Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: The Game (James Hannigan)

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2009’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince solidified director David Yates’s control over the trillion-dollar franchise. The last of the six traditional Potterverse movies, before the strange bifurcated finale, the film had major script problems that not only kept it from being as engaging as its predecessor but forced the following Deathly Hallows Part 1 to go through a series of bizarre narrative contortions in addition to its focus on camping. The film’s score was singled out for particular criticism, with Nicholas Hooper’s subtle music being partly jettisoned by Yates in favor of material from the previous film.

Needless to say, it was a sure bet that a game adaptation would be forthcoming. Sure enough, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince appeared on the release calendars opposite the film. With both the director and the composer of the previous movie returning for the first time since 2002, the game shares a similar sense of continuity, with James Hannigan returning to the series, cementing himself as Jeremy Soule’s successor as Hogwarts’ composer in residence.

It becomes clear from the outset of the album that Hannigan is interested in maintaining thematic continuity between his scores. The opening “Return to Hogwarts” features creative mutations of the composer’s original themes from Order of the Phoenix, with both the friendship theme and the darker menacing/mischief theme combined as a suite. If the new adaptations aren’t quite as soaring as the previous ones, they do an excellent job of tying the scores together in a way Soule never quite managed. The friendship theme is given a full performance at the end of the album as well, moving away from the flighty and optimistic into a quiet and downbeat arrangement that’s incredibly moving.

The themes are less prominent in Hannigan’s sequel outing, integrated more subtly into the music and with significant sections absent them entirely. The album highlight “Race Ginny,” for example, cleverly integrates a fragment of the friendship theme into its midsection while relying on a unique piece to carry its first third. Hannigan seems to be trying to find a middle ground between Williams’ theme-driven music for the films and Soule’s largely themeless work for the first four games; he takes another page from Soule in some other aspects of the score, including some lengthy sections of ambiance across the varied “Wandering” cues.

As before, the music runs the gamut from serious (“More Potions”) to silly (“Fred and George Return”), always keeping that delicate magic touch no matter the setting. The action music is once again a highlight, though perhaps not without some reservations. Tracks such as “Slytherin Combat” soar to triumphant heights unequaled in previous Potter scores, but there is also some weaker music as well, with “Bellatrix” and “Fenrir Battle” recalling some of Soule’s weaker action efforts.

As with the previous game, Hannigan was allowed to adopt some of John Williams’ themes from the original film and a few incidental Soule compositions were recycled. And, as before, all of the Williams adaptations were left off the official album. Luckily, though, Half-Blood Prince also continues the fine production evident in the previous score — the album presentation is superior, with crystal-clear sound, well-mastered tracks, and a pleasing flow with the hideous flaws from the Soule albums a distant memory. Nearly an hour of music is present as well, making this the lengthiest Potter game score to date.

Half-Blood Prince was another extremely strong entry by Hannigan. The composer repeated his previous achievement and wound up turning in music that was superior to Nicholas Hooper’s film score. If the album isn’t quite as consistently excellent as its predecessor, it was still an incredibly strong entry. Astonishingly, Hannigan’s score was released months before the movie or game appeared, the only album in the series thus far to become available so early. Perhaps this, and the incredible weakness of Hooper’s film score, were what led to the official album being pulled only a few months later, around the time that the film hit theaters. All other Potterverse game albums were yakned at the same time, leaving the narrow window of only a few months for fans to acquire the music legally.

Half-Blood Prince would also prove to be the final Potterverse game album of any sort after EA squelched the previous releases. While Hannigan would return for the final two games in the series, their emphasis on third-person action meant that the scores were not only unreleased but far inferior. Hopef

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: The Game (James Hannigan)

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In keeping with the overall trend of the series, 2007’s film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix saw a still-darker tone, yet another person in the director’s chair, and another composer providing the music. New director David Yates made the right decision in trimming much of the overstuffed fifth Potter tome for the screen, yet in bringing he old collaborator Nicholas Hooper along to score he sharply divided fans, with many claiming that it was far weaker than John Williams’ or Patrick Doyle’s efforts for previous films in the series.

Interestingly, this situation carried over into the inevitable video game adaptation of the film, which saw a composer other than Jeremy Soule take up the baton for the first time. Soule had scored all four previous games with an inventive and magical sound that eschewed John Williams’ iconic themes. Despite being very poorly represented on album, they had been quite popular with fans. Taking over from Soule for Phoenix was veteran composer James Hannigan, who had a diverse career in game scoring but for whom the Potterverse assignment represented a real breakthrough.

For the first time in the game series, Hannigan was given leave to use John Williams’ iconic themes for the movie series in the game’s score for the first time. The game would ultimately feature Hannigan’s arrangements of Williams’ themes, his own original music and motifs, and tracked-in leftovers from Soule’s four scores. With such a mishmash, it was easy to expect Hannigan to underperform — especially as compared with Soule, one of the most popular VGM composers in the business.

Fortunately, Hannigan was able to strut his stuff in an impressive fashion, creating a work that paid homage to both Williams and Soule while retaining his own voice. Indeed, one could argue that Hannigan’s compositions and extended use of Williams themes outshone those Nicholas Hooper, who only used fragments of the Harry Potter themes and was criticized for underplaying the film’s more dramatic moments by fans.

The score unveils its primary themes in the first few tracks, beginning with “Welcome to Hogwarts.” A sweeping “friendship theme” of sorts debuts there, and is malleable enough to be reworked into a love theme (“Cho and Harry”) or action cue (“To Catch an Owl,” easily the highlight of the album). A darker theme, with shades of Williams’ troubled Prisoner of Azkaban, is heard alongside it, reappearing whenever the action turns serious as in “Dumbledore and Voldemort.” “Dolores Umbridge” introduces a third main theme, an insistent, swaggering four-note theme similar to a tag often used by James Horner.

Such thematic richness is well-matched by the very clear sound of the music; performed by a live ensemble, the depth in the recording is excellent. This is especially notable when the score turns to serious action; Hannigan’s music sounds suitably enormous in this context even when it’s not quoting a theme as in the savage “Inquisitorial Squad.” Given the weakness of Hooper’s action music for the film version of Phoenix, one could very well make the case that Hannigan drastically outperformed the film music itself.

That’s not to say that lighter music is neglected; there’s a delightful sense of magic and mischief in cues like “Courtyard Frolics,” often scored with a waltzlike swagger that may have been inspired by Patrick Doyle’s music. With the possible exception of the troubled, ambient “Encounter with Malfoy,” there really are no weak songs to be found. The sound quality is uniformly excellent; Hannigan worked with the same Philharmonia Orchestra Soule used alongside the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra and the Pinewood Singers. But while the budget had forced Soule to rely on his usual crystal-clear synths for much of his score, Hannigan’s work was almost completely acoustic.

Hannigan’s score for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was released as a digital download a few months after the game hit store shelves in 2007. None of the adaptations of Williams’ music from the game were present on the album for contractual reasons, and this was a mixed blessing: while it put Hannigan’s original music front and center, it also meant that, as with the Soule albums, the music was frustratingly incomplete. At least the clipping problems from the earlier releases was solved — Hannigan’s music was well-mastered and attractively presented with a generous 50 minutes of music. It was a well-produced album, offering stunningly clear sound, so it was a terrible shame that EA yanked the album from circulation in 2009 alongside its Potterverse holocaust. Aside from promotional snippets on Hannigan’s website, the score is totally unavailable legally.

It’s a shame, because Order of the Phoenix is a revelation. Hannigan proved his abilities in the genre and outpaced both Nicholas Hooper and Jeremy Soule to provide not only the finest Potterverse game score to date but one that tops the music present in the movie. The lack of Hannigan’s adaptations of John Williams’ themes is regrettable, but this album is still one that should be in every fan’s collection if it were still available. Until then, play the game, rip the music yourself, or listen to samples on Hannigan’s site and mourn for the unjustly obscure fate for such a terrific piece of fantasy adventure scoring.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: the Game (Jeremy Soule)

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In 2004, EA released another entry in its series of Harry Potter video games, tying in with the theatrical release of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The game offered what was expected of it — an interactive take on events in the book and movie — and was as successful as any tie-in could hope to be. In theaters, the third movie saw the first real shake-up in the film franchise, with Alfonso Cuaron taking over for Chris Columbus and bringing with him a distinctly dark aesthetic and a willingness to trim or alter the source material that Columbus had never had. This led to Azkaban becoming the most acclaimed film in the film series.

The game developers, however, remained largely the same and Jeremy Soule returned for a third year as Hogwarts-composer-in residence. As he had with Chamber of Secrets, Soule ditched the title theme he had created for the previous game. This is less of a problem than it could be, since the other two themes he conjured weren’t integrated into the game scores much; they were never as thematic as John Williams’ movie compositions anyway. Soule’s choice here interestingly mirrors the choices Williams made for his final Potter movie score, which largely avoided the maestro’s established themes in favor of new ones. It goes without saying that Soule was not permitted to use any of Williams’s new themes from the film. Still, given the blisteringly strong theme Soule had composed for the previous game, a reprisal would have been welcome.

Soule’s new theme does retain a choral element but returns to the more florid classically-inspired sound from the first game, albeit in a darker form. The album as a whole has a tone closer to that of the film, especially in its presentation of soaring themes for Buckbeak in “Flying Buckbeak” and “Buckbeak Night Flight,” both of which mirror the grandiose “Buckbeak’s Flight” conjured by Williams. The music has a deeper sound to it — possibly the result of better synths — and passages of dark music offset by some incredible vocal work. It’s as if Soule was consciously driving his music in the same darker direction as the film, with less magic but more drama; when the sound works, it’s spectacular.

Sadly, the action music is once again a mixed bag. There are some utterly explosive sequences of choral action in “Dementor Patronus” and “Extreme Patronus” which easily equal or exceed the finest action writing from Soule’s career. But “Glacius Boss” and “Carpe Knight Boss,” among others, return to the ramblingly percussive music that characterized the first game. The cues in general are also very short, with only two of the 26 songs on the commercial album exceeding two minutes.

Soule’s Prisoner of Azkaban, like the others in the series, had no official release to satisfy the cravings of fans for several years. But in late 2006, portions of the score were released to iTunes as a digital download alongside Soule’s other work for the Potterverse. All four albums suffered from a seemingly rushed and muddled presentation of the music, seemingly pulled willy-nilly from Soule’s original files. As with the previous two games, there were enough hard stops and tracks with trailing (or even internal) stretches of silence to make for a frustrating listen. And although 30 minutes of music was on tap, the soundtrack was once again frustratingly incomplete. This might explain why, in late 2009, EA pulled all of Soule’s Potterverse scores from circulation.

Despite all the album problems, Prisoner of Azkaban is another strong Potter effort from Soule. It may not have as many highlights as his previous work for Chamber of Secrets, but when the music is firing on all cylinders, listeners may not even notice. It’s a shame that fans of the composer and the original Williams music have no way to legitimately purchase even the wonky commercial album; as with the other scores, the only route to enjoying Soule’s efforts is to buy the game and crank up an audio editor. Fans can only hope for a proper release someday to allow the music to truly breathe.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: The Game (Jeremy Soule)

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Despite some moviegoers’ qualms, Chris Columbus’s film version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was a massive $300 million earner. And, as surely as summer follows autumn, it was inevitable that there would be a movie adaptation of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets to follow the success of its blockbuster predecessor. And just as surely, there would be a video game adaptation to follow. Many noted that the film was an improvement over the first, and similar feelings accompanied the game, which opened to generally warm reviews. Returning from the first game was composer Jeremy Soule, whose music for the original had had its share of highlights despite a frustrating lack of availability on album.

John Williams had already begun to tire of the Harry Potter franchise by 2002, and delegated large portions of the music to William Ross. Quite the opposite was true for the Chamber of Secrets video game, as Soule powered up the ideas he had established for the first title, incorporating his original sound alongside some startlingly good new pieces. The Grieg-inspired theme from the first game wass discarded in favor of a fantastic new “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Title Theme,” which owes less of a debt to other composers while still conjuring the requisite magic. Soule introduced a powerful choral component as well, establishing a thread that extends throughout the official album (and in many tracks omitted from it). Soule reprises the theme in an equally elegant form at the end of the album; listed as an alternate theme, it was actually used for the game’s credits. Like the composer’s theme for the previous game, though, it barely appears in the rest of the music.

The most notable improvement of Chamber of Secrets over its predecessor is the action music. Soule successfully imparts the magical atmosphere and dark choral harmonics of the other music into whimsical tracks like “DADA Action” “Willow Boss” and “Aragog Boss.” “Flying” represents some of Soule’s finest-ever action writing, with a soaring full-bodied orchestral theme that’s equal parts action and wonder, though it’s sadly unlooped on the official album. Soule’s work combines the strength of the previous score (its whimsical character) while addressing its weaknesses, rendering it a better listening experience whether complete or on the mangled album.

Like Sorcerer’s Stone before it, Chamber of Secrets didn’t get an album when it was released. This was rectified to an extent when, in late 2006, EA released digital albums of all Soule’s Potter scores to iTunes. Chamber of Secrets fared much better than the previous album as a listening experience; the transitions aren’t as jagged (though there are still no loops) and the tracks are generally longer, with a several being self-contained. A much more generous 43 minutes of music is provided as well, though some essential music is still missing (notably the thunderous final battle cue with full choir) and a few awkward edits or songs that had 5-10 seconds of silence at the end remain distractions.

Again, this amateurish and incomplete album experience may have been the reason that Soule’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was withdrawn from circulation by EA in 2009. While the official album had problems and is frustratingly incomplete, it was the best presentation of Soule’s Potter music out of the four iTunes Potter albums, and the complete score as heard in-game remains Soule’s finest for the series. Therefore, fans are in a tough position: an incomplete and unavailable official release or the bother of finding a copy of the game and manually extracting and looping its audio files for listening. Even so, the effort is worthwhile: if you must acquire one of Soule’s Potter scores, get this one.

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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: The Game (Jeremy Soule)

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As one of the most popular literary series in modern memory, it was always a given that Harry Potter would see a flurry of media adaptations from movies to games. And sure enough, Electronic Arts put out a game version to coincide with the 2001 release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to cinemas worldwide. Its reviews were middling, much like the film’s, playing best to fans of the book and young children. And, like the film, it launched a series of Potterverse games that lasted to 2011’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 and beyond.

John Williams’s score for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was a late-career masterpiece, and his theme for the character is perhaps the maestro’s last great theme to embed itself firmly in pop culture. With Williams himself quickly losing interest in the franchise, there was never any question of having him create an original score for the game, but there was a strong likelihood that his music would be chopped up and repurchased. Surprisingly they bucked this expectation and EA turned to Jeremy Soule, who was in the midst of a career renaissance, for their music. After his well-received score to Icewind Dale in 2000, Soule was suddenly a hot commodity, scoring dozens of RPGs and fantasy games in the following years. Due to rights issues, Soule wasn’t allowed to use any of John Williams’ themes from the big-screen Potter; while his music tries to exist in the same world of whimsical fantasy, the melodies were all his own. The music was so highly regarded that unofficial game rips made from the PC version’s audio files were soon in circulation amongst fans.

The official album opens with a resounding rendition of Soule’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Theme,” a piece that seems equally inspired by Williams and Edvard Grieg over its bombastic first half. Oddly, the theme doesn’t appear much in the rest of the album, with Soule preferring to rely on a consistent tone rather than thematic development. The same atmosphere of overbearing wonder returns in several other tracks, most notably “Story Book,” which adds a light choir to provide an undercurrent of menace, and the concluding “Happy Hogwarts.”

Tracks that accompany scenes of mystery and suspense are less engaging, with the dissonant “Dark Hogwarts” and “Devil’s Snare” falling prey to Soule’s tendency toward troubled ambience. Action cues like “Malfoy Fight” or “Troll Chase” similarly fail to convey the magic from the better pieces, with plenty of percussive hits but not much depth. The balance of music is such, though, that the weaker music is generally balanced out by the better, with strong statements of whimsy and wonder prevailing over more pedestrian action music.

Unsurprisingly, Soule’s music went unreleased when the game came out in 2001. However, in late 2006 EA unexpectedly released portions of Soule’s Potter scores as digital downloads via iTunes. Sadly, the iTunes release of Sorceror’s Stone is deeply flawed. While the sound quality is better than that of the rips, the tracks are short and unlooped, leading to jarring transitions more befitting an amateurish gamerip than an official product. The track titles were apparently pulled from Soule’s original files, leading to odd situations where a “part 2” is on the album with no corresponding “part 1”. At 21 minutes, the official product is quite short and missing a considerable portion of the music composed for the game, including some of its best tracks.

Perhaps this is why, in late 2009, Electronic Arts and its E.A.R.S. music label pulled most of their released Harry Potter video game music from circulation. This makes the downloadable soundtrack for Soule’s Sorcerer’s Stone officially unavailable once again and a collectable curiosity–if indeed such things can exist in the digital age. In the end, Soule acquitted himself well with a score that has some considerable highlights, especially in its full form as heard in-game. But in many ways it’s music that serves as a blueprint for what was to come in his later Potter scores — and, indeed, music from Sorcerer’s Stone would be tracked into all future Potter games, even those scored by James Hannigan. Soule fans should definitely seek it out, but the only official album’s drawbacks and lack of availability make it impossible to recommend. Perhaps someday the music will get the release it deserves; until then, fans will simply have to buy the PC version of the game and make their own playlist with a little elbow grease and an audio editor.

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Cutthroat Island (John Debney)

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There have been cinematic shipwrecks since the first films set sail for the commercial waters, but few have run aground as sharply or as deadly as Cutthroat Island. It seemed like a surefire treasure cruise at the time: Renny Harlin, who had helmed the profitable galleons Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger was directing, his then-wife Geena Davis of Thelma & Louise and A League of Their Own was in the wheelhouse, and they sailed under the banner of Carolco Pictures, a studio that had underwritten such voyages as Rambo and Terminator 2. But an old-fashioned swashbuckling pirate tale was out of fashion in 1995, and the film’s marketing push failed to sell it to audiences. The movie cost up to $150 million doubloons to make but returned less than $20 million pieces of eight worldwide, a flop the likes of which would not be seen again until the wreck of the good ship Pluto Nash in 2002. Among the drowned: director Harlin’s blockbuster career, star Davis’s career as a leading lady, and studio Carolco’s very existence.

Renny Harlin had originally sought to engage rising young British corsair David Arnold to score his pirate extravaganza. Arnold was a sound choice, with his Stargate score from the year before having plenty of buckle and swash. Scheduling conflicts forced Arnold to back out of the voyage, though, and on the strength of a swashbucking synthesizer suite, Harlin brought Cap’n John Debney aboard as scoremaster. Debney’s career was, like Arnold’s, on the upswing in the early 1990s, having done yeoman’s work on modest hits like Hocus Pocus as a late replacement for James Horner. Cap’n Debney threw himself into the score for Cutthroat Island with a singular destination in his spyglass: to make the most of his scurvy crew from the London Symphony Orchestra and the London Voices to craft a modern homage to Admiral Erich Wolfgang Korngold, whose scores for classic swashbucklers like The Sea Hwak and The Adventures of Robin Hood.

While Admiral Korngold is the one given a 21-gun salute by Cap’n Debney, he happily plunders the very best of modern orchestral scoring for Cutthroat Island, taking inspiration for some of the orchestrations from the flourishes used by David Arnold and Nicholas Dodd in Stargate, John Williams in Hook, and James Horner in The Rocketeer. That’s not to say that the score is a cut and paste job, but rather that Cap’n Debney is able to load his guns with the best powder that modern film music has to offer, powering up Korngold’s piratey ideas with flourishes both orchestral and choral that the old admiral would never have had the budget or the equipment to match.

The themes and motifs Debney blasts out with a double-powder charge are almost too numerous to name, with a soaring main theme for the piratess heroine (“Morgan’s Ride”), a tender love theme (“Discovery of the Treasure”), and supporting musical ideas for the evil Uncle Dawg and the Morning Star pirate ship. The music is anchored by towering and rambunctious statements of these themes, with the “Carriage Chase” cue being perhaps the finest example of piratey swashbuckling ever recorded, a 7-minute tour-de-force of rollicking, thematic brass and percussion that builds a ferocious head of steam as is progresses. “Setting Sail” is one big rousing love letter to The Sea Hawk, while the massive concluding suite of “Dawg’s Demise” and “It’s Only Gold” is almost breathless in its intensity.

Cap’n Debney brings all of his Golden Age influences squarely into the modern era, with a crisp recording and none of the Hollywood treacle that Korngold was occasionally forced to write in between his magnificent statements of theme. The only real drawback to any listener looking for a piratey good time is the film’s breakneck (or cutthroat) pace: the moments of softer music are few and far between, making the lengthy score at times a bit of an endurance test in its unflaggingly adventurous pace. Pirate scores of the 2000s often suffered from the same problems, but the clarity and sheer overwhelming piratey spirit of Debney’s work makes this more forgivable than in some of his fellow Cap’n Zimmer’s less-inspired voyages.

The foundering of Cutthroat Island put an end to pirate movies, whatever flag they sailed under, for over a decade until the genre was refloated and salvaged by Pirates of the Caribbean. But Cap’n Debney was the last scoremaster to attempt to bring aboard the classic Golden Age Erich Wolfgang Korngold sound in a modern guise; future pirate movies would sail under the flag of Cap’n Zimmer and his Remote Control crew, whose very different ideas of piratey music would come to dominate the genre. Debney, though, was perhaps the only crewmember of the doomed vessel to escape unharmed: his score continued to be respected as a modern swashbuckling classic independent of the disastrous foundering of the film to which it was chained. A very generous album 70-minute album bubbled to the surface from the hold of the wreck in 1995, while the complete 150-minute score was brought into port 10 years later by Prometheus Records. Either release is highly recommended to all scurvy dogs that ply the seven seas; while Cap’n Debney has had many successful voyages since then, many still wait for his opportunity to sail under the Jolly Roger once more.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

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

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

Young Sherlock Holmes (Bruce Broughton)

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Barry Levinson’s 1985 film Young Sherlock Holmes is uncomfortably wedged in his filmography between hits like The Natural and Good Morning Vietnam. Sherlockian purists were horrified by the notion that Holmes, Watson, and Moriarty had met in an 1860s boarding school rather than as adults. Audiences were turned off by a bizarre plot (involving Egyptian cults, hidden temples, and mind-altering poisons) that seemed more Temple of Doom than Red-Headed League. As a result, the film was a major box office disappointment, barely recouping its budget, and it is primarily remembered today for a brief sequence involving a hallucinated stained glass knight that was created by John Lasseter and what would eventually become Pixar.

Levinson has regularly swapped composers throughout his career, and for Young Sherlock Holmes he approached Bruce Broughton, who was at the time finishing work on his breakout score, the Oscar-nominated Silverado. Broughton had worked in television scoring early in his career, but the well-received scores for his twin 1985 projects would usher in his most prolific period of scoring for major feature films. Armed with an impressive musical budget, Broughton was able to assemble the Sinfonia of London and a large choir for the endeavor.

Broughton’s signature from the film is, of course, his theme for Holmes. It’s an innocent woodwind-led and flighty piece of music, suggesting the detective’s youth and analytical mind. If anything, it sounds like a more youthful version of the same Sherlockian sound Henry Mancini would unleash a year later in The Great Mouse Detective. After its introduction in “Main Title,” Holmes’ theme is hinted in “Fencing With Rathe” before receiving a proper variation in “Solving the Crime,” but oddly the theme is not employed as often as one would think. Broughton chooses to give his love theme a much more prominent place in the score than Holmes’ own; the latter doesn’t take flight until the closing parts of the score when it’s given a furious adaptation into the Williams-esque “Ehtar’s Escape” and “Duel.”

It was for the character of Elizabeth, Holmes’ love interest, that Broughton fashioned his classically-inclined love theme. First heard (somewhat oddly) in “Watson’s Arrival,” the theme is heard in places like “Library Love” and “Fencing With Rathe” before being given a brief concert performance in “Holmes And Elizabeth – Love Theme.” A few final performances litter the second disc, generally fragmented and tragic. The relative shortchanging of Holmes’ theme is a bit of a mystery: it’s a wonderful thematic idea and has influenced its share of other composers, but for whatever reason Broughton prefers his love theme. The latter is simply not as memorable or intricate, and yet it occupies a much more prominent place in the score.

The most powerful theme Broughton created for the film was associated with its most ridiculous aspect: the scenes involving a hidden Egyptian cult in London. For these scenes and the villainous character of Eh-Tar, the composer wrote an impressive choral theme that is equal parts Carmina Burana and Temple of Doom, thundering through “Rame Tep” and “Waxing Elizabeth.” Broughton also gives the theme instrumental outings with the full symphony in “Pastries And Crypts” and the latter part of “Waxing Elizabeth” among other places; whether associated with the ludicrous temple or the only slightly less ludicrous figure of Eh-Tar, it is by far the strongest material written for the film and has been rerecorded numerous times by other ensembles.

It’s clear that, whether due to temp track influence or the producer, John Williams was a large influence on Broughton’s work on Young Sherlock Holmes; many of the cues employ quirk of orchestration that are highly reminiscent of the maestro, with Broughton adapting them with gusto. But one area in which he fails is in the mass of underscore devoted to mystery and suspense. These tracks, from the opening “The First Victim” to the later “Cold Revenge” or “Craigwich Goes Again” simply aren’t terribly interesting: they tend to be dour (and almost atonal at times of violence and murder) and are precisely the sort of filler that was often cut from albums at the time. And Broughton, for whatever reason, generally fails to adapt his basket of good-to-great themes into the underscore proper in many places, leaving dry stretches with little other than dry, Williams-esque 1980s suspense and horror to sustain listeners.

Young Sherlock Holmes became something of a cause célèbre among film music fans for many years due to its lack of availability on CD. Broughton arranged 40 minutes of highlights for an album that appeared on LP and cassette in 1985 but, perhaps due to the film’s failure, the only digital source for many years were rare promotional albums issued by the composer himself through the Intrada label. In 2014, the label finally released the complete 90-minute score, plus alternates, in an unlimited-quantity 2-CD set. Somewhat ironically, though, the original LP/cassette program contains nearly all the highlights from the complete score; by presenting them together, absent the much less interesting suspense tracks, that album proves much more satisfying than the complete set (though it can easily be reassembled from the content’s of Intrada’s loving presentation).

Alongside that stained glass knight, Bruce Broughton’s score for Young Sherlock Holmes has been one of the only anchors to keep that forgotten film in memory. Listeners’ reactions to it will ultimately be colored by how they respond to the lengthy periods of quieter, less ambitious music between its highlights, and whether the score’s hyperbolic praise from collectors is something that this (or any) music can live up to. Even so, despite its weaknesses, the album is an essential purchase for fans of Broughton and loopy 1980s fantasy films.

Rating: starstarstar

Willow (James Horner)

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Clearly, the powers that be were hoping for Willow to be a fantasy Star Wars. The film was produced by Lucasfilm, with a story by Lucas himself, Ron Howard behind the camera, and a slew of high-budget special effects (including some of the first digital movie effects of the sort Lucas would later fall hopelessly in love with). The movie failed to find its audience and had to settle for later cult success; plans for a trilogy were scrapped, and it would be over a decade until big-budget cinema fantasy came into its own with the back-to-back successes of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. James Horner had collaborated with director Ron Howard once before, on 1985’s Cocoon, but Willow was an altogether different undertaking, with over 90 minutes of music needed to accompany dozens of exotic locales and characters. It was a situation not unlike that which would later confront Howard Shore; like Shore Horner endeavored to present a multitude of strong themes to bring the fantasy milieu to life.

Willow opens with an extended prologue, not unlike that of the concurrent The Land Before Time, which introduces many of the key themes and motifs of the score: an eerie three note choral theme, a sakauhachi-led theme that appears over the main titles, and an ominous, dissonant theme for Nockmaar Castle and its denizens which heavily incorporates Horner’s tried and true four-note danger motif. The next track, “Escape from the Tavern,” offers up the score’s centerpiece, a heroic brass anthem performed in rousing, swashbuckling fashion. There are several other minor motifs as well–indeed, Willow rivals The Land Before Time as the most thematically rich of Horner’s works to date.

The heroic theme is one of the strongest that Horner has ever penned, and is given lengthy and varied performances in virtually every track on the disc, with the aforementioned “Escape from the Tavern” as a highlight. Listeners have often claimed that this theme is lifted almost wholly from Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 3; it’s certainly easy to see where Horner was inspired by the latter, but the swashbuckling Erich Wolfgang Korngold feel of Horner’s song is quite different from the much more stately chamber atmosphere of Schumann. Compared to other alleged Horner borrowings in Battle Beyond the Stars or Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, the Schumann influence is more on par with that of Verdi on John Williams in Star Wars.

Horner’s sakauhachi flute theme, representing the more tender side of the fim, is impressive as well; the instrument lends the music an otherworldly yet melodic feel that perfectly captures the feel of a vast and ancient world. The composer would fall in love with the instrument after its major appearances in Willow, and sakauhachi solos would become a calling card for the composer in the future, appearing in scores as diverse as Braveheart, Clear and Present Danger, and Avatar.

Not all of Horner’s material in Willow is as strong, though. In particular, the Nockmaar Castle theme associated with the evil Bavmorda (and her almost parodically Vader-like henchman Kael, named after the movie critic Pauline Kael) is very difficult to enjoy. Assaulting the listener with repeated performances of Horner’s favorite four-note danger motif over a bed of seemingly random, shrill sakauhachi blasts. The danger motif, a musical signature appearing in most of Horner’s scores since its introduction in Star Trek II, is distracting enough on its own, but as it’s the lone tonal piece of an otherwise atonal and abrasive sound, its prominence is increased tenfold. The Nockmaar material is prominently placed as well, breaking up several of the lengthier performances of the other themes with its shrill dissonance. Compared to compelling villain themes from Star Trek II‘s Khan theme to Avatar‘s militaristic human theme, Willow‘s musical representation of its villains simply falls flat.

The album’s presentation merits discussion as well: despite being a robust 77 minutes long, Willow has only eight cues, including three that top the ten-minute mark. Many of the most rousing and enjoyable parts of the album, like the latter halves of “Canyon of Mazes” and “Bavmorda’s Spell is Cast” are buried by comparatively dull material or statements of the weak Nockmaar theme beforehand. This can lead to a frustratingly inconsistent listen, as the music veers from the heroic heights of Horner’s best thematic material to the meandering doldrums of comparatively uninteresting motifs. It’s not clear if the music was written that way of if tracks were combined for the album release, but in either case breaking them up into shorter cues (if gapless ones) would have aided the album as a listening experience.

Despite these weaknesses, the thematic complexity of Willow, as well as the powerful nature of the heroic and sakauhachi themes, make it highly recommended. If you’ve ever wondered how a Horner Lord of the Rings would have sounded, or are curious to see the composer’s take on John William’s Ewok celebration music (near the middle of “Willow the Sorcerer” and the clearest Star Wars influence on the music), Willow is your opportunity to do just that. If you’re seeking some of James Horner’s strongest thematic material and are undaunted by the duller and more dissonant parts of the album or by frequent use of the composer’s four-note motif, the comparatively rare album can find a place among the grand fantasy genre scores in any collection.

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