Back to the Future Part II (Alan Silvestri)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: starstarstar

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Guardians of the Galaxy (Tyler Bates)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: starstarstar

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Henry Jackman)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: star

Captain America: The First Avenger (Alan Silvestri)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: starstarstarstar

The Avengers (Alan Silvestri)

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Five years and five movies in the making, “Phase One” of the Marvel cinematic universe culminated in 2012’s The Avengers, the first true big-screen superhero team-up in the vein of a comic book crossover. With a cast of stars drawn from every movie in the series thus far (except the ever-troublesome Hulk, who was recast for the third time and debuted with barely a mention of his previous film), Marvel took the gutsy step of handing the production over to geek god Joss Whedon. Whedon was well-known for his TV work from Buffy the Vampire Slayer through Firefly, but The Avengers was only his second film. Still, acting as both director and collaborating screenwriter, Whedon was able to create a film so deft and balanced that The Avengers became the third-highest-grossing film of all time on its release and received better critical notices than any other Marvel film since Iron Man.

In constructing a score for The Avengers, director Whedon had plenty of options open to him, as each of the five setup movies had been scored by a different composer: Ramin Djawadi, Craig Armstrong, John Debney, Patrick Doyle, and Alan Silvestri. Whedon’s only previous film, the 2005 Firefly-concluding Serenity, had been scored by industry veteran and perpetual underdog David Newman, who had plenty of superhero experience of his own though his output had been tapering off through the 2010s with an increasing emphasis on the concert hall. In the end, though, it was all about theme: Marvel and Whedon wanted a grand old-fashioned theme to tie their film together, and only one of the previous Marvel composers had provided such a theme and used it in their film consistently: Alan Silvestri. On the strength of his Captain America theme and an enthusiastic recommendation from The First Avenger director Joe Johnston, Silvestri got the gig.

In discussions with the producers, Silvestri was instructed to stick with a theme for the Avengers and only a theme for the Avengers. Post-Batman Begins concerns about music being “intrusive” led to the producers’ dismissal of a leitmotivic score in the John Williams vein in favor of a score that had an “old-fashioned” theme in a more contemporary and “less intrusive” framework. Silvestri was allowed to pen a motif for Loki, the main villian, and to make sparing use of the theme that got him the job from Captain America, but mostly in fragments or short bursts to avoid being “intrusive” or competing with the main Avengers theme.

And, to be fair, the Avengers theme that Silvestri wrote fits the bill: it’s brassy and bold in a way that not many superhero themes are post-Batman Begins, and almost completely devoid of synths and other electronic accoutrements (though with a very large and very contemporary percussion section at times). Teased in “Tunnel Chase,” the theme explodes to the forefront in the “old-fashioned” way that Whedon and the producers wanted in “Assemble” before being sent off with a bang in the end credit suite “The Avengers.” The theme is an excellent one, but it is not used as often as it might be: it is frequently teased but only appears in full muscular form in a handful of key moments. The feeling that one gets from this, especially after the much more integrated theme for Captain America in Silvestri’s previous Marvel assignment, is that Silvestri is holding back from full-on action a la The Mummy Returns or Van Helsing–exactly what the producers wanted.

Speaking of Captain America, his theme is heard in some of the titular superhero’s most superheroic moments, though never in anything resembling the punchy “Captain America March;” true to the producers’ demands, the theme never competes with the Avengers theme. Though Silvestri was explicitly allowed to write a motif for the villainous Loki, it is a complete non-entity in the film and on album, mirroring the disappointing lack of thematic identity for the character in Patrick Doyle’s Thor (the character would need to wait until Brian Tyler’s Thor: The Dark World for an even somewhat memorable motif). Oddly, the only other bit of overtly thematic scoring goes to the Black Widow character, who gets a Slavic-tinged idea in the CD-exclusive “Interrogation,” the lengthy “Red Ledger,” and (briefly) “I Got a Ride.” While it’s nice that the only female hero on the team was given a theme of sorts–something John Debney had failed to do in her Iron Man 2 debut–once again the feeling one gets is of a composer holding back, scoring with the parking brake on.

It goes without saying that, given Marvel’s desire not to have Silvestri use themes for each hero, that none of the previous films’ themes by other composers are used in any way whatsoever. While this makes sense in some cases–especially since Iron Man had already been given two different sets of thematic material–it’s disappointing that Silvestri couldn’t have at least tipped his hat to one of the themes in much the same way that his own Captain America theme was given a brief shoutout in The Dark World. It also means that Silvestri’s fully-orchestral and skillful music for the remainder of the film, despite some highlights, feels oddly anonymous and neutered. It’s leagues better than a lot of the sound design and sonic wallpaper that has become de rigueur post-Batman Begins, but the scoring pales in comparison not only to Silvestri’s aforementioned fantasy action music but superhero scoring from the post-Superman and post-Batman 89 eras.

The Avengers was also the start of a relationship between Marvel, Disney, and Intrada Records: on all future Marvel releases, Intrada would provide a deluxe CD product at a premium price for collectors, while a digital album filled the iPods of everyone else. In this case, Intrada’s physical album features substantially more music, and some lengthened cues, compared to the digital download; it therefore stands as the preferred version of the music despite a $10 price difference. Be sure to avoid the “Avengers Assemble” coaster, which doesn’t feature a note of Silvestri alongside a group of pop songs which, if they appeared in the film at all, did so for three seconds on a jukebox blaring behind an alien space battle whale.

The Avengers winds up being a difficult score to characterize. On the one hand, it features perhaps the best theme of any Marvel movie to date. On the other, the theme’s sparing use and the relative anonymity of much of the supporting material–out of fear of being “intrusive”–makes the score feel like a missed opportunity. One wonders what Silvestri might have produced if he’d been fully unleashed on the project, or if the film had been during a different paradigm of superhero scoring. As is, it’s recommended for that glorious theme but a bit underwhelming elsewhere. Silvestri, despite scoring such a successful film, did not seem to get much of a career boost from The Avengers; he would be passed over for Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron, with only a few mediocre scores for regular collaborators to fill out the remainder of the decade. As with James Horner and Avatar, the success of Silvestri’s thematic approach made little headway against the current Hollywood scoring trends.

Rating: starstarstar

Thor: The Dark World (Brian Tyler)

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Bowing the Thanksgiving after Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World was the second post-Avengers Marvel cinematic universe sequel, and compared to its immediate predecessor it had a very difficult development. Original director Branagh passed on the project, and two more would-be helmers briefly warmed his chair before the studio settled on relative newcomer Alan Taylor, a veteran of several highly-regarded TV series but with a thin film resume. Casting was still another headache, as was writing, and the project turned into something of a revolving door for high-profile comings and goings. It’s a miracle that the final product is as enjoyable as it is, mashing up Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Portal 2, and the original Thor for another tale that is never afraid to let its ponderousness be deflated by its tongue in its cheek. It was successful to the tune of a bit more than its predecessor, but wound up getting lost in the scuffle between the popular Iron Man 3 and the acclaimed Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

The second Thor suffered its share of development problems on the scoring stage as well. Patrick Doyle bowed out with Kenneth Branagh to work on the latter’s disastrous Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit after some early talks, and director Taylor then settled on an unconventional choice: Carter Burwell. The cerebral Burwell was in the midst of his greatest period of box-office success due to his overachieving scores for three of the five risible Twilight films, but it was clear from the beginning that Marvel was nervous about his ability to carry a holiday superhero blockbuster. Indeed, Burwell was unceremoniously rejected from the project as it entered post-production and replaced with the composer who had been the producers’ choice all along: Brian Tyler. Tyler, fresh off his well-received score for Iron Man 3, thus accomplished the Hans Zimmer-like feat of scoring two superhero movies in the same calendar year.

Despite–or perhaps because of–the relatively short timespan in which he had to write it, Thor: The Dark World has many of the same building blocks as Iron Man 3. It combines a resounding theme for the hero with a scoring approach that seeks to merge the Remote Control “wall of sound” characteristics expected of all post-Batman Begins superhero scores with more traditional orchestral modes. Essentially, Tyler does his best to subvert the dominant Hans Zimmer superhero scoring paradigm while remaining outwardly loyal to it, an approach that worked so well for Iron Man 3 that it led to Tyler almost single-handedly taking over the Marvel cinematic universe. As such, the sound is “bigger” in almost every way compared to the original Thor: greater use of choir, a bigger-sounding ensemble beefed up with more synths, and hyperbolic actions sequences that out-rowdy the rowdiest parts of Thor–and, unlike Doyle, Tyler seems completely at home writing in this mode.

Many fans of Patrick Doyle were disappointed that his noble brass theme for Thor was not used by Tyler; stories vary, but either Tyler or the producers were unwilling to pay the re-use fees associated with the theme (and, to be fair, it’s doubtful that Burwell’s rejected score used it either). Tyler’s new theme often gives the primary ascending melody to a gigantic choir set against brass. One can hear some echoes or influences of the original theme within it, and if it’s perhaps not as strong as Doyle’s, Tyler uses it much more consistently and weaves it more deeply into his underscore. A rising secondary phrase within the theme is used almost as much as an accent, again almost always either taken up by or supported by a full chorus.

One of the major problems with the original Thor was its lack of thematic attention to the villains of the piece. With the slightly ridiculous addition of Dark Elves into The Dark World, Tyler does make some basic attempts to portray their depredations. Cues like “Lokasenna” and “Origins” combine a vague motif of snarling menace with a world music approach reminiscent of Tyler’s own Children of Dune with strong echoes of Howard Shore’s epochal scores for his own elves. Loki’s thematic representation is sneaky and subtle with harp accents (“The Trial of Loki,” “Shadows of Loki”), and while it’s certainly more recognizable than Doyle’s efforts at the same, one wishes that Tyler could have developed it into a fuller theme.

Much of the lengthy album is given over to muscular action cues that feature Thor’s theme, or variations thereof, in straightforwardly crowdpleasing fashion. There are no musical winks to the audience for some of the more goofy moments of the film, and no equivalent to the glorious “Can You Dig It?” from Iron Man 3, but it’s always tuneful music crafted with consummate skill. Tyler’s one concession to goofiness is in “An Unlikely Alliance,” where he inserts a brief blast of Alan Silvestri’s theme from Captain America for one of the film’s funniest moments–interestingly, the actual score for Cap’s own sequel has none of the theme, making Tyler’s use of it, in retrospect, a bit of a last hurrah. The album also concludes with one last piece proving Tyler’s increasing grip on the Marvel universe: a whirling, James Horner-esque fanfare for the Marvel logo that combines beats from Tyler’s two Marvel scores.

Much like The Avengers before it, Thor: The Dark World was primarily a digital release, with a physical CD pressing from boutique label Intrada intended primarily for collectors at a slightly higher price point. Unlike The Avengers, though, Intrada’s platter has no extra music; the digital-vs.-physical issue being solely a personal preference in this case. Tyler did fine yeoman’s work on Thor: The Dark World, especially considering the short time period he had to write it and the pre-production teething problems the film had. If his theme for Thor himself is a tad weaker than Patrick Doyle’s, the composer makes up for it with excellent integration of the motif into a score that’s comfortable in its own skin and has a set of stronger–if still somewhat underdeveloped–secondary themes. With 2015’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron next on his docket, Tyler proved with Thor: The Dark World that his ability to please producers and score collectors alike with Iron Man 3 wasn’t a fluke.

Rating: starstarstarstar

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

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

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

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

The score opens 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

Passport to the Universe (Stephen Endelman)

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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.

*

Flight of the Navigator (Alan Silvestri)

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Flight of the Navigator was Disney’s late entry into the “cute alien” genre defined by E.T., though it contained a number of novel ideas. The film involves a child from 1978 mysteriously transported to 1986 by an alien spacecraft, and his efforts to get back home while bonding with the ship’s alien pilot. While the film vanished quickly from multiplexes, it has enjoyed a healthy afterlife on cable TV and has become something of a cult favorite for children of the 80s who saw it in syndication.

Composer Alan Silvestri had catapulted himself into the Hollywood spotlight the year before with his muscular score to Back to the Future, a film with similar (though superior) time travel elements and family-friendly content, and these factors probably led to his assignment to Flight of the Navigator. However, Silvestri would be working with a much more limited palette–while Back to the Future was wholly orchestrated, Flight of the Navigator was to be completely synthesized, performed by Silvestri himself on a Synclavier. A generous amount of trendy 1986 soundscape was included as well, giving the album a distinctly more dated feel than Back to the Future.

Still, Silvestri did whip up several impressive themes for the project. The album’s main theme is slow and contemplative, very much in the mold of similar music from Back to the Future despite its synthesized nature, and it occasionally bursts forth into fuller (but still synthesized) performances, notably in “Ship Drop.” The theme’s mood is one of subdued, almost tragic adventure, and works well even with the limitations imposed on it by synthesizers. A spooky, mysterious theme for the alien ship itself appears in “The Ship Beckons” and “Transporting the Ship.” This music is arguably more successful than the main theme because its synthesized nature improves, rather than diminishes, its otherworldly power, as the electronics give the music an alien feel.

Some of the film’s thematic material was clearly dictated by the 1986 setting of the film as well as the temp track. The “Main Title” is a bouncy melody that, depending on your appreciation of 1980’s music, is either campy and enjoyable or unlistenable. The “Robot Romp” track was clearly inspired by Harold Faltermeyer’s work on Beverly Hills Cop, and retains the same robust performance and healthy helping of kitsch. The concluding “Star Dancing” track, which was not heard in the final edit of the film, is one of the most bizarre, off-kilter tunes Silvestri has ever written, incorporating synth vocals, tuned cowbells, and a rendition of the main theme–again, something that most listeners will either love or hate. The album also includes its share of dull music, with “David in the Woods” and “Flight” having little other than an ambient soundscape to offer.

Therefore, depending on your viewpoint and tolerance for 1980s Synclavier music, Flight of the Navigator is either a hidden gem or unlistenable, dated trash. The strong thematic elements Silvestri introduces partially make up for the album’s shortcomings, and fans of the film will definitely get a kick out of the music. This release was once available from the now-defunct Super Tracks record label, being easier than many scores to release because it was both composer and performed by Silvestri. Copies can still be found in the secondary market, where it can often be found for its original release price of $19.99. Seek it out if you’re an Alan Silvestri completist or fan of the film who’d enjoy some strong Alan Silvestri thematic material with a healthy dose of synthesized 1980’s cheese.

* * *

Age of Conan: Hyperborean Adventures (Knut Avenstroup Haugen)

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2008’s MMORPG Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures was scored by a relative newcomer, Norwegian Knut Avenstroup Haugen, who found himself with big shoes to fill — artists as diverse and respected as Basil Poledouris and Ennio Morricone have tackled Robert E. Howard’s barbarian milieu with highly-acclaimed music. The composer researched music from all over the world in preparation, and the resulting score heavily features the human voice, that most ancient of instruments. This double disc stand-alone soundtrack is commercially available and there is also a single disc soundtrack available with the Collector’s Edition version of the game.

Haugen skillfully uses his ensemble to create an intimate but suitable ancient sound for the more subtle tracks. Pieces like “Sands of Forgetfulness” and “Damp Barachan Nights” exemplify this more restrained style, which has a restrained, melodramatic beauty. Singer Helene Bøksle lends her voice to several more songs in this vein, including the powerful “Nighttime Journey” which rumbles forward in a style reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith.  Bøksle, who is one of the album’s definite highlights, anchors many of the finest pieces with haunting, wordless vocals.

Not all the quieter music is up to this high standard, however. The latter parts of the album are dominated by a duduk-led Egyptian style, which isn’t as enjoyable as what preceded it. It can be shrill, even stereotypical, at times, and is generally lacking Bøksle’s voice and the earlier themes’ subtle touch.

As music for barbarians, the album contains its share of powerhouse action pieces, many of which seem to be inspired by Poledouris’ music for the 1982’s Conan film. Haugen unleashes massive, triumphant fanfares in “Vista from Mount Crom” and “Echoes of Atlantis,” the latter of which features stunning choral work much like Alan Silvestri’s The Abyss. These pieces, likely composed for cinematics, are some of Haugen’s strongest.

The battle music is suitably apocalyptic with prominent percussion and choral accompaniment. From “Awakening” to the back to back “Stygia – Cimmeria – Aquilonia” run at the end of the album, the action music is rarely anything other than thunderous. While a strength, this is also something of a drawback; the music can be literally overbearing and exhausting at times.

The bonus disc exclusive to the commercially available soundtrack is a mix of styles. Much of the disc is dedicated to the epic combat suites most would expect from such a game. However, the first three tracks are actually rock performances by heavy metal band Turbonegro and are therefore a jarring stylistic shift. Some audiences are likely to enjoy these themes, but they are not compatible with Haugen’s own scores.

Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures is a rewarding listen for people who enjoy massive orchestral and choral works, and it is liberally sprinkled with references to masters of symphonic barbarianism. But it can be a bit of a slog at times, when the relentless battle themes or Egyptian atmosphere become too overbearing. Still, the music is an impressive debut for Haugen, who assembled a crystal-clear recording of live players. Hopefully he will have more opportunities within the industry with such a massive effort behind him.

* * * *