The Fourth Kind (Atli Örvarsson)

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Many films use the term “based on a true story” very loosely, but few have ever taken advantage of the term as much as the 2009 feature The Fourth Kind. By co-opting real disappearances in and around Nome in Alaska, circulating fake stories from real newspapers, and presenting “real” and “staged” versions of the same scenes to try and build interest, the filmmakers were only able to get themselves sued. Audiences largely responded with a yawn.

Despite the faux verisimilitude in The Fourth Kind, the filmmakers still commissioned an original score by Icelandic composer Atli Örvarsson from Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control music studio. After serving as an assistant, orchestrator, and additional music composer for Remote Control, Örvarsson began taking on smaller solo scoring projects in the late 2000s. Following the path of many of Zimmer’s proteges, these assignments like The Fourth Kind and Babylon A.D. gave listeners a chance to hear the composer’s musical voice without being saddled with the added duty of trying to sound like Zimmer himself.

The Fourth Kind album begins very promisingly, with beautiful wordless vocals from Thórhildur Örvarsdóttir (presumably one of the composer’s close relatives) setting an icy, mournful tone in “Flight to Nome.” It’s an incredibly effective and beautiful theme, and its reprises later in the album (the lengthy “Northern Lights” in particular) form the definite highlights of Örvarsson’s score. The composer also provides a string fugue of similar tone that often bleeds into and out of the vocal theme.

And after such a promising beginning there is…nothing. Other than a few dark ostinatos that are de rigueur for students of the Remote Control school, virtually all the rest of the music in the film and on album is sound design. Dark, completely devoid of melody, and serving more as a sound effect than any kind of coherent musical score, Örvarsson is unable to (or, more likely, was directed not to) incorporate even the slightest fragments of his earlier theme into the bulk of the underscore. There’s instrumental creativity there to be sure, with instruments from duduk to double bass, tabla drums to slide guitar, but it doesn’t translate into anything meaningfully listenable.

Perhaps the faux-documentary nature of the film makes a more traditional score inappropriate, but given the beauty of Örvarsson’s vocal theme the rest of the album has to be regarded as a disappointment. Download the vocal songs, “Flight to Nome” and “Northern Lights” in particular, and leave the rest in the film. Despite the The Fourth Kind‘s tepid response, Örvarsson’s career has seen a steady increase in high-profile assignments–including a reunion with the latter’s director–and one can hope that he will eventually be able to craft the outstanding vocal writing on display in the best parts of the album into a more fully enjoyable score. The Varèse Sarabande score CD was one of many remaindered to Family Dollar stores beginning in 2012, and can be had new for as little as three dollars in the right location.

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Annapolis (Brian Tyler)

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It’s been said, with regards to the obscure monkey mayhem movie Link, that the only people who remember the movie are Jerry Goldsmith fans. It’s fair to say that the only people to remember 2006’s Annapolis may be Brian Tyler fans. It was the first Hollywood studio film to be directed by Justin Lin, who would later skyrocket to international fame by taking over the then-moribund Fast and Furious series and leading it to four more films and record box office numbers, and its creaky tale mixing boxing and military cadets was a minor flop upon release.

In fact, one could say that the most notable thing about Annapolis is that it introduced up-and-coming film composer Brian Tyler to Lin; their collaboration would continue thereafter into the much more successful Fast and Furious films. Annapolis came at a fruitful time for the composer, when he was mixing lower-key films with would-be blockbusters on his resume, and there are definite echoes of the big-ticket style he would later display in scores like Iron Man 3 in the music for Annapolis.

The music is eclectic, with noble military music, intense Goldsmithian action, quirky orchestral passages, and even some hard-edged contemporary tones. It would be easy for a score to lose focus with such variety, but Tyler is able to consistently blend the disparate genres into cohesiveness thanks to a pair of very strong themes. A more serious theme, not unlike what James Horner produced for military films, is prominent in many places beginning with the film’s main titles, while a more upbeat theme is referenced frequently as well; Tyler occasionally joins the two, letting them flow smoothly into one another, and his loyalty to his themes across various musical genres is impressive.

It’s hard not to see the score’s influences worn on its sleeve: the contemporary music is clearly inspired by An Officer and a Gentleman and Top Gun, with shades of Glory and In Country for the somber militaria and the occasional (albeit fully orchestral) training montage sound from Rocky. Tyler is best able to break away from these influences in his action music, which inventively uses his themes both as melody and counterpoint: “The Brigades/Showdown” is the easy highlight because of this fierce and smart sound–again, not unlike what Tyler would conjure up for later movies.

In the end, Annapolis is a diverse score with excellent thematics to glue it together, and despite the obviousness of what Lin must have played for Tyler as inspiration, the music works well as an album. The film may be forgettable and forgotten, but the album is a forgotten gem in Tyler’s mid to early career discography. Perhaps due to Annapolis‘s failure at the box office, it was one of the discs in Varése Sarabande’s “Family Dollar Housecleaning” and can often be found remaindered at that discount store chain for $3 to $4. Anyone looking for an introduction to Tyler, investigating the seeds of some of his later success, or simply enjoying a diverse and counterintuitively cohesive album will not be disappointed.

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Elektra (Christophe Beck)

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2005’s Elektra was a quasi-sequel, quasi-spinoff to 2003’s Daredevil, resurrecting Jennifer Garner’s slain character from the earlier film and placing her in a murky realm of assassinations and magic. If the response to Daredevil had been rather tepid, Elektra was greeted with even greater indifference and died a quick death at the box office, putting the franchise to rest until the inevitable reboot. As virtually none of the first film’s cast or crew was carried over, it was no surprise to see Daredevil composer Graeme Revell replaced by Christophe Beck.

Beck was, at the time, making a transition from television scoring (with credits like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel), one which would see him gradually become attached to higher-profile films over the course of the 2000s and into the 2010s. For Elektra, Beck chose to eschew Revell’s approach, which had been to follow the basic pre-Batman Begins Danny Elfman superhero template with a main theme, love theme, and occasional contemporary or world music elements. Instead, the composer decided to embark on an experiment, using pitch manipulation, dark orchestral textures, and other forms of orchestral timbre and electronic modulation.

What results is a score that is heavy on noise but light on thematic substance. Duduk (perhaps a nod to the title character’s Greek heritage), percussion specialty instruments like taikos, and effects created in the computer blend together to create and aggressive and often oppressive sonic atmosphere. At times, as in the brief but intense “Gnarly Gongs,” the effect is more that of in-your-face sound design than music. It’s a sound that suits the action-heavy and martial-arts-suffused picture well, but isn’t exactly pleasant listening apart from leather-clad, sai-weilding bosoms.

Beck’s biggest misstep in the score is failing to create a solid thematic core around which to wrap his experimental sounds. Some scores are able to rely on texture and style to hold them together in the absence of overt thematic material, but music as difficult (if creative) as Beck’s cried out for more islands of tonality. He does offer a few glimpses of more traditional scoring, most notably in the warm closing track “Elektra’s Second Life;” if only that theme had been broken up and deconstructed into the mix along with everything else, a much more intriguing score would have resulted.

In the end, one can’t fault Beck for his experimentation, and percussion lovers will certainly find more interesting textures here than in contemporary Remote Control/Media Ventures scores. But it’s not an easy listen, and often a tiring one. The composer would have to wait until The Lightning Thief in 2010 to deliver a truly satisfying large-scale action score, and he has had relatively few opportunities to revisit the genre since. Record label Varése Sarabande released Beck’s score some time after the inevitable lousy song album, but later liquidated its remaining inventory of the score in its “Family Dollar Housecleaning” in the early 2010s; as such, Elektra can often be found for as little as $3-4 new.

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X-Men: The Last Stand (John Powell)

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The third X-Men movie was an early summer 2006 success, topping the box office take of its two prequels while garnering decent reviews from the public (if not die-hard series fans). The film saw a change in directors, as Bryan Singer departed the series to helm the disastrous Superman Returns, taking composer/editor John Ottman with him. With Michael Kamen’s untimely 2003 death ruling out his return to the franchise, Brett Ratner, Singer’s replacement, chose former Media Ventures composer John Powell to score the film.

Powell seemed an unlikely choice at the time, and many feared that X-Men: The Last Stand would be saddled with an overly electronic Remote Control/Media Ventures dial-a-score. He would go on to prove his doubters wrong in a spectacular fashion, building on strong previous efforts like The Bourne IdentityMr. and Mrs. Smith, and Ice Age 2 to produce a powerhouse action/adventure score for the X-Men. Michael Kamen’s score for the first X-Men was serviceable but disappointing, with little thematic material to speak of. John Ottman’s X2 score provided the mutants with a strong main theme and subthemes, but was unable to develop them effectively in the underscore. Powell united the two approaches, combining Kamen’s robust action scoring with Ottman’s thematic approach.

The score is anchored with a brassy and heroic main theme that retains structural similarities to Kaman’s X-Men and Ottman’s X2 material and is first heard in “Bathroom Titles.” Powell is able to effectively integrate the theme into the underscore, using it in a more subdued form as counterpart throughout the album’s quieter cues while returning to the brassy march when necessary. Magneto and his underlings get a pounding, percussive theme that again has echoes of Ottman’s Magneto material but develops the basic soundscape in a far more aggressive and menacing way. Powell, unlike Ottman, is able to develop this theme in the album’s many large-scale action cues as well.

However, the real highlight of the score is the music for the Dark Phoenix character. First introduced as a swirling love theme of sorts in “Whirlpool of Love,” the darkly choral music builds to a frenzy in the “Dark Phoenix’s Tragedy” and “Phoenix Rises” cues. Powell’s orchestration of the theme is spectacular, offsetting the choral fireworks with robust action music; these building blocks intertwine and build off one another as the songs reach their climax, often subtly incorporating fragments of the title theme and the Magneto material.

X-Men: The Last Stand develops several other outstanding motifs, and its latter half is packed with impressive action cues. Powell wisely doesn’t seek to invent the wheel, and several of his cues contain hints of the distinctive Elfman superhero flair; though this is subtly done, it is a welcome decision in an era where the anonymous grinding of Batman Begins is increasingly the superhero scoring standard. The pounding metal-on-metal hits prevalent in the action material also owe something to Horner’s early 80’s style, but again the musical voice is strictly Powell’s.

In addition to being one of Powell’s highest-grossing films, X-Men: The Last Stand served as an impressive resume-builder for John Powell, giving notice that he was someone to watch in the soundtrack community.  Powell was able to parley this success into other assignments, like the gritty superhero flick Hancock and the Oscar-nominated orchestral score for How to Train Your Dragon. Sadly, he would not be asked back for a repeat performance with the X-Men franchise, which would continue to rotate through composers in its increasingly disappointing further entries. Powell’s ex-collaborator Harry Gregson-Williams (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), fellow Remote Control/Media Ventures alumnus Henry Jackman (X-Men: First Class), and even Marco Beltrami (The Wolverine) were all unable to match Powell’s exhilarating music.

The superior material and development on display in The Last Stand make it the best superhero score of the decade, and it comes highly recommended for anyone looking for a fully developed, thematic score for the X-Men that remains true to the series’ musical roots while maintaining John Powell’s distinct musical voice. Like many Varése Sarabande releases from the mid-2000s, X-Men: The Last Stand was part of the “Family Dollar Housecleaning” in which large numbers of unsold CDs were written off and sold to the retailer; it can therefore easily be had new for as little as $3 to $4.

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Being Julia (Mychael Danna)

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An obscure but well-received 2004 feature starring Annette Benning, Being Julia played out the tale of an aging actress during the golden age of cinema and nabbed its leading actress an Oscar nomination. Hungarian director István Szabó dabbled extensively in both European and Hollywood cinema before and after the film, and with the semi-retirement of Maurice Jarre, who gave the director’s previous English-language feature Sunshine one of his final (and finest) scores, Mychael Danna was hired for the project. One of a pair of stately period pieces (Vanity Fair being the other) the Canadian scored back-to back after the disappointment of his 2003 Hulk rejection, the talky picture had relatively little room for a traditional dramatic score.

Varèse Sarabande can’t be accused of holding anything back; Danna’s entire score is on the album down to the last track. It’s an incredibly short score, a mere 22:28 when stripped of the songs padding out the album, and with 22 score tracks that means that the average song is scarcely over a minute long. In fact, none of the score tops three minutes, 14 of the score tracks are less than a minute long (with three clocking in at under 30 seconds), and the shortest lasts a mere 13 seconds! It’s no wonder the album was padded a bit, as even with 13:34 of period songs it barely tops 36 minutes, nearly the exact length of Varèse’s “30-minute specials” from the 80s and 90s before the AFM musical re-use rule changes.

Ordinarily–at least when the artist is not Thomas Newman–the presence of so many short tracks means that the music will inevitably be highly fragmented, content to Mickey Mouse along with the action and little else. To his credit, Danna sidesteps this through the clever use of a wonderful theme. First heard in the opening track, “Curtain Up,” the theme is a delight, with sweeping neo-classical movements and a rapturous full-orchestral sound that is malleable enough to be adapted into forms both sprightly and dark. Hardly a track on the album goes by where Danna is not referencing his theme, whether in quirky pizzicato mode (“Birthday Presents”) or arranged for heartbreak and tragedy (“It Will Only End in Tears”). The score has only the one theme, and it is repeated early and often, but such is not always a problem–Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings certainly has 22 minutes of various themes kicking around all told.

The album is rather poorly produced, though: a recurring problem in period movies that use older songs to pad out the score CD (to bring up Thomas Newman again, his The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile are key examples of this). The songs break up the score, being completely different in tone and style, and they also suffer from muffled and archival sound which is inconsistent with not only the score but also each other. Nothing jars one out of experiencing Danna’s pristine new recording of variations on his theme than a song which was recorded on 1930s technology and sounds like is has spent the intervening 80 years in a hot barn surrounded by steel wool. A much more logical decision would have been to program Danna’s score as a whole, with the songs clustered at the beginning or end of the album.

While Being Julia remains a relatively obscure film on its own merits and in Mychael Danna’s filmography, the composer was able to transcend many limitations that hamstring short-tracked albums though the consistent application of his theme. While the music’s bittiness does remain a concern, and it’s too bad that the score was broken up by songs, the CD is well worth seeking out at the right price. One of the titles in Varèse Sarabande’s infamous “Family Dollar Housecleaning,” the album can often be found new for as little as $3 or $4 at the discount chain.

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