Mr. Peabody & Sherman (Danny Elfman)

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One of the better-remembered segments from Jay Ward’s Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends, the time-hopping and pun-laden adventures of the world’s smartest dog and his adopten son have remained lodged firmly in the American popular consciousness for over 40 years to the extent of even having the monicker of their Wayback Machine borrowed by the Internet Archive. As with many nostalgia properties from that era, Mr. Peabody was not immune to plundering for big-screen remakes by a creatively bankrupt Hollywood, and a motion picture version of his adventures with Sherman were in development hell for many years before the 2014 release of Mr. Peabody & Sherman. The film itself turned out rather well, despite the usual Dreamworks stunt casting, but its spring release date coupled with unexpectedly fierce box office competition served to mute its impact.

As a Dreamworks film, a score from Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control studio seemed as inevitable as a voice cast packed with flavor-of-the-month vocals for Peabody & Sherman. But, surprisingly, the filmmakers turned to Danny Elfman instead. Elfman has surprisingly extensive credits for children’s movies, going back as far as his breakout hit Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, but for many years seemed to be moving away from the weird and wacky music that was at one point his bread and butter. For Peabody & Sherman, though, that sound was back with a vengeance.

One suspects that Elfman got the job because of another movie he scores a few years earlier, also about a young boy and a time machine: Disney’s Meet the Robinsons. And, to be fair, there are parallels between the two works, especially in the energy and saturation of Elfmanisms. But while Meet the Robinsons eventually turned to adventure and had some serious and tragic undertones, Peabody & Sherman remains firmly in fun and wacky territory throughout its entire running time. It’s easily the wackiest thing that Elfman has done since Flubber in 1997, and is perhaps the closest the composer has come to the original Pee Wee‘s manic energy thus far.

The album contains a main theme that appears throughout starting with “Mr. Peabody’s Prologue,” and it gets put through an impressive number of guises, from the playful Nino Rota energy of that first track to a full-on Alfred Newman Egyptian treatment later on. The composer Elfman seems to be looking to for the most inspiration, though, is Carl Stalling: like the late leader of the Looney Tunes, Elfman incorporates fragments of popular public domain tunes into his most energetic pieces, from anachronistic blasts of “La Marseillaise” for Marie Antoinette to blasts of Beethoven for, well, Beethoven himself.

Though the main theme is present throughout, the constant stutterstop Stalling energy of the music might be irritating to listeners looking for a more through-composed and straitlaced style. For Elfman fans, though, the music represents a family reunion of sorts, a gumbo of the most fun and wacky elements from Pee Wee, Flubber the original Men in Black and Meet the Robinsons without its spacy or weighty elements. Compared to Epic or Frankenweenie from the previous two years, both scores full of theme and motion, the silly slapsticky tack that Elfman took is even more notable. It’s enjoyable on a rather different level.

The Peabody & Sherman album by Sony Classical provides a good 40 minutes of Elfman score, alongside a few source songs and tangos as well as a piece in which a stunt-cast Stephen Colbert mocks Mr. Peabody’s musicology skills. It’s a solid product, though American purchasers should beware its incredibly flimsy packaging, which offers nothing to hold the CD in place. For those with a tolerance for vibrantly thematic mickey-mousey music in the Stalling or David Newman vein, Peabody & Sherman is quite the treat.

Rating: starstarstarstar

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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

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

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

The Incredible Hulk (Craig Armstrong)

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2003’s Hulk had been a disaster for Marvel, with a big opening gross that quickly shrank away to nothing in the face of auteur director Ang Lee’s cerebral and often bizarre style, script, and changes to the comic’s mythos. A sequel lingered in development hell for 5 years and eventually recast all the major roles with Edward Norton replacing Eric Bana as the titular jolly green giant. Norton’s involvement proved to be a headache for the studio, as he demanded rewrites and also severed continuity between the two films, leaving the new The Incredible Hulk as a mishmash that at times resembles a sequel to a film that was never made and at others a direct sequel to Hulk with the serial numbers crudely filed off. Still, the film was more straightforward and delivered the monster-on-monster smackdown that the first had lacked, so it was met with slightly kinder reviews and slightly greater rewards at the box office. Still, the muddled nature of the character and his franchise has meant that references to it in the other Marvel cinematic universe films are few and far between, and Norton would refuse to reprise his role in The Avengers.

Lee’s film had a complicated scoring situation, with his favored composer Mychael Danna booted off the project at a late date and replaced by Danny Elfman in an attempt to add some Spider-Man type superhero style. Lee had promptly browbeat Elfman into essentially rewriting Danna’s score, resulting in one of the most curious misfires in all of superhero scoring. New director Louis Leterrier, like Lee, brought in an old collaborator from the start: Craig Armstrong, who had worked as an arranger for the band Massive Attack in their work delivering a score for Leterrier’s Unleashed in 2005. For a time it seemed that Armstrong would suffer the same fate as Danna; Marvel was reportedly surprised by the choice, and Armstrong had no comparable blockbuster scores to his credit. Nevertheless, Armstrong was able to deliver a score that the producers accepted, and his music accompanied the film’s final print.

The most talked-about feature of Armstrong’s score was his incorporation of the “Lonely Man” theme, written by Joe Harnell for the 1978-1982 TV series, in the cue “”Bruce Goes Home.” Armstrong was a fan of the show, and the brief homage to Harnell’s simple piano melody is a tip of the hat no often seen in modern blockbuster scores. Armstrong’s own themes aren’t as easily memorable; the primary motif in the film is a pounding string and percussion piece (first appearing in “Main Titles” and the unused “The Arctic”) that resembles a standard ostinato from Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control studio in many of its characteristics (Armstrong actually used Remote Control’s studio space for his recording, though none of its major personnel are credited). It’s an effective theme in a basic sense, conveying the Hulk’s bulky brutality much more effectively than the bizarre themes from Hulk, but no more than that. It’s the sort of thing that works accompanying a smashing spree on screen but disappoints on album, a theme that fulfills the basic requirements without exceeding any of them.

One of the primary complaints about Hulk was its lack of an effective villain and the expected hero-vs.-villain smackdown; The Incredible Hulk provides both, but Armstrong doesn’t do much in the way of a theme for the villainous Abomination. The lengthy sequences of action material (“Abomination Alley,” “Harlem Brawl,” “Hulk Smash”) primarily rely on Armstrong’s Hulk motif instead, with results that are more crowdpleasing than Elfman’s but which suffer from the same sense of restraint, the notion that Armstrong is holding back when he ought to be cutting loose. The recast Betty Ross gets a piano-based motif of her own (“Hulk and Betty,” “Bruce and Betty”); though clearly inspired by Harnell’s “Lonely Man” theme and quite pretty at times, it’s a bit disappointing that Armstrong wasn’t able to make more use of the latter throughout his score.

Oddly, The Incredible Hulk holds the record for the longest album release for any Marvel film at 111 minutes; Leterrier insisted that Armstrong’s work was strong enough to merit a deluxe 2-CD treatment and Marvel agreed. To cut costs, though, the score was released as one of Amazon’s “CD-R on demand” products rather than as a pressed CD, and copies were manufactured as orders came in. This was a sore point for many collectors, as CD-Rs are not as resilient a medium as pressed CDs and the only other option was a digital release. This incredible length can make listening to the double-CD album a bit of a slog; there’s a lot of music that would have been left on the cutting room floor for a normal album (and, indeed, some of the music is for scenes cut late in production!) which serves to exacerbate the music’s weaknesses and dilute its strengths. There are some scores that can sustain 111 minutes on album; The Incredible Hulk simply isn’t one of them.

Regardless, one has to give Armstrong credit for navigating such a difficult assignment, his reference to Joe Harnell’s “The Lonely Man” are welcome, and the score is overall more coherent than Elfman’s effort. But Armstrong’s music is still oddly restrained, oddly conservative, and has many dead spots as presented on album. It’s the pick of the two Hulk scores, but still not anywhere near the upper tier of great superhero music. Armstrong himself would take a short hiatus from film music afterwards, with no feature scores until 2010’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

Rating: starstarstar

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (Hans Zimmer)

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History is littered with trilogies that have spectacularly imploded with their third entry; Walt Disney’s gold galleon Pirates of the Caribbean franchise took the Matrix Revolutions route when it floundered, with a disappointing cliffhanger second entry followed by a terrible typhoon of a third. It’s never been more clear that a movie had begun without a finished shooting script than with At World’s End; characters’ motivations and natures changed between the films, many were killed off seemingly for no other reason than the writers had no idea what to do with them, and the ending was ludicrous enough to make one wish for the previous film’s unresolved cliffhanger back. Despite being a load of bilge, the film made the corsair trio of Bruckheimer, Verbinski, and Depp more doubloons than the Spanish Main–perhaps the truest act of real piracy in the series’ history thus far.

With Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End filmed gangplank-to-gangplank, it was no surprise to see the flag of Remote Control fluttering from the latter film’s yardarm and Captain Hans Zimmer at the helm of his usual crew of scurvy composers. Manning the guns again were Lorne Balfe, Nick Glennie-Smith, Henry Jackman, John Sponsler, and Tom Gire; the Icelandic corsair Atli Örvarsson joined the merry band as well. Interestingly, the list of orchestrators included both Zimmer stalwarts like Bruce Fowler but also Steve Bartek, former Oingo Boingo member and Danny Elfman’s usual orchestrator. Their fleet of dozens of soloists, conductors, and other assistants made At World’s End perhaps Zimmer’s most collaborative effort thus far in his captaincy.

As with Dead Man’s Chest, Zimmer’s crew brings a few new themes to the manifest while importing a boatload of old ones as well. The most prominent new shanty debuts in “Hoist the Colors,” and is a theme vaguely reminiscent of “He’s a Pirate” to represent the titular swashbucklers complete with lyrics. A boy soprano and chorus take up the tune to start with, but it gets some variations in the comical “The Brethren Court” and a building, rousing rendition in “What Shall We Die For?” Joining it is a love theme (though Cap’n Zimmer denied that’s what it was, one has to call a cutlass a cutlass) for the laughable romance in the film; though the love itself may fall flat, the theme is a fun if simplistic bit of sweeping romance and the only time Zimmer and his scurvy crew invoke Erich Wolfgang Korngold in either name or spirit. Together, these themes are by far the most nautical and piratey in the Pirates series.

Old themes return too. Jack Sparrow’s shanty, resembling its arrangements in Dead Man’s Chest moreso than Black Pearl, gets quirky and tortured airings in “Multiple Jacks” and “The Brethren Court.” Davy Jones’ powerful music box and organ theme reappears in a more tragic and orchestral guise in “At Wit’s End” and elsewhere, though with his Kraken killed offscreen for no reason its unpleasant waterlogged music thankfully stays on the bottom. And the defining theme of the franchise, “He’s a Pirate,” appears here and there as well, with its biggest moment saved for the start of the end credits suite in “Drink Up Me Hearties.”

At its best, Cap’n Zimmer and his mates put the old and new themes together with an organic flow that, while still clearly part of the Remote Control sound world, is much more nautical and orchestral than anything that has come before. The album’s crowning moment is “Up is Down,” which accompanies a particularly nonsensical sequence of the film with a lively pirate jig which freely mixes fragments of nearly every theme from the series up to that point. The massive 10-minute cues of “I Don’t Think Now Is the Best Time” and “Drink Up Me Hearties” offer more of this surprisingly thoughtful thematic mixing from Cap’n Zimmer.

It’s not all smooth sailing. “Calypso” is a weak recapitulation of some of the muddiest parts of Dead Man’s Chest, while “Singapore” has little to offer but rather stereotypical Chinese progressions. There are bits of “Drink Up Me Hearties” and especially “I Don’t Think Now Is the Best Time” are occasionally overwhelmed by the typhoon of Cap’n Zimmer’s trademark “wall of sound” to an extent that mitigates the newly christened swashbucklery and pleasing sailor’s knot of themes, though admittedly without plumbing the worst depths of Black Pearl or Dead Man’s Chest.

On the final manifest, with At World’s End Cap’n Zimmer and his crew of hearties probably got as close to a truly piratey sound as they could with the Remote Control method of composition. If it’s not quite a shot across Admiral Korngold’s bow, it is at least the best presentation of the best themes from the franchise with the “wall of sound,” electronics, and borrowing from past Cap’n Zimmer classics present but safely in the brig. As usual, the music on the hour-long album is extensively rearranged from that which appeared in the film, but even that is somewhat less egregious than its shipmates in the series. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End was a dreadful film, but it somehow inspired the best score of the series. Cap’n Zimmer would sail with the old crew once again for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, but it tacked against the wind and was nowhere near as much piratey fun.

Rating: starstarstarstar

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Hans Zimmer)

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The powers-that-be behind The Amazing Spider-Man had a problem. While their remake/reboot had done well overseas, its paltry $200 million gross in the US was by far the lowest of any film featuring the web-slinger to date. With a sequel already greenlit, the producers and director Marc Webb needed to lure back fans who had felt, correctly, that their previous film had been unnecessary even in reboot-happy Hollywood. To that end, they stuffed The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to the gills: three villains, multiple subplots, hooks upon hooks upon hooks to tie into projected Sinister Six and Venom films, and an adaptation of a legendarily dark story twist from the comics–all in a package only six minutes longer than The Amazing Spider-Man. If that film had felt like a remake of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, its sequel was a remake of the (relatively) disastrous Spider-Man 3. Once again, international audiences flocked to see their friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, but the domestic grosses were extremely disappointing (less then the contemporary Captain America 2) and critical reviews were savage.

Danny Elfman, Christopher Young, and James Horner had provided generally outstanding music for the previous Spider-Man films, combining a firm orchestral presence with strong themes and hefty helpings of electronics where appropriate. For The Amazing Spider-Man 2, though, the producers turned directly to the current superhero kings of Hollywood: Hans Zimmer and his Remote Control studio. Since Batman Begins in 2005, Zimmer had been attached to most of the successful superhero adaptations cranked out by Hollywood, from 2008’s The Dark Knight to 2012’s Man of Steel. His philosophy of acting as a producer for a vast and disparate group of collaborators and his mastery of the media had made his textural scores, largely driven by simple ostinatos and motifs rather than traditional themes, discussed and debated to an extent unrivaled by any other composer in the 2010s.

In addition to being a music production studio, Zimmer’s Remote Control studio is also a PR outfit, and in the months before The Amazing Spider-Man 2‘s release, it was in full swing. With essentially a blank check from the filmmakers to produce something hip and popular, Zimmer reached out to the upper ranks of the pop music world for collaborators, and headline after headline followed their announcement: seven-time Grammy-winning R&B artist Pharrell Williams, straight from providing songs for the Despicable Me series; Incubus guitarist and frontman Mike Einziger; English recording artist and The Smiths mastermind Johnny Marr; Dutch electronica whiz Tom Holkenborg AKA Junkie XL; and, from Zimmer’s own stable of co-composers at Remote Control, Andrew Kawczynski and Steve Mazzaro. Dubbed “The Magnificent Six” on album covers and movie posters, those collaborators joined a further five Remote Control co-composers and five Remote Control orchestrators. Even for the collaboration-minded Zimmer, it was an unprecedented number of cooks in the kitchen, with every dollar of The Amazing Spider-Man 2‘s massive music budget on glittering display.

The part of the score that seems to have elicited the most reaction, positive or negative, is Zimmer’s use of dubstep and vocals for the film’s “main” villain Electro. As heard in “I’m Electro” and expanded upon in “My Enemy,” the Electro material is, like the composer breakdown, a bizarre gumbo of influences that mixes electronics that are far harsher and more contemporary than anything attempted by Elfman or Horner with vocals spelling out the character’s emotions (“He lied to me/He shot at me/He hates on me”) combined with Zimmer’s usual string runs. It’s a bit ironic that at a time when old-fashioned scores are being derided for being manipulative and telling the audience what they should feel, that Zimmer’s Electro theme tells the audience exactly what they should feel in so many words. Your response to the theme will depend on your tolerance for the unhinged and harsh, if creative, soundscape. Putting dubstep and vocals into a film score is an unusual nod to current musical trends, but it seems a little bit like putting disco into film scores in the 1970s: it seems hip and contemporary now, but will only serve to horribly date the movie once the dubstep craze of the 2010s fades. The Electro material is better as a villain theme than James Horner’s non-theme for the Lizard, but it pales in comparison to Danny Elfman’s solid Green Goblin and Doc Ock themes, as well as Christopher Young’s mournful Sandman music from Spider-Man 3.

Spider-Man himself does get a theme, his fourth in twelve years, first heard in “I’m Spider-Man.” Commentators have compared it to Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” though Zimmer’s music is far obviously more grounded in electronics, which are far more present than even Elfman’s most contemporary music, to the extent that the theme sounds like a nightly-news fanfare, an Olympic torch relay, or Vangelis (often to the point of sounding almost laughably cheesy). There’s also a love theme of sorts as in “Ground Rules,” “You Need Me,” or “I’m Moving to England,” and it’s there that Zimmer’s approach is closest to that of Elfman and Horner, with soft piano colors over ambient electronics and soothing orchestral washes, though the electric guitar is often given by far the most prominent role and the electronics, whether as atmospheric synths or intrusive pulses, are ever-present. The mix is such that even in the cues with a heavy orchestral presence, it’s all but overwhelmed by electronics, guitars, or both.

The less said about the material for the Goblin character the better – it’s essentially warmed-over leftovers from Man of Steel and a half-dozen other Zimmer scores, relying on the usual heavy ostinatos rather than the snarling menace of Danny Elfman’s original theme (or Christopher Young’s variations thereof). The most interesting thing about Zimmer’s themes, though, is that they are not utilized nearly to the extent or with the deep integration of Elfman, Horner, or Young. Whatever your feeling on the overall quality of his Electro, Goblin, Spider-Man, and love themes, Zimmer and his collaborators do not weave them into the musical DNA of the film, and there are none of the titanic hero theme vs. villain theme struggles which characterized Elfman and Young’s work. The balance of the work is electronic and guitar music that is strongly in the Zimmer mold, sometimes highly enjoyable, sometimes not, but with only the veteran overproducer’s sound to tie it all together. And there are many times when he fails to do even that, leaving the music to degenerate into a series of sometimes attractive but often disjointed pieces, each vying with the others to sound the most important.

Ultimately, Hans Zimmer and his sixteen credited collaborators did what they were asked to do: infuse popular names in contemporary pop music into the current dominant superhero soundscape, and market them aggressively as a musical experience alongside the film. As is so often the case, listeners’ feelings about the Zimmer sound will strongly influence their reactions (much as those same fans may have reacted to all the Hornerisms in The Amazing Spider-Man). But even taking that into consideration, Zimmer’s employment of his themes leaves much to be desired independent of the themes’ quality, and the effort often feels disjointed and piecemeal despite the composer’s attempts at using his overbearing style as musical glue. Whatever their flaws, Elfman and Horner produced cohesive scores, and even Christopher Young’s patchwork combination of his own themes and Elfman’s felt more organic. The music produced by Zimmer & co. is serviceable, perhaps even crowdpleasing, but ultimately feels more like a concept album than a fully fleshed-out score. At the time of the film’s release, it was available both as a standard CD and a “deluxe” product with a second disc and flimsier packaging that doesn’t play nice with CD racks. With The Amazing Spider-Man 2‘s middling box office returns the direction for the already-scheduled third and forth movies in the series is murky, but it’s a good bet that, given the amount of media attention he was able to command as part of his scoring process, that Hans Zimmer and his collaborators will unfortunately be the musical voice of the series for some time to come.

Rating: starstar

The Amazing Spider-Man (James Horner)

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2007’s Spider-Man 3 was an overstuffed disappointment of a feature, cramming 2-3 movies’ worth of material into a single film. Faced with creative burnout on all levels, director Sam Raimi (who had been doing nothing but Spider-Man for seven years) and his crew were unable to come to terms with Columbia for a Spider-Man 4. So, following the “remake, reboot, reimagine” formula, Columbia opted to start an entirely new series of Spider-Man films less than 5 years after the last Raimi picture. While the studio lavished cash on new director Marc Webb and a cast of young stars, it was difficult to overlook the feeling that pervaded what became The Amazing Spider-Man: that it was a soulless and unnecessary corporate product designed solely to keep a merchandising engine chugging, a toxic stew of Raimi leftovers and nearly shot-for-shot remakes of the 2002 Spider-Man with greedy corporate fingerprints all over everything down to Andrew Garfield’s Edward Cullen hairdo. Domestic audiences greeted the film with a bemused shrug and the lowest grosses of the entire franchise in summer 2012, but robust overseas box-office numbers and the ever-present, overriding need for franchise maintenance made 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 a foregone conclusion.

To Marc Webb’s credit, he did attempt to assemble the best cast and crew he could under the shadow of the product’s utter crassness. As The Amazing Spider-Man was only his sophomore effort after the delightfully engaging 500 Days of Summer, there was some speculation that 500 composer Mychael Danna might finally get a crack at a superhero film after being rejected from 2003’s Hulk. Instead of Danna, and instead of attempting to lure back Danny Elfman (who was as tired as Raimi of the web-slinger), Webb made the surprising choice of James Horner to score his remake/reboot. Horner needs no introduction to fans of resounding orchestral sci-fi/fantasy pictures, with a proven record of genre success from 1982’s Star Trek II to 2009’s Avatar. He had dabbled in superhero scoring of a sort with 1991’s The Rocketeer, which had produced one of the composer’s most popular scores, but he had never been called upon for a full superhero score before, and certainly not one with a desperate desire to be contemporary and hip. Webb reportedly needed to persuade Horner to accept the assignment, but the veteran composer eventually acquiesced.

Horner essentially adopts a fusion of his typical style and the contemporary electronic approach that Danny Elfman took with the original Spider-Man which the film essentially remakes. He debuts his main theme in “Main Title – Young Peter” and it’s a classic Horner melody that’s both soaring and innocent and often (as in “Main Title”) enhanced by surprisingly Elfman-like flourishes and occasional choral flourishes. You’d never confuse the two, though: while Elfman’s theme was designed to be easily deconstructed and referenced, Horner’s music is long-lined and almost always at the forefront when it appears rather than being quickly alluded to. In its most triumphant outings, as in “Saving New York” and “Spider-Man End Titles,” Horner’s new theme stands alongside the best of his fantasy-adventure work from the 1980s that won him much of his current fanbase. The composer also exhibits an uncharacteristic playfulness with the theme in “Playing Basketball” and “Becoming Spider-Man,” adapting it in a style not unlike “Foraging for Food” in The Land Before Time.

Again like Elfman, Horner also created a tender love theme, though Horner’s is primarily piano-diven and often performed with the composer himself at the keyboard. From its first appearance in “Rooftop Kiss” to its lengthy airing in “I Can’t See You Anymore,” and “Promises,” the theme is vintage romantic Horner. It’s neither more or less effective than Elfman’s more fully orchestral construct, but very soft and moving in its support of the romance angle (which reviewers agreed was the film’s strongest aspect). Its airtime is limited in comparison to Horner’s main Spider-Man theme, but it was effective enough for Hans Zimmer to adopt a similar piano-centric approach (albeit with added electric guitars) in the sequel. With the combination of his love theme and his rousing main theme, the best parts of The Amazing Spider-Man are like modernized and updated versions of Horner’s lush sci-fi/fantasy sound of the 1980s.

The score is not perfect, though. There is a complete lack of a thematic identity for the villainous Lizard, or at least one that is so subtle as to be almost beneath notice. This is a major omission; while Horner creates some attractive stand-alone Lizard material in “Metamorphosis” and the action-packed “Lizard at School!” the lack of a consistent theme for the villain prevents the kind of thrilling thematic duels present in the best parts of Elfman’s scores. The inclusion of vocalist Dhafer Youssef in some cues, who worked on Black Gold with Horner earlier in 2012, is mystifying. His wailing doesn’t seem to serve any purpose for the film or its setting, save to serve as an example of a film scoring trend from the 2000s best forgotten today. And, of course, as with any James Horner score, the issue of self-referencing and musical recycling rears its head: parts of “Becoming Spider-Man” strongly resemble Horner’s magnum opus Star Trek II, and influences from the aforementioned The Land Before Time and particularly The Rocketeer are there for keen listeners. The music is less guilty of this than much of Horner’s recent output, though, and his distinctive but derided four-note danger motif thankfully makes no appearance.

The middling domestic success of The Amazing Spider-Man sent the producers scrambling to up the ante for the sequel they had already greenlit, and in addition to packing the subsequent The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to the gills with big names on the marquee, they dumped Horner in favor of the superhero flavor du jour of the 2010s, Hans Zimmer. The Amazing Spider-Man would also be the beginning of a particularly dark period for Horner: in addition to his replacement by Zimmer, his music was rejected from Romeo and Juliet and Ender’s Game in 2013. Increasingly frustrated with the current Hollywood scoring climate, and the domination of Zimmer’s methodology within it, Horner was left without any scoring assignments of any sort during 2013 and 2014. Even so, The Amazing Spider-Man score is the one part of an otherwise wretched film to emerge unscathed, and as James Horner’s first true superhero score and last major blockbuster assignment before his tragic 2015 death, it has a wealth of beautiful music to offer in the spirit of his scoring achievements in the 1980s. As long as one is prepared for the Hornerisms which inevitably accompany the composer’s work and strong echoes of Danny Elfman’s approach to the web-slinger, listeners will find much to enjoy.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Spider-Man 2 (Danny Elfman)

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After the stunning success of 2002’s Spider-Man, the question confronting director Sam Raimi wasn’t if but when a sequel would be made. Spider-Man 2 duly followed in 2004, and it broke the mold of many contemporary superhero sequels by refusing to add additional superfluous villains to the mix, instead focusing on a single adversary for the web-slinger while painting a stark portrait of how difficult the life of a superhero could be. The mood of the country had changed somewhat since 2002, and Spider-Man 2 didn’t meet or exceed its predecessor’s box-office take, but it remains the best-reviewed Spider-Man movie to date, even earning an admirer in as unlikely a figure as Roger Ebert.

As most of the behind-the-scenes talent from Spider-Man returned for the sequel, here was no reason to expect that Danny Elfman would not return as well. His score for the first movie had been an exhilarating and highly thematic merger of the two different styles in which the composer had been dabbling for years, expertly balancing acoustic and electronic elements. All was not smooth sailing, though: Spider-Man 2 somewhat notoriously became the subject of a rift between Elfman and Raimi after the director insisted on an unusually close following of the film’s temporary music (a melange of cues from the original Spider-Man and Hellraiser II, among others). Calling Raimi a “pod person,” Elfman bitterly split from the director and saw substantial portions of his music removed from the film, with contributions from John Debney and Christopher Young (who had written Hellraiser II and collaborated with Raimi on The Gift) replacing them.

The Spider-Man 2 album contains only Danny Elfman’s material originally composed for the film. Debney’s contributions, most notably for the pizza-delivery scene, and Young’s substantial rewrites, for the Doc Ock origin scene and the climactic train battle, have never been released despite featuring prominently in the film. It’s also quite evident that Raimi clashed with Elfman early on in the production, as substantial parts of Spider-Man are re-used, almost verbatim, by Elfman in his sequel score (“I couldn’t even adapt my own music,” the composer said at the time. “I couldn’t get close enough to me”). So, while Elfman’s powerful theme for Spider-Man, his love theme, and a host of smaller motifs return for the sequel, they are often sapped of their power by being essentially rerecords of earlier material.

And that is the most glaring weakness of Elfman’s Spider-Man 2: its note-for-note repetition of passages of music from the original film. “Spider-Man 2 Main Title” is, aside from a few additional electronic swooshes, identical to the main title from the original film. The menacing Green Goblin theme from the prequel is inelegantly replaced with the pounding Doc Ock motif, but the change is awkward and the seams are almost literally visible (a similar problem would beset Christopher Young in transitioning between adapted Elfman material and his own music in Spider-Man 3). “At Long Last, Love,” the final score cue, also cribs heavily from Spider-Man‘s “Finale,” and smaller fragments of regurgitation are scattered throughout the album. While Elfman was under intense pressure to do this, obviously, that can’t alter the fact that this reuse is extremely noticeable and distracting when it appears. Also missing from most of Elfman’s new score material is the contemporary electronic mix that helped make the original Spider-Man such a fun melding of Elfman old and new.

That said, Elfman does provide a major and highly satisfying new theme for the Doc Ock character, an eight-note (naturally) melody that slashes violently up and down the scale in a way that perfectly encapsulates the villain’s powerful, herky-jerky movement. Its awkward shoehorning into “Spider-Man 2 Main Title” aside, the theme is tremendous fun and, when Elfman gives it interplay with his existing theme for Spidey in action set-pieces like “The Bank” or “Armageddon.” It’s especially effective in the unused “Train,” which was replaced wholesale by a Christopher Young piece of comparable complexity and quality but which featured only a muted reference to the Ock theme; the piece as Elfman intended is a first-rate piece of action scoring much like “Final Confrontation” from the first album, the composer letting his themes battle even as the characters on screen do the same.

The composer is able to do some interesting things with his themes in places. Elfman’s love theme has plenty of mileage and development throughout cues like the first part of “Spidus Interruptus” and “A Really Big Web!” and it is, if anything, more lovely when it’s allowed to breathe away from the director’s influence. Also, somewhat surprisingly, the menacing Green Goblin villain theme from the first movie is given a dark reprise in “The Goblin Returns,” foreshadowing Christopher Young’s extensive use and adaptation of that theme in the third and final film of the Raimi trilogy.

Raimi and Elfman’s acrimonious split, with the composer declaring that he’d rather wait tables than have another Spider-Man 2 experience, meant that Spider-Man 3 was composed entirely by Christopher Young with substantial adaptations of Elfman’s themes. Young himself saw much of his work tinkered with or replaced by material written by Deborah Lurie or tracked in from the first two films, and it was never released in any form. The (relative) disaster of Spider-Man 3 in 2007 soured virtually the entire cast and crew on the series, leading to a risible series of remakes a few years later. Elfman and Raimi, much like Elfman and Burton in the mid-90s, eventually made amends and would work together again on Oz the Great and Powerful in 2013. As for Elfman’s Spider-Man 2, the strong original material and some clever adaptations of material from the previous film are enough to recommend it on album, but it’s hard to escape the feeling of repetition and needledropping that so frustrated the composer during the scoring process. One can sense the score Elfman wanted to write struggling to escape from the one he was allowed to write.

Rating: starstarstar

Spider-Man (Danny Elfman)

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Few comic book properties went though as tortuous a route from pulp to screen as Spider-Man. Dozens of directors, screenwriters, and stars were attached to various cinematic incarnations of the popular superhero following his 1962 debut, including such industry luminaries as Roger Corman and James Cameron, before cult director Sam Raimi was given the reins and a substantial budget for a 2002 release. Raimi’s slick direction, some clever scripting, and an appealing cast turned out to be the perfect recipe for audiences looking for a feel-good hero in the wake of 9/11, and his Spider-Man was a smash hit with both moviegoers and critics. Its $400 million haul at the US box office ($500 million adjusted for inflation) set the benchmark for cinematic superheroes until overturned by The Dark Knight, and it remains the highest-grossing Spider-Man film by any metric.

In 2002, Danny Elfman was at the undisputed pinnacle of the superhero genre. His toweringly gothic Batman (1989) had redefined the expected sound for comic book films, shattering the John Williams mode of major-key heroics that had previously prevailed, and Elfman had followed it up with a string of comic book/superhero successes from Batman Returns to Dick Tracy to Men in Black. Elfman also enjoyed a previous relationship with Raimi, having scored the director’s indie faux-comic-book hit Darkman in 1990, portions of the riotous undead caper Army of Darkness, and the grim A Simple Plan. With his past pulpy success on the big screen and a solid foundation with the director, it was no surprise that Elfman was attached to the 2002 Spider-Man almost from its inception.

Since Mission Impossible in 1996, Elfman’s style and his choice of scoring assignments had been undergoing an evolution of sorts. He had sharply turned away from grand symphonic works like Batman or Edward Scissorhands and begun experimenting with a much more contemporary, electronic, and fragmented sound. Projects like A Civil Action, Proof of Life, or Planet of the Apes were innovative but alienated many of the composer’s fans with their distinctly different sound. Though Elfman occasionally returned to his melodic or hugely orchestral roots with projects like The Family Man or Sleepy Hollow, the tension between the two styles was palpable. It wasn’t until Spider-Man that the composer was able to merge his experiments with hip, contemporary electronics and his older style of immense orchestral power, and it was the resulting fusion that would define his style for the next decade.

Elfman’s “Main Title” opens the film with a propulsive, electronics-enhanced performance of his primary thematic idea. As with the earlier Batman, Elfman constructs a malleable theme for the hero, one that can play out at length or be quickly referenced by a few notes. Listeners at the time complained that they couldn’t hear a theme, which is a testament to how skillfully Elfman works it into his overall musical tapestry and the fact that the theme isn’t presented as a grand gothic march as it was for the Caped Crusader. Nevertheless, it’s a bold and clever idea, one that is at home among the quirky contemporary stylings of “Costume Montage” as it is in the desperate “Final Confrontation” or rousing “Finale.”

Elfman introduces a strong villain theme as a counterpoint to his Spider-Man theme by cutting it in as an interlude in “Main Title,” and his growling idea for the Green Goblin is likewise easily deconstructed so that it can be referenced in full or with just a few notes and often includes synths and other modern effects for emphasis. The Goblin theme is given full outings in “Something’s Different” and “Specter of the Goblin,” but it is at its most effective when doing sonic battle with Elfman’s theme for the hero. Both “Parade Attack” and “Final Confrontation” intermingle the Spidey and Goblin themes to great effect, the latter especially being a masterclass in setting two very distinct but equally malleable themes against one another (with a few bars of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” mixed in for laughs).

The score’s tender side for the nerdy Peter Parker’s interactions with his impossible flame-headed dream girl provide the basis for Elfman’s third and theme, a tender love melody informed by Edward Scissorhands and, to an extent, Batman. “Revelation” and the penultimate “Farewell” both feature the theme extensively, the latter beginning with a particularly lovely and tragic rendition led by woodwinds before segueing into a powerful statement of the main Spider-Man theme. The love theme is often intertwined with a troubled brass motif that often serves as a sort of transition between Spider-Man’s heroics and Peter Parker’s human concerns or vice versa.

Spider-Man stands as one of Danny Elfman’s most accomplished scores because it creatively combines all the best parts of a big thematic superhero score–multiple themes that are developed and woven throughout the music–with the composer’s expertise in electronics, rhythm, and other elements from his other career as a band leader. Perfectly supporting the spectacle of the film, it remains the best and most satisfying score of the entire series. As was the practice at the time, Spider-Man‘s score was released on a separate album with 45 minutes of highlights some time after the “music from and inspired by” disc which contained only two tracks of score. Elfman would return for the first sequel, but a sour experience led him to abandon the franchise; later installments would be scored by Christopher Young, James Horner, and Hans Zimmer, who differed greatly in how much of Elfman’s approach they emulated.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar