Fifty Shades of Grey (Danny Elfman)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: starstarstar

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

Serenity (David Newman)

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When Joss Whedon revealed that a movie based on his brilliant but short-lived TV series Firefly was in the works, most fans expected that Firefly composer Greg Edmonson, or perhaps Carter Burwell (who had collaborated with Whedon on 1992’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer), to score it. Instead, Whedon, on the advice of Universal music executives, turned to David Newman, who seemed a very odd choice given his background in comedy scoring. On closer inspection, Whedon’s choice makes a lot of sense: Newman had continually proven himself to be an able and creative composer even when working on risible comedies, and had experience in the sci-fi genre, having scored 1999’s popular GalaxyQuest. Furthermore, David Newman was the son of the legendary Alfred Newman, a composer renowned for his score to How the West Was Won, one of the finest westerns ever put to film.

Newman crafts a strong, folksy string tune that serves as the main theme for Serenity, appropriately enough first heard in the track “Serenity.” This western sound predominates at the beginning and end of the album, but Newman returns to it throughout, handing it off to the brass for use as a heroic fanfare, or to an array of ethnic and percussion instruments for a twisted rendition in “Mal Decides.” It’s much more thematic than Edmonson’s Firefly material, but draws from the same inspiration and uses similar instrumentation. Newman also creates an ethereal piano work for the character of River, which is attractive but frustratingly never given a full, concert-style performance.

The middle sections of Serenity are comprised largely of loud action sequences that incorporate electronics and aggressive orchestral writing. While there is  a grinding/squealing motif for the villainous Reavers, this music is largely themeless, aside from statements of the main theme or River’s theme. This does not mean that the tracks are dull, however: Newman adds a variety of ethnic instruments to the work, taking a cue from his brother and the ethnically diverse world of the film. The ferocious “Space Battle” cue is a rousing example of this, filled with booming brass and thunderous percussion offset against more intimate fiddles and ethnic strings.

The action material in the middle is more dissonant, more challenging, and less of a crowd-pleaser, which led to many negative reactions from film and score fans. While some of the more chaotic tracks can drag a bit, Newman is generally skillful at keeping the material listenable and interesting. Overall, the solid thematic material that opens and closes Serenity, and the better action cues like “Space Battle” more than maks up for the more atonal action music. The album’s great shortcoming, if it can be said to have one, is the lack of a few short but engaging cues from the film’s midsection: more folksy cues like “Going to See Inara” and “Flash Bomb Escape” could have helped break up the heavier action music somewhat.

Sadly, Serenity would be the only collaboration between Newman and Whedon; the director’s next film, the mega-hit The Avengers, came at a time when Newman was semi-retired from film scoring in favor of his work with youth orchestras, and The Avengers received a serviceable Alan Silvestri score instead. Nevertheless, anyone looking for a tuneful extension of Greg Edmonson’s soundscape for the Firefly TV series, and a score that successfully combines Western and sci-fi musical elements, need look no further.

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