Captain America: The First Avenger (Alan Silvestri)

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The final puzzle piece to fall into place for the Marvel cinematic universe before 2012’s The Avengers was Captain America. Though he’d been around since World War II, indeed before Marvel Comics was Marvel Comics, Captain America–like his stablemate Thor–had a very weak presence in other media. A few TV appearances, a 1940s series, and a disastrously bad 1990 theatrical film that was barely released…all of them seemed to suggest that audiences were uninterested in a character whose patriotism was passe in a cynical age. Marvel bet otherwise in 2011, putting accomplished filmmaker Joe Johnston at the helm of Captain America: The First Avenger, a tale that essentially took all the beats of the 1990 version but did them much better, ending with the titular super-soldier being brought forward to the present day. The film attracted good notices and more or less tied Thor in box-office receipts, but laid the groundwork for a sequel that would double those numbers.

Director Johnston had worked with a diverse stable of composers throughout his career, with an early partnership with James Horner for his first four films and later collaborations with Mark Isham, Don Davis, James Newton Howard, and Danny Elfman. Surprisingly, he chose someone he’d never worked with before instead: Alan Silvestri. Silvestri is probably still best-known to audiences for his work on 80s sci-fi classics Back to the Future and Predator, but he had been working steadily since, and had produced a series of old-fashioned action scores including The Mummy Returns and Van Helsing since the turn of the millennium. Called in with only seven weeks to score, Silvestri was asked to write a similarly old-fashioned score for Captain America.

Right away, in “Main Titles,” Silvestri teases a theme that he develops across the score, appropriately bold and noble and full of brassy patriotism. “We Did It,” “Triumphant Return,” and (for some listeners) the “Captain America March” present the theme in all its glory, although it is worked into a satisfying amount of the action music as well. While it won’t unseat the composer’s themes from the 1980s anytime soon, it is a breath of fresh thematic air in the Marvel cinematic universe which until then had largely had relatively milquetoast themes with even the best ones undercut either by their lack of use (Iron Man 2) or the uncomfortable inclusion of studio-mandated “modern” elements (Thor). The theme is perhaps closest to Michael Giacchino’s early music for the Medal of Honor video games (though the recent entries in that series have also suffered under dreadful “modern” scores) and the comparison is an apt one, with a sense of grand orchestral nostalgia amid all the derring-do.

The villainous Red Skull and his so-evil-even-the-Nazis-are-uncomfortable HYDRA organization get a motif of their own, though it’s muted in comparison to Cap’s theme which precludes any real theme vs. theme pyrotechics of the Danny Elfman style. Consisting of a series of sinister, ascending notes, it debuts in “Frozen Wasteland” for the film’s tie-in to Thor before being aired in “Schmidt’s Treasure” and “HYDRA Lab.” What the HYDRA motif lacks in punch and ability to go toe-to-toe with the main Cap theme, it makes up for in its consistent employment; in “Fight on the Flight Deck” it’s such a pleasure to hear a noticeable theme for a villain and a noticeable theme for a hero in an action cue at the same time. After all, if the heroes in the Marvel universe had been shortchanged by their thematic representation thus far, the villains had it even worse.

Though the lack of any facets of the post-Batman Begins superhero scoring doldrums is refreshing, Captain America doesn’t approach the level of Silvestri’s best action works and at times–particularly when the main theme is absent–seems more like the composer spinning his orchestral wheels than anything. A similar problem affected The Avengers, though the constant used of Cap’s theme does give this earlier score more structure. Still, it’s a little disappointing, and probably a function of the short time in which the score was written, that Silvestri’s action music is often merely functional. The lighter cues for conversation and introspection also lack the snap of a Rocketeer and contribute somewhat toward the album’s leaden opening.

A generous album was released along with the movie, though irritatingly its very best track–the “Captain America March” from the end credits, the best and boldest statement of the film’s main theme–was exclusive to the digital version despite the CD having more than enough room. More importantly, Silvestri impressed the producers at Marvel enough that he was chosen to score The Avengers the next year. With references to his Captain America theme in that film, Thor: The Dark World by Brian Tyler, and tracked in at times around Henry Jackman’s score for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it is arguably the most enduring theme to come out of the Marvel cinematic universe thus far. For that, and for avoiding many of the pitfalls that bedeviled superhero scores throughout the Marvel cinematic universe and the 2010s, Captain America: The First Avenger earns itself a solid recommendation.

Rating: starstarstarstar

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Congo (Jerry Coldsmith)

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Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. That has been a sore spot for many of film score composer Jerry Goldsmith’s fans for years, the fact that the he often seemed to get also-rans and warmed-over leftovers of major films while those films themselves went to other people (often Goldsmith’s contemporary John Williams). Williams scored Superman, Goldsmith got Supergirl; Williams scored Home Alone, Goldsmith got Dennis the Menace; Williams scored Raiders of the Lost Ark, Goldsmith got King Solomon’s Mines. And, of course, Williams scored Jurassic Park and Goldsmith got Congo.

While author Michael Crichton’s novels had been made into films before–The Andromeda Strain, Westworld, Runaway–the massive success of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 adaptation of Jurassic Park started a scramble to film Crichton’s remaining properties. John Williams, as Spielberg’s regular collaborator, was never in doubt for the dinosaur movie, but the process was murkier for the author’s most similar novel, Congo. Rising star James Newton Howard was originally attached to the project, but scheduling conflicts led to him departing in favor of Goldsmith, who already had a history of scoring Crichton projects with 1979’s The Great Train Robbery. The resulting adaptation of Congo was a modest box office success; it was no Jurassic Park, but it had a certain campy guilty-pleasure appeal, which is more than can be said for many such piggybacking films.

Stepping into the breach, Goldsmith continued a collaboration begun by Howard with African musician and arranger Lebo M, who had catapulted to international notice the previous year with his contributions to The Lion King. With Lebo M as an arranger and lyricist, Goldsmith created “Spirit of Africa,” which would serve as his main theme for Congo and bookend the film. While the singer and lyrics courtesy of Lebo M aren’t exactly high points in his career, Goldsmith provided an attractive melody that he wove into the rest of the score (thankfully without the rather banal lyrics). It’s surprisingly gentle for a movie about explosions and lasers and murderous apes, but the composer integrates it wonderfully as counterpoint into a number of his action setpieces.

Among film score fans, Jerry Goldsmith is most famous as an action composer, though he sometimes chafed under that label. To his credit, he provides a strong suite of pule-pounding music for Congo, led by the album’s highlight, “Bail Out.” For that sequence of the main characters parachuting out of a plane under missile attack, the composer provides a ferocious action piece offset with grand major-key heroics and statements of his “Spirit of Africa” theme. There’s also a fair bit of red-meat action as the film approaches the Lost City of Zinj, with the back-to-back pair of “Amy’s Nightmare” and “Kahega” as a particular highlight.

A large portion of Congo takes place, as one might expect, in the jungles of the Congo, and to that end Goldsmith composed a fair bit of minimalistic jungle music. Led by embarrassingly synthetic panpipes, this music serves the picture well but is far from enjoyable on its own. Several of the tracks that were unreleased until 2013 feature stronger material and this rambling jungle ambience in the same track, which can at times make it a bit of a chore to listen to. These songs also serve to break up the highlights of the score, which will leave many listeners scrambling for their fast-forward buttons.

Jerry Goldsmith often had a prickly relationship with his fans, and the album edits the composer prepared for his scores were no exception. At the time of Congo‘s release he arranged a 30-minute suite of highlights which minimized the duller and ambient jungle music but also trimmed a few shorter action pieces; when asked, Goldsmith snapped that if his fans wanted more action music they should go listen to Rambo again. In 2013, Intrada released a complete version of Congo that added 20 minutes of score and copious extras (including the sole piece of score that Howard recorded before departing the project). For all that his fans complained, though, time has proven Goldsmith right: the absolute best parts of his score are all on the original album, and the best parts of what remains are substantially similar to the album cuts. As such, Intrada’s lovingly crafted release is a much flabbier listen than Goldsmith’s lean-beef 1995 arrangement.

Whether because he simply wrote what he was asked to write, or because (as so often happened) he found Congo to be underwhelming as a film, Jerry Goldsmith ultimately turned in a middle-of-the-road score for a middle-of-the-road movie. His excellent “Sprit of Africa” melody and punchy action music are offset by dull ambient jungle noise and some rather questionable lyrical choices by his collaborator Lebo M. Still, it’s a worthwhile addition to any Goldsmith fancier’s collection, though most will probably be satisfied with the cheap 1995 CD unless they specifically crave the detailed liner notes and deluxe presentation of the 2013 Intrada product.

Rating: starstarstar