Titan A.E. (Graeme Revell)

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After boldly leaving Disney during the latter’s late-70s doldrums, animator Don Bluth and his compatriots made a series of well-regarded films in the 1980s, from The Secret of NIMH to An American Tail to The Land Before Time. But Bluth was unable to capitalize on the films’ success, and his output in the 1990s was a series of box office bombs and creative compromises that eventually led to the bankruptcy of his studio. Hired by Fox to head its new Fox Animation Studios, Bluth’s Anastasia was a Disney-size hit in 1997, with a bevy of Oscar nominations to boot, but Bluth’s second feature for Fox, 2000’s Titan A.E., was not. Despite an innovative visual style combining cel and 3D animation, the talents of a diverse group of collaborators including Joss Whedon and Matt Damon, and an eye-popping trailer before The Phantom Menace, the ambitious science fiction animation never found an audience. Perhaps parents were put off by the violent destruction of Earth in the film’s trailer and opening; in any case, the film was the first in a series of high-profile cel animation adventures to underperform in the 2000s which led studios to move toward 3D as “the format people wanted to see.” Bluth never made another movie, and Fox Animation was dissolved.

Bluth had collaborated with a diverse array of composers in his earlier animation work, from Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner in his 1980s salad days to Robert Folk and David Newman in the 1990s. For Titan A.E., though, New Zelander Graeme Revell was signed to score. Revell had an incredibly diverse career since making his mark with Child’s Play 2 in 1990, dabbling in everything from popcorn fantasy (Power Rangers) to horror (From Dusk Till Dawn) to superheroes (The Crow). In 2000, though, Revell was primarily known as an action composer on the back of efforts like The Negotiator, and it’s likely for that reason Bluth chose him for Titan A.E.. Unlike Bluth’s earlier efforts, though, there was a definite attempt to appeal to a youth demographic from Fox, so Revell’s score was forced to jostle for screen time with an array of banal late-90s rock songs. To help add an electronic edge to the work, Revell also brought on former Tangerine Dream member (and future film composer in his own right) Paul Haslinger as an arranger and synthesizer performer.

With a palette including Haslinger’s electronics and a full orchestra with choir, Revell’s approach to the score is grounded in an overarching theme that he holds to through much of the music. First heard on gentle piano in “Prologue/Drej Attack” and wistful Star Trek brass in “Wow,” Revell puts his Titan theme through plenty of variations similar to the way Jerry Goldsmith often played with his main themes at the time, but none is more satisfying than its massive statements for the film’s biggest triumphs. The first hint of choral majesty in “The Broken Moon” gives way to the film and score’s stunning finale in “Creation/Bob” when Revell lets his theme rip in all its glory with full brassy orchestra, chorus, and Haslinger’s electronic pulses. It’s a stunning statement of sci-fi awe, and one of the finest and most satisfying moments of the composer’s career, finishing out with a tender love-theme rendition of the primary motif for the film’s denouement (and its funniest Whedon-scripted line).

There’s solid orchestral writing throughout the score even when Revell isn’t developing his primary theme as well, like the mournful vocals of “Recovery” or the sci-fi wonder of “Don’t Lose ‘Em.” But, unfortunately, there is also material that’s much less compelling: for many of the movie’s big action setpieces, Revell and Haslinger resort to a pounding series of repetitive and simplistic drum beats (“Hydrogen Forest Chase,” “The Dreaded Drej”) that’s deeply out of sync with the more orchestral parts of the score; perhaps a need to make room and/or fit in with the dreadful 90s-style rock songs led to that approach. Worse still is the music for the alien Drej antagonists and their queen; beings of pure energy, they are represented by Haslinger’s electronics at their harshest and most unrestrained (“Start Running, Keep Running,” “Mother Drej,” parts of “Power Struggle”). The simplistic action and temple-pounding Drej synths simply don’t play nice with the rest of what is otherwise a superior score, dragging significant portions of it down to near-unlistenable levels.

Titan A.E.‘s failure has made it, to date, Graeme Revell’s only animated feature. But his career prospered in the 2000s with a number of science fiction and horror films from Pitch Black to Daredevil before gradually petering out in the 2010s. Thanks to Fox’s ill-fated marketing attempts there was a Titan soundtrack, but it was strictly composed of songs without a note of Revell’s score. Good-quality bootlegs abounded but it wasn’t until 2014 that La-La Land Records put out the complete score as part of a limited edition. While the music isn’t perfect, with an overreliance on harsh electronic textures and being forced to tiptoe around songs, Revell’s grand main theme and especially its outings in the first and last cues make the album worth the effort. Like the film it accompanies, the music isn’t Oscar caliber but remains sorely underrated.

Rating: starstarstar

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Freddy vs. Jason (Graeme Revell)

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After their final cinematic outings in 1993 and 1994 respectively, it seemed that the 1980s Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises were completely out of gas. The slasher genre of the 1990s would be defined by movies like Scream, much more subversive and self-aware than its 1980s forebears even at their campiest. Enter directer Ronny Yu, fresh from revitalizing another 1980s horror staple with Bride of Chucky to give the aging horror icons one last hurrah by combining them in the vein of Alien vs. Predator. The resultant Freddy vs. Jason attracted decent notices and box office receipts, but it was not enough to prevent remake-happy Hollywood from “rebooting” both franchises later in the decade.

New Zealand film score composer Graeme Revell had a history in the horror genre with titles like From Dusk till Dawn on his resume, and he had also worked with director Yu on the earlier Bride of Chucky. Revell was faced with the daunting musical history of the two series to inform his attempt to score the crossover; the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise in particular had never used the same composer twice, with scores from Charles Bernstein, Christopher Young, Angelo Badalamenti, Craig Safan, Jay Ferguson, Brian May (the Australian composer, not the rocker), and J. Peter Robinson–a veritable who’s who of horror composers for film and TV–each bringing their own distinct style and themes to the wildly varying tone and quality of the films. The much schlockier Friday the 13th films had been much more consistent in their (low) level of quality and their generally overachieving scores by composer Harry Manfredini (save for Fred Mollin’s score and tracked-in Manfredini needledrops for parts 7 and 8 of the series).

Revell chose to tackle the film with a straight-up classical horror score in the vein of many films of the old slasher era, a mostly orchestral and mostly atonal cocktail of effective, rambunctious, and noisy tracks with an occasional role for electronics and electric guitar. There was a time when that sort of score might have been called a cliche, but by 2003 horror and slasher films were increasingly bearing overprocessed scores in the vein of Hans Zimmer’s Media Ventures/Remote Control studios, textual efforts that were more sound design than traditional scoring. In that context, Revell’s music is an impressively entertaining thowback even as it breaks no new ground for either series or orchestral horror scores in general.

Most impressively, the composer pays significant tribute to the earlier films in both series. The orchestral, occasionally gothic sound of his score isn’t a million miles from some of the finer cuts from the Nightmare on Elm Street series, for instance, and Revell incorporates singsong children’s voices uttering the doggerel rhyme from Nightmare directly into his score on occasion. He also pays tribute to Manfredini’s Friday scores by using, with full credit, the latter composer’s original (and iconic) echoing “kill, kill, kill, kill, die, die, die, die” samples. These homages are only present in a minority of the cues, Revell being generally content to rely on his own ideas, but they form a very pleasing tip of the hat to the film’s forebears. Compared to Steve Jablonsky’s dire efforts for the “rebooted” Friday and Nightmare scores in 2009 and 2010, though, Revell’s effort is a breath of fresh air.

In 2003, a score like Freddy vs. Jason with occasional references to classic motifs from the schlocky earlier films was easy to dismiss as a weak, paint-by-numbers effort; a decade of awful scores for similar films wound up putting it in context as a much stronger effort than people give it credit for. Graeme Revell would get a few more horror assignments in the 2000s and 2010s, but none of the later efforts (mostly vile “reboots” themselves) approached the same level of satisfying cliche as Freddy vs. Jason, and indeed the composer took on far fewer assignments in the 2010s in general. Due perhaps to weak demand for the orchestral score as opposed to the irrelevant “songs from and inspired by” album, Revell’s music was later remaindered by Varèse Sarabande to the Family Dollar discount chain and can occasionally be acquired for as little as $3.

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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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