Back to the Future Part II (Alan Silvestri)

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Robert Zemeckis’s science-fiction action comedy Back to the Future was, in spite of its troubled production, an unqualified success. With the President of the United States quoting the film’s script in speeches and over $300 million in the bank, the highest-grossing film of 1985 seemed like a sure thing for a sequel after its cheeky tease of an ending. But Zemeckis and his crew had larger aspirations, and they reunited for not one but two sequels filmed back-to-back in one of the earlier instances of this practice in Hollywood. The first fruit of their labors was 1989’s Back to the Future Part II which has always been regarded as a bit of a black sheep in the franchise due to both its comedic vision of the 2010s, its darker tone with an alternate 1985, and its cliffhanger conclusion with a literal advertisement for 1990’s Back to the Future Part III.

Alan Silvestri’s phenomenal orchestral score for Back to the Future had announced his arrival to the world and shown that he could handle far more than the simple electronics of Romancing the Stone. With that film and 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit strengthening their collaboration, there was never any doubt that Zemeckis and Silvestri would re-team for the sequels. Even so, Part II didn’t have the strong source music that the first film employed, with no original rock songs or period pieces to compete with the score, in theory allowing Silvestri a much larger canvas for his music.

As one might expect, the adventurous Back to the Future theme returns, given a full outing over Part II‘s opening credits unlike the silence and ticking clocks of the first film. There, and in the lengthy end credits arrangement, Silvestri gives the theme perhaps its most robust workout, adding jumpy passages for brass between some of its major phrases but otherwise leaving it largely identical in terms of instrumentation and structure. The sparkling discovery and wonder motif returns as well, peppered throughout the music, and the gentle theme for the friendship between Doc and Marty makes a few appearances.

For the futuristic world of hoverboards and flying cars that is Part II‘s 2015, Silvestri surprisingly doesn’t resort to synthesizers or attempt a futuristic rendition of any of his themes. Instead, he plays the film’s parallel scenes–wandering around the courthouse square, being chased by hoodlums–in almost an exact reprisal of music for similar moments in the original film. The same is true for later scenes which return to 1955 and show many of the first film’s scenes from a different angle, with nearly the same music altered to hit new script beats. Some material gets an extended performance compared to the first film, with the militaristic percussion mingled with optimistic thematic statements from the beginning of “Clocktower” being stretched into “Burn the Book” and the ominous action material for the Libyan terrorists adapted into “Tunnel Chase.”

In fact, the only really new material is related to the hellish alternate 1985 Marty McFly and Doc Brown inadvertently allow Biff Tannen to create, a plot twist that many reviewers at the time lambasted as confusing despite the film literally diagramming it onscreen. Dark, recoiling strings in “Alternate 1985” and skittering material in “If They Ever Did.” It’s creepily effective in the film but not the best listening on its own.

In 1989, the only music from Back to the Future that was available was the end credits suite and an arrangement of “Clocktower,” about 12 minutes out of nearly 50 Silvestri had written. Part II, on the other hand, was given a score-only album by MCA with 45 minutes of Silvestri music. This made the latter a substitute for the full Back to the Future score that would not arrive until 2009 and made its constant re-use and adaptation of enormous chunks of the original score, often basically unchanged, much more forgivable. After all, if a fan couldn’t hear “Twin Pines Mall ’85,” they could listen to basically the same material in “Burn the Book.” If they wanted “Skateboard Chase,” there was “Hoverboard Chase” hitting many of the same beats.

Intrada Records’ 2009 and 2015 releases of Back to the Future had the effect of making their sequel’s score much less interesting to listeners. Much of it seemed like a tuneful but pale retread, especially given the radical change of direction that came with Back to the Future Part III. Intrada would also release an expanded version of Part II in 2015, almost on the exact date that the film’s 2015 scenes were supposed to take place, expanding the MCA album’s 45 minutes to 65 and adding a second CD with 35 minutes of alternates. Though this expansion represents a score nearly 15 minutes longer than the original Back to the Future score, which had to tiptoe around songs, it’s still hard to escape from the feeling that the extra material, outside of the Alternate 1985 music, is more of a retread than an expansion.

Though regarded as something of a disappointment when it released, time has been kind to Back to the Future Part II. Many of the parallel and alternate timeline concepts it toyed with have become more mainstream, and its goofy vision of a 2015 with all the comforts of the 1980s but no internet or smartphones has become more hilarious as that year actually dawned. Alan Silvestri’s score for Part II has had the opposite happen; while it was a welcome antidote to the lack of a score album for the original film, that score’s release as made it seem largely redundant. Still, the potency of the original themes is undiminished, and Part II still represents the fullest expression of Silvestri’s original sound before the radical alterations he made for the third film. It was a long road for the score from stopgap replacement to expanded curio, but after all…where we’re going, we don’t need roads!

Rating: starstarstar

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Iris (James Horner)

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Novelist Iris Murdoch would have been famous enough just for her literary output, but her lingering decline and death from Alzheimer’s disease added a poignancy to her twilight years as her intellect slowly ebbed away. Her husband, long in her vivacious shadow, penned a memoir of caring for Murdoch at the end of her life and his story was brought to the big screen in 2001 by director Richard Eyre. With an all-star cast including both Kate Winslet and Judi Dench as Iris herself and both Hugh Bonneville and Jim Broadbent as her husband, Iris received a basket of acting nominations and ultimately earned Broadbent a surprise Oscar.

Director Eyre primarily worked in theater and TV before Iris, but the material’s prestige nevertheless gave him the pull to assemble a top-notch crew for his production. For music, he turned to James Horner who was in the midst of a career renaissance brought on by his massive popular and critical success with Titanic. Despite having two other major awards-caliber films on his plate for 2001, A Beautiful Mind and Enemy at the Gates, Horner committed to Iris and was able to use his clout to secure a choice soloist for the project as well: violinist Joshua Bell. Bell, internationally renowned in both the concert hall and as a player for film scores (notably John Corigliano’s The Red Violin), brought an unmistakable touch of class to the proceeings along with his Stradivarius.

The score’s reception was, at the time, rather chilly. Much like Horner’s work with Bradford Marsalis on Sneakers a decade earlier, critics complained that the relatively simple melodies given Bell were a waste of his talent, parts that could have been played equally well by a studio musician without a two million dollar instrument. Horner’s fans compared it unfavorably to his earlier works, particularly the cult favorite The Spitfire Grill, and it was ultimately overshadowed by A Beautiful Mind in the public consciousness and at awards time.

And yet, for all that, Horner and Bell’s efforts really work. Bell may not be challenged by Horner’s material, but the unique timbre of the violinist’s Stradivarius and his unmistakable technique lend the omnipresent string parts of the album a unique color. Furthermore, Horner rearranged his orchestra and the recording to put Bell front and center as a soloist, leading to a bright and summery sound suffused with subtle longing and tragedy. Much like he would with his later Pas de Deux, the emphasis for Horner was not to give his soloist a showy workout but to take advantage of Bell’s strength to construct a moving piece of music.

Throughout his career, Horner was often dinged for his use, or overuse, of a four-note “danger motif” that served as an instant musical signature. In Iris, though, there is very little danger; the motif is present, but twisted though bright orchestration and Bell’s performance into a ravishing love theme, the fundamental building block of the piece. From its debut in the first track to the last lingering strains of the last, Horner’s love theme for Iris and John, surrounded by a rich bed of fully orchestral music, is a subtle stunner. Also of note is the concluding track, which intercuts Kate Winslet’s voice singing the traditional song “A Lark in the Clear Air” with Horner’s full orchestra and Bell’s Stradivarius performing a sweeping, wistful set of variations on the love theme. It’s perhaps the most counterintuitively creative take on his own favorite musical building block that Horner ever devised.

As befits a score featuring one of the most recognizable instrumentalists in the concert hall, Sony Classical put out an album for Iris in 2001 that featured Bell’s name as prominently as Horner’s (and Branford Marsalis’s for Sneakers). But its more subtle sound wound up attracting none of the awards attention of A Beautiful Mind, with Bell’s solos nowhere near as crowdpleasing as Charlotte Church’s vocals and no one cue powerful enough to compete with “A Kaleidoscope of Mathematics.” Iris therefore remains one of Horner’s hidden gems to this day, widely available at an affordable price and due for reappraisal.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

James Horner, 1953-2015: A Tribute

Though there has been no official word yet, multiple unofficial sources have confirmed that film composer James Horner was killed this morning in a plane crash. Mr. Horner was a well-known aviation buff, having written a soaring piece for the Four Horsemen aerobatics team not long ago; truly, save for passing away at his piano or podium, there is no other way Mr. Horner could have died doing something he loved more.

James Horner in 2009 at the premiere of Avatar, standing in front of the film's title wearing his trademark scarf.

James Horner in 2009. Image courtesy of Cinemusica via Wikimedia Commons.

I have no words; James Horner was my favorite composer and musician of all time. I knew his intensely beautiful long-lined melodies as a tot watching Don Bluth films, fell in love with his groundbreaking science fiction and fantasy scores as a teen, and even as an impoverished college student I always scraped together the money to buy each of his albums as they came out. The news is especially devastating given that Mr. Horner was in the midst of renewed vigor, with a full slate of scores after a few lean years when his style seemed to be decidedly out of favor. His new classical CD, Pas De Deux, promised through samples to be a ravishing return to the concert hall after over thirty years.

There can be no doubt: we have lost one of the greats, on par with his peers Williams and Goldsmith and on par with any instrumental voice the 20th century can muster from Prokofiev to Corigliano. Hopefully, we will still be able to experience the few pieces of music that he left completed before his death and those yet to be made available from the past. Hopefully, we will see the continued emergence of talented young composers inspired by melody and passion who refuse to be cogs in a machine but instead uplift other art forms through their music. That’s the best memorial to Mr. Horner that any can hope for.

Friends, do yourself a favor and re-listen to Star Trek II, An American Tail, The Land Before Time, Braveheart, Titanic, A Beautiful Mind, Avatar, or any of the other beautiful music from an illustrious career now cut short.

Here is a list of all the James Horner reviews here at Best Original Scores:

Aliens (James Horner)
All the King’s Men (James Horner)
The Amazing Spider-Man (James Horner)
Bopha! (James Horner)
Casper (James Horner)
Flightplan (James Horner)
Freedom Song (James Horner)
The Land Before Time (James Horner)
Once Upon A Forest (James Horner)
Vibes (James Horner)
Willow (James Horner)

Mr. Peabody & Sherman (Danny Elfman)

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One of the better-remembered segments from Jay Ward’s Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends, the time-hopping and pun-laden adventures of the world’s smartest dog and his adopten son have remained lodged firmly in the American popular consciousness for over 40 years to the extent of even having the monicker of their Wayback Machine borrowed by the Internet Archive. As with many nostalgia properties from that era, Mr. Peabody was not immune to plundering for big-screen remakes by a creatively bankrupt Hollywood, and a motion picture version of his adventures with Sherman were in development hell for many years before the 2014 release of Mr. Peabody & Sherman. The film itself turned out rather well, despite the usual Dreamworks stunt casting, but its spring release date coupled with unexpectedly fierce box office competition served to mute its impact.

As a Dreamworks film, a score from Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control studio seemed as inevitable as a voice cast packed with flavor-of-the-month vocals for Peabody & Sherman. But, surprisingly, the filmmakers turned to Danny Elfman instead. Elfman has surprisingly extensive credits for children’s movies, going back as far as his breakout hit Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, but for many years seemed to be moving away from the weird and wacky music that was at one point his bread and butter. For Peabody & Sherman, though, that sound was back with a vengeance.

One suspects that Elfman got the job because of another movie he scores a few years earlier, also about a young boy and a time machine: Disney’s Meet the Robinsons. And, to be fair, there are parallels between the two works, especially in the energy and saturation of Elfmanisms. But while Meet the Robinsons eventually turned to adventure and had some serious and tragic undertones, Peabody & Sherman remains firmly in fun and wacky territory throughout its entire running time. It’s easily the wackiest thing that Elfman has done since Flubber in 1997, and is perhaps the closest the composer has come to the original Pee Wee‘s manic energy thus far.

The album contains a main theme that appears throughout starting with “Mr. Peabody’s Prologue,” and it gets put through an impressive number of guises, from the playful Nino Rota energy of that first track to a full-on Alfred Newman Egyptian treatment later on. The composer Elfman seems to be looking to for the most inspiration, though, is Carl Stalling: like the late leader of the Looney Tunes, Elfman incorporates fragments of popular public domain tunes into his most energetic pieces, from anachronistic blasts of “La Marseillaise” for Marie Antoinette to blasts of Beethoven for, well, Beethoven himself.

Though the main theme is present throughout, the constant stutterstop Stalling energy of the music might be irritating to listeners looking for a more through-composed and straitlaced style. For Elfman fans, though, the music represents a family reunion of sorts, a gumbo of the most fun and wacky elements from Pee Wee, Flubber the original Men in Black and Meet the Robinsons without its spacy or weighty elements. Compared to Epic or Frankenweenie from the previous two years, both scores full of theme and motion, the silly slapsticky tack that Elfman took is even more notable. It’s enjoyable on a rather different level.

The Peabody & Sherman album by Sony Classical provides a good 40 minutes of Elfman score, alongside a few source songs and tangos as well as a piece in which a stunt-cast Stephen Colbert mocks Mr. Peabody’s musicology skills. It’s a solid product, though American purchasers should beware its incredibly flimsy packaging, which offers nothing to hold the CD in place. For those with a tolerance for vibrantly thematic mickey-mousey music in the Stalling or David Newman vein, Peabody & Sherman is quite the treat.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Fifty Shades of Grey (Danny Elfman)

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It’s enough to make one choke with surprise; only in the current media age could a book like Fifty Shades of Grey have bound itself so tightly and so quickly to the popular consciousness, without a safe word in sight. Author E. L. James was somehow able to dominate a heretofore unknown market when she filed the serial numbers off her BDSM Twilight fanfiction and saw the abusive relationship between her ersatz Edward and imitation Isabella climb the sales charts and beat a whole new genre of softcore “mommy porn” into shape. It was a given that films would follow–it had worked for Twilight!–and auteur director Sam Taylor-Johnson was tied to the project along with a pair of young starlets. The resulting film was awful in a very interesting way, the director and stars barely able to gag their contempt for the material–and, in the case of the stars, each other! Needless to say, this didn’t keep the film from whipping up substantial profits, and two equally risible sequels are sure to torture reviewers for years to come.

Taylor-Johnson’s only prior film, Nowhere Boy, had been a John Lennon biopic with minimal score. She therefore roped a composer for Fifty Shades of Grey who also had a background in popular music as well as a noted appetite for the twisted: Danny Elfman. Elfman was no stranger to movies with the sort of erotic charge that Fifty Shades aspired to, notably To Die For, but he still seemed an odd fit for the assignment. Then again, the Twilight series had reined in such film score luminaries as Carter Burwell, Alexandre Desplat, and Howard Shore; Elfman was in many ways a much more appropriate choice to write a film score fans bought in unmarked paper bags.

Elfman commands a small orchestral ensemble with contemporary drum beatings and bass guitar for the score, augmenting both from time to time with a small chorus. The overall feel of his music, surprisingly, is cold, clinical, and detached: it’s music that is contemporary, uneasy, and above all aloof. In short, Elfman’s music seems to mirror the detachment that the actors and director felt for the project, keeping it at arm’s length. In fact, the score’s closest sonic bonds seem to be the Errol Morris scores that Elfman has done, Standard Operating Procedure and The Unknown Known; the Philip Glass style string “cells” in particular, repeating themselves as other instruments churn above and below, are very reminiscent of those documentaries.

A basic thematic idea strikes in the titular “Shades of Grey,” and recurs in a low-key fashion throughout (particularly in “Variations on a Shade”) but never truly asserts dominance over the rest of the music. Another motif, “Ana’s Theme,” is similarly rather backgrounded. There is also absolutely no music that could be described as traditionally romantic or mirroring the kinkier aspects tied up the subject at hand. Perhaps the subtle theme and unsettled soundscape are Elfman’s response to the creepy stalker vibe and abusive power dynamics that suffuse the film. In any case, don’t expect to be struck by Elfman’s use of thematic material or whipped into a frenzy by lush romanticism.

The score’s real highlight is the short choral piece, “Bliss,” that was at least co-composed if not entirely written by Elfman’s “additional music” hand for the project, David Buckley. As is often the case in film music it’s not entirely clear if Buckley simply arranged Elfman’s ideas for the choir or wrote the entire piece from whole cloth while incorporating some Elfmanisms. Either way, the piece is coldly rapturous, a stiff if subtle punch, and a very unique sound that the score could have used more of. The following two tracks, “Show Me” and “Counting to Six,” also deviate from the generally uneasy and cold material that comes before. But rather than offer romance, they are string-led laments, devastatingly sad and beautiful. Not the wah-wah cheese many expected, but those tracks plus “Bliss” are the furthest afield Elfman whips from his Errol Morris style and the closest to outright romance listeners are going to get.

A short 45-minute score album was released alongside the inevitable collection of terrible songs that included two score cuts (“Bliss” and “Variations on a Shade”); the movie’s high profile meant that the score even appeared in some brick-and-mortar stores. It’s not top-drawer Elfman however you slice it, but one has to respect that the composer hit the film with his best shot, writing music that was an order of magnitude better than the drek it accompanied. Listeners who are unfamiliar with Standard Operating Procedure and The Unknown Known will probably get the most out of the album, provided that they are not too embarrassed to add it to their shopping cart. For Elfman, Fifty Shades saw him beginning a period of engagement with the Hollywood machine for several enormous projects. From bowing out of (or being rejected from) The Hunger Games in 2012 and having few of his scores make a major splash in the interim, by the summer of 2015 Elfman was slugging it out at the top of the box office with half the score of Avengers: Age of Ultron to his credit. It’s not a binding opinion, but the twin hits of Fifty Shades and Ultron may just be the beginning of a new period of Elfman domination.

Rating: starstarstar

Confession (Ryan Shore)

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Confession was a 2005 project about murder and coverups at a prestigious all-male Catholic prep school that wasn’t able to secure theatrical distribution, winding up instead as a direct-to-video offering. A longtime project of its writer/director, Jonathan Meyers, and based on a spec script he penned in high school, the film is primarily remembered today as the first starring role of Chris Pine, who less than four years later would be cast as Kirk in 2009’s Star Trek. An avowed film score fan, with a letter of encouragement from Carter Burwell to prove it, Meyers ultimately retained Ryan Shore to score his film. Shore, the nephew of Oscar-winner Howard, had a resume of similarly low-budget but ambitious films to his credit in 2005. He was therefore able to tackle Confession with a live orchestra, albeit a reduced one of 22 players, and live choral aspects as well.

Confession opens with its greatest highlight: a stunning choral piece in “Philosophy” that evokes liturgical music in its use of a solo female voice with supporting male choir. A lengthier performance in a similar vein bookends the album with “Sacred,” with snatches of choral music appearing in places throughout the rest of the album, taken up either by male or female voices. These passages are so effective in an Erich Whitacre/John Tavener manner that they overshadow much of the rest of Shore’s music–enough so that one almost wishes the entire score had been performed a capella.

Shore’s main theme is low-key and rather drab compared to his terrific choral music; when it appears in “Requiem” and “Confession,” it is primarily to tie together lengthier passages of dark, churning music. The film’s oft-grim tone and talky nature perhaps precluded more intrusively melodic writing, but one couldn’t help but feel that an approach like the one Shore would later use in Shadows might have been a better listening experience on album. “Bennet’s Confession” “Priest Interrogation” include the theme as well, but it is backgrounded or not present in most of the album’s meatier cues, leaving the music to create an unsettled atmosphere without any of the panache that characterizes the sections for voices. “Bicycle” and “Rain” provide the only respite from the generally oppressive atmosphere prevalent outside the vocal cues, with lighter Thomas Newman style riffs.

Though Ryan Shore had primarily been represented on the Moviescore Media boutique label, ever the champion of high-quality film music written for lesser-known projects, he was instead able to team with La-La Land Records five years after Confession was released, in 2010, to put out an album of his music. At 42 minutes, it is a short score on album but virtually every note recorded for the film is present (along with detailed notes from Shore and Meyers about their collaboration); however, unlike the MSM albums, Confession is only available as a physical product in a limited 1000-copy print run. Due to the film’s obscurity, though, it is available extremely cheaply both direct from the label and on the secondary market. The beautiful solo choral parts of the album will resonate most strongly for most listeners, though devotees of Shore’s more action-packed style of Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer or active thriller soundscape of Shadows may find themselves disappointed.

Rating: starstar

High Art (Shudder to Think)

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High Art was writer-director Lisa Cholodenko’s debut feature after a number of smaller shorts and TV projects. A protege of Miloš Forman, Cholodenko created a film that was a steamy dramatic look into the world of high art photography and the complex relationship between two lensers played by 80s icon Ally Sheedy and up-and-comer Radha Mitchell. Given a rather limited art house release upon completion in 1998, High Art received good notices on the film festival circuit and a number of smaller awards but was rewarded with only an indie-sized gross. It tends to be remembered today as a stepping stone in Cholodenko’s increasingly successful career as a director, which later led to 2010’s Best Picture nominee The Kids Are All Right.

Though Cholodenko’s partner, musician Wendy Melvoin of “Wendy & Lisa,” has had a successful career in scoring TV shows like Heroes and Nurse Jackie, the director’s first two films were scored by members of the indie rock group Shudder to Think. Shudder to Think had been in existence, with a varied lineup of performers, since 1986 and had seen some success both on the charts and on tour. The group’s first film score had come the year before High Art, for Jesse Peretz’s 1997 version of First Love, Last Rites, but that project had been mostly songs while Cholodenko would request substantial amounts of instrumental scoring for her project. As such, High Art wound up being virtually the first instrumental film scoring experience for the primary contributors, vocalist Craig Wedren and guitarist Nathan Larson, though the film and album also include several songs.

High Art‘s instrumental score, running about 25 minutes, begins with the lovely and ethereal “Opening” which offsets the sound of a glass harmonica with sepulchral wordless female voices. It’s very tonal and moving in the style of Brian Eno’s warmer material or Eric Whitacre’s more experimental music. Darker strands of the same sound, with more tortured and distorted vocals appear in “She Gives Tone,” and a relatively brief reprise in “End Frame,” with more muted glass harmonica chords without much in the way of vocals in “Photographic Ecstasy,” “Neoteny,” and “Last Lines.” While the style is ambient, at its best with the heavenly vocals mixed in this material is quite compelling, with “Opening” by far the strongest cue on the album.

One drawback that vocal groups often encounter with composing instrumental scores is the tendency to compose them just as they might the backing instrumentals for a song–without the strong central melody that their sung lyrics often add. Too often, this leaves these scores feeling like mixed-down multi-instrument song tracks rather than a cohesive score. Sadly, Shudder to Think does fall prey to this on a number of tracks. Music like “Dominoes,” or “Mom’s Mercedes” have that exact feel, laying down smooth grooves and languid instrumental guitar lines but ultimately seeming like vocal songs with the innards scooped out without the fascinating texture that the better tracks have. A smattering of Shudder to Think vocals and tracks by groups like Reservoir and the JeepJazz Project, some instrumental, some not, round out the rather generous 45-minute soundtrack from Velvel.

As such, High Art is essentially a curiosity, capturing a pair of composers that would go on to better things at the very beginning of their film scoring careers. The potpourri of styles and the essential weakness of many of the poppier tracks winds up detracting from the best ambient vocal material, and the disc never really hangs together as a stand-alone listen. As is often the case, fans of the band will likely be disappointed–especially given the song-driven guest-artist nature of their prior First Love, Last Rites. Still, despite the film’s relative obscurity, copies of the disc are cheap and readily available if listeners are curious.

Interestingly, High Art became a jumping-off point for full-fledged scoring careers for Craig Wedren and Nathan Larson after Shudder to Think dissolved that same year. Wedren eventually amassed an impressive list of film and TV credits, including School of Rock and Reno 911, while Larson carved out a surprising niche for himself in scoring critically acclaimed but controversial film projects, including Boys Don’t Cry, and The Woodsman. Both would work with Cholodenko again; Wedren scored her sophomore feature Laurel Canyon, while both men together wrote a score for The Kids Are All Right that was ultimately replaced by one by Carter Burwell (the director’s third feature, Cavedweller, was scored by Wendy Melvoin herself).

Rating: starstar

Guardians of the Galaxy (Tyler Bates)

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By 2014, every movie in the Marvel cinematic universe had been a financial success, whether unremarkable(The Incredible Hulk), respectable (Thor), or incredible (The Avengers). As a result, parent Disney took a chance on a film version of one of the more obscure comics in the Marvel back catalog: Guardians of the Galaxy. With a rotating ensemble that included, among others, a green space Amazon warrior, a hyperintelligent talking racoon, a motile tree that could only speak its own name, and a human from Earth abducted by aliens, the film was regarded as something of a gamble in Hollywood. No one knew the characters, the connection to the other Marvel films was tenuous at best, and conventional wisdom was that moviegoers wouldn’t accept the lightness of tone the material demanded in a major blockbuster. Writer/director James Gunn, a veteran of the Troma Pictures grindhouse of all places, put the lie to these fears by creating a movie critics compared to a post-Star Wars space opera, filled with humor, action, and memorable characters. The film stood out so much in the dearly blockbuster season of 2014 that it became the biggest hit of the summer and was second only to the bloated Mockingjay: Episode I in domestic box office receipts–barely.

James Gunn had only worked with one composer during his career as a filmmaker: Tyler Bates. They’d first worked together on Zack Snyder’s debut, the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, which Gunn wrote. The director’s solo debut, the indie horror film Silther, was similarly scored by Bates in 2006, as was Gunn’s 2010 sophomore effort, the violent and nihilistic superhero parody Super which probably got him the Guardians gig. Bates himself had worked steadily in film since the 1990s, with several high-profile superhero and fantasy/action films in the 2000s and 2010s, often with Snyder for whom he was composer of choice before being replaced by Hans Zimmer and his Remote Control studio for Man of Steel. Watchmen in 2009 was his most prominent superhero flick prior to Guardians, though Bates had done work on the 2011 remake of Conan the Barbarian, the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, and of course the comic book adaptation 300 in 2006. It’s safe to say that Bates enjoyed a somewhat negative view among film score fans thanks to his work on many of those remakes, which followed extremely popular scores by the likes of Bernard Herrmann and Basil Poledouris, and the controversy over 300‘s score, which incorporated near-verbatim quotes from Elliot Goldenthal’s Titus and proved to be a legal embarrassment for Warner Bros. Much like Guardians itself, the score was viewed with trepidation from fans.

Few of Bates’ earlier scores could be described as thematic, so it’s a pleasant surprise when he unveils a theme for the titular guardians, teasing it in “Quill’s Big Retreat” before letting it rip in “The Kyln Escape.” It’s a fun idea, and despite appearing in a fair number of tracks one wished Bates would use it more often: the theme, often with accompanying choir, soars in a way that none of the other music does. With its oft-prominent brass, the Guardians theme is probably closest to, of all things in the Marvel universe, Alan Silvestri’s Captain America theme–though it’s part of a distinctly un-Silvestri-like whole and certainly not in the ballpark of Bates’ controversial use of Goldenthal in 300. It gets some variations, as in the slightly more elegiac “Black Tears” and “The Great Companion.” There’s a secondary theme of sorts in “The Ballad of the Nova Corps” (complete with electric guitar accents) that appears here and there, though it’s not as boldly presented. “Ronan’s Theme,” for its part, is less a theme than a darker orchestral color with some electronic manipulations.

The music has a distinct Remote Control feel in some of its parts, with string ostinatos and choral crescendos straight out of the Zimmer playbook. It is probably a situation where, like Patrick Doyle, Bates was asked to emulate a certain sound, though several Zimmer associates are listen in the album’s credits. Regardless, the Remote Control elements are on the high end of that scale rather than the Battleship dregs, and Bates uses them alongside his themes to present a generally decent, if occasionally somewhat generic, sound. It’s worth noting that he plays the score absolutely 100% straight, with no hint at all of the film’s occasional goofiness, which is left to pop music. That’s not a criticism; it’s been known for years, ever since Airplane, that serious music can make funny moments all the funnier (and it’s worth noting that Star Wars, to which Guardians was often compared at release, didn’t have much “funny” music either despite its share of funny moments). The shimmering synths and children’s choir of “Groot Spores” and “Groot Cocoon” is probably the closest the score gets to any genuine silliness.

Bates writes diverse music, ranging from the harsh synths of “Ronan’s Theme” to the wonder of “To the Stars” and the Groot material. It’s a bit like Watchmen in that regard, the earlier score ranging from awe and wonder to grungy rock, and at times the Guardians score, again like Watchmen, seems to lack cohesion for all its diversity, mickey-mousing rather than offering a narrative arc. The presence of Bates’ surprisingly-good themes, something which was sorely absent in the earlier superhero film, and the occasional Remote Control walls of sound help the score hang together much better, though. Like most Bates scores one gets the feeling that there’s untapped potential in Guardians to let rip in a truly exceptional album; nevertheless, it’s a promising improvement from many of his earlier scores.

There were three albums pressed for Guardians: a song collection called Awesome Mix Vol. 1, a score album, and a 2-CD combination. Unlike most frisbee “music from and inspired by” discs, the retro tunes on Awesome Mix were an important and cheeky part of the film rather than generic tunes the record company was trying to move through association with a popular IP. Thus the 2-CD set might actually be the best buy for fans; it certainly has the best cover art of any Marvel album thus far, perfectly capturing the retro-futuristic aesthetic of the film. Whatever the album, Bates’ music is the best of his career: solid stuff, with a decent theme, that’s miles better than the muck he conjured for projects like The Day the Earth Stood Still. It stands as a more or less evolved version of Bates’ promising but disappointingly generic scores for Watchmen and Conan 2011, and if it doesn’t come close to the Marvel cinematic universe highlights of Brian Tyler (whose similar-sounding name led to no end of confusion during summer 2014) and Alan Silvestri, it at least avoids the doldrums of Ramin Djawadi and Henry Jackman. The best musical comparison to Guardians in the Marvel universe is probably Doyle’s Thor, and like Thor it’s a solid buy, and one hopes that Bates will build on this foundation for the inevitable sequel.

Rating: starstarstar

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Henry Jackman)

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Captain America: The First Avenger had been a modest hit for Marvel in 2011, and the character had been further spotlighted in The Avengers a year later, helping to undo some of his long-term neglect in other media and bringing him new fans. As part of Marvel’s “Phase 2” lead-up to The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Cap got a sequel in Captain America: The Winter Soldier which traded in Joe Johnston for the Russo brothers and straightforward 1940s heroics for the paranoia and conspiracies of the 1970s. The Russo brothers–best-known for Community of all things–managed to combine the existing film mythos, explosive action sequences, and a timely question-the-power attitude into a film that resounded surprisingly well with critics. For their part, audiences took the film nearly $100 million north of its predecessor, outgrossing even rival Sony’s terrible big-budget The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

The Russo brothers claimed that they wanted a more “modern” sound for their outing, and in the film parlance of the 2010s, “modern” means Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control studios. Therefore, Alan Silvestri was not invited to return and instead longtime Zimmer associate Henry Jackman got the job. By 2014, Jackman was in the process of solidifying his mainstream breakout, with a series of scores with ever-escalating budgets that had brought him from Remote Control’s back benches to the A-list. His superhero score for X-Men: First Class had been serviceable with some highlights, and he had even replaced Silvestri in a franchise before, with his Remote Control style G. I. Joe: Retaliation succeeding the Silvestri’s more traditional Rise of Cobra.

As one might expect from the Russo brothers’ instructions to Jackman, the composer makes no reference whatsoever to Silvestri’s original Captain America theme. It was tracked in from the original score on a few occasions (most notably the introductory jogging scene) but Jackman never arranged the theme himself and none of the tracked portions of the theme appear on the album. It’s not surprising that Jackman doesn’t use the theme, as none of the composers in the Marvel cinematic universe has ever adapted another’s theme (outside of Brian Tyler’s momentary reference to Silvestri’s Cap in Thor: The Dark World) but it’s more disappointing because it was the best and most iconic theme the series had produced thus far. Jackman does fashion a replacement, heard first in “Project Insight” and “The Smithsonian” with its most prominent appearances in “Time to Suit Up” and “Captain America.” While it is essentially orchestral in character and has the requisite drums and brass, Jackman’s theme is never performed with the boldness of Silvestri’s, and it virtually disappears from the score for large chunks of time, either due to genuine absence or being buried so much under layers of synths and sound design that it’s simply not audible.

Action music is the order of the day, by and large, with The Winter Soldier filled to bursting with white-knuckle action that’s perhaps the most urgent and brutal of any movie in the Marvel universe thus far. With “Lemurian Star” and especially “Fury,” Jackman provides his version of the serviceable and thematic, if not necessarily exceptional, combat cues from the first film, and one can immediately see where the Russo brothers’ inspiration came from. There are titanic brass bursts straight out of Hans Zimmer’s once-innovative but now-tired Inception, synth loops and snarling electronics from John Powell’s once-innovative but now-tired The Bourne Identity, and constant aurally-unpleasant music-as-sound-effects from Steve Jablonsky’s Battleship. It works on an okay level, a basic level, on screen surrounded by taut explosions, but by “The Winter Soldier” and “Countdown” listeners will be wishing for even John Debney’s most underperforming orchestral mush from Iron Man 2. In doing what he was asked, Jackman created what is, on album, the most irritating collection of modern action film scoring cliches since the aforementioned Battleship and Captain Phillips.

The titular Winter Soldier often seemed lost in “his” own film, more of a pawn than anything, and the same goes for his thematic representation. If Jackman did in fact pen a theme for him, it’s lost under so many layers of synths that he needn’t have bothered; none of the Marvel films have had a strong musical identity for their villains, and the Winter Soldier’s thematic material is about as prominent and memorable as Ramin Djawadi’s Iron Monger material from the very first film in the series. The film’s true villain is represented by soft and murky music in “Alexander Pierce,” while the motif developed in The Avengers for the Black Widow hasn’t even an echo in the similarly turgid “Natasha.” The resurgent HYDRA organization is represented by still more vague churning when it’s not underscored by still more action music like the self-titled “HYDRA.” In fact, by the end of the lengthy Intrada album (which is the same as a digital download or a physical platter in all but cost) one senses that the directors’ instructions to Jackman were to avoid any overt themes or motifs at all outside of tracked-in Silvestri excerpts and the few instances where an equivalent was needed.

Jackman’s score thus stands out as the weakest link in the film, and unfortunately its success and the Russo brothers’ return for the upcoming Captain America: Civil War makes it likely that neither Silvestri’s theme nor any approximation of it will appear in Cap’s future adventures (and it remains to be seen if Brian Tyler, who referenced it in Thor: The Dark World, will do so again in Age of Ultron). Jackman is a capable composer with several creative scores under his belt, but in this case he met the Russo brothers’ request for “modern” with what is, in the film, essentially violent sound effects and what is, on album, a laundry list of the worst characteristics of the kind of Remote Control style textual and electronic scoring that dominates the blockbuster scene in the 2010s. It’s not the worst offender by any means, but the experience it offers on album is probably the worst of any Marvel film so far, even Ramin Djawadi’s underachieving Iron Man. And it goes without saying that seeing Silvestri’s traditional theme-based score that largely avoided the scoring cliches of its day succeeded by a score that embraces every last one of them is disheartening.

Rating: star

Captain America: The First Avenger (Alan Silvestri)

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The final puzzle piece to fall into place for the Marvel cinematic universe before 2012’s The Avengers was Captain America. Though he’d been around since World War II, indeed before Marvel Comics was Marvel Comics, Captain America–like his stablemate Thor–had a very weak presence in other media. A few TV appearances, a 1940s series, and a disastrously bad 1990 theatrical film that was barely released…all of them seemed to suggest that audiences were uninterested in a character whose patriotism was passe in a cynical age. Marvel bet otherwise in 2011, putting accomplished filmmaker Joe Johnston at the helm of Captain America: The First Avenger, a tale that essentially took all the beats of the 1990 version but did them much better, ending with the titular super-soldier being brought forward to the present day. The film attracted good notices and more or less tied Thor in box-office receipts, but laid the groundwork for a sequel that would double those numbers.

Director Johnston had worked with a diverse stable of composers throughout his career, with an early partnership with James Horner for his first four films and later collaborations with Mark Isham, Don Davis, James Newton Howard, and Danny Elfman. Surprisingly, he chose someone he’d never worked with before instead: Alan Silvestri. Silvestri is probably still best-known to audiences for his work on 80s sci-fi classics Back to the Future and Predator, but he had been working steadily since, and had produced a series of old-fashioned action scores including The Mummy Returns and Van Helsing since the turn of the millennium. Called in with only seven weeks to score, Silvestri was asked to write a similarly old-fashioned score for Captain America.

Right away, in “Main Titles,” Silvestri teases a theme that he develops across the score, appropriately bold and noble and full of brassy patriotism. “We Did It,” “Triumphant Return,” and (for some listeners) the “Captain America March” present the theme in all its glory, although it is worked into a satisfying amount of the action music as well. While it won’t unseat the composer’s themes from the 1980s anytime soon, it is a breath of fresh thematic air in the Marvel cinematic universe which until then had largely had relatively milquetoast themes with even the best ones undercut either by their lack of use (Iron Man 2) or the uncomfortable inclusion of studio-mandated “modern” elements (Thor). The theme is perhaps closest to Michael Giacchino’s early music for the Medal of Honor video games (though the recent entries in that series have also suffered under dreadful “modern” scores) and the comparison is an apt one, with a sense of grand orchestral nostalgia amid all the derring-do.

The villainous Red Skull and his so-evil-even-the-Nazis-are-uncomfortable HYDRA organization get a motif of their own, though it’s muted in comparison to Cap’s theme which precludes any real theme vs. theme pyrotechics of the Danny Elfman style. Consisting of a series of sinister, ascending notes, it debuts in “Frozen Wasteland” for the film’s tie-in to Thor before being aired in “Schmidt’s Treasure” and “HYDRA Lab.” What the HYDRA motif lacks in punch and ability to go toe-to-toe with the main Cap theme, it makes up for in its consistent employment; in “Fight on the Flight Deck” it’s such a pleasure to hear a noticeable theme for a villain and a noticeable theme for a hero in an action cue at the same time. After all, if the heroes in the Marvel universe had been shortchanged by their thematic representation thus far, the villains had it even worse.

Though the lack of any facets of the post-Batman Begins superhero scoring doldrums is refreshing, Captain America doesn’t approach the level of Silvestri’s best action works and at times–particularly when the main theme is absent–seems more like the composer spinning his orchestral wheels than anything. A similar problem affected The Avengers, though the constant used of Cap’s theme does give this earlier score more structure. Still, it’s a little disappointing, and probably a function of the short time in which the score was written, that Silvestri’s action music is often merely functional. The lighter cues for conversation and introspection also lack the snap of a Rocketeer and contribute somewhat toward the album’s leaden opening.

A generous album was released along with the movie, though irritatingly its very best track–the “Captain America March” from the end credits, the best and boldest statement of the film’s main theme–was exclusive to the digital version despite the CD having more than enough room. More importantly, Silvestri impressed the producers at Marvel enough that he was chosen to score The Avengers the next year. With references to his Captain America theme in that film, Thor: The Dark World by Brian Tyler, and tracked in at times around Henry Jackman’s score for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it is arguably the most enduring theme to come out of the Marvel cinematic universe thus far. For that, and for avoiding many of the pitfalls that bedeviled superhero scores throughout the Marvel cinematic universe and the 2010s, Captain America: The First Avenger earns itself a solid recommendation.

Rating: starstarstarstar