Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Henry Jackman)

Cover

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

Advertisements

Iron Man (Ramin Djawadi)

Cover

Who would have thought, looking back, that 2008’s Iron Man would be the thing to kickstart a universe? The titular character Tony Stark, a Bruce Wayne type with no inherent superpowers other than his wealth and intellect who tools around in a mechanical suit, had never been one of Marvel’s marquee heroes–but with their heavy hitters like Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four leased to other studios, Marvel gave him a shot at the big screen. With actor-turned-director Jon Favreau behind (and in front of) the camera and a career-redefining performance by Robert Downey Jr. in the lead, the film managed to deftly tweak the standard superhero origin story into something original, affecting, and funny. Iron Man was richly rewarded critically and commercially for breaking the mold, and the characters it introduced went on to define the Marvel cinematic universe.

Favreau’s previous two films were 2003’s Elf and 2004’s Zathura (it may seem like a miracle to land Iron Man with a resume like that, but Hollywood’s modus operandi of late has been to give untested directors superhero movies as a test of their chops), and both had scores by John Debney. For reasons that have never been clear Debney either did not seek or did not get the assignment, possibly because during the movie’s 2007-2008 production he had seven other films on his docket, including The Stoning of Soraya M. which was a labor of love for the composer. With the job open, Ramin Djawadi, an Iron Man fan since childhood, applied for and got his dream job. Djawadi’s credits, at the time, were primarily smaller films or additional music work as part of his mentor Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control Studios team. Djawadi was hired on the strength of some prior superhero work (for Blade: Trinity), a recent film for Marvel’s then-distributor Paramount (Mr. Brooks), and the fact that Zimmer himself followed his pupil as music producer while allowing him full use of the Remote Control team.

Djawadi began work by writing a then-traditional orchestral superhero theme, but Favreau had other ideas: recalling the heavy metal song “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath (a version of which eventually played over the film’s end credits), he pushed for a heavy rock and guitar influence. Zimmer, in his role as producer, also offered suggestions out of the superhero playbook he was in the midst of developing after 2005’s Batman Begins and the concurrently-developed The Dark Knight which would bow two months after Iron Man. As a result, Djawadi’s score plays like a mixture of Favreau’s preferred guitar sound and Zimmer’s “wall of sound” Remote Control approach, with the orchestral performances largely subsumed and dominated by those two styles.

The main Iron Man theme, such as it is, gets an extended rock-inflected performance in “Driving With the Top Down,” the first album track, and a somewhat more straightforward outing in the later “Vacation’s Over.” While it’s possible to hear echoes of the original orchestral theme Djawadi wrote, particularly in the latter, the end result is so overbearing, so over-processed with an extra-liberal slathering of faux Black Sabbath atop a rather rote version of the Remote Control sound that it’s all but lost. The music is certainly loud, certainly energetic, and has plenty of synths to reflect the technological nature of Iron Man himself, but the conflicting demands of the filmmakers and Remote Control left Djawadi essentially writing to the lowest common denominator of them both: neither particularly strong film music nor particularly strong rock music.

For Tony Stark’s on-again-off-again dalliance with his assistant Pepper, the score offers a love theme of sorts, most notably in “Are Those Bullet Holes?” and “Extra Dry Extra Olives,” but it’s so tepid and thin–perhaps as a result of being stripped down at either Favreau’s or Zimmer’s insistence. A “plotting theme” that eventually is used as a motif for the villainous Iron Monger is, again, so subtle and stripped-down that it barely registers. Rather than being theme-on-theme smackdowns or snarling menace like the best superhero scores in the Danny Elfman vein, villain-centric cues like “Arc Reaktor” (sic) or “Iron Monger” are either disappointingly violent noise or brooding nonentities.

It seems a little mean-spirited to blame Djawadi for the problems that Iron Man has as a score; he is clearly a big fan of the concept and was at the mercy of larger influences from the producer. But the fact remains that Iron Man is barely functional as a score in the movie and pretty unlistenable outside it. the score did, at least, get pride of place on the album release, sharing it with a few songs but, curiously, not the resounding instrumental performance of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” that dominated the end credits that most people probably remember. This could help explain its easy availability in used-CD bins, so there’s little monetary risk for anyone who wants to give Djawadi’s score a chance. It’s tough to recommend Iron Man to anyone but die-hard fans of the film or Remote Control enthusiasts, and it seems that the powers-that-be agreed: Debney got his shot at the concept with Iron Man 2, but it wasn’t until Brian Tyler’s Iron Man 3 that a composer was able to successfully create a memorable theme with the electronics, orchestral presence, and occasional cheek that Tony Stark demands.

Rating: star

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

Cover

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

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (Marco Beltrami)

Cover

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

White Oleander (Thomas Newman)

Cover

A best-selling novel turned arthouse film, White Oleander attracted an impressive cast of female stars but ultimately failed to make much of an impression at the box office or award shows. After his resounding success with Sam Mendes’s American Beauty, Thomas Newman was for a time the composer of choice for arthouse Oscar-bait (which led to his record-setting streak of failed Oscar nominations) and it was no surprise to see his name on the marquee. Newman put together an unusual ensemble for the project, combining a few specialty instrument soloists with only a handful of studio players, in an extreme version of the quirky ensemble and quirkier instruments that he had assembled for Beauty and its ilk.

The result is, somewhat predictably, a continuation of the style found in scores like American Beauty and In the Bedroom with far less rhythm,  motion, and interest in the music. White Oleander never rises above a whisper, and without a theme or Newman’s trademark quirky rhythms, there’s nothing to sustain the music. Instead, it becomes a dull, monotonous drone, firmly backgrounded both on screen and on album. More than anything, the album resembles a New Age relaxation tape, designed to wick away stress and induce slumber. Nothing of the troubled or contentious nature of the film is reflected in the underscore, which is essentially reduced to sonic wallpaper. There is some admittedly attractive piano work at the beginning and end of the disc, but even this seems like it’s building toward a climax that never arrives.

In many ways, White Oleander represents the nadir of Newman’s post-American Beauty experiments with strange instruments and minimalism. Beauty was one of the most-aped sounds of the late 1990s and early 2000s, and as a result of its success (and perhaps of Newman’s own changing tastes) he hewed strongly toward that style for many of his scores in the following years at the expense of the orchestral sound of scores like The Shawshank Redemption which had won him many of his most passionate fans. The Oleander score was the culmination of a three-year period of similar music and diminishing returns for the composer, who shortly thereafter began blending his quirky minimalism with a more traditional orchestral palette. It was this latter approach that led to later scores with a much better balance to their Newmanisms, acclaimed works as Finding Nemo, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and even the Mendes-helmed Bond score Skyfall.

As the most extreme example of a style that doesn’t resonate strongly with many fans outside of the context of its film, White Oleander is therefore recommended only for extreme fans of Newman’s minimalism, or people who enjoyed the score as cut to picture. To be fair, there are Newman fans who thoroughly embrace the composer’s scores of this ilk, and there are certainly  those who can appreciate the composer at his most minimalistic, even when he is producing themeless, meandering music that wouldn’t be out of place on a New Age relaxation disc.

*

Passport to the Universe (Stephen Endelman)

Cover

Film composers often find themselves creating scores for attractions and theme park rides; their experience with matching music to images makes this an ideal choice. This has led to attraction scores from Alan Silvestri (Back to the Future: The Ride), John Debney (The Phantom Manor), Basil Poledouris (Conan: A Sword and Sorcery Spectacular), and even James Horner (Captain EO). Stephen Endelman, while nowhere near as well known as many of the professionals in his field, built himself a solid resume with projects like The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain, Evelyn, and overachieving music for the risible reboot Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li. When the Hayden Planetarium in the American Museum of Natural History began work on a new show, Endelman was commissioned to write an original score to accompany it, a score that, unlike many of the aforementioned ones, received a full CD release..

Passport to the Universe consisted entirely of deep-space images and narration by Tom Hanks, allowing Endelman almost unlimited freedom to compose as he saw fit. As the composer writes in the liner notes, this seemed the perfect opportunity to “create a piece of music that would fuse both acoustic instrumentation and ambient soundscapes,” an idea that he had toyed with for some time. Due to this decision, the show’s sound effects are included directly into the score, at times given equal prominence with the orchestra, despite the oft-repeated fact that there is no sound in outer space for lack of a medium to travel through.

Endelman’s work skews strongly toward the ambient soundscape end of the musical spectrum he describes in the notes–while there is an orchestra, it is used as a sound effect in the show’s overall audio design. Aside from brief outbursts, most notably in “Cosmic Address,” the score is largely atonal, shying away from melody in favor of dense layers of background noise. At times, such as in “Black Hole Plunge,” the combination of orchestra and sound effects becomes so brutal and atonal that the music is difficult to listen to–seemingly random brass outbursts, church bell peals, and a low choir compete with wind sound effects to overwhelm the listener with noise.

Many of the other tracks, while admittedly less intense, suffer from a similar problem: since there is little melodic material, the lengthy passages of sound effects and low-key music are dull and plodding. One has to imagine that Endelman embraced the commission as an opportunity to write non-melodic music and experiment with aleatoric, atonal, musique concrète. As exciting a possibility as that may have been in the abstract, it results in something that only fans of John Cage or Krzysztof Penderecki at their most atonal could enjoy. Appreciate, perhaps, given the proper academic background and vocabulary, but not enjoy.

Therefore, as a piece of sound design and accompaniment to the planetarium show, Passport to the Universe is a success. But as a listenable piece of music, especially when divorced from the powerful on-screen images that accompanied the planetarium show, it fails utterly. One can’t help but feel that an approach that divided the sound design and music, isolating the effects from the score, would have been better. The album represents a wasted opportunity–rather than providing a powerful accompaniment to the cosmos, Endelman’s Passport underwhelms. A missed opportunity, recommendable only if forty minutes of minimalistic, ambient music complimented by sound effects is a listening experience you could appreciate.

*

Freedom Song (James Horner)

Cover

A made-for-TV movie depicting the civil rights movement in Mississippi during the 1960’s, Freedom Song managed to attract top talent, including actor Danny Glover, singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock, and composer James Horner. The film was a success, earning Emmy nominations for Glover and “Song of Freedom” by Carole King, though it was rather quickly forgotten afterwards and has aired rarely in syndication.

Director Phil Alden Robinson had co-written Sneakers; perhaps it was this connection, or the generally high-profile nature of Freedom Song (for a television project, anyhow), that brought James Horner aboard. From the beginning, it was clear that much of the film’s soundtrack would involve the singing of spirituals, and Sweet Honey in the Rock provided the vocals for ten such songs on the album. Their performance of classic and era-specific tunes is strong, though the songs do lose much of their power when removed from the context of the movie.

But what of James Horner and the movie’s score? About eighteen minutes of music from Horner made it onto the album, although about six minutes of this material exists underneath narration and sound effects. Horner employs Sweet Honey in the Rock in the score itself, using their wordless vocals as the primary instruments while relying only on himself and an assistant to provide the instrumental backing. As a result, the score is extraordinarily low-key, at times barely even audible, and exists primarily as an extension of the vocal and blues style found in the songs.

Horner’s approach is therefore loyal to the film’s time period and songs, but not very listenable outside of this context, having little in the way of thematic material. In fact, the score is so anonymous that the dialogue and sound effects that obscure a third of it make little difference–the music is essentially the same as that in the score-only tracks. It is as if, by direction or design, Horner made the classic film scoring mistake of confusing blandness for respectfulness, a problem affecting many films that are weighty or issue-heavy.

As a result, Freedom Song is all but useless as a James Horner album. The album’s sole strengths are in its songs, and all but one of the album’s songs are traditional spirituals, and therefore available elsewhere. While the film was no doubt a fine and worthy endeavor, the album it spawned is of little use to anyone but Sweet Honey in the Rock fans and diehard James Horner completists. In fact, one has to wonder why, other than name recognition, the producers brought Horner on board at all; the film’s minimal score requirements could easily have been filled by a cheaper nobody. Avoid the album unless you specifically enjoyed the TNT movie or song performances by Sweet Honey in the Rock, and don’t mind that James Horner’s score is underachieving, bland, and partially buried under sound effects and narration.

*

Apocalypse Now (Carmine Coppola)

Cover

A watershed film that nearly killed both its director and star, Apocalypse Now is continually cited as one of the most influential films about the Vietnam War ever put to celluloid. Interest in the film has been revived in the new millennium with a new Redux cut returning to theaters, as well as a new album. But what of the original album, available both in LP and CD form?

As a period piece, a decade removed from its setting, Apocalypse Now featured several contemporary songs, most notably portions of “The End” by The Doors, as well as a memorable performance of “Ride of the Valkyries” by Richard Wagner. For the score, Francis Ford Coppola turned to his father, Carmine, and apparently wrote some cues himself, since father and son are co-credited in places. The music was then turned over to a group of synthesizer operators (including the late Shirley Walker), whose electronic performances of the music gave it an otherworldly feel.

Based on the packaging, it appears that the Apocalypse Now soundtrack is made up of score and songs, with liberal additions of dialogue from the film. This is misleading; instead, sound effects and dialogue are heard over nearly every cue, relegating both songs and score to the background. Sound effects and dialogue, while tolerated or even embraced by the general public, have long been the bane of soundtrack collectors, and the situation with this two-disc set is particularly dire.

Removed from the context of the film’s images, the dialogue and sound effects make no real sense; characters react to unseen events, and gunfire or jungle noises regularly compete with the dialogue and music for aural space. Thus, even when there is no dialogue, isolated noises ruin any chance of listening to or appriciating Coppola’s score. This decision made some sense in an era before home video when a record could serve as a sort of audio souvenir of the film (which might not be re-released for years, if at all). Today, when most film buffs might have multiple versions of Apocalypse Now on their DVD self or in their iTunes playlist…the horror, the horror.

The music itself is intersting, with Coppola’s classically-inclined musical training filtered through sythesizers, though it is largely atmosphereic rather than thematic. It fulfills its function of supporting the narrative with psychedelic connective tissue between song performances. The songs are not presented in their original forms either, and are overlayed with sound effects and dialogue too. The short edit of “The End” that opens the album is the only real success of the album’s approach: the addition of whirling helicopter blades to music does little to undermine it (indeed, James Horner would do the same years later for Courage Under Fire), and the track contains only the music heard in the film, rather than the complete eleven-minute song.

Aside from the film version of “The End,” the soundtrack to Apocalypse Now is dire, perhaps the worst possible kind of release for score or song fans. The music works brilliantly in the film, but the album presentation is so flawed that it cannot be recommended to anyone but the most obsessive fans of the film. Buy the separate score album, a Doors greatest hits CD, and the film itself instead. But don’t seek out this album unless you want an audio book of the famous film, including intrusive dialogue and sound effects, and don’t mind that virtually none of Carmine Coppola’s eerie score or the songs from the movie can be clearly heard.

*

Deus Ex: Invisible War (Alexander Brandon and Todd Simmons)

Cover

A hybrid role-playing game and first-person shooter, Deus Ex was the only hit game that ill-starred developer Ion Storm managed to produce throughout its turbulent existence. As such, it was the only one to spawn a sequel, Deus Ex: Invisible War. Despite having largely the same development team, the new game suffered from mixed reviews — often criticized for dumbing-down compelling gameplay elements from the first.

The original Deus Ex had a very strong score, produced by a composing team led by Alexander Brandon of demoscene fame. Despite the frustrating lack of a complete album release, the music was futuristic, compelling, and genre-bending — everything that the setting called for. Brandon returned for Invisible War, though the other team members were replaced by a newcomer, Todd Simmons.

The Deus Ex theme makes a muted appearance at the outset in “Invisible War Title Theme”, both in an electronic form and, intriguingly, as a vocal duet. It’s a promising start, given the title march was one of the strongest elements of the original game. It’s a tease, though; the opening is far and away the best track of the album. That, and the mournful strings in “Return to Cairo” are the only noteworthy innovations in the music, and the lack of any development with those building blocks, is extremely frustrating given how intriguing their integration with the futuristic tracker sounds of the original could have been.

Of the in-game tracks, only “Streets & Black Gate” has even the barest hint of the futuristic tracker sound that Brandon and his team brought to the first game, and even then it’s on par only with the very weakest Deus Ex tracks. “Credits” brings a welcome bit of relief with some heady beats, but the melody that accompanies them is faint — certainly nowhere near the comparable track from the prequel.

The remainder is aimless ambiance, almost totally devoid of melody, rhythm, and anything that might stand out from a monotonous drone. The original game certainly had its share of dull tracks, but there was enough outstanding music to compensate. It’s as if the sequel’s score was explicitly created by expanding upon the worst that the original had to offer, dumbing down the smart tracker sound Brandon and his team established mush like the game itself neutered the original’s complexities. Even viewed on its own merits, apart from its prequel, the music is simply wallpaper aside from the few highlights above.

35 minutes of Invisible War’s music was made available for free around the time of the game’s release, and were also attached to the game’s digital re-release as a bonus. It’s possible that more compelling music exists in-game — perhaps in the form of battle tracks, which were largely absent from the original official soundtrack to Deus Ex. But the stripped-down nature of the sequel and its score may just be too disheartening for further investigation. A dreadful disappointment on nearly every level.

*