Inside Out (Michael Giacchino)

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2015 saw Pixar, once the king of computer animated films, struggling to emerge from a creative slump that had seen it produce mostly mediocre spinoffs of existing properties like Cars 2 or Monsters University. Its summer 2015 entry, Inside Out, managed to break that streak with a dazzling return to form, positing what the inside of a preteen’s head would look like as acted out by a handful of anthropomorphized emotions. While not the most original idea (Herman’s Head had mined the same territory decades earlier, as had Disney’s own Cranium Command), Inside Out nevertheless nailed the execution, producing the potent mix of laughter and pathos that distinguished Pixar’s very best and becoming a hit with critics and audiences.

Though Pixar had seem some diversification in its use of composers with Patrick Doyle and Mychael Danna in recent years, Michael Giacchino remained one of the studio’s top names, and he reunited with director Pete Doctor for Inside Out. This meant that the shadow of their previous collaboration, 2009’s Up, would loom large over the project’s music: after all, that aerial adventure had produced one of Giacchino’s most affecting scores and rewarded him with an Oscar statuette. Inside Out also came out during an abnormally productive year for Giacchino, with three other scores out at around the same time, including Jurassic World, which went head to head with the animation and gave Giacchino the Remote Control-like achievement of scoring the number one and number two films at the box office for weeks in a row.

Unlike the fully orchestral Up, Giacchino chose to tackle Inside Out with, by and large, a smaller ensemble. Though some tracks like “Rainbow Flyer” employ the full weight of the orchestra for key moments, by and large Giacchino relies on piano, ukelele, glassy synth textures, and a handful of rhythm and brass instruments for the overall sound. One can understand his decision in terms of the film’s very intimate story, taking place in a tween girl’s head, calling for a more intimate sound.

Giacchino’s centerpiece for Inside Out is a theme for the emotion Joy, which debuts on solo piano in “Bundle of Joy” and forms the lion’s share of the albums opening and closing segments, from “Nomanisone Island/National Movers” to “The Joy of Credits.” Giacchino presents a interesting downbeat variations in places like “Tears of Joy” but for the most part the Joy melody is flitting and beautiful, instantly memorable, and lights up the album whenever it appears. It’s definitely one of the composer’s strongest themes, able to go toe-to-toe with any other melody he’s conjured in recent years.

The middle of the album–and the film–largely neglects that theme, though, in favor of a number of smaller and more fragmented motifs. There’s a bouncy theme for Bing Bong the imaginary friend in places like “Chasing the Pink Elephant” and “Imagination Land,” for instance, though it’s strangely missing from “Rainbow Flyer” in favor of a sweeping, bittersweet original piece (which one wishes there was more of, honestly, with only a brief end credits reprise!). The character of Sadness gets a downer of a motif on tuba in “Team Building” and elsewhere, though the connection between it and other tracks like “Joy Turns to Sadness” where the character is prominent is rather tenuous. There’s also a David Newman-like piece for the tween girl as she turns runaway in the film’s later reels, though its impact is minimal at best.

The real problem is that the middle portions of Giacchino’s music ignore his best melody in favor of short cues that have little narrative thrust and little to connect them aside from the composer’s style and a few glassy textures. The Elliot Goldenthal tribute “Abstract Thought,” for instance, is fun but doesn’t seem to be in the same sonic universe as the brilliant Joy material. The end result is an album that is frontloaded and rearloaded with excellent material yet hobbled by a big memory dump in the middle, which is rather disappointing given how well Giacchino was able to pull his central themes through a similar set of challenges in Up.

An album for he film was, unlike Up, issued as a CD and a digital download alongside the film; the CD includes the music from the lovely but geophysically inaccurate short Pixar short Lava as a bonus track. For Inside Out,, Giacchino produced an outstanding theme that ultimately makes for a flawed but fun experience on album. It’s nowhere near the powerhouse that his score for Up was, or even the contemporaneous Tomorrowland, but it’s worth committing to long-term memory if only for its moments of intense Joy.

Rating: starstarstar

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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

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

Starhawk (Christopher Lennertz)

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A Playstation 3 exclusive title, Starhawk (2012) was a spiritual successor to the earlier Warhawk (1995) and its one-step-forward two-steps-back remake Warhawk (2007). Unlike the 2007 game, Starhawk actually featured a single-player campaign mode for people who didn’t want anonymous 14-year-olds screaming obscenities in their ears, and it attracted decent notices and sales numbers despite being released relatively late in the lifespan of its console.

Composer Christopher Lennertz had co-scored the remade Warhawk in 2007, with his music attracting strong praise despite being shackled to a multiplayer-only game. Lennertz was an old hand at game scoring by that point, with dozens of triple-A titles under his belt from the Medal of Honor series and beyond; unlike Michael Giacchino, Lennertz has kept a firmer foot in the game industry despite branching out into feature scoring. For Starhawk, Lennertz assembled an impressive ensemble in the Skywalker Symphony Orchestra and an array of soloists on instruments like slide guitar and harmonica.

And therein is the central conceit of the score: Starhawk adapts a Firefly/Serenity-like “wild west in space” approach, and Lennertz embraces that sound with his soloists layered over top of a full symphony orchestra. It’s also reflected in the two main thematic constructs of the score: the noble, rollicking Bernstein-esque “Emmett’s Theme” and the much darker Morricone-style theme for the game’s villainous Outcasts (first heard, appropriately, in “Outcasts”), which is driven by percussion and electric guitars.

With these two themes and a variety of western soloists, Lennertz is able to build an action score at least as effective as Greg Edmonson or David Newman. The majority of songs on the album are, as one might expect from a shooter, massive action pieces. The freedom inherent in video game scoring enables the composer to sidestep many of the action cliches in film today and instead write complex and tonal music. When the music is firing on all cylinders, it’s breathtaking: the prime example of this is “The Rift,” which alternates Emmett’s theme and the Outcast theme against one another in a terrific example of leitmotif scoring.

One thing to note about this score: there are two separate releases of Starhawk that may be confusing to the casual listener. The version available at iTunes runs 45 minutes while La-La Land Records’ deluxe limited edition CD is a full 57 minutes. Most of the missing songs on the shorter, digital release are, unfortunately, the album’s greatest highlights like beautiful choral “The Source.” The cut tracks are also, generally speaking, the least action-packed, which compounds the album’s only stylistic flaw: its emphasis on constant gigantic action with very little breathing room. As such, the La-La Land CD is the preferred purchase option.

Christopher Lennertz is a talented composer, but it’s ironic that most of his feature assignments have been in comedy and romance, leaving it to the world of video games to show his most effective and most filmic work. While listeners who aren’t fond of western sounds or relentless action may find the album exhausting, Starhawk nevertheless comes highly recommended.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Medal of Honor: Frontline (Michael Giacchino)

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Long before his Pixar scores or his Oscar win, Michael Giacchino’s name was been inseparably linked to the Medal of Honor video game franchise. After  his award-winning score to the first game in the series, and a second Medal of Honor that recycled much of the first game’s music and only required a few additional minutes of score, the third entry in the series, 2002’s Medal of Honor: Frontline, received a new 70-minute Giacchino score. And, as befits the game’s darker subject matter, which revolves around the failed Operation Market Garden, Giacchino’s fully orchestral Frontline score is more nuanced and restrained than his previous effort.

Far from the continuous bombast that characterized his earlier efforts, much of Frontline is slow and elegiac, with a strong choral presence and echoes of John Williams’ “Hymn to the Fallen” from Saving Private Ryan. Beginning with the mournful “Operation Market-Garden,” Giacchino establishes a restrained, style that serves as a powerful counterpoint to the on-screen action.

“Arnhem” is the most potent expression of this elegaic style, combining a melancholy Dutch vocal with a full orchestral ensemble for powerfully moving effect. The closing “Songless Nightingale” opens the choral aspect up into a fully voiced piece with orchestral accompaniment, uniting the quieter part of the album with the more action-oriented and martial material.

There is still copious action music to be had, of course, with plenty of martial snare in evidence during “U-4902” and “Shipyards of Lorient,” among others. These action tracks are an extension of the dense, faux-Williams sound perfected by Giacchino in the previous two Medal of Honor games, and are generally rousing if not significantly different from similar cues earlier in the series. A few cues include touches of quirkiness in the mix as well, like the delightful “Escaping Gotha.” The only real misstep is the hidden “Various German Singing” track, which is simply silly.

In addition to reaping several awards, Frontline was an immense career boost for Giacchino; as the liner notes indicate, the music was noticed by the J. J. Abrams of Alias, who soon hired the composer and began a collaboration that has lasted to the silver screen and beyond. The score is a treat for anyone with a taste for large-scale, subdued orchestral composition in the Saving Private Ryan vein, and a fitting continuation of the series. It is an especially welcome treat given the increasingly gritty and soulless music that prevailed in the franchise following the series’ move away from World War II with its risible 2010 “reboot.”

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Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction (Michael Giacchino and Chris Tilton)

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Well-known to many score fans through his participation on film and video game music message boards, New Orleans native Chris Tilton has worn many hats in the industry, from orchestrator to composer to fan. His career has been closely tied to that of his friend Michael Giacchino, who first hired Tilton as an assistant on the hit TV show Alias. Tilton soon found plentiful Hollywood work, orchestrating and composing additional music for many of Giacchino’s big and small screen scores, including a significant portion of the music for seasons 4 and 5 of Alias, Mission: Impossible III, The Family Stone, and The Incredibles.

It was in the field of video game music, though, that Tilton made his biggest splash. His first major solo project, 2004’s Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction, allowed him to create a full-length, fully orchestral score virtually on his own, with impressive results. More high-profile assignments like 2006’s Black would follow; both it and Mercenaries received full soundtrack releases as well.

While Giacchino provided the driving “Mercenaries Main Theme,” Tilton filled out the remaining 55 minutes of music as a solo effort. The main theme, which has a bold aggressiveness that wouldn’t be out of place in a Medal of Honor game, is a staple of the album’s explosive action pieces. Tracks like “Allied Nations” and “Deck of 52” feature the theme alongside terrifically impressive brass and percussion, and the result is better than many of the large-scale cues in modern movies. As befits the game’s setting, there’s often a Bond-style lit to these pieces as well.

The action set pieces are broken up by quieter, but no less impressive, music. Tilton incorporates powerful choral work into “Hidden Valley Bunker” before segueing into string-slashing suspense music, while “For the Motherland,” the theme of the in-game Russian Mafia, features soulful Godfather-like strings. In many ways these suspense tracks are more compelling than the battle music, as the writing is entirely Tilton’s own as he rarely references Giacchino’s theme in them.

If the album has any weakness, it’s that Tilton doesn’t establish themes of his own. The music is strong but Giacchino’s music remains the unifying thread throughout, albeit seamlessly integrated. Though Giacchino and Tilton would collaborate in the future, and given the two men’s close prior working relationship the results were almost always impressive, Tilton was also allowed free rein to write his own themes in many of his later scores.

These qualms aside, Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction is a must for fans of orchestral video game music. In fact, as mentioned above, it’s superior to many pieces appearing in modern action films, and served as a clear announcement of Tilton’s arrival in the limelight of game scoring. With many fine scores since, one hopes that he will one day follow in Giacchino’s footsteps to branch into feature scoring.

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