Confession (Ryan Shore)


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


Halo 4 (Neil Davidge)


Even though developer Bungie had departed from the Halo series with 2010’s rather tired prequel Halo: Reach, Microsoft was unable to put its killer app cash cow franchise to rest. Forming 343 Studios as a subsidiary–and thereby assuring that, unlike Bungie, it could not leave for greener pastures–Microsoft had Halo 4 in development as soon as Reach shipped. Returning to the only real dangling plot thread from the third game and the massive character origin retcon from Reach, Halo 4 attempted to build a more emotional story around the series’ characters in addition to a threatening race of conveniently undiscovered aliens. The story’s attempts at emotional resonance were undercut by the emotionlessness of the main character, who has never cared a whit for the massive and detailed background mythology built up around him (being more concerned with where and when to give out free bullet samples when ordered to), but Halo 4 was a predictable sales success, and sequels will probably follow on a biennial basis until the heat-death of the universe.

Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori had scored the first five Halo titles with a distinctive blend of choral voices, dance-influenced electronica, and orchestral music. But they had departed with Bungie to work on the disappointing Destiny–an assignment that would ultimately be the end of their tenure at that developer. 343 Studios brought on an interesting replacement in their stead: Neil Davidge, a songwriter, producer, and musician, though Halo 4 would be his first video game score. While Davidge’s name might be unfamiliar to listeners, the name of the group with which he is most associated, Massive Attack, is most likely not. As part of the group, Davidge had been involved with several bestselling albums as well as Massive Attack’s first forays into film scoring, Unleashed (AKA Danny the Dog) and Bullet Boy. As a solo artist, Davidge’s most high-profile score was probably the psychic actioner Push; it was therefore an open question how he would respond to a high-profile assignment like Halo 4 with its own preexisting fanbase and sonic world. Perhaps as a response to this, 343 Studios paired Davidge with additional music composer Kazuma Jinnouchi, an experienced video game musician with a track record in the Metal Gear Solid series.

First, and perhaps most controversially, Davidge completely dismissed all of O’Donnell and Salvatori’s themes for the Halo series in favor of his own original compositions. The decision wasn’t as unprecedented as it seemed, with O’Donnell and Salvatori themselves largely avoiding any references to iconic Halo themes in their scores for ODST and Reach. But while the overall style of those scores was still suffused with O’Donnell and Salvatori’s musical personalities, Davidge didn’t attempt to outright ape his predecessors. His score was built from similar building blocks–the Chamber Orchestra of London, the RSVP Voices and London Bulgarian Choir, as well as an array of synthesizers and electronics. The overall bent of the score, interestingly, is far more organic than what O’Donnell and Salvatori come up with despite Davidge’s own background, with far subtler synths and relatively few instances of them taking center stage. When tracks like “Awakening” do bring electronics to the forefront, the pulses and tones used are quite distinct from the dance-inflected beats for which the series was known.

Obviously, Halo 4 should be judged on its own merits in addition to its place within the wider series. So what does Davidge come up with of his own in terms of thematic material to replace O’Donnell and Salvatori’s themes? The answer is, sadly, not much: Davidge’s score has very little in the way of themes, and certainly nothing approaching the memorability of the previous scores. To borrow a metaphor from a concurrent media property, the composer had the opportunity to do a Patrick Doyle, whose Goblet of Fire also largely discarded series themes but came up with blisteringly good new ones that inhabited a similar sonic world. Instead, with Halo 4, Davidge and his team pulled a Nicholas Hooper, a score with definite strengths produced by someone with real talent but which fails to weave highlights into a cohesive and thematic whole. A villainous theme of sorts does appear in “Nemesis” with a reprise in part in “Revival,” but it doesn’t make much of an impact. “117” is the closest the score comes to the broad heroics of the previous games in the series, albeit again not at the same level of prominence or memorability, but that track was actually written by co-composer Kazuma Jinnouchi, not Davidge.

As with the other Halo soundtracks, album production is a sore spot as well. The most common complaint leveled against the disc was that several of the most prominent cues in the game did not appear on it, despite a 77-minute length and six downloadable tracks. Fans particularly coveted the opening menu music, “Atonement,” which offered a mournful Arabic vocal as a replacement for the earlier Gregorian chant, and the end credits music, “Never Forget (Midnight Version),” the only remix of a O’Donnell/Salvatori theme in the game. With the later release of Halo 4 Volume 2, it was revealed that these were also Kazuma Jinnouchi compositions, explaining but not excusing their absence from the physical disc. It’s a bit disingenuous, to say the least, to omit the best-loved music from a game simply because it wasn’t written by the primary credited composer, and the original album suffers for its lack of Jinnouchi’s music, which is generally more thematic, more memorable, and a better sonic fit for Halo. The same “frozen playthrough” philosophy that dogged earlier albums returns as well, with some of the album’s better material buried in suites. Worse, the six downloadable tracks are all nauseatingly bad “remixes” instead of music that might have been composed too late in production to meet the CD’s street date.

A 77-minute disc was pressed for the game’s 2012 debut, with the aforementioned remixes as downloadable “bonuses.” Perhaps as a response to customer complaints, a additional download-only album would follow in 2013, featuring more music from Davidge and especially Jinnouchi, whose single track on the initial album is joined by nine others including the O’Donnell/Salvatori remix. It’s clear that the powers-that-be felt the same way about Davidge and Jinnouchi as listeners did; the inevitable Halo 5 follow-up has Jinnouchi listed as sole composer in early reports. One has to agree with the decision, as Davidge’s music, while serviceable and with an impressive orchestral/electronic pedigree, simply did not live up to the spirit of the games in the way that Jinnouchi’s compositions did. The available Halo 4 album suffers as a result, sinking into blandness with a few flashes of color thanks to Davidge’s inability to provide something to replace the dismissed O’Donnell/Salvatori themes and the marginalization on album of Jinnouchi’s attempts to fill that gap. One wonders what the latter will do with a solo Halo to his credit, or if 343 studios will simply hire the now-available O’Donnell for their future efforts. Halo 4 may be worth a bargain purchase, but is sure to disappoint in many areas all the same.

Rating: starstar

High Art (Shudder to Think)


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

Koudelka (Hiroki Kikuta)


An ambitious late-era Playstation 1 game, Koudelka was the first title from developer Sacnoth. With Squaresoft-style production values, the game featured highly detailed 3D models, fully rendered backgrounds and FMV cutscenes, and a highly unusual Gothic setting in Wales circa 1898. During a troubled development cycle, the developers reportedly clashed over whether the game should be real-time or turn-based, and gameplay wound up a curious hybrid of Resident Evil horror outside combat and Final Fantasy within. Worse, the game’s reach exceeded its grasp, leading to relatively little gameplay over four discs largely stuffed with cutscenes and battles that took place in a dark void with pop-in models and long loading times. Combine this with some truly baffling development decisions–like the entire game hinging on recovering an otherwise unremarkable item to avoid instant death, or the best ending requiring actually losing to the final boss–and it’s not hard to see why, for all its strengths, Koudelka was not a success and doomed to relative obscurity, though it did serve as a starting point for the later cult Shadow Hearts series.

The overall Squaresoft style of the game was no accident, for Sacnoth was founded by Hiroki Kikuta, an ex-Squaresoft employee who had worked primarily as a composer. Reportedly wanting to tackle weightier and darker subjects than many of the RPGs at the time, Kikuta wound up serving as designer, director, and composer for Koudelka, an unprecedented level of involvement for a onetime composer comparable to John Ottman’s work on Urban Legends: Final Cut. Of course, Kikuta had worked in anime and manga before joining Squaresoft as a composer, so he had the requisite experience, and the large budget that distributor SNK gave Sacnoth to work with meant that for the first time he was able to work at least in part with a live ensemble. At the same time, Kikuta’s involvement as writer/director meant that the intense musical focus he’d had on Secret of Mana and its sequel, sometimes nearly 24 hours a day, was no longer possible.

Perhaps as a consequence of this, there is virtually no field music of any sort in Koudelka. Only battles and cutscenes are scored, leading to a drastic cutback in the amount of material the score has to offer. With the brevity of all but the very longest cutscenes, this guarantees that Kikuta’s battle music absolutely dominates the game at the expense of the normal battle theme being virtually the only music heard for massive swathes of the game. Each of the four main battle themes is built on a foundation of tambourine taps and roiling percussion, a rhythmic base that’s immediately identifiable as Kikuta’s style and most similar to his most percussive efforts from Secret of Mana 2. “Waterfall,” the aforementioned main battle theme, is 8 minutes of that rhythmic foundation with staccato overlays of dulcimer, panpipes, and synths with one interlude of woodwinds and chimes and another that scales back to dulcimer. Its structure is essentially one loop without the panpipes, the first interlude, a second loop with panpipes, the second interlude, and then repeating once again. It’s a clever idea to try and wring the maximum amount of variation from the basic structure of the song, but the repetitious nature of the music means that it will wear out its welcome on album long before its halfway point–and in-game even sooner than that.

The main boss theme, “Incantation Again,” modifies that basic structure by adding blasts of panpipes from the very beginning and adding in thumb piano accents–an interesting texture not heard often in video game music. Despite being considerably shorter than “Waterfall,” the greater variation of its length means it holds up better–but again the relatively spare sound causes it to lose steam as a listening experience relatively quickly. The final two battle themes are for the bizarre final boss in her two forms; the first, “Patience,” powers up the thumb piano from “Incantation Again” while using the same bass line with a much more defined melody on woodwinds and occasional strings. The final battle–the one you have to lose to get the best ending!–is accompanied by “Kiss Twice,” the highlight of the lot and the album as a whole. While maintaining the same drum and tambourine percussive backing as “Waterfall,” and the rampant thumb pianos from “Patience,” “Kiss Twice” adds a strong and truly distinctive melody in classic Kikuta style, doubled on flute and chimes, with affecting interludes on solo chimes against thumb piano runs so fast they could never be performed in real life. One gets the sense that Kikuta started with “Kiss Twice” and stripped it down progressively to concoct the other battle themes; it’s a clever idea that doesn’t quite work out in practice, as that means that the most basic and repetitive version of the music is the one that goes on the longest and dominates the album.

Kikuta’s cutscene music is included on album, but these tracks (drily labeled by scene number) are extremely short, less than 16 minutes of music across all 24 scenes, and this keeps them from being developed as anything other than bursts of dark ambiance. Choral effects are quite prominent, often manipulated or processed, as are creepy whispers and other tricks. The longest have some promise, with “#scene7c” offering an ambient but affecting woodwind melody, “#scene18” presenting some very avant-garde choral work in the vein of Eric Whitacre, and the concluding “#scene20” with the best melody on the album heard fleetingly. The lengthier cutscenes that open the album offer some interesting material as well; Kikuta’s “Requiem,” performed by soprano Catherine Bott, is another fascinating if all-to-brief bit of choral writing in the Whitacre vein. “Dead,” the lengthiest non-battle Kikuta track on the album, is played by a live string trio, and is quite affecting if rather dour and with few of Kikuta’s trademarks. Curiously, the lengthy a capella “Ubi caritas et amor” (“where charity and love”) is actually a 1960 piece by French composer Maurice Duruflé from his Quatre motets sur des thèmes grégoriens, augmented by some creepy Poltergeist-style giggling by the children’s chorus.

If Secret of Mana 2 sometimes gave the impression that Kikuta was outside his comfort zone writing more serious music, Koudelka seems to confirm that. There’s plenty of promise evident in scattered spots throughout the brief score (less than 50 minutes excluding three lengthy “live” remixes at album’s end), but ultimately it feels like Kikuta is uncomforable writing in this ultra-serious mode, suppressing his natural composing instincts with their heavy influence from pop and progressive rock in favor of something dull and beige and “serious.” Naturally, the development struggles and multiple hats Kikuta was wearing didn’t help; it’s possible that with more time and more creative control he could have developed a better marriage of his distinctive sound and the seriousness the material demanded. It’s worth noting, though, that he would never attempt to write anything so straitlaced again.

A 70-minute album of Koudelka‘s score was released between the game’s American ship date and its Japanese one (in a sign of Kikuta and Sacnoth’s ambition to appeal to international gamers, the game actually dropped in time for Black Friday and only 16 days later in Japan). With the failure of the game, it’s not terribly common, but is an interesting curiosity nonetheless and worth having if only for “Kiss Twice,” “Dead,” and “#scene20.” Sadly, Koudelka would be the last game scored by Kikuta to see international release; after the game’s failure, the composer left Sacnoth, had no involvement with Shadow Hearts, and spent several years in the wilderness without an assignment of any kind. Obscure music for even more obscure dating sims and hentai games were all he worked on between 1999 and 2006, when he released his first major solo album, and 2008, when he had his next major game assignment. One can’t help but feel for Kikuta over the failure of such an ambitious project that the dent that it seemingly put in his career afterwards, especially since the music and released game wound up so underachieving.

Rating: starstar

Hulk (Danny Elfman)


Despite being one of the most recognizable superheroes in the Marvel stable, and headlining a popular and highly visible 1978-1982 cult TV show that puttered on with sequel movies until 1990, the Incredible Hulk took until 2003 to come to the big screen. Going through a similar development hell to the one that bedeviled Spider-Man in the same time frame, the project bounced from director to director, producer to producer, before landing in the lap of Chinese filmmaker Ang Lee. Lee had just shepherded Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to the big screen and boatloads of awards, and clearly the producers at Universal and Marvel felt that if Lee could get American audiences excited about outwardly ridiculous wuxia, he could do the same for the outwardly ridiculous Hulk. Instead, Lee turned in a soggy movie that clumsily tinkered with the character’s origins, had no clear villain, a dearth of action setpieces, and a very unconvincing CGI Hulk. Though it launched star Eric Bana into a profitable Hollywood career, and some critics lauded the movie’s thoughtful pacing and use of split-screen “comic book panels,” audiences deserted Hulk in droves after a promising opening. The concept was therefore given the Hollywood “reboot” treatment a mere five years later with The Incredible Hulk, with no better results. The big green guy would have to wait until The Avengers for a creative team that truly understood him.

Among the agonies of Hulk‘s protracted development and production schedule was its score. Lee originally hired his friend Mychael Danna to score the film; they had been collaborators as far back as 1997’s The Ice Storm and 1999’s Ride With the Devil. From the standpoint of producers and fans, there could scarcely have been a more incongruous pairing if Lee had hired Tan Dun to return from Crouching Tiger; Danna was principally known for intimate dramas like Ararat and exotic scores for projects like Monsoon Wedding. When Danna’s complete score was played to picture, the music was tinged with an Arabic sensibility, full of Armenian duduk, and featured wailing solos by world music star Natacha Atlas. Panicked at this bizarre sound in their big-budget superhero flick, the producers dumped Danna over Lee’s protests and hired the kind of pre-Batman Begins superhero scores: Danny Elfman. A fan of Lee, Elfman accepted the assignment with less than 40 days to write and record a new score.

In composing a new score for Hulk, Lee and Elfman clashed constantly; the director had been happy with his friend Danna’s score, and continually asserted that the sketches and demos being written were “too Elfman.” The end result was quite curious: in the process of replacing a Mychael Danna score with an Arabic sensibility, Armenian duduk, and wailing solos by Natacha Atlas, Hulk received a Danny Elfman score with an Arabic sensibility, Armenian duduk, and wailing solos by Natacha Atlas. Though there were a few places, such as the presence of electric guitars, where Elfman prevailed, and of course some distinct echoes of his highly recognizable style, Lee essentially browbeat Elfman into rewriting Mychael Danna’s rejected score.

From the opening bars of the album, Elfman’s Hulk is suffused with percussive rhythm and a desert feel, both at the expense of the composer’s typically strong themes. A six-note motif appearing in “Main Titles” is the closest the film gets to a full-on theme, but while its descending notes do suggest the mad science at work there and otherwise, it’s the sort of thing that would normally be a support beam in one of Elfman’s musical structures being asked to bear the full load. The muddled washes of electronics into which the lengthy “Main Titles” and “Prologue” descend into are further weaknesses of the score, acting as Bondo to hold together a score that took eight orchestrators to stitch together, triple Elfman’s usual amount (and including such industry veterans as Hans Zimmer’s Bruce Fowler and Mark McKenzie). The omnipresent duduk and Atlas’s vocals lend a bit of coherence to the music, but they are never given any really compelling thematic material to perform and as such seem like flashes of color that, again, are asked to bear more than their share of the musical load. Needless to say, neither Jennifer Connelly’s love interest, nor Sam Elliott’s military goons, nor Nick Nolte’s bizarre Oedipal “villain” have much in the way of a thematic identity at all.

There are some highlights. “The Truth Revealed” is probably the album’s best merging of the Danna sound with the kind of orchestral tragedy that the film needs, and there are some part of other cues like “Bruce’s Memories” where bits of the tender writing Elfman did on projects like Spider-Man shine through. The album’s gem is undoubtedly “Hulk’s Freedom,” which thunders with a brassy melody that is sadly never heard again with Atlas’s voice as a capable supporter, before winding down to a soulful duduk that, again, is playing a melody that would have been wonderful in other places. The cue serves as the best idea of what Elfman might have provided for the project under less onerous time constrains and with more freedom from Lee to write to his strengths.

Like the film it was written for, Hulk‘s score is a mess, albeit a mess of the best intentions that were not fully followed through. In the aftermath of its relative failure (it made about $130 million domestically against a budget of about $130 million), all of the parties involved promptly forgot about Hulk with Elfman and Lee both moving onto personal highlights immediately thereafter as Elfman’s Big Fish was nominated for an Oscar and Lee’s Brokeback Mountain won a boatload of them. Lee eventually reunited with the erstwhile Danna for Life of Pi, which won them both statuettes, and more surprisingly he even would work with Elfman again despite their professional friction with the quirky Taking Woodstock. The 2003 soundtrack CD, with an hour of Elfman’s score and a risible end credits rock song is available practically for free now for the curious, but it’s probably for the best to simply forget about the mess that is Hulk, as all the major participants clearly want.

Rating: starstar

Committed (Calexico)


Committed is a 2000 film from indie director Lisa Krueger that charts the misadventures of an optimist who stalks her ex during his attempts to “find himself” in the deserts of Texas. It was the first starring vehicle for Heather Graham after she went mainstream with The Spy Who Shagged Me and Bowfinger the year before, and also featured early turns from Casey Affleck and Luke Wilson. Despite meeting some acclaim at Sundance, including a nomination for the prestigious Grand Jury Prize, Committed was unable to secure wide distribution; the relatively few mainstream critics who saw it were unimpressed, and the film has yet to find its audience on home video or the midnight circuit.

Director Krueger describes her process of scoring the film in the CD’s liner notes: on the way to the Texas shoot, she came across the Arizona-based Calexico musical group. Consisting of guitarist/vocalist Joey Burns and percussionist/keyboardist John Convertino, Calexico was named for a town on the California-Mexico border and took the monicker seriously with a sound that mixed traditional Mexican forms like mariachi with American forms like country. Krueger was so enthusiastic about the duo that they not only gained a fan but landed a scoring job, which they approached just like their stage and studio albums.

The entire score is performed by two men on just a few instruments: drums, vines, percussion, guitar, bass, cello, and organ. It has the feel of more of an extended jam session than anything resembling a traditional film score, with a distinct country lilt to the music befitting the Texas locale. It’s not unpleasant music by any means, tending toward the rather sunny with a touch of the “desert noir” that Calexico has been described as producing.

Instead, the difficulty with the music is that it falls victim to the same problem that bedevils many songwriters-turned-score-composers: the music sounds like it is missing something, as if it’s a set of musical backing tracks for vocals that are not present. Joshua Homme ran into the same problem on The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, as did Elton John in The Muse. It’s difficult to turn the sung through line of a band into an instrumental score, and Calexico isn’t quite able to pull it off. Instead, they offer a haze of easygoing music that starts, proceeds for thirty minutes, and then stops. Sufficient for a dialogue-heavy film, perhaps, but hardly a compelling listen on album for score fans; Calexico fans are also likely to find there’s something missing with the lack of vocals.

Amazingly, despite Committed‘s limited release, it was given a full soundtrack release by the short-lived Chapter III records in 2000, with Calexico’s complete 30-minute score and seven needledropped songs. Despite the low print runs of many of Chapter III’s pressed CDs, which has served to make them mild collector’s items, Committed is an obscure enough film, and Calexico an obscure enough act, to keep their soundtrack extremely affordable. Thus, even though its vague, incomplete atmosphere can’t really be recommended on its own rights, anyone who is curious should be able to locate a copy at a very reasonable price.

Rating: starstar

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (Marco Beltrami)


If star Arnold Schwarzenegger was in something of a career doldrums in 1999 when he took on End of Days, he was even more so in 2003. His attempt to return to the thoughtful sci-fi of Total Recall with The 6th Day in 2000 had failed, and his attempt at a gritty contemporary geopolitical thriller with Collateral Damage had fallen victim to the post-9/11 film release shuffle with a poor showing on its eventual 2002 release. As so many other action stars have done, Schwarzenegger then returned to the role that had made him a star for 2003’s Terminator 3. Unable to lure back any of the cast or crew from the previous two films (aside from Earl Boen), the star engaged director Jonathan Mostow, fresh off of the white-knuckle sub thriller U-571 to direct. T3 turned out to be a success with audiences if not critics and it stands as the actor’s last summer blockbuster before his move to politics: four months after its premiere, Schwarzenegger was sworn in as governor of California.

James Cameron had worked with the innovative Brad Fiedel on the first two Terminator films, with the latter creating one of the most iconic motifs in cinema history in his five-note staggered Terminator theme. Fiedel had lost interest in film scoring and Hollywood after 1995’s Johnny Mnemonic, though, and Mostow made no effort to secure his services. Rather than securing Richard Marvin, who had scored U-571 and would later score Surrogates for Mostow, the director hired Jerry Goldsmith protege Marco Beltrami. Beltrami was on the rise at the time, having secured high-profile work after his first major scoring work with Mimic in 1997, and he had just come off an impressive action score for Guillermo del Toro’s Blade II the previous summer.

Beltrami’s approach seems to have been to attempt to beef up the overall sound of Fiedel’s Terminator work–harsh, driving, percussive–into a fully symphonic environment. While Fiedel’s scores had relegated his (mostly synthetic) orchestra to a supporting role while foregrounding the electronics, Beltrami promotes his orchestra to the lead with synths in a supporting position of musical color. The result is a sound that is dark and brutal, as Terminator 3‘s lengthy scenes of chases and violence required, though without the harsh, purely synth edge of the earlier works.

Thematically, Beltrami caused some controversy early in the film’s publicity cycle by noting that he wouldn’t attempt to adapt Fiedel’s themes in his score, and he sticks to that outside of an orchestral re-recording of the theme for the film’s credits. In its place, Beltrami offers his own “JC Theme” and a quieter, string-led piece for the film’s quieter scenes with its love interest. These hold up well enough, particularly in the penultimate “Radio” cue for the film’s shocking ending (Terminator 3’s only idea that wasn’t a regurgitation of something done better in Terminator 2) and Beltrami’s suite treatment of the two themes intertwined in “T3.” The themes are a bit on the mundane side, and certainly have none of the iconic catchiness of Fiedel’s admittedly simpler compositions, but they suffice.

The real problem that Beltrami comes up against is that he is unable to integrate the mass of action, shootout, and chase music with his themes. Cue after cue provides functional percussive music that is well-enhanced by electronics and well-performed by the orchestra, but without integrating his own themes or Fiedel’s outside of a few cues, ultimately Terminator 3 winds up being sound and fury signifying little. Many of the motifs and techniques, in retrospect, seem like prototypes for the action music Beltrami would write a year later for I, Robot and parts of Hellboy, both of which do a far more complete job of integrating thematic material with orchestral ruckus and making the less thematic parts of the work more engaging.

One gets the feeling that, if Beltrami had chosen to supplement Fiedel’s themes with his own, rather than replacing them, that the work could have been much fuller and more engaging. The refusal to use existing themes is a longstanding sore point for many film score fans: rights issues and re-use fees often preclude it, and too much reuse of thematic material can make a work seem like cheap pastiche rather than a genuine creative work in its own right–and no one can fault an artist for wanting to put their own stamp on something. But whatever the reason, T3 just doesn’t work well on its own, and it works even less well with only a single token performance of the original theme.

Varèse Sarabande put out Beltrami’s score to Terminator 3 a few weeks before the film’s release, with two songs (one of which was actually penned by Beltrami) tacked unsatisfyingly at the end. Despite the score’s failure, Beltrami would go on to have an extremely impressive 2004 and would round out the decade with a pair of Oscar nominations. The Terminator franchise would limp on, with the 2009 McG-helmed Terminator: Salvation receiving a Danny Elfman score that made many of the same mistakes as Beltrami’s, and Christophe Beck scheduled to take on Alan Taylor’s Terminator: Genisys in 2015. Whatever the film and composer, though, it seems that future works are unlikely to capture the same zeitgeist as James Cameron and Brad Fiedel did with their original entries over two decades ago.

Rating: starstar

Paper Mario (Yuka Tsujiyoko)


Super Mario RPG had been a late-life hit for the Super Nintendo. It had combined Nintendo’s trademark characters in a light role-playing adventure that mixed in new characters and an element of timed button presses courtesy of the RPG specialists at Squaresoft (of Final Fantasy fame). A sequel seemed like a no-brainer…until the Nintendo 64 console arrived and Squaresoft jumped ship to the rival Sony Playstation, throwing the in-development Super Mario RPG 2 into doubt. Not only could Nintendo, who had handed off development to subsidiary Intelligent Systems, no longer use any of the original characters Square had helped develop, but the N64 lacked the processing power to render the vast new game in full 3D. Intelligent Systems took the creative route of revisualizing the game in a papercraft world, turning the N64’s weakness into a strength, and the game (renamed Mario Story in Japan and Paper Mario elsewhere) turned out to be an engaging and surprisingly deep RPG adventure like its predecessor, frequently cited as one of the best games on the platform.

Yoko Shimomura had written the best score of her career thus far for Super Mario RPG, but as a full Squaresoft employee at the time, there was no chance of her return. Instead, Intelligent Systems handed the assignment to one of its staff composers, Yuka Tsujiyoko, whose primary work before then had been for the Fire Emblem series of hardcore tactical RPGs. In many ways, Tsujiyoko came from a similar place as Shimomura: extensive experience with generally dead-serious RPGs thrust into the role of writing a lighthearted and jokey score with full license to use the iconic Mario themes penned by Nintendo’s Koji Kondo.

Tsujiyoko incorporated far more of Kondo’s themes into her work than Shimomura had; Paper Mario is in fact suffused with classic Mario tunes from the NES and SNES generations, some openly, others so subtly that one might miss it on first listen. She also began the score with a very light touch before gradually moving into more straightlaced and even occasionally even downright serious music before ending with a parade scene that served as a sonic recapitulation of the music that had gone before. One can’t deny that the resulting score feels every inch a Mario score, and a Mario RPG score at that.

However, Tsujiyoko’s music suffers throughout from an extremely thin presentation. Large sections of the music are only one or two musical lines, sounding very stark and isolated even as they try to be quirky and fun. She’s also not able to make a significant impact with original thematic material; the music tends to shine its brightest when Tsujiyoko is referencing Kondo’s classic tunes. When Tsujiyoko’s own original compositions take center stage, they generally feel like too little musical butter scraped over too much musical toast.

Part of this is, of course, not Tsujiyoko’s fault. The N64 was theoretically capable of playing a variety of music formats: PCM, MIDI, even MPEG, with a theoretical maximum sampling rate of 48 kHz with 16-bit audio. But with the space on the Paper Mario cartridge limited to just 20 megabytes, sound quality was the first thing to be sacrificed in favor of more game data, leaving Tsujiyoko and her synthesizer performer/sequencer “vAin” to struggle with some of the lowest-grade synth on the N64. This is both one source of and an aggravating factor for the aforementioned tinniness and thinness that is the major hallmark of N64 music and Paper Mario. At times, the sound seems less lush and well-synthesized than that of the SNES–while the older console had less raw capability, its SPC700 chip allowed music to be stored in only 64 kilobytes, preventing the kind of pilfering of resources and marginalization on the N64 despite even greater space limits.

That’s not to say that, whether due to lackluster composition or technical issues, that Tsujiyoko’s music for Paper Mario is a total loss. The lovely music box “Mario and Peach’s Theme” opens and closes the game with synthy fairytale charm, for instance. The late-game sequence including “Crystal Palace Crawl,” the battle theme “Freeze!” and the lovely group of tracks from “A City in the Stars” to “Sanctuary!” are all able to make the best of technical limitations and show some of Tsujiyoko’s compositional chops; it’s not hard to get the impression that she struggled somewhat with lighthearted music but is more in her comfort zone with relatively serious music in the Fire Emblem vein.

Ultimately, whatever the reason, Paper Mario is probably the weakest Mario RPG soundtrack. It is also, perversely, the only game in the Paper Mario series to have a soundtrack: a two-disc set was put out in Japan alongside an incredibly rare American release with identical contents that was available by special order from Nintendo Power. Neither set includes all the music in the game, both suffer from failing to properly loop the music they do present, and both have become sought-after collector’s items in their own right (much like the game they represent). As for Tsujiyoko herself, she would return with fellow Fire Emblem composer Yoshito Hirano to pen Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door on the Nintendo Gamecube; that score, free from the constraints of the N64, is far superior and as yet unreleased. The first and only available Paper Mario score, on the other hand, will probably only be of interest to dedicated collectors and diehard fans of the game.

Rating: starstar

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: starstar

Iron Man 2 (John Debney)


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