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

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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 good 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

Iron Man 2 (John Debney)

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2008’s Iron Man was a resounding commercial success and a critical darling, jump-starting a whole series of films based on other Marvel comic book properties. Jon Favreau’s direction, a smart script, and a winning performance by Robert Downey Jr. guaranteed that there would be subsequent films featuring Iron Man, and indeed Iron Man 2 followed The Incredible Hulk (which featured Downey in a cameo) as the third entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The 2010 film, which featured nearly all the cast and crew of the original, was perhaps the most disappointing film leading up to The Avengers; despite a healthy box-office take it was wandering and unfocused franchise maintenence, with little idea of what to do with its villains and playing up Downey’s antics to fill a bloated running time. Fans would have to wait until 2013’s Iron Man 3 for another truly satisfying solo venture for the heavy metal hero.

The original Iron Man had a disappointingly awful score from Hans Zimmer protege Ramin Djawadi that did little except accentuate the character with electric guitars. However, director Favreau had collaborated with John Debney on a variety of other projects, from Elf to Zathura, and the veteran composer was tapped for the Iron Man 2 assignment. Ever the musical chameleon, Debney ultimately chose to maintain a semblance of continuity with Djawadi by incorporating electric guitars (played by Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine, who had played on the previous score) while using his own thematic constructs.

Debney debuts two extremely potent thematic ideas in Iron Man 2, addressing the primary weakness of Djawadi’s score head-on. His theme for Iron Man himself is a heroic major-key march, accented by electric guitars with powerful brass, strings, hammered-metal percussion, and male choir. It’s an approach that evokes Jerry Goldsmith at his most instrumentally creative while still inhabiting the same sound world as the previous film. “I Am Iron Man” is the theme’s brief concert presentation, appearing during the film’s end credits, while Debney interpolates it triumphantly into “Monaco” for the scenes of Iron Man battling in the midst of a Formula One Race. “Monaco” alternates two strong, triumphant strains of the theme with snarling and discordant material for the villain.

Speaking of the villain, the film’s underused and oft-absent villain Ivan “Whiplash” Vanko is given an intense thematic identity of his own. Appearing over the film’s main credits in “Ivan’s Metamorphosis,” Debney unleashes a grandly Russian theme with a major role for dual male and female voices intoning lyrics in Russian. The piece is menacing and towers with Slavic personality with a strong support role for Morello’s guitars, and the dissonant electronic textures reappear frequently elsewhere (notably in “Monaco”).

Sadly, though, Debney’s themes are both the score’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. For as potent as the Iron Man and Whiplash themes are, Debney refuses to adept them consistently throughout the score. There’s no hint of either in the final confrontation cues “Iron Man Battles the Drones” or “Ivan’s Demise,” and outside of “Monaco” they are completely absent from the underscore outside the opening and ending credits. Why Debney did this is rather mystifying: he had a solid thematic base to build on, but either by accident or design he was unable or unwilling to do so.

The remainder of the music is more orchestral than Djawadi’s but is similarly a morass of guitars and synths front-and-center, reflecting little more than a moment-by-moment, blow-by-blow Mickey Mousing of the action. Cues like “House Fight MK1” are almost as unbearable as similar cues from the original score, made all the worse by the presence of far superior themes that go basically ignored. Ultimately the disappointment is almost more keen than with Djawadi’s score, since the former showed virtually no promising ideas to go along with its textural meandering. The inclusion of the “Expo Theme” bonus track is a plus, though, with the filmmakers cannily mirroring the Sherman brothers’ “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” song for Disney by drafting Richard Sherman himself opposite Debney’s orchestrations and arrangements (though the few muted references to the song in the underscore are another missed opportunity).

John Debney was able to improve on Ramin Djawadi’s initial effort in Iron Man 2, but due to his failure to adapt his own themes throughout his own score, the music falls considerably short of what it could have been and has to be regarded as a major disappointment, especially given how extensively Debney adapted Alan Silvestri’s themes in his concurrent score for Predators in 2010. It would take Brian Tyler to finally come up with a formula to marry contemporary elements with a strong theme in Iron Man 3, while Debney would not score another film of comparable statue for several years, unfortunately moving back to the dregs of comedy scores that don’t take full advantage of his talents. Pick up a few of the individual highlights on their own via iTunes or Amazon and skip the rest of Sony’s 70-minute score album (and avoid the “Music From and Inspired By” album completely unless you’re an AC/DC fan looking for 60 minutes of their greatest hits that don’t appear in the film).

Rating: starstar