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

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Starhawk (Christopher Lennertz)

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A Playstation 3 exclusive title, Starhawk (2012) was a spiritual successor to the earlier Warhawk (1995) and its one-step-forward two-steps-back remake Warhawk (2007). Unlike the 2007 game, Starhawk actually featured a single-player campaign mode for people who didn’t want anonymous 14-year-olds screaming obscenities in their ears, and it attracted decent notices and sales numbers despite being released relatively late in the lifespan of its console.

Composer Christopher Lennertz had co-scored the remade Warhawk in 2007, with his music attracting strong praise despite being shackled to a multiplayer-only game. Lennertz was an old hand at game scoring by that point, with dozens of triple-A titles under his belt from the Medal of Honor series and beyond; unlike Michael Giacchino, Lennertz has kept a firmer foot in the game industry despite branching out into feature scoring. For Starhawk, Lennertz assembled an impressive ensemble in the Skywalker Symphony Orchestra and an array of soloists on instruments like slide guitar and harmonica.

And therein is the central conceit of the score: Starhawk adapts a Firefly/Serenity-like “wild west in space” approach, and Lennertz embraces that sound with his soloists layered over top of a full symphony orchestra. It’s also reflected in the two main thematic constructs of the score: the noble, rollicking Bernstein-esque “Emmett’s Theme” and the much darker Morricone-style theme for the game’s villainous Outcasts (first heard, appropriately, in “Outcasts”), which is driven by percussion and electric guitars.

With these two themes and a variety of western soloists, Lennertz is able to build an action score at least as effective as Greg Edmonson or David Newman. The majority of songs on the album are, as one might expect from a shooter, massive action pieces. The freedom inherent in video game scoring enables the composer to sidestep many of the action cliches in film today and instead write complex and tonal music. When the music is firing on all cylinders, it’s breathtaking: the prime example of this is “The Rift,” which alternates Emmett’s theme and the Outcast theme against one another in a terrific example of leitmotif scoring.

One thing to note about this score: there are two separate releases of Starhawk that may be confusing to the casual listener. The version available at iTunes runs 45 minutes while La-La Land Records’ deluxe limited edition CD is a full 57 minutes. Most of the missing songs on the shorter, digital release are, unfortunately, the album’s greatest highlights like beautiful choral “The Source.” The cut tracks are also, generally speaking, the least action-packed, which compounds the album’s only stylistic flaw: its emphasis on constant gigantic action with very little breathing room. As such, the La-La Land CD is the preferred purchase option.

Christopher Lennertz is a talented composer, but it’s ironic that most of his feature assignments have been in comedy and romance, leaving it to the world of video games to show his most effective and most filmic work. While listeners who aren’t fond of western sounds or relentless action may find the album exhausting, Starhawk nevertheless comes highly recommended.

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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The Brave Little Toaster (David Newman and Van Dyke Parks)

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Featuring a stellar voice cast, an excellent script, a team of ex-Disney animators, and many crew mambers (including John Lasseter) who would go on to impressive careers with Pixar, The Brave Little Toaster was a delightful animated film that fell through the cracks during its initial release, but found its audience and a comfortable cult following on cable TV. In many ways a prototype for the Pixar and Disney Renaissance films that followed, it presented a winning voice cast, humor accessible to multiple generations, and a quasi-musical format with several songs.

Composer David Newman had just begun his scoring career by 1987, entering the profession several years after his brother Thomas and cousin Randy after a career as a conductor and session musician, but quickly amassed an impressive resume for low-budget films like Critters and The Kindred. Newman would be asked to compose the film’s original score as well as orchestrate veteran songwriter Van Dyke Park’s contributions, and he went on to produce an impressively varied work.

The Brave Little Toaster is not a thematic score, although Newman does occasionally reference the refrain to Parks’ “City of Light” in the underscore. Rather, the score is far more impressionistic, converying emotions through complex and layered harmonies. The music is surprisingly dark and tragic at times, with swirling piano and strings lending power to some of the more tragic cues (such as “Toaster’s Dream”), but is also bight and energetic when need be, with whirlwind action cues such as “They All Wake Up,” and the rousing “End Title.”

In fact, several cues run the full gamut of emotions, from joyous and liting to dark and moody. Chief among these are “The Pond,” which builds from an inventive use of sound effects as instruments to a level of magnificent orchestral tragedy, and the penultimate “Finale,” which moves from pounding menace to upbeat catharsis in a seven-minute powerhouse of a cue. The delightful “End Credits” offer a much-needed dose of joy to end the album, with Newman using the orchestral colors of the previous tracks to compose a delightful new theme in conversation with Parks’ “City of Light.”

Van Dyke Parks’ songs are treats, hold up well compared to many dated ballads from around the same time period, and are performed with gusto by the movie’s cast. Parks was no stranger to film music himself, having arranged music for films as varied as The Jungle Book and Popeye and composed the occasional original score like Follow that Bird and worked closely with Newman to orchestrate his songs. The upbeat “City of Light” is the film’s centerpiece melody, while the impressively twisted villain ballads “It’s a B-Movie” (including Phil Hartman doing his best Peter Lorre) and “Cutting Edge” impress as much through their witty lyrics as their melodies. But the downbeat ballad “Worthless” is perhaps the most impressive, laid out as an impassioned song by junked cars in their last moments of life and with strong echoes of themes that Pixar would later tackle in their Toy Story series, films which owe more than a little to Toaster.

But there is one major drawback to the album: two cues, including the magnificently melancholy “Blanket’s Dream” are interrupted by sound effects. Apparently, those portions of the master tapes were too badly damaged to be of any use, and record label Percepto placed the effects-laden tracks in as a substitute for completeness’ sake. Those tracks do sadly break up the album’s flow, and it’s unfortunate that “Blanket’s Dream” in particular is essentially unlistenable. Percepto, never more than a very small boutique to begin with, eventually folded quietly several years after the limited edition pressing of The Brave Little Toaster, meaning that copies can be difficult and costly to find.

Still, despite all that, The Brave Little Toaster is a magnificent album, and one of the very finest works from the underrated David Newman and Van Dyke Parks. If you’re interested in hearing a score full of boundless energy and inventiveness, one of the forgotten gems of animation scoring, and can overlook the fact that several tracks are distorted by sound effects, buy with confidence. The film, easily available on DVD and on-demand, comes with the highest recommendation as well.

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