Thor (Patrick Doyle)

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In many ways, the Norse superhero Thor was the wildcard in the “first wave” of films set in the Marvel cinematic universe. He had never had the pop culture stature of the others and his presence in other media had been thin, an issue compounded by a silly-looking costume and connection to a mythology that was at best little known and at worst associated with wackos. In seeking to bring him to the big screen, therefore, Marvel spared no gravitas. They enlisted respected Shakespearean director Kenneth Branagh to helm the picture, lined up a supporting cast of Oscar winners led by Anthony Hopkins as Odin, and put $150 million at the filmmakers’ disposal. To nearly everyone’s surprise, the resultant film was a hit: Branagh and his screenwriters found an excellent balance of tongue-in-cheek humor to lighten the occasionally leaden mythology, and the film sported a crowdpleasing performance by Tom Hiddleston is the villainous Loki. Not only did the resultant Thor light up the 2011 box office, it arguably had more impact than any other on the Marvel cinematic universe, with several of its characters and themes becoming crossover hits and mainstays across the wider franchise.

Branagh had collaborated with Scottish composer Patrick Doyle from Henry V in 1989, when Doyle was still working as an actor as well as a composer, and their collaboration had remained strong ever since. Doyle had scored virtually every Branagh movie since 1989, but was also in the midst of a renaissance of fantasy scoring brought on by his impressive music for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in 2005. As a result, his recent resume was littered with titles like Eragon and The Last Legion which seemed to dovetail nicely with Thor‘s expected melding of high mythic fantasy and superheroics. As such, Doyle’s inevitable assignment was met with both anticipation and trepidation by fans: many were hoping for a work which would meet or exceed Goblet of Fire, while others feared that he would be rejected and replaced like Mychael Danna on Hulk for failing to write music to the producers’ post-Batman Begins expectations.

In fact, Doyle did both: he attempted to meld the melodic strength of his prior fantasy (and non-fantasy) scores with something that listeners and producers would feel was “cool.” In the post-Batman Begins world of mega-budget superhero scores, “cool” meant taking on many cues from the textual and often synth-based scores of Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control studio. So the finished score for Thor includes both a strong central theme for the superhero and liberal doses of percussion fronted in the sound mix, synth accents and pulses, and hyperbolic choral outbursts very different from those of Doyle’s earlier works. As such, the introduction of Doyle’s potent theme for Thor in “A New King” features not only a malleable 5-note theme on noble heroic brass, but also copious electronic squeaks and a capably orchestrated version of the Remote Control “wall of sound.”

The same is true throughout the major action cues, from “Frost Giant Battle” to “The Compound” to “Thor Kills the Destroyer:” Doyle’s theme, well-orchestrated, surrounded by what seems to be imitation of a completely different scoring methodology and coexisting uneasily with it. It’s hard not to get the feeling, listening to Thor, that Doyle was writing far outside his comfort zone in his attempts to write in the mold of Hans Zimmer and Remote Control. It’s unclear whether it was studio interference or the specter of Mychael Danna’s 11th-hour rejection from Hulk for writing music outside the current superhero paradigm, but this incongruity hangs over the entire album. For every thrilling action beat, there’s a moment of lifeless wall-of-sound churning, and for every redemptive fantasy cue like “Earth to Asgard” there’s the dull churning of “Loki’s Lie.” Speaking of Loki, the lack of a unifying musical thread for such a compelling villain is a further misstep, as is the general lack of a love theme.

About 70 minutes of Doyle’s music is available on the commercial score album, thankfully free of any incongruous songs or a vapid “music from and inspired by” platter. On album, the key to enjoying Thor on its own merits is probably tempering expectations; while the work can’t hold a candle to the composer’s brilliant Goblet of Fire, it does blow the weaker Marvel cinematic universe scores like Iron Man and Captain America: The Winter Soldier out of the water. While Thor: The Dark World would follow in 2013, Patrick Doyle followed director Kenneth Branagh to Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, an ill-fated project that wound up as one of both men’s greatest career disappointments, leaving Brian Tyler to extend his growing dominance over the Marvel universe instead.

Rating: starstarstar

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Hulk (Danny Elfman)

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Despite being one of the most recognizable superheroes in the Marvel stable, and headlining a popular and highly visible 1978-1982 cult TV show that puttered on with sequel movies until 1990, the Incredible Hulk took until 2003 to come to the big screen. Going through a similar development hell to the one that bedeviled Spider-Man in the same time frame, the project bounced from director to director, producer to producer, before landing in the lap of Chinese filmmaker Ang Lee. Lee had just shepherded Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to the big screen and boatloads of awards, and clearly the producers at Universal and Marvel felt that if Lee could get American audiences excited about outwardly ridiculous wuxia, he could do the same for the outwardly ridiculous Hulk. Instead, Lee turned in a soggy movie that clumsily tinkered with the character’s origins, had no clear villain, a dearth of action setpieces, and a very unconvincing CGI Hulk. Though it launched star Eric Bana into a profitable Hollywood career, and some critics lauded the movie’s thoughtful pacing and use of split-screen “comic book panels,” audiences deserted Hulk in droves after a promising opening. The concept was therefore given the Hollywood “reboot” treatment a mere five years later with The Incredible Hulk, with no better results. The big green guy would have to wait until The Avengers for a creative team that truly understood him.

Among the agonies of Hulk‘s protracted development and production schedule was its score. Lee originally hired his friend Mychael Danna to score the film; they had been collaborators as far back as 1997’s The Ice Storm and 1999’s Ride With the Devil. From the standpoint of producers and fans, there could scarcely have been a more incongruous pairing if Lee had hired Tan Dun to return from Crouching Tiger; Danna was principally known for intimate dramas like Ararat and exotic scores for projects like Monsoon Wedding. When Danna’s complete score was played to picture, the music was tinged with an Arabic sensibility, full of Armenian duduk, and featured wailing solos by world music star Natacha Atlas. Panicked at this bizarre sound in their big-budget superhero flick, the producers dumped Danna over Lee’s protests and hired the kind of pre-Batman Begins superhero scores: Danny Elfman. A fan of Lee, Elfman accepted the assignment with less than 40 days to write and record a new score.

In composing a new score for Hulk, Lee and Elfman clashed constantly; the director had been happy with his friend Danna’s score, and continually asserted that the sketches and demos being written were “too Elfman.” The end result was quite curious: in the process of replacing a Mychael Danna score with an Arabic sensibility, Armenian duduk, and wailing solos by Natacha Atlas, Hulk received a Danny Elfman score with an Arabic sensibility, Armenian duduk, and wailing solos by Natacha Atlas. Though there were a few places, such as the presence of electric guitars, where Elfman prevailed, and of course some distinct echoes of his highly recognizable style, Lee essentially browbeat Elfman into rewriting Mychael Danna’s rejected score.

From the opening bars of the album, Elfman’s Hulk is suffused with percussive rhythm and a desert feel, both at the expense of the composer’s typically strong themes. A six-note motif appearing in “Main Titles” is the closest the film gets to a full-on theme, but while its descending notes do suggest the mad science at work there and otherwise, it’s the sort of thing that would normally be a support beam in one of Elfman’s musical structures being asked to bear the full load. The muddled washes of electronics into which the lengthy “Main Titles” and “Prologue” descend into are further weaknesses of the score, acting as Bondo to hold together a score that took eight orchestrators to stitch together, triple Elfman’s usual amount (and including such industry veterans as Hans Zimmer’s Bruce Fowler and Mark McKenzie). The omnipresent duduk and Atlas’s vocals lend a bit of coherence to the music, but they are never given any really compelling thematic material to perform and as such seem like flashes of color that, again, are asked to bear more than their share of the musical load. Needless to say, neither Jennifer Connelly’s love interest, nor Sam Elliott’s military goons, nor Nick Nolte’s bizarre Oedipal “villain” have much in the way of a thematic identity at all.

There are some highlights. “The Truth Revealed” is probably the album’s best merging of the Danna sound with the kind of orchestral tragedy that the film needs, and there are some part of other cues like “Bruce’s Memories” where bits of the tender writing Elfman did on projects like Spider-Man shine through. The album’s gem is undoubtedly “Hulk’s Freedom,” which thunders with a brassy melody that is sadly never heard again with Atlas’s voice as a capable supporter, before winding down to a soulful duduk that, again, is playing a melody that would have been wonderful in other places. The cue serves as the best idea of what Elfman might have provided for the project under less onerous time constrains and with more freedom from Lee to write to his strengths.

Like the film it was written for, Hulk‘s score is a mess, albeit a mess of the best intentions that were not fully followed through. In the aftermath of its relative failure (it made about $130 million domestically against a budget of about $130 million), all of the parties involved promptly forgot about Hulk with Elfman and Lee both moving onto personal highlights immediately thereafter as Elfman’s Big Fish was nominated for an Oscar and Lee’s Brokeback Mountain won a boatload of them. Lee eventually reunited with the erstwhile Danna for Life of Pi, which won them both statuettes, and more surprisingly he even would work with Elfman again despite their professional friction with the quirky Taking Woodstock. The 2003 soundtrack CD, with an hour of Elfman’s score and a risible end credits rock song is available practically for free now for the curious, but it’s probably for the best to simply forget about the mess that is Hulk, as all the major participants clearly want.

Rating: starstar

The Incredible Hulk (Craig Armstrong)

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2003’s Hulk had been a disaster for Marvel, with a big opening gross that quickly shrank away to nothing in the face of auteur director Ang Lee’s cerebral and often bizarre style, script, and changes to the comic’s mythos. A sequel lingered in development hell for 5 years and eventually recast all the major roles with Edward Norton replacing Eric Bana as the titular jolly green giant. Norton’s involvement proved to be a headache for the studio, as he demanded rewrites and also severed continuity between the two films, leaving the new The Incredible Hulk as a mishmash that at times resembles a sequel to a film that was never made and at others a direct sequel to Hulk with the serial numbers crudely filed off. Still, the film was more straightforward and delivered the monster-on-monster smackdown that the first had lacked, so it was met with slightly kinder reviews and slightly greater rewards at the box office. Still, the muddled nature of the character and his franchise has meant that references to it in the other Marvel cinematic universe films are few and far between, and Norton would refuse to reprise his role in The Avengers.

Lee’s film had a complicated scoring situation, with his favored composer Mychael Danna booted off the project at a late date and replaced by Danny Elfman in an attempt to add some Spider-Man type superhero style. Lee had promptly browbeat Elfman into essentially rewriting Danna’s score, resulting in one of the most curious misfires in all of superhero scoring. New director Louis Leterrier, like Lee, brought in an old collaborator from the start: Craig Armstrong, who had worked as an arranger for the band Massive Attack in their work delivering a score for Leterrier’s Unleashed in 2005. For a time it seemed that Armstrong would suffer the same fate as Danna; Marvel was reportedly surprised by the choice, and Armstrong had no comparable blockbuster scores to his credit. Nevertheless, Armstrong was able to deliver a score that the producers accepted, and his music accompanied the film’s final print.

The most talked-about feature of Armstrong’s score was his incorporation of the “Lonely Man” theme, written by Joe Harnell for the 1978-1982 TV series, in the cue “”Bruce Goes Home.” Armstrong was a fan of the show, and the brief homage to Harnell’s simple piano melody is a tip of the hat no often seen in modern blockbuster scores. Armstrong’s own themes aren’t as easily memorable; the primary motif in the film is a pounding string and percussion piece (first appearing in “Main Titles” and the unused “The Arctic”) that resembles a standard ostinato from Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control studio in many of its characteristics (Armstrong actually used Remote Control’s studio space for his recording, though none of its major personnel are credited). It’s an effective theme in a basic sense, conveying the Hulk’s bulky brutality much more effectively than the bizarre themes from Hulk, but no more than that. It’s the sort of thing that works accompanying a smashing spree on screen but disappoints on album, a theme that fulfills the basic requirements without exceeding any of them.

One of the primary complaints about Hulk was its lack of an effective villain and the expected hero-vs.-villain smackdown; The Incredible Hulk provides both, but Armstrong doesn’t do much in the way of a theme for the villainous Abomination. The lengthy sequences of action material (“Abomination Alley,” “Harlem Brawl,” “Hulk Smash”) primarily rely on Armstrong’s Hulk motif instead, with results that are more crowdpleasing than Elfman’s but which suffer from the same sense of restraint, the notion that Armstrong is holding back when he ought to be cutting loose. The recast Betty Ross gets a piano-based motif of her own (“Hulk and Betty,” “Bruce and Betty”); though clearly inspired by Harnell’s “Lonely Man” theme and quite pretty at times, it’s a bit disappointing that Armstrong wasn’t able to make more use of the latter throughout his score.

Oddly, The Incredible Hulk holds the record for the longest album release for any Marvel film at 111 minutes; Leterrier insisted that Armstrong’s work was strong enough to merit a deluxe 2-CD treatment and Marvel agreed. To cut costs, though, the score was released as one of Amazon’s “CD-R on demand” products rather than as a pressed CD, and copies were manufactured as orders came in. This was a sore point for many collectors, as CD-Rs are not as resilient a medium as pressed CDs and the only other option was a digital release. This incredible length can make listening to the double-CD album a bit of a slog; there’s a lot of music that would have been left on the cutting room floor for a normal album (and, indeed, some of the music is for scenes cut late in production!) which serves to exacerbate the music’s weaknesses and dilute its strengths. There are some scores that can sustain 111 minutes on album; The Incredible Hulk simply isn’t one of them.

Regardless, one has to give Armstrong credit for navigating such a difficult assignment, his reference to Joe Harnell’s “The Lonely Man” are welcome, and the score is overall more coherent than Elfman’s effort. But Armstrong’s music is still oddly restrained, oddly conservative, and has many dead spots as presented on album. It’s the pick of the two Hulk scores, but still not anywhere near the upper tier of great superhero music. Armstrong himself would take a short hiatus from film music afterwards, with no feature scores until 2010’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

Rating: starstarstar

The Amazing Spider-Man (James Horner)

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2007’s Spider-Man 3 was an overstuffed disappointment of a feature, cramming 2-3 movies’ worth of material into a single film. Faced with creative burnout on all levels, director Sam Raimi (who had been doing nothing but Spider-Man for seven years) and his crew were unable to come to terms with Columbia for a Spider-Man 4. So, following the “remake, reboot, reimagine” formula, Columbia opted to start an entirely new series of Spider-Man films less than 5 years after the last Raimi picture. While the studio lavished cash on new director Marc Webb and a cast of young stars, it was difficult to overlook the feeling that pervaded what became The Amazing Spider-Man: that it was a soulless and unnecessary corporate product designed solely to keep a merchandising engine chugging, a toxic stew of Raimi leftovers and nearly shot-for-shot remakes of the 2002 Spider-Man with greedy corporate fingerprints all over everything down to Andrew Garfield’s Edward Cullen hairdo. Domestic audiences greeted the film with a bemused shrug and the lowest grosses of the entire franchise in summer 2012, but robust overseas box-office numbers and the ever-present, overriding need for franchise maintenance made 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 a foregone conclusion.

To Marc Webb’s credit, he did attempt to assemble the best cast and crew he could under the shadow of the product’s utter crassness. As The Amazing Spider-Man was only his sophomore effort after the delightfully engaging 500 Days of Summer, there was some speculation that 500 composer Mychael Danna might finally get a crack at a superhero film after being rejected from 2003’s Hulk. Instead of Danna, and instead of attempting to lure back Danny Elfman (who was as tired as Raimi of the web-slinger), Webb made the surprising choice of James Horner to score his remake/reboot. Horner needs no introduction to fans of resounding orchestral sci-fi/fantasy pictures, with a proven record of genre success from 1982’s Star Trek II to 2009’s Avatar. He had dabbled in superhero scoring of a sort with 1991’s The Rocketeer, which had produced one of the composer’s most popular scores, but he had never been called upon for a full superhero score before, and certainly not one with a desperate desire to be contemporary and hip. Webb reportedly needed to persuade Horner to accept the assignment, but the veteran composer eventually acquiesced.

Horner essentially adopts a fusion of his typical style and the contemporary electronic approach that Danny Elfman took with the original Spider-Man which the film essentially remakes. He debuts his main theme in “Main Title – Young Peter” and it’s a classic Horner melody that’s both soaring and innocent and often (as in “Main Title”) enhanced by surprisingly Elfman-like flourishes and occasional choral flourishes. You’d never confuse the two, though: while Elfman’s theme was designed to be easily deconstructed and referenced, Horner’s music is long-lined and almost always at the forefront when it appears rather than being quickly alluded to. In its most triumphant outings, as in “Saving New York” and “Spider-Man End Titles,” Horner’s new theme stands alongside the best of his fantasy-adventure work from the 1980s that won him much of his current fanbase. The composer also exhibits an uncharacteristic playfulness with the theme in “Playing Basketball” and “Becoming Spider-Man,” adapting it in a style not unlike “Foraging for Food” in The Land Before Time.

Again like Elfman, Horner also created a tender love theme, though Horner’s is primarily piano-diven and often performed with the composer himself at the keyboard. From its first appearance in “Rooftop Kiss” to its lengthy airing in “I Can’t See You Anymore,” and “Promises,” the theme is vintage romantic Horner. It’s neither more or less effective than Elfman’s more fully orchestral construct, but very soft and moving in its support of the romance angle (which reviewers agreed was the film’s strongest aspect). Its airtime is limited in comparison to Horner’s main Spider-Man theme, but it was effective enough for Hans Zimmer to adopt a similar piano-centric approach (albeit with added electric guitars) in the sequel. With the combination of his love theme and his rousing main theme, the best parts of The Amazing Spider-Man are like modernized and updated versions of Horner’s lush sci-fi/fantasy sound of the 1980s.

The score is not perfect, though. There is a complete lack of a thematic identity for the villainous Lizard, or at least one that is so subtle as to be almost beneath notice. This is a major omission; while Horner creates some attractive stand-alone Lizard material in “Metamorphosis” and the action-packed “Lizard at School!” the lack of a consistent theme for the villain prevents the kind of thrilling thematic duels present in the best parts of Elfman’s scores. The inclusion of vocalist Dhafer Youssef in some cues, who worked on Black Gold with Horner earlier in 2012, is mystifying. His wailing doesn’t seem to serve any purpose for the film or its setting, save to serve as an example of a film scoring trend from the 2000s best forgotten today. And, of course, as with any James Horner score, the issue of self-referencing and musical recycling rears its head: parts of “Becoming Spider-Man” strongly resemble Horner’s magnum opus Star Trek II, and influences from the aforementioned The Land Before Time and particularly The Rocketeer are there for keen listeners. The music is less guilty of this than much of Horner’s recent output, though, and his distinctive but derided four-note danger motif thankfully makes no appearance.

The middling domestic success of The Amazing Spider-Man sent the producers scrambling to up the ante for the sequel they had already greenlit, and in addition to packing the subsequent The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to the gills with big names on the marquee, they dumped Horner in favor of the superhero flavor du jour of the 2010s, Hans Zimmer. The Amazing Spider-Man would also be the beginning of a particularly dark period for Horner: in addition to his replacement by Zimmer, his music was rejected from Romeo and Juliet and Ender’s Game in 2013. Increasingly frustrated with the current Hollywood scoring climate, and the domination of Zimmer’s methodology within it, Horner was left without any scoring assignments of any sort during 2013 and 2014. Even so, The Amazing Spider-Man score is the one part of an otherwise wretched film to emerge unscathed, and as James Horner’s first true superhero score and last major blockbuster assignment before his tragic 2015 death, it has a wealth of beautiful music to offer in the spirit of his scoring achievements in the 1980s. As long as one is prepared for the Hornerisms which inevitably accompany the composer’s work and strong echoes of Danny Elfman’s approach to the web-slinger, listeners will find much to enjoy.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Being Julia (Mychael Danna)

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An obscure but well-received 2004 feature starring Annette Benning, Being Julia played out the tale of an aging actress during the golden age of cinema and nabbed its leading actress an Oscar nomination. Hungarian director István Szabó dabbled extensively in both European and Hollywood cinema before and after the film, and with the semi-retirement of Maurice Jarre, who gave the director’s previous English-language feature Sunshine one of his final (and finest) scores, Mychael Danna was hired for the project. One of a pair of stately period pieces (Vanity Fair being the other) the Canadian scored back-to back after the disappointment of his 2003 Hulk rejection, the talky picture had relatively little room for a traditional dramatic score.

Varèse Sarabande can’t be accused of holding anything back; Danna’s entire score is on the album down to the last track. It’s an incredibly short score, a mere 22:28 when stripped of the songs padding out the album, and with 22 score tracks that means that the average song is scarcely over a minute long. In fact, none of the score tops three minutes, 14 of the score tracks are less than a minute long (with three clocking in at under 30 seconds), and the shortest lasts a mere 13 seconds! It’s no wonder the album was padded a bit, as even with 13:34 of period songs it barely tops 36 minutes, nearly the exact length of Varèse’s “30-minute specials” from the 80s and 90s before the AFM musical re-use rule changes.

Ordinarily–at least when the artist is not Thomas Newman–the presence of so many short tracks means that the music will inevitably be highly fragmented, content to Mickey Mouse along with the action and little else. To his credit, Danna sidesteps this through the clever use of a wonderful theme. First heard in the opening track, “Curtain Up,” the theme is a delight, with sweeping neo-classical movements and a rapturous full-orchestral sound that is malleable enough to be adapted into forms both sprightly and dark. Hardly a track on the album goes by where Danna is not referencing his theme, whether in quirky pizzicato mode (“Birthday Presents”) or arranged for heartbreak and tragedy (“It Will Only End in Tears”). The score has only the one theme, and it is repeated early and often, but such is not always a problem–Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings certainly has 22 minutes of various themes kicking around all told.

The album is rather poorly produced, though: a recurring problem in period movies that use older songs to pad out the score CD (to bring up Thomas Newman again, his The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile are key examples of this). The songs break up the score, being completely different in tone and style, and they also suffer from muffled and archival sound which is inconsistent with not only the score but also each other. Nothing jars one out of experiencing Danna’s pristine new recording of variations on his theme than a song which was recorded on 1930s technology and sounds like is has spent the intervening 80 years in a hot barn surrounded by steel wool. A much more logical decision would have been to program Danna’s score as a whole, with the songs clustered at the beginning or end of the album.

While Being Julia remains a relatively obscure film on its own merits and in Mychael Danna’s filmography, the composer was able to transcend many limitations that hamstring short-tracked albums though the consistent application of his theme. While the music’s bittiness does remain a concern, and it’s too bad that the score was broken up by songs, the CD is well worth seeking out at the right price. One of the titles in Varèse Sarabande’s infamous “Family Dollar Housecleaning,” the album can often be found new for as little as $3 or $4 at the discount chain.

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