Inside Out (Michael Giacchino)

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2015 saw Pixar, once the king of computer animated films, struggling to emerge from a creative slump that had seen it produce mostly mediocre spinoffs of existing properties like Cars 2 or Monsters University. Its summer 2015 entry, Inside Out, managed to break that streak with a dazzling return to form, positing what the inside of a preteen’s head would look like as acted out by a handful of anthropomorphized emotions. While not the most original idea (Herman’s Head had mined the same territory decades earlier, as had Disney’s own Cranium Command), Inside Out nevertheless nailed the execution, producing the potent mix of laughter and pathos that distinguished Pixar’s very best and becoming a hit with critics and audiences.

Though Pixar had seem some diversification in its use of composers with Patrick Doyle and Mychael Danna in recent years, Michael Giacchino remained one of the studio’s top names, and he reunited with director Pete Doctor for Inside Out. This meant that the shadow of their previous collaboration, 2009’s Up, would loom large over the project’s music: after all, that aerial adventure had produced one of Giacchino’s most affecting scores and rewarded him with an Oscar statuette. Inside Out also came out during an abnormally productive year for Giacchino, with three other scores out at around the same time, including Jurassic World, which went head to head with the animation and gave Giacchino the Remote Control-like achievement of scoring the number one and number two films at the box office for weeks in a row.

Unlike the fully orchestral Up, Giacchino chose to tackle Inside Out with, by and large, a smaller ensemble. Though some tracks like “Rainbow Flyer” employ the full weight of the orchestra for key moments, by and large Giacchino relies on piano, ukelele, glassy synth textures, and a handful of rhythm and brass instruments for the overall sound. One can understand his decision in terms of the film’s very intimate story, taking place in a tween girl’s head, calling for a more intimate sound.

Giacchino’s centerpiece for Inside Out is a theme for the emotion Joy, which debuts on solo piano in “Bundle of Joy” and forms the lion’s share of the albums opening and closing segments, from “Nomanisone Island/National Movers” to “The Joy of Credits.” Giacchino presents a interesting downbeat variations in places like “Tears of Joy” but for the most part the Joy melody is flitting and beautiful, instantly memorable, and lights up the album whenever it appears. It’s definitely one of the composer’s strongest themes, able to go toe-to-toe with any other melody he’s conjured in recent years.

The middle of the album–and the film–largely neglects that theme, though, in favor of a number of smaller and more fragmented motifs. There’s a bouncy theme for Bing Bong the imaginary friend in places like “Chasing the Pink Elephant” and “Imagination Land,” for instance, though it’s strangely missing from “Rainbow Flyer” in favor of a sweeping, bittersweet original piece (which one wishes there was more of, honestly, with only a brief end credits reprise!). The character of Sadness gets a downer of a motif on tuba in “Team Building” and elsewhere, though the connection between it and other tracks like “Joy Turns to Sadness” where the character is prominent is rather tenuous. There’s also a David Newman-like piece for the tween girl as she turns runaway in the film’s later reels, though its impact is minimal at best.

The real problem is that the middle portions of Giacchino’s music ignore his best melody in favor of short cues that have little narrative thrust and little to connect them aside from the composer’s style and a few glassy textures. The Elliot Goldenthal tribute “Abstract Thought,” for instance, is fun but doesn’t seem to be in the same sonic universe as the brilliant Joy material. The end result is an album that is frontloaded and rearloaded with excellent material yet hobbled by a big memory dump in the middle, which is rather disappointing given how well Giacchino was able to pull his central themes through a similar set of challenges in Up.

An album for he film was, unlike Up, issued as a CD and a digital download alongside the film; the CD includes the music from the lovely but geophysically inaccurate short Pixar short Lava as a bonus track. For Inside Out,, Giacchino produced an outstanding theme that ultimately makes for a flawed but fun experience on album. It’s nowhere near the powerhouse that his score for Up was, or even the contemporaneous Tomorrowland, but it’s worth committing to long-term memory if only for its moments of intense Joy.

Rating: starstarstar

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Return to Oz (David Shire)

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Expectations can be a tricky thing to manage, and 1985’s Return to Oz is a great example of this. As a “sequel-in-part” to the beloved 1939 Technicolor music The Wizard of Oz, moviegoers and critics were doubtlessly expecting something as breezy and singsong from Return to Oz. What they got instead was a deliciously dark take on Oz and a relatively faithful adaptation of original author L. Frank Baum’s third Oz novel, Ozma of Oz. While the 1939 original wasn’t without its moments of darkness, Return to Oz‘s psychiatric hospital, head-stealing witch, and Will Vinton-animated demonic Nome King were too much for people with the wrong expectations. It died a quick box-office death as part of Disney’s disastrous flirtation with large-scale dark fantasy in the summer of 1985 (opening just one moth after The Black Cauldron), and Return to Oz had to wait for home video to find its adherents among devotees of dark 1980s fantasy films.

The post-Star Wars salad days of the 1980s were a time when many composers were able to try their hand at large-scale sci-fi/fantasy scores, and for Return to Oz the producers made an interesting choice: David Shire. Shire had a rich history of working in film, television, and musical theater as a composer and arranger, but there was little in his back catalog to recommend him for an epic dark fantasy (much less one based on a universally-beloved property). Though classically trained, Shire’s scores had mainly been gritty, realistic affairs like The Conversation and The Taking of Pelham 123; he was probably best-known at the time for Saturday Night Fever. The only sci-fi/fantasy film of any note he had tackled prior to Return to Oz was 1984’s 2010: The Year We Make Contact, which had featured a rich orchestral denouement but had been largely synthesized. Nevertheless, Shire was inked to the project and, with a substantial budget at his disposal, recorded his score with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Shire provides a lush score, largely string-led, that is rich with complex, long-lined themes and motifs. His main idea in the score, introduced in “Dorothy Remembers” and given its fullest outing in “Finale and End Credits,” is a dark yet gorgeous string fantasia reminiscent of the most troubled parts of Trevor Jones’s The Dark Crystal and David Newman’s The Brave Little Toaster. The amount of clarity and depth in the orchestrations is particularly impressive, with the LSO acquitting itself particularly well. For all Shire’s use of electronics before and after, they are a relatively minor part of the overall sound, primarily limited to shimmering synths to back the acoustic ensemble, with some menacing textures in “Dorothy and the Nome King” as the only time they take center stage.

Return to Oz isn’t an action film, but there are moments of surprising depth and power. The towering organ-led “Flight in the Storm,” for instance, resoundingly accompanies the asylum escape sequence. “The Defeat of the Nome King” mixes intense and swirling strings with fierce and atonal music for the special effects sequence at the end of the film. “The Flight of the Gump” offers much lighter and optimistic action, a thrilling piece of major-key escape music that recalls the soaring music John Williams would later write for Prisoner of Azkaban. The music is thematically rich as well (and even moreso in the movie), with distinct motifs for Oz, Ozma, Tik-Tok, Mombi, the Gump, and the Nome King constantly weaving in and out of the work.

Despite the dark fantasy aspects of Return to Oz being the primary attraction of the score (and, for many, the film), it is not the only component of the score. Shire also composed a bright ragtime piece to represent the brighter side of Oz, as heard in the concert cue “The Return to Oz Rag March.” It’s a fine piece of music on its own, and the only time that Shire’s music even approaches the affable sound of The Wizard of Oz, but it doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the score’s lush fantasy sound. In several tracks, most notably “The Defeat of the Nome King,” the sudden shift to the Rag March gives the music a schizophrenic character, and compared to the lighter music in “The Flight of the Gump” the various appearances of the Rag March seem abrupt and rather jarring. The choice of ragtime is a little odd in and of itself, perhaps a nod to the musical style that was most popular during Oz author L. Frank Baum’s 1900-1919 career writing the books, but Shire implements the idea with gusto.

Sadly, David Shire would never have the opportunity to write in such a hugely symphonic fantasy mode again; while there are a few sci-fi projects on his later resume like Short Circuit and episodes of Amazing Stories, his career declined rapidly throughout the 1990s and what little work he was able to get was closer in tone to The Conversation than Return to Oz. And despite the high quality of Shire’s score, the movie’s box-office failure has made its music difficult to come by for years. One of the few scores released by electronic music label Sonic Atmospheres, Return to Oz was pressed to LP in 1985 in a 50-minute presentation, but the score was difficult to find from the outset. It fell to independent musical label Bay Cities to finally release the score on CD in 1990, but even then relatively few copies were made and the album tends to fluctuate wildly in price as copies become more or less scarce. Still, the album–any album–is well worth seeking out by lovers of high-quality, lush, and dark 1980s fantasy scoring (a sound that is in short supply these days).

Rating: starstarstarstar

Kingdom Hearts (Yoko Shimomura)

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When Kingdom Hearts was announced out of the blue in 2001, the idea of a Squaresoft/Disney collaboration that would blend Final Fantasy with Mickey Mouse was met by disbelief, uncertainty, and bemusement. But against all odds, the action RPG turned out to be a superior product and a smash hit on release in 2002–not only reaching platinum status itself, but spawning a franchise that continues to this day. Not bad for a project that started as an elevator pitch, only possible because Squaresoft and Disney shared the same office building in Japan!

When fans first heard that Squaresoft composer Yoko Shimomura had been assigned to score the project, reactions were mixed. While Shimomura had had success bringing new life and creativity to established worlds through her work on Super Mario RPG and Legend of Mana, many feared that the album would be overrun with the poor-quality arrangements of Disney themes that many Disney-only titles suffered from. Luckily, this was not the case, and Shimomura developed Kingdom Hearts into her greatest score to date both on album and in game.

Anyone who was afraid that the entire score would be terminally cute has only to listen to the complex and dark tracks that begin and end the two-disc collection. Built around heavy choral use and the Italian word “Destati” (literally “Awaken”), tracks such as “Dive Into the Heart -Destati-,” “Fragments of Sorrow” and the climactic “Guardando nel buio” are filled with gothic atmosphere and powerful instrumentation. That same gothic feeling is present to a lesser extent in several other fine tracks, like the organ-dominated “Forze del Male” and the fan-favorite “Hollow Bastion,” which features stunning harp work.

Of course, being a Disney game as well, not everything is gloom and doom. Surprisingly, the arrangements of Disney tunes are both sparse and well-done. In fact, it’s quite nice to hear some familiar tunes (like Danny Elfman’s “This is Halloween” from The Nightmare Before Christmas or the Sherman brothers’ bucolic Winnie-the-Pooh) in-game, and the borrowed tunes are all arranged to fit in nicely with Shimomura’s originals.

The original, lighthearted tracks are generally excellent, from the Russian-sounding “Monstrous Monstro” to the kooky “Merlin’s Magical House” and the jazzy, laid-back “Traverse Town.” The Traverse Town battle theme, “Hand in Hand,” is easily an album highlight, action-packed but sad and hopeful at the same time, and has been extensively arranged in this and the sequel album. Also of note is the lovely, understated piano title theme, “Dearly Beloved,” which went on to be a series staple, and the wonderful orchestrated tracks at the beginning and end of the album.

In fact, there are almost too many highlights to list, and nearly every track is looped twice for maximum enjoyment. On the other hand, the synth programming (by Ryo Yamazaki) is sometimes inconsistent. Sometimes it’s stellar, the equal of any other PS2-era game, but it falters at other times, especially where brass is concerned. The album, like its sequel (with the regrettable Takeharu Ishimoto operating the synths) but to a lesser extent, could have used a better synth programming.

There are also a few duds, generally repetitive pieces like “No Time To Think.” The “Kairi” tracks are also somewhat weak; as the only character theme per se, one would expect more varied performances, but the three such tracks are largely identical. Another annoyance is the fact that several tracks were left off the release, particularly the dark, brutal “Another Side, Another Story” and “Disappeared.” With a little creative rearrangement, there would have been room on the album for these and the remixes of Uematsu’s “One-Winged Angel” and Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” as well–instead, fans have to seek out the rare Final Mix or expensive Complete Box albums for these songs. And the pop songs that open and close the album are forgettable fluff, notable only for their skillful arrangement into instrumental themes elsewhere.

Still, when all is said and done, Shimomura’s work on Kingdom Hearts is truly remarkable, and easily a career highlight. The album is everything video game music fans could hope for, and brings a level of maturity to the wonderful game itself. And while Shimomura would return for all subsequent sequels to some degree, the original Kingdom Hearts remains her best work for the franchise. It’s a highly recommended purchase For anyone willing to give a strange hybrid of Disney and Japanese styles a chance, and the resulting music is enchanting and among the strongest of Yoko Shimomura’s career.

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