Hulk (Danny Elfman)

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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

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

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There must have been a time when there wasn’t enough gold left for the Spanish treasure galleons to keep making their voyages, but Walt Disney Pictures apparently thought there was enough precious metal in their Pirates of the Caribbean franchise to justify a fourth voyage in 2011. But not all of their crew signed on for the voyage; only Johnny Depp and exactly two of his fellow actors reprised their roles, and director Gore Verbinski jumped ship in favor of Rob Marshall (an odd choice for a skipper if ever there was one, his filmography before and since being dominated by movie musicals). Partly based on an unrelated novel and featuring such piratey staples as Blackbeard, zombies, and mermaids, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides was nevertheless savaged by critical broadsides and domestic audiences were hesitant to come aboard, resulting in tepid pox office. But there were galleons of gold overseas, which makes it likely that Jack Sparrow will sail again.

Even without Gore Verbinski at the helm, Admiral Bruckheimer was still in command of the squadron, which meant that the return of Cap’n Hans Zimmer and his scurvy crew of Remote Control Studios swashbucklers was never in any real doubt. The earlier Pirates trilogy followed Cap’n Zimmer’s 2000s methodology of extensive collaboration within his studio, but by the 2010s the salty German composer was much more interested in bringing in collaborators from outside his studio and using his existing crew and their style to bind together a much more disparate set of collaborators. From the authentic Gypsy jams of A Game of Shadows to the towering drummery of Man of Steel to the so-called Magnificent Six and their gummy attempts at webslinging in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, all of Cap’n Zimmer’s external collaborations began with On Stranger Tides and it was that style that would dominate his voyages for the rest of the decade.

For the film, a crew of experienced musical hands was recruited of whom few, if any, had any experience in the waters of film scoring. The appearance of Spanish personalities in the film led to the retention of the popular Mexican flamenco fusion guitar players Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero, better known as Rodrigo y Gabriela. Rather than relying entirely on his old mate Geoff Zanelli for choral arrangement, Cap’n Zimmer brought aboard respected American choral composer Eric Whitacre who was well-known in the concert hall for warm and complex choir pieces like “Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine” but who had also never written a note for film. Eduardo Cruz, brother of actress Penelope Cuz (who appeared in the film as Blackbeard’s half-Spanish daughter) contributed a tango. And the crew manifest also included Remote Control mates old and new: Ben Foster, Bruce Fowler, Ed Neumeister, Elizabeth Finch, Gavin Greenaway, Geoff Zanelli, Guillame Roussel, Jacob Shea, John Sponsler, Kevin Kaska, Matthew Dunkley, Matthew Margeson, Nick Glennie-Smith, Nick Phoenix, Rick Gioninazzo, Suzette Moriarty, Thomas Bergersen, Tom Gire, and Walt Fowler. If nothing else, the sheer amount of collaboration blew the other Pirates scores out of the water.

Whereas the previous voyages had each taken themes from the previous ones, there’s not much returning piratey material in On Stranger Tides. “Mutiny,” “Blackbeard,” and “End Credits” feature the most, with rather limp arrangements of “He’s A Pirate,” material dating back to Curse of the Black Pearl. Jack Sparrow’s theme sets perfunctory sail in “Guilty of Not Being Innocent of Being Jack Sparrow” It’s thoroughly outweighed by new material which has the same Remote Control “wall of sound” feel to it (achieved without the doubled synths of Black Pearl thanks to flat orchestration) but with none of the swashbuckling spirit and orchestral fireworks of At World’s End.

New material crops up in the form of a love theme for Jack Sparrow and Angelica, but it’s tepid waters at best; for all the hullabaloo over Rodrigo y Gabriela’s involvement as co-composers, their guitar-led contributions sound like Gustavo Santaolalla at his most wallpapery filtered through the trademark Remote Control sound. It’s got none of the lively life of the duo’s solo cruises, being instead reduced to so much ballast. The Blackbeard theme, credited to Cap’n Zimmer himself, sounds closest to the dire Kraken theme from Dead Man’s Chest washed ashore and picked by scavengers. Only a theme for the bizarre mermaids, appropriately heard in “Mermaids,” puts wind in the score’s sails thanks to Eric Whitacre’s lively and original choral arrangements, though they too sound rather similar to Remote Control material in other Pirates films at times, raising the question of why Whitacre was brought aboard at all. If nothing else, “Mermaids” and “On Stranger Tides” suggest, along with his solo voyages in the concert hall, that Whitacre might have a fine original score in him to write someday.

By far the longest CD in the Pirates series, On Stranger Tides offers 80 minutes of music…of which nearly half is utter bilge in the form of remixes. The sole remix thus far in the series had been awful, but hearing the music keelhauled in the same style for seven tracks at the end of the Walt Disney Records album is positively dreadful. As with all Cap’n Zimmer’s efforts, the 45 minutes of actual score is thoroughly rearranged from what appeared in the film as well. In the end, On Stranger Tides was a red-sky-in-morning warning for the Remote Control sailors: with dozens of cooks in the galley but ultimately sounding as bland and samey as watered-down grog due to the maneuvering needed to make all the collaborators cohesive. It makes one wonder why the new crew was even brought on at all, if their music had to wind up so soggy and waterlogged to fit together. Worse, Cap’n Zimmer would make the same mistake on voyage after voyage following this one: lining up a glittering list of collaborators and then proceeding to turn their efforts into bland mush that sounded like a listless version of Remote Control autopilot. Steer well clear of this reef.

Rating: star