The Monuments Men (Alexandre Desplat)

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With a cast that had 5 Oscars and 17 nominations, and a little-known but deeply important true World War II story about artworks being saved from Nazi looters by a ragtag team of Allied conservators pressed into military service, director-star George Clooney’s The Monuments Men had an impressive pedigree. Yet the film was unable to overcome a wandering focus and lack of narrative drive, feeling like a Cliffs Notes version of a longer film and becoming a critical disappointment despite a healthy box office take. Despite all the Oscar gold among the cast, the film wound up delayed to an undemanding late winter release date from its original statuette-friendly slot.

French composer Alexandre Desplat was one of the busiest composers in Hollywood during the early 2010s and brought his own impressive collection of Oscar nominations to the project, collecting his sixth (for Philomena) when The Monuments Men was still in theaters. Desplat had worked with Clooney once before, on the low-key political thriller The Ides of March in 2011, and they apparently hit things off so well that not only did Desplat return to score The Monuments Men, he also appeared onscreen in a cameo. Quite possibly the longest and most involved composer cameo in recent memory, Desplat’s turn as the French Resistance fighter Emile not only revealed a bit of acting talent but resulted in one of the film’s funniest lines (“You speak English? Speak English.”) while Desplat thanks Clooney in the liner notes for convincing him to “play a Frenchman in a beret.”

The music is a fascinating fusion of several distinct styles, and a lot of your appreciation for the score will hinge upon how well you can reconcile the disparate elements within it. There are echoes of classic war movies scored by the likes of Elmer Bernstein or Malcolm Arnold, white-knuckle militaristic action music very much in the mold of 1980s John Williams, and of course Alexandre Desplat’s distinctive personal style with his fondness for waltzes. It is an odd enough collection of influences that the score sometimes feels rather schizophrenic, though the composer is to be commended for how well its disparate parts hang together.

Arnold and Bernstein’s influence is felt most overtly in The Monuments Men‘s main theme, heard most prominently in the jaunty “Opening Titles,” “Basic Training,” and “End Credits.” A bouncy and upbeat march with a somewhat more serious interlude, Desplat uses the theme to great effect in the film’s lighthearted and more comic moments, and its whistled rendition at the end of the album is a direct reference to Arnold’s famous interpretation of the “Colonel Bogey March” from The Bridge on the River Kwai. The more serious interlude is inserted in many of the more dramatic tracks as well, with downbeat and solo piano versions of the main melody accompanying many scenes of struggle and strife as well.

For the villainous Nazis (and, to an extent, the rival group of Soviet treasure hunters) Desplat uses a menacing brass motif that informs the latter half of “Champagne,” “The Nero Decree,” and other scenes of artistic destruction and villainy. John Williams’ brassy Nazi fanfare from Raiders of the Lost Ark is perhaps the most apt influence and comparison, though Desplat never really sets the Monuments Men theme and Nazi/Soviet motif against one another in quite the same way. The basic parts of the motif are also twisted into a pompous and amusing waltz in “Stahl’s Chalet” for one particularly tense scene late in the picture.

Lover of waltzes that he is, Desplat sneaks another in as well, this one serving as a theme for Cate Blanchett’s underwritten character and her low-key love-hate relationship with Matt Damn’s Monuments Man. Debuted in the first half of “Champagne” and given its fullest expression in “Claire & Granger,” the waltz is lovely but sadly never seems to come into its own and lacks an entire track unto itself like the main theme and villainy motif. One wishes for a John Williams-style concert arrangement of the theme to give it more breathing room as a result.

Finally, the score does contain some wonderful all-out action music, and it’s here that Williams’ influence is the most keenly felt. In several spots, but most extensively and notably at the beginning of the lengthy “Finale,” Desplat gives himself over to brass-heavy action writing that’s thrilling in the same way as many of Williams’ early 1980s scores as well as later attempts by other composers (like Michael Giacchino in Medal of Honor: Frontline). It is a thrilling if rather brief addition to the hour-long album, and a much better marriage of Desplat and Williams’ stylistics than the earlier Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was.

Whether through his music or his acting, Alexandre Desplat proved himself essential to The Monuments Men, and if the production was disappointing or a missed opportunity, he at least can be said to have taken full advantage and produced one of his most straightforwardly enjoyable scores of the 2010s. Sony Classical put out an album with virtually every note of Desplat’s score to coincide with the film’s early 2014 release, and included Nora Sagal’s rendition of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” from one of the film’s key attempts at character drama (it’s certainly performed with old-fashioned gusto if nothing else). Even with its occasionally schizophrenic swings from mood to mood and genre to genre, The Monuments Men is still an accessible music from a period dominated by Desplat’s darker and more troubled music for Oscar bait films.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Serenada Schizophrana (Danny Elfman)

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Film music has often been compared unfavorably (and unfairly) to concert hall music; over the years, this has led many film composers to dabble in writing concert works. John Williams wrote several such pieces, as did Elmer Bernstein, and Elliot Goldenthal’s concert output threatens to outpace his film scoring of late. Danny Elfman isn’t a composer one would readily associate with the concert hall–his status as a self-taught musician has always cast him as a sort of outsider in the musical community. Nevertheless, the American Composers Orchestra chose to commission Elfman to write an original symphonic piece (the only film composer so honored), and Serenada Schizophrana debuted at Carnegie Hall in early 2005, earning rave reviews and paving the way for additional concert, art installation, and ballet pieces from Elfman in the decade to follow.

As Elfman attested in several interviews, Serenada was created in a strange manner–the composer forced himself to write short pieces every day for a period of several weeks, and then began to develop those musical fragments into longer pieces. Eventually, six distinct movements emerged, augmented on disc by a brief end stinger and bonus track. The “schizophrana” in the title is well-earned, as the movements share no consistent themes or motifs. Rather, Danny Elfman’s unique personal style is what ties them together, and it’s a telling sign of Eflman’s maturity as a composer that his style is up to the task.

The album begins with “Pianos,” a series of complex and jagged figures for piano (obviously) and orchestra which recalls some of Elfman’s strongest film work. It’s driving and propulsive music, and a strong opening. Unfortunately, the next movement, “Blue Strings,” is the longest and also weakest. It’s low-key music that’s heavily reminiscent of Red Dragon, rumbling through troubled string figures and occasionally hinting at Hermannesque stabbing motions. Yet the movement never really goes anywhere; it’s content to malinger and hint at its potential.

“A Brass Thing,” the third movement, is far brassier then the previous two, with copious church bells and sections of jazzy instrumentation. There are even a few rambling piano figures that recall Beetlejuice, though never reaching the wild and wacky heights of that score. “The Quadruped Patrol,” which Elfman described as a contest between a big dog and a little dog, returns to the jagged style of the first movement, but far more string-led and percussive. “Quadruped” also features some of Elfman’s trademark choral work, its first appearance in the Serenada.

It’s in the fifth track, “I Forget,” that the choir comes into its own. In a rare move for Elfman, the singing isn’t wordless (it’s Spanish), and it mixes perfectly with the sprightly, dark orchestral ruckus Elfman whips up. “I Forget” is Serenada’s highlight, and shows that Elfman probably has an opera or two in him, if he ever decides to write one. “Bells and Whistles” is another subdued track, though far more interesting in its development than “Blue Strings.” “End Tag” is too short and underdeveloped to have much of an impact, but the jazzy “Improv for Alto Sax” brings the CD to a strong close.

While Serenada Schizophrana isn’t as cohesive or enjoyable as Elfman’s best film works, it is still a very strong piece of music on its own merits, and represents a bold move in the composer’s career. Still, the album is classic Elfman, and highly recommended to fans as well as naysayers. Elfman’s later non-film work includes, a shorter second concert work (The Overeager Overture) for conductor John Mauceri’s farewell concert, a ballet with Twyla Tharp (Rabbit and Rogue), and music to accompany the Tim Burton art installation at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. One can only hope that more opportunities to hear Danny Elfman’s distinctive musical style in its purest form, albeit unhindered by the need to match images or maintain consistent themes, will follow.

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Saturn 3 (Elmer Bernstein)

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Saturn 3 was a troubled film from the post-Star Wars sci-fi boom. Beset with problems from day one, the film vanished without a trace at the box-office despite a high profile cast including Kirk Douglas, Farrah Fawcett (!), and Harvey Keitel; unlike many sci-fi films of the period, it failed to even garner much of a cult following since. In fact, Elmer Bernstein’s score and behind-the-scenes drama are virtually the only reasons the film is remembered today.

In many ways, Saturn 3 was a blast from the past for Bernstein, whose very earliest works had included science fiction B-flicks like Robot Monster during his blacklisting and exile from Hollywood. Unlike his contemporaries John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith, Bernstein was never able to produce a wildly popular sci-fi score with a big, bold title march: his latter-day sci-fi scores were either chained to Star Wars clone framework like Spacehunter or a offbeat eclectic cult experience like Heavy Metal. To Bernstein’s credit, he doesn’t attempt to ape the Star Wars space opera sound with this score–rather, he uses the awful film as a musical testing ground.

“Space Murder,” the nearly 10-minute-long first track, is a good representation of Saturn 3 in a nutshell. The cue opens with brassy, dramatic music that seems ready to explode into a statement of theme…and then promptly metamorphoses into a disco track to accompany the bizarre onscreen visuals of choreographed astronauts. The disco was left out of the final print, and for good reason–it’s jarring and completely out of sync with the rest of the score, just as the scene was out of sync with the rest of the movie. Even though Bernstein employs the novel technique of placing a deep male chant underneath the disco, the music is still extremely odd. The disco beat returns in track 5, “Blue Dreamers,” this time matched with female vocals, and the effect is just as bizarre.

At the end of “Space Murder,” though, is the album’s real strength: a tender, soaring love theme, complete with wordless female vocals. The theme was dialed out of the finished picture completely, and Bernstein went on to use it as “Taarna’s Theme” in his 1981 score for Heavy Metal, where he was able to give it far more power and development. On the Saturn 3 album, the love theme is heard far too infrequently, which only increases its contrast with the remainder of the score to the point that it’s almost as jarring as the disco music.

The rest of the score has Bernstein trying a multitude of techniques: male chants and whispers, brooding suspense music, percussive action cues, electronics, and more. It’s to the composer’s credit that these ideas work as well as they do, but the various experiments and clashing styles also prevent Saturn 3 from gelling into a cohesive score. The best parts of the music are often buried deep in lengthy cues, often only after several style changes. Part of this is due to the album’s structure (many of the cues were sewn together form shorter pieces of music during the mastering process) but even taking that into account, the music often seems fragmented and incoherent.

Saturn 3 is more interesting than enjoyable, a musical experiment that flies in the face of most post-Star Wars science fiction scoring. It’s a fantastic indicator of Bernstein’s range even as it’s not the most listenable album. So, while many of the ideas presented are interesting, and there is some good suspense/action music to be heard, Saturn 3 is probably of most interest to Bernstein completists and collectors–a fitting appraisal, as it was released as part of the limited-edition Intrada Special Collection. Only seek it out if you’ve got an open mind and are willing to embrace one of Elmer Bernstein’s most experimental and bizarre efforts in the sci-fi (or any other) genre.

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To Kill A Mockingbird (Elmer Bernstein)

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Based on the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel of the same name, To Kill A Mockingbird won near-universal acclaim and several Oscars upon its 1962 release. Elmer Bernstein’s score was nominated but did not win a statuette (losing to Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia; it would be 1967 before Bernstein won his only Oscar for Thoroughly Modern Millie). Nevertheless, it remains arguably the composer’s finest work.

Since To Kill A Mockingbird is, in essence, a child’s-eye-view of racial turmoil, Bernstein wisely chose to develop his music around this theme, which he called “the magic of a child’s world.” To this end, the ensemble is small, with just a relative handful of performers and soloists, which lends the score a deceptively simple feel and intimacy. A highlight of this methodology, and the album as a whole, is “Main Titles,” which grows from a simple, halting piano melody into a gorgeous orchestral statement of theme. By adding successive layers of instrumentation, Bernstein builds from the image of a child picking out piano notes to a complex and fully-realized, but still intimate, piece of music.

The theme returns in the score proper in a variety of arrangements, alongside a menacing four-note motif for the villainous Ewell and a theme for Boo Radley. The Ewell material, as heard in cues like “Ewell Regret It,” is the album’s darkest, conjuring up images of a child’s worst fears–darkness, danger, and the menace inherent in them. Boo’s theme is more subdued until “Boo Who?” when a fully fleshed-out arrangement is offered, intermingled with the main and Ewell themes. There are also some sprightly cues near the beginning of the album, notably “Atticus Accepts The Case/Roll In The Tire,” that foreshadow some of Bernstein’s later work in the western genre.

Complicated rights issues meant that the original film tracks were never released; instead, there are several re-recorded albums available. The most definitive is the 1997 Varése Sarabande re-recording by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under the baton of Bernstein himself; this recording, which contains music unused in the final film, is still in print and carried by most major soundtrack outlets. To Kill A Mockingbird is highly recommended; in addition to being a beautiful work in its own right, it serves as an excellent introduction to Elmer Bernstein’s writing. While the composer would go on to write many more outstanding scores in every genre, Mockingbird remains his most lyrical and emotional work, and a true gem of film scoring.

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Afrika (Wataru Hokoyama)

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A spiritual successor to — of all things — Pokémon Snap, Afrika sets players on a photo safari, capturing shots of wildlife in motion. The game has attracted considerable praise, but the most discussed feature seems to be Wataru Hokoyama’s original score — his first for a major video game.

While Japan-born, Hokoyama’s training was in a decidedly Western vein, and this shows clearly in the sound he establishes for Afrika. Many of the orchestral colors and orchestrations have clearly been inspired by Western greats such as John Williams and Elmer Bernstein, building on the soundscapes those composers established for massive fantasy-adventure scores on the one hand and National Geographic specials on the other. The result is a unique blend of action-adventure — occasionally bordering on the superheroic — and expansive, pastoral documentary music.

Hokoyama introduces a strong theme in “Savanna” that forms the basis for the rest of the score. It’s sweeping and adventurous, while maintaining a strongly romantic and expansive feel. The theme is present in most of the tracks, and is given extended airings in the triumphant finale “Afrika” and the rambunctiously exhilarating “Safari,” the best track on the album.

The game’s setting isn’t neglected and Hokoyama anchors a number of cues with percussive rhythms to reflect the high veldt setting. “Base Camp” is the pick of the lot, transposing a xylophone variation on the main theme with a full drum ensemble. Darker tracks for dangerous and dark situations also make an appearance in “Hunting” and “Night Safari,” the latter of which is particularly reminiscent of John Williams’ suspense writing.

There are no outright dud tracks, although two do fall somewhat short of the standard established by the others. “Masai” and “Hatari” are percussion-only tracks that don’t have enough variation to justify their (admittedly brief) running times. Both could have easily been omitted from the disc without much loss, shortened by half, or even combined into a suite. In truth, almost every track other than those two is a highlight.

While Afrika the game remains relatively obscure outside Japan despite a belated Stateside release, the score is readily available via import. Thirty minutes of music is present on a standard CD, while a Dolby 5.1 version of the music, along with interviews, is present on a supplementary DVD. The music is highly recommended to anyone who can get their hands on it; it’s a superior product, bursting with creativity.

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