme from Dead Man’s Chest washed ashore and picked by scavengers. Only a theme for the bizarre mermaids, appropriately heard in “Mermaids,” puts wind in the score’s sails thanks to Eric Whitacre’s lively and original choral arrangements, though they too sound rather similar to Remote Control material in other Pirates films at times, raising the question of why Whitacre was brought aboard at all. If nothing else, “Mermaids” and “On Stranger Tides” suggest, along with his solo voyages in the concert hall, that Whitacre might have a fine original score in him to write someday.

By far the longest CD in the Pirates series, On Stranger Tides offers 80 minutes of music…of which nearly half is utter bilge in the form of remixes. The sole remix thus far in the series had been awful, but hearing the music keelhauled in the same style for seven tracks at the end of the Walt Disney Records album is positively dreadful. As with all Cap’n Zimmer’s efforts, the 45 minutes of actual score is thoroughly rearranged from what appeared in the film as well. In the end, On Stranger Tides was a red-sky-in-morning warning for the Remote Control sailors: with dozens of cooks in the galley but ultimately sounding as bland and samey as watered-down grog due to the maneuvering needed to make all the collaborators cohesive. It makes one wonder why the new crew was even brought on at all, if their music had to wind up so soggy and waterlogged to fit together. Worse, Cap’n Zimmer would make the same mistake on voyage after voyage following this one: lining up a glittering list of collaborators and then proceeding to turn their efforts into bland mush that sounded like a listless version of Remote Control autopilot. Steer well clear of this reef.

Rating: star

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (Hans Zimmer)

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History is littered with trilogies that have spectacularly imploded with their third entry; Walt Disney’s gold galleon Pirates of the Caribbean franchise took the Matrix Revolutions route when it floundered, with a disappointing cliffhanger second entry followed by a terrible typhoon of a third. It’s never been more clear that a movie had begun without a finished shooting script than with At World’s End; characters’ motivations and natures changed between the films, many were killed off seemingly for no other reason than the writers had no idea what to do with them, and the ending was ludicrous enough to make one wish for the previous film’s unresolved cliffhanger back. Despite being a load of bilge, the film made the corsair trio of Bruckheimer, Verbinski, and Depp more doubloons than the Spanish Main–perhaps the truest act of real piracy in the series’ history thus far.

With Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End filmed gangplank-to-gangplank, it was no surprise to see the flag of Remote Control fluttering from the latter film’s yardarm and Captain Hans Zimmer at the helm of his usual crew of scurvy composers. Manning the guns again were Lorne Balfe, Nick Glennie-Smith, Henry Jackman, John Sponsler, and Tom Gire; the Icelandic corsair Atli Örvarsson joined the merry band as well. Interestingly, the list of orchestrators included both Zimmer stalwarts like Bruce Fowler but also Steve Bartek, former Oingo Boingo member and Danny Elfman’s usual orchestrator. Their fleet of dozens of soloists, conductors, and other assistants made At World’s End perhaps Zimmer’s most collaborative effort thus far in his captaincy.

As with Dead Man’s Chest, Zimmer’s crew brings a few new themes to the manifest while importing a boatload of old ones as well. The most prominent new shanty debuts in “Hoist the Colors,” and is a theme vaguely reminiscent of “He’s a Pirate” to represent the titular swashbucklers complete with lyrics. A boy soprano and chorus take up the tune to start with, but it gets some variations in the comical “The Brethren Court” and a building, rousing rendition in “What Shall We Die For?” Joining it is a love theme (though Cap’n Zimmer denied that’s what it was, one has to call a cutlass a cutlass) for the laughable romance in the film; though the love itself may fall flat, the theme is a fun if simplistic bit of sweeping romance and the only time Zimmer and his scurvy crew invoke Erich Wolfgang Korngold in either name or spirit. Together, these themes are by far the most nautical and piratey in the Pirates series.

Old themes return too. Jack Sparrow’s shanty, resembling its arrangements in Dead Man’s Chest moreso than Black Pearl, gets quirky and tortured airings in “Multiple Jacks” and “The Brethren Court.” Davy Jones’ powerful music box and organ theme reappears in a more tragic and orchestral guise in “At Wit’s End” and elsewhere, though with his Kraken killed offscreen for no reason its unpleasant waterlogged music thankfully stays on the bottom. And the defining theme of the franchise, “He’s a Pirate,” appears here and there as well, with its biggest moment saved for the start of the end credits suite in “Drink Up Me Hearties.”

At its best, Cap’n Zimmer and his mates put the old and new themes together with an organic flow that, while still clearly part of the Remote Control sound world, is much more nautical and orchestral than anything that has come before. The album’s crowning moment is “Up is Down,” which accompanies a particularly nonsensical sequence of the film with a lively pirate jig which freely mixes fragments of nearly every theme from the series up to that point. The massive 10-minute cues of “I Don’t Think Now Is the Best Time” and “Drink Up Me Hearties” offer more of this surprisingly thoughtful thematic mixing from Cap’n Zimmer.

It’s not all smooth sailing. “Calypso” is a weak recapitulation of some of the muddiest parts of Dead Man’s Chest, while “Singapore” has little to offer but rather stereotypical Chinese progressions. There are bits of “Drink Up Me Hearties” and especially “I Don’t Think Now Is the Best Time” are occasionally overwhelmed by the typhoon of Cap’n Zimmer’s trademark “wall of sound” to an extent that mitigates the newly christened swashbucklery and pleasing sailor’s knot of themes, though admittedly without plumbing the worst depths of Black Pearl or Dead Man’s Chest.

On the final manifest, with At World’s End Cap’n Zimmer and his crew of hearties probably got as close to a truly piratey sound as they could with the Remote Control method of composition. If it’s not quite a shot across Admiral Korngold’s bow, it is at least the best presentation of the best themes from the franchise with the “wall of sound,” electronics, and borrowing from past Cap’n Zimmer classics present but safely in the brig. As usual, the music on the hour-long album is extensively rearranged from that which appeared in the film, but even that is somewhat less egregious than its shipmates in the series. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End was a dreadful film, but it somehow inspired the best score of the series. Cap’n Zimmer would sail with the old crew once again for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, but it tacked against the wind and was nowhere near as much piratey fun.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (Hans Zimmer)

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The completely unexpected success of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie with audiences and critics made it inevitable that Captain Jack Sparrow and his hangers-on would sail again; $600 million in worldwide box-office gold and five nominations’ worth of Oscar gold was just too much plunder for the producers to ignore. So virtually the entire cast and crew, from star Depp to director Verbinski to overproducer Bruckheimer, was shanghaied back for not one but two sequels to be filmed back-to-back and released a year apart. This sort of filming had undergone a resurgence in the 2000s following the success of The Lord of the Rings, with The Matrix sequels taking the same route. Therefore, production began without a finished script, leaving the film feeling soggy and underwritten in many places, despite some memorable moments, and it concluded with a particularly poorly-done cliffhanger.

Despite its hasty genesis, the soundtrack to Curse of the Black Pearl had sold well for Walt Disney Records, and had helped cement Hans Zimmer and his scurvy Remote Control crew as the kings of summer blockbusters. No one was surprised when they reboarded the franchise for the second movie, Dead Man’s Chest, though some eyebrows were raised that despite the presence of “his” themes, Klaus Badelt wasn’t credited at all. With no contractual obligations and plenty of time to pen the score, Zimmer struck the false colors and took primary credit for the music, although as always the collaboration-minded German was assisted by his Remote Control hearties. Lorne Balfe, who would become Zimmer’s primary collaborator for the latter 2000s and 2010s, joined old Remote Control sea dogs Nick Glennie-Smith and Geoff Zanelli from the first film along with up-and-coming midshipmen Henry Jackman, Trevor Morris, Tom Gire, and John Sponsler.

The most memorable themes from the original Pirates sail into port along with them, with the dual silly/serious themes for Jack Sparrow reappearing right out of the gate in, appropriately, “Jack Sparrow.” The flighty and jaunty cello is punched up a notch for a much more satisfyingly piratey sound this time around, though it’s periodically shot across the bow by the usual massive orchestra with synth doubles that Zimmer adds to his provisions for every voyage. The Cthulloid villain of the film, Davy Jones, is given an affecting music box theme that builds to a satistfying, massive organ-led crescendo in “Davy Jones,” while the “He’s a Pirate” theme crops up in the rousing, if often eardrum-shattering, “Wheel of Fortune.” It’s all very rousingly piratey stuff, though “Two Hornpipes (Tortuga)” is the true delightful pirate leader of the album.

But for all that resurgent nautical lit to Cap’n Zimmer’s tunes, the music still has some sargassum-fouled doldrums. Chief among these is “The Kraken” which, despite some token nautical “heave, ho!” chants in the far background, is a crushingly powered-up power anthem scraped from the bilge of earlier and better-realized power anthems. In addition to his usual unison playing and synth doubling, Zimmer feeds the entire orchestra through an electric guitar amp, an idea that sounds swashbuckling in theory but in practice just seems to add an anemic faux electric guitar to the titular giant gastropod and its attacks. Add to that some painfully anonymous music in other places–“I’ve Got My Eye on You,” “A Family Affair,” “You Look Good Jack”–and you’ve got some of Cap’n Zimmer’s lowest soundings next to some of his highest shoals.

It goes without saying, too, that the 50-minute patchwork of the album leaves yards of mainsail left in the hold, with plenty of rearrangement into lengthy suites that often only vaguely resemble the musical block and tackle heard in the movie–to say nothing with ending on a truly dire remix of “He’s a Pirate.” It’s an improvement over the first Pirates, with a more genuine nautical spirit and better themes alongside better interpretations of old themes. But there are still a lot of places where Cap’n Zimmer and his scurvy crew couldn’t resist recycling or swabbing the decks with banal music. It wouldn’t be until their third voyage that the crew got their topsail and mainmast sorted out.

Rating: starstarstar

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Klaus Badelt)

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Turning theme park rides into movies may seem like a scurvy move, but in the remake-happy 2000s it was as close to originality as pre-Pixar-merger Disney seemed to sail at times. 2003 saw the Mouse House attempt to keelhaul movies based on two of its most popular and enduring theme park attractions onto the big screen: The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean. Despite starring a post Lord of the Rings Orlando Bloom and a crew of fresh young midshipmen mixed with salty sea dogs, no one seemed to think Pirates would plunder all that much swag in a genre still stunned by the wreck of Cutthroat Island. But Pirates had two things Mansion didn’t: veteran overproducer Jerry Bruckheimer and Johnny Depp, whose hugely enjoyable mincing comic performance as Captain Jack Sparrow shanghaied the show, earning him a shot at Oscar gold in the process. The film ultimately hauled in eight times as much treasure as Mansion, to boot.

Director Gore Verbinshki originally enlisted Alan Silvestri to score his film; the two had sailed together previously on 1997’s Mouse Hunt and 2001’s The Mexican. Bruckheimer, however, insisted on a more “modern” score and reportedly ordered Silvestri not to use prominent woodwinds in his synthesizer mockups; when Silvestri did so anyway, Bruckheimer decided have him walk the plank. The producer turned instead to Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control Studios crew, which he had sailed with on hits as diverse as Crimson Tide and The Rock in its former guise as Media Ventures. Zimmer and Verbinski had sailed together once before, on The Ring, but there was a catch: there was an extremely limited sailing season left in which to write the score, just three weeks, and Zimmer was contractually committed to Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai, which left him officially unable to sail for other skippers.

Zimmer navigated around the problem by charting his usual course: collaboration. He christend a suite of synthesizer mockups of the film’s themes before handing it over to his crewmates at Remote Control to be adapted and orchestrated. Klaus Badelt, Ramin Djawadi, James Dooley, Nick Glennie-Smith, Steve Jablonsky, Blake Neely, James McKee Smith, and Geoff Zanelli, longtime Zimmer sailors all, contributed music or orchestrations to the finished shanties. Due to The Last Samurai, primary credit for the score was given to German composer Klaus Badelt, who had sailed a bit for Verbinski the year before for The Time Machine; Zimmer was merely listed as a producer, but ultimately was just as much at the helm as in any of his other projects.

The score opens, in “Fog Bound,” with the most nautical music for the film as Zimmer and his midshipmen offer up some themes in “Fog Bound” and the immediately following “The Medallion Calls,” a lively fiddle jig and a grandstanding, slightly pompous brass motif that both seem to represent Jack Sparrow. “The Black Pearl” gives the first slow intimations of the most enduring theme in the series for the rather dull character of Will, given a much bigger and more grandstanding performance in “He’s A Pirate” at the album’s close. These themes are attractive enough, and certainly have a jaunty swagger to them like a sailor getting his sea legs. The material for the titular black-sailed galleon and the undead pirates thereon is much less impressive, a rowdy collection of menacing sounds and blasts with a vague Andean lit, perhaps intended to represent the cursed Aztec gold of the plot (with Zimmer’s compass mistakenly pointing him to the Aztecs’ contemporaries, the Incas).

While the themes aren’t going to give Erich Wolfgang Korngold or John Debney a run for their doubloons, aside from the weak Black Pearl motif they’re functional. But the way they are played out has the effect of making them sound cheaper than a third-rate wooden leg, with Zimmer’s favorite technique from his Gladiator and The Rock days making an unfortunate appearance. By having large sections of his orchestra play in unison, and then adding in a synthesizer playing the same notes at the same time, Zimmer’s squadron of hundreds winds up sounding like a skeleton crew, and a cheap one at that. Far better to let the orchestra or the synths to have the deck to themselves with the other as support.

The haste with which the music was made occasionally makes parts of it sound like bilge from the holds of The Rock, Crimson Tide, and Gladiator, with the new themes overlaid and mixed in like watered-down rum. Not every pirate score has to lay a shot across Korngold’s bow, certainly not, and the jauntiness in the themes shows that Zimmer’s crew had appropriately piratey ideas of their own. But with so much that seems cut from the mainsail of past successful scores from the same cutthroat crew, Cap’n Zimmer seems to be saying that the same music that fit ancient Rome, Alcatraz, or the USS Alabama is suitable for piratey adventures without much manipulation. It’s the sort of thing that affects James Horner’s much more complex music at his worst, too.

It’s also a shame that the score’s scurvy crew didn’t see fit to plunder a few bars from the theme music George Bruns wrote for the park ride, “Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate’s Life For Me,” not even to accompany a character singing the shanty onscreen. And the one piratey score Zimmer and his buccaneers wrote before, Muppet Treasure Island, seems to be their only big score from the previous decade they didn’t refit. And it was the first of many such refits to come; by the end of the decade, many similar summer blockbusters would be flying Zimmer’s flag and bedecked in the same bilge, even as his crew’s later Pirates scores rediscovered their nautical roots.

Walt Disney Records shipped 45 minutes of Cap’n Zimmer and Long Klaus Badelt’s music in 2003, but like many soundtracks from their crew it was extensively rearranged for the album and the track titles often bear little relation to where in the film the music is heard–to say nothing about the amount of extra material simply thrown overboard. So while most of Curse of the Black Pearl’s themes can cut a jaunty dash with the best of them, the cheap sound and recycled timber in most of it–to say nothing of the barely shipshape album–the music is best suited for a quick scuttle to the depths. Cap’n Zimmer and most of his crew would be back, though, for the film’s three sequels–each a massive box office hit and an interesting scoring situation in its own right.

Rating: starstar

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (Marco Beltrami)

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Based on novelist Chris Fuhrman’s only completed book, 2002’s The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is a coming-of-age tale of four friends going to Catholic school in the 1970s interspersed with a comic book that they are writing collaboratively. All the usual coming-of-age boxes are checked: bullies, first loves, nasty authority figures, and a friend that doesn’t make it to the end credits. The well-received novel helped attract a cast of up-and-comers like Emile Hirsch and veterans like Jodie Foster; veteran comic book artist Todd MacFarlane even stepped forward to turn the boys’ comic books into short animated segments. Ultimately, though, the film and its first-time director (music video veteran Peter Care) weren’t able to connect with audiences, and despite decent notices the film made back only a fraction of its indie budget.

In 2002, many of composer Marco Beltrami’s biggest hits were still ahead of him, meaning that the film composer was still affordable to indie productions like The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys. But Beltrami wouldn’t be tackling the film alone; guitarist Joshua Homme from Queens of the Stone Age wrote a number of tracks as well and contributed instrumental pieces to the score. Years later, Beltrami would recall that he had no idea how he’d been hired for the project, but that the project had been a “tough ride” fraught with difficulty understanding what the director wanted. Until the intercession of star Jodie Foster (herself an occasional director), the film had seem a lot of different musical avenues tried with a lot of (as Beltrami put it) “strangeness” along the way.

The unsettled nature of its composition definitely shows in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys on album. It plays not so much as a cohesive score but as a series of disjointed musical moments, wildly varying in theme, instrumentation, and tone. It doesn’t have much of a thematic skeleton to hold it up, and Beltrami’s own distinctive musical voice is muted as well, leaving little to latch onto. The music is fun when it has to be (“Story of the Fish”), scary when it has to be (“Torn Apart”) and sad when it has to be (“Eulogy”) but, like the film itself, seems to be checking off boxes more than transcending them.

Homme’s music doesn’t fit in with Beltrami’s very much, but since Beltrami’s music is disjointed to begin with, it’s not as big of a problem as it might be. Homme’s contributions are exactly what you’d expect to hear from a rock guitarist: technically skillful electric six-string playing that seems to be backing for vocals that never arrive. It’s successful in capturing a hint of the youthful rebellion in the titular altar boys, but very little else. When Homme adds vocals to the mix (“All the Same” ), the result is somewhat better; the others simply feel like important parts have been snipped out. Period songs by Canned Heat and Stephen Stills round out the brief album.

Released by Milan the year after The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys limped out of theaters, the CD was enough of a curiosity to Homme fans that Amazon repressed the platter as an on-demand CD-R once Milan’s run ended. It’s difficult to see what either Homme fans or Beltrami fans will get out of the music, though; the hodgepodge on screen and on album very clearly reflects the composer’s memories of a tortured and uncertain scoring process. It’s hard to blame either man for the music’s lack of cohesion and lack of interest given the circumstances, though. Homme would continue to write popular music in the years afterward but never again dabble in film composition, while Beltrami was only a year out from his big break with Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and the one-two punch of Hellboy and I, Robot in 2004. The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys would remain a footnote for both of them.

Rating: star

Careful, He Might Hear You (Ray Cook)

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Australian cinema came into increasing worldwide prominence during the 1980s, with international hits like Gallipoli, The Road Warrior, Crocodile Dundee, and The Man From Snowy River all seeing significant success both down under and overseas. One of the lesser-known entrants in this renaissance was Careful, He Might Hear You by Hungarian-Australian director Carl Schultz. Based on a bestselling novel of the same name by Sumner Locke Elliott about an Australian orphan and his two aunts, one rich and one poor, dueling over his guardianship, the movie had been the subject of a number of failed adaptations (including an American one with Joshua Logan and Elizabeth Taylor attached) before Schultz’s 1983 release. The picture was a modest box office success in Australia and elsewhere but was a critical smash, winning a total of eight Australian Film Institute Awards, with Schultz taking home Best Director and Best Film.

Just as Australian actors and directors were gaining international prominence in the period, Australian film composers were seeing increased visibility as well, with Brian May (not to be confused with the rock star Brian May) and Peter Best (not to be confused with the rock star Pete Best) both seeing their names attached to international hits with soundtrack releases. For Careful, He Might Hear You, Carl Schultz engaged the services of another Australian composer, Ray Cook (seemingly the only Australian composer of the time not to share a name with a rock star), who had extensive musical experience working abroad as a music director in the West End of London during the creative explosion there beginning in the 1960s. With only one film credit to his name, the Australian TV movie Silent Reach, Careful, He Might Hear You was cook’s first major solo score.

For a simple drama score, Cook’s music has more in common with the lush fantasy music that was de rigueur in the post Star Wars era. His main theme is beautifully orchestrated for two lines of strings which interact and play off of each other with resounding vibrato, with one taking up the main melody while the other flits about in an extended fantasia to support it. A full orchestra with woodwinds, brass, and percussion is present, but the strings and the main theme that they play remain dominant throughout, with the other instruments primarily used to add depth and a touch of magic (primarily through the consistent application of mallet percussion) that suffuses the music from beginning to end.

Cook never abandons his theme, making sure that the full theme or deconstructed portions thereof are a constant presence, and the score never loses the subtle fantasy sheen that the orchestral colors at work bring to it. Occasionally a light choir (“The Meeting”) is added to the mix to give the music an even more magical atmosphere, and the mallet percussion, woodwinds, and brass take a larger roles from time to time (particularly in the beautiful, wistful but troubles “Vanessa’s Mansion”). The atmosphere and music also turn troubled at times (“PS Says His Prayers,” “Railway Station”) with the same themes and instruments twisted to produce the appropriate levels of turmoil, but even these moments never abandon Cook’s lush style. The biggest departure in the album is “P.S.’ Piano Practice,” a piece of quasi-source music that incorporates a ticking metronome with a waltz time signature to delightful effect.

Sadly, Careful, He Might Hear You was Ray Cook’s first and last major film score. While he contributed to the 1985 Australian film Rebel alongside Best and Chris Neal (of TV’s Farscape), Cook would pass away in 1989 before he had the chance to compose another solo score to build on his impressive debut. Around the time of the film’s American release, Varèse Sarabande released Cook’s score on LP as part of their ongoing championing of emerging, lesser-known, and international film scoring talent. The label later put the LP’s contents on a limited edition CD as part of their CD Club in 2006 (after teasing with a cue on the now-rare Varèse Sarabande 25th Anniversary Vol. 2 set) with a strict limit of 1000 copies. Thankfully, due to its obscurity, copies can still be had for reasonable prices today and the main theme is available as a digital download. In any form from LP to CD to MP3, Careful, He Might Hear You remains a hidden gem, a lush and fantastic aural journey well worth taking from a musical voice silenced too soon.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

Franklyn (Joby Talbot)

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Franklyn was writer/director Gerald McMorrow’s attempt at a cerebral fantasy film examining the nature of faith with a parallel universe story splitting its time between a fundamentalist dystopia called Meanwhile City and contemporary London. McMorrow was able to attract a top cast including Eva Green, Ryan Phillippe, and Bernard Hill, and the movie presented a very striking aesthetic, but it had trouble connecting with moviegoers in its initial run in cinemas (perhaps due to the film’s off-putting title and lack of any actual character named Franklyn). It received generally good reviews, though, and eventually eked out an audience on home and streaming video.

For British composer Joby Talbot, Franklyn was a dream assignment, one that he actively sought out after reading Gerald McMorrow’s screenplay. Talbot had a god roster of projects for film, television, and the concert hall under his belt by 2008, but his feature film scores had been mostly low-key since his arrival on the scene The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in 2005. Projects like Arctic Tale (2005), Penelope (2006), and Son of Rambow (2007) had kept Talbot in multiplexes, but he hadn’t reached out to the same sci-fi/fantasy cult audience since Hitchhiker’s. Franklyn would prove to be that project.

For the alternate world of Meanwhile City, Talbot came up with an incredibly strong theme in the mold of his most awestruck pieces from Hitchhiker’s and Arctic Tale. Heard at the album’s outset (and the movie’s grand establishing shot) in “Gonna Kill a Man,” it’s a sweeping and romantic gem, with full-orchestra undulations against swirling piano arpeggios with subtle electronic enhancements. Wherever it appears, from the introductory “Meanwhile City” to the redemptive “Finale Part 2″ and “End Credits,” Talbot’s main theme captivates. It’s one of the strongest film music statements of 2008 by any measure.

The score is essentially monothematic, with twinkling arrangements and fragments of that main theme frequently appearing at the beginning and end of Silva’s generous 50-minute CD and download. Piano and harp are particularly foremost in the fantasy atmosphere in many places, with the former for the character of Emilia and the latter representing the character of Esser. Whenever Talbot is using his Meanwhile City theme, motifs based on it, or conjuring a dark fantasy atmosphere similar to that in the concluding parts of Hitchhiker’s or the most troubled parts of Arctic Tale, the album soars. Talbot uses a few more interesting devices in places as well: ticking clocks as rhythmic instruments and jaunty Middle Eastern pastiche in “Faith Registration Center.”

Its monothematic nature is unfortunately a bit of a two-edged sword as far as Franklyn‘s listenability is concerned, though. Whenever the music turns to action (“The Catacombs”) or suspense (“David Bursts in”), the music is discordant, textual, and colorless. It’s doubtless an excellent support for the film, but can’t do much apart from it. There’s no really satisfying mix of the powerful theme and fantasy atmosphere with the more ambient portions; in “David Bursts In” and the lengthy “Finale Part 1,” where the two styles are places side-by-side, they don’t gel and the disconnect is at times distracting.

Franklyn still merits a recommendation based on its incredible main theme and the compelling fantasy atmosphere throughout parts of the album, but it’s disappointing that the score’s action and suspense cues simply can’t live up to that standard. The highlights, though, are not to be missed. Talbot has remained more active in writing for live venues since, with no further ventures into big-screen fantasy, but has scored the occasional film like 2013’s Closed Circuit

Rating: starstarstar