Son of Rambow (Joby Talbot)

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Part coming-of-age story, part loving parody of 1980s action movies, 2007’s Son of Rambow tells the tale of a British schoolchild from a strict religious family who accidentally sees First Blood and becomes obsessed with creating his own amateur “Rambow” movie whilst navigating the trials and tribulations of adolescence. The second and so far final movie produced by “Hammer & Tongs” (director Garth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith), Son of Rambow was made possible by its low budget and the modest success of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and it too was modestly successful with good reviews and enough revenue to recoup its small budget.

Hammer & Tongs had always planned to have a soundtrack that mixed pop tunes of the early 1980s with an original score for Son of Rambow, and the latter was provided by British composer Joby Talbot. Talbot had, of course, been Hammer & Tongs’ choice for The Hitchhiker’s Guide as well; Son of Rambow would wind up being the composer’s second major film score. With the need to work around song placements in a 90-minute film–in his liner notes, director Jennings notes his desire to make the CD his “ultimate 80s mixtape”–Talbot turned in a score just about 25 minutes long, about half the length of The Hitchhiker’s Guide.

One might expect, naturally, for a score like Son of Rambow to reference, pastiche, or pay homage to Jerry Goldsmith’s seminal action score for First Blood similar to something like what John Du Prez did with UHF in 1989. Instead, it’s clear from the outset of Talbot’s score that he’s more interested in the characters’ reactions to “Rambow” than anything else. The score opens with a great galumphing comic march, “The Best Day Ever,” which is a million miles removed from even the lightest portions of Goldsmith’s First Blood. “The Best Day Ever” theme, reprised in full for “First Day Filming” and “Son of Rambow,” is a delightful tune wherever it appears and (with apologies to Duran Duran) the album’s clear highlight.

The remainder of Talbot’s score is rather similar to what he provided for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (albeit lacking the synths some parts of that work featured): tuneful music in diverse styles that occasionally seem a bit scattershot. There’s some soft alternatives to the brassy “Best Day” march in “The Sad Day” and “Can You Fix It,” the latter performed in full James Horner style by Talbot himself. Fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide will appreciate more quirky music such as the goofy “I’m French, Non?” which is probably the most like that earlier score, and the percussive “The Scarecrow” which sounds like an amped-up version of the Blue Man Group tracks from John Powell’s Robots.

Along with The Hitchhiker’s Guide, Son of Rambow was the beginning of a very active period of composition for Talbot, with scores for Arctic Tale, Penelope, and Franklyn coming over the next two years. Sadly, none of the films was the sort of breakout success that would lead to more film work, and the composer’s main efforts continued to be directed toward the small screen, theater, and ballet.

Rating: starstarstarstar

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Joby Talbot)

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Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is one of the few truly multimedia creations to explode into the popular consciousness. The witty and oft-absurd saga science fiction saga of Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Marvin the Paranoid Android, and a supporting cast numbering in the hundreds began life as a BBC radio serial in 1978, the show’s tight deadlines serving as a comic crucible for Adams and his cast. Since then, Hitchhiker’s Guide has been a TV show, a computer game, a series of novels, live theater, spoken word albums, and an array of merchandise. For many years, the only two mediums that had not seen an adaptation of Hitchhiker’s Guide were smoke signals and film. But for many years the film version was trapped in development hell, with multiple directors, writers, producers, and actors–including Douglas Adams himself–taking stabs at the material until the British music video directing duo “Hammer & Tongs” (Garth Jennings and Nick Goldsmith) were retained, ironically and sadly several year’s after Adams’ sudden death from heart failure in 2001. The film version of Hitchhiker’s Guide was dogged by fan complaints about casting and changes to the story–particularly nonsensical given how many variations of the material there were–but it was nevertheless a decent success, though any talk of sequels was stillborn due to how expensive it had been to make.

For the film’s score, Hammer & Tongs selected Joby Talbot, a classically trained British composer who had written for the small screen, theater, and concert hall but never for film. They had collaborated once before, for a British TV commercial, which Talbot had scored due to a former association with the band Divine Comedy. Not only were the film’s producers impressed, but Talbot also brought along his former bandmate Neil Hannon for vocal work as well. A part of the film’s production from the very beginning, Talbot wrote hours of temp music before constructing his final score and co-wrote the film’s centerpiece song, a gala based on hyperintelligent dolphins’ last message to a soon-to-be-destroyed human race: “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish.”

That song, the first to be written, was an outgrowth of a jam session Talbot, director Jennings, and orchestrator/conductor Christopher Austin had near the beginning of production, and it’s an outgrowth of the enthusiasm all the participants had for a universe they’d been fans of for years. Written in an over-the-top faux-Broadway-revue style complete with Adams-esque lyrics, “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish” opens the album and a lounge version by Neil Hannon closes it, but the tune is malleable enough that Talbot essentially employs it as the film’s main theme. It gets twisted into almost a love theme (the tail end of “Shootout”), a bouncy sendoff (“Finale”), and electronics (“Careless Talk”), and is always good catchy fun when it appears.

Since Talbot is scoring a comedy, there is some more overtly “funny” music. “Huma’s Hymn” sounds like a classical choral interlude until one hears the lyrics extolling a deity who sneezed the universe into being, and “Destruction of Earth” parodies James Horner’s “Bishop’s Countdown” from Aliens by drawing out the final Holst-inspired string hits far longer than they should, matching a scene of endless zoom-out jump cuts. There’s some quirky music for electronics, chiefly for scenes involving the guide itself (the Uematsu-esque gentle arpeggios of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”) and the comic antics of the cast (the bouncy “Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster” foxtrot), working with Nigel Goodrich, who would later score Scott Pilgrim vs. The World for Edgar Wright. The original “Journey of the Sorcerer” theme by the Eagles, used for the opening theme of the radio and TV series, gets a resounding recording complete with theremin as an homage.

There’s plenty of fully orchestral music of science fiction awe and wonder to fill the remainder of the album; it’s always pretty if not always distinctive. The “serious” highlight of the album is probably the back-to-back duo of “Planet Factory Floor” and “Earth Mark II” which is soaring and pastoral in the way that Talbot’s later career highlight Arctic Tale would be. The music is always bright and breezy; if there’s a weakness to be found it’s that (much like the subject matter) it is often all over the map veering from electronic to orchestral and silly to serious at the drop of a hat. There are enough highlights of both the straitlaced and the silly-faced music to please most listeners, though they’ll probably wind up creating a custom playlist from the music’s bits.

Hollywood Records put out a CD for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to coincide with the theatrical release, packing a few needledropped songs and a bizarre rap by Stephen Fry (the voice of the Guide in the film) around 55 minutes of original score and songs. Talbot’s score led to more film work in the 2000s, including Son of Rambow, the next (and so far only) film produced by Hammer & Tongs, but despite strong work he never managed to break out into the mainstream of film scoring or land a major international assignment, though he has continued to be active in other venues. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is in every way a pleasant surprise; while a little inconsistent and mickey-mousey at times, it offers an impressive variety of serious and silly music, and should be an easy recommendation for score and Douglas Adams fans.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Franklyn (Joby Talbot)

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Franklyn was writer/director Gerald McMorrow’s attempt at a cerebral fantasy film examining the nature of faith with a parallel universe story splitting its time between a fundamentalist dystopia called Meanwhile City and contemporary London. McMorrow was able to attract a top cast including Eva Green, Ryan Phillippe, and Bernard Hill, and the movie presented a very striking aesthetic, but it had trouble connecting with moviegoers in its initial run in cinemas (perhaps due to the film’s off-putting title and lack of any actual character named Franklyn). It received generally good reviews, though, and eventually eked out an audience on home and streaming video.

For British composer Joby Talbot, Franklyn was a dream assignment, one that he actively sought out after reading Gerald McMorrow’s screenplay. Talbot had a good roster of projects for film, television, and the concert hall under his belt by 2008, but his feature film scores had been mostly low-key since his arrival on the scene The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in 2005. Projects like Arctic Tale (2005), Penelope (2006), and Son of Rambow (2007) had kept Talbot in multiplexes, but he hadn’t reached out to the same sci-fi/fantasy cult audience since Hitchhiker’s. Franklyn would prove to be that project.

For the alternate world of Meanwhile City, Talbot came up with an incredibly strong theme in the mold of his most awestruck pieces from Hitchhiker’s and Arctic Tale. Heard at the album’s outset (and the movie’s grand establishing shot) in “Gonna Kill a Man,” it’s a sweeping and romantic gem, with full-orchestra undulations against swirling piano arpeggios with subtle electronic enhancements. Wherever it appears, from the introductory “Meanwhile City” to the redemptive “Finale Part 2” and “End Credits,” Talbot’s main theme captivates. It’s one of the strongest film music statements of 2008 by any measure.

The score is essentially monothematic, with twinkling arrangements and fragments of that main theme frequently appearing at the beginning and end of Silva’s generous 50-minute CD and download. Piano and harp are particularly foremost in the fantasy atmosphere in many places, with the former for the character of Emilia and the latter representing the character of Esser. Whenever Talbot is using his Meanwhile City theme, motifs based on it, or conjuring a dark fantasy atmosphere similar to that in the concluding parts of Hitchhiker’s or the most troubled parts of Arctic Tale, the album soars. Talbot uses a few more interesting devices in places as well: ticking clocks as rhythmic instruments and jaunty Middle Eastern pastiche in “Faith Registration Center.”

Its monothematic nature is unfortunately a bit of a two-edged sword as far as Franklyn‘s listenability is concerned, though. Whenever the music turns to action (“The Catacombs”) or suspense (“David Bursts in”), the music is discordant, textual, and colorless. It’s doubtless an excellent support for the film, but can’t do much apart from it. There’s no really satisfying mix of the powerful theme and fantasy atmosphere with the more ambient portions; in “David Bursts In” and the lengthy “Finale Part 1,” where the two styles are places side-by-side, they don’t gel and the disconnect is at times distracting.

Franklyn still merits a recommendation based on its incredible main theme and the compelling fantasy atmosphere throughout parts of the album, but it’s disappointing that the score’s action and suspense cues simply can’t live up to that standard. The highlights, though, are not to be missed. Talbot has remained more active in writing for live venues since, with no further ventures into big-screen fantasy, but has scored the occasional film like 2013’s Closed Circuit

Rating: starstarstar

Arctic Tale (Joby Talbot)

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2005’s March of the Penguins opened up a new world of opportunities for big screen nature documentaries. While the BBC had been producing episodic and feature length docs at a high standard of quality for many years, March oudid the Beeb by grafting a warm, if anthropomorphic, storyline onto the documentary footage and connecting with audiences bored by the more accurate, procedural attitudes of other documentaries. When it came time to cut 15 years of similar footage of polar bears into a motion picture, National Geographic fashioned it into an even more overtly feel-good and anthropomorphized tale. With animal “composite characters” given names and motivations and eco-warrior narration co-written by Al Gore’s daughter, no one could accuse 2007’s Arctic Tale of being subtle in either its message or its attempts to connect with audiences (though disappointing box office returns and a healthy life in reruns on TV were the project’s ultimate fate).

Classically trained British composer Joby Talbot had worked mostly in television, most notably The League of Gentlemen for the Beeb Two, before his first major feature scoring assignment in 2005, the Douglas Adams comedy adaptation The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It was an odd choice, giving a relatively inexperienced composer a scoring assignment of this nature with only a few features under his belt, but Talbot responded with a pleasant surprise and one of 2007’s most obscure film score treasures.

For Arctic Tale, Talbot penned a grand, thematic score in the tradition of the best nature documentaries and dramatic films. From the first moments of “Kingdom of Ice,” when he introduces his sweepingly majestic main theme, the composer layers on expansive music with an optimistic sound, strong tonal melodies, and an overall pastoral feel despite the chilly subject matter. Talbot evokes the icy Arctic setting in subtle ways, mostly with chimes and mallet percussion, but it’s never overwhelming and the balance between warmth and icy majesty is one of the album’s great strengths.

A few moments of cellular writing (as in “A Small Miracle”) recall Philip Glass, and there are some stylistic nods to George Fenton’s famously lush BBC documentary music as well; the most soaring parts of the work like “The Arrival of Spring” also recall Elmer Bernstein’s rollicking music for National Geographic projects of yore. This is merely a case of inhabiting the same sonic universe, in most cases, rather than temp track influence or direct homages. Even the more troubled music, like the sinister “The Storm” and tragic opening of “Strange Encounters” have the same expansive scope and lush orchestration (the latter building into perhaps the most joyful statement of theme and motion on the album).

Film score fans only familiar with Talbot through The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will be mightily impressed by what he accomplished with Arctic Tale. The composer essentially took the most creative, positive, and hugely orchestral sound from that film, the duo of “Planet Factory Floor” and “Earth Mark II,” and crafted it into a full-bodied 45-minute score of beautiful, uplifting, and pastoral music.

Arctic Tale came in the midst of a purple patch of feature scoring for Joby Talbot, including the aforementioned Hitchhiker’s Guide (2005), The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse (2005), Son of Rambow (2008), Penelope (2008), and Franklyn (2009). The mixed success those films suffered in the marketplace unfortunately meant that Talbot received relatively few film assignments mixed with a few classical commissions in the years since, which is a shame. All of the scores share the same lush orchestral sound, and Arctic Tale is perhaps the pick of the lot as the ultimate expression of Talbot’s harmonic, thematic, and enjoyable music. Highly recommended (though beware the song compilation from the film with none of Talbot’s score), and as of this writing available for as little as one cent for the CD and $7 for a digital download.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar