Guardians of the Galaxy (Tyler Bates)

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By 2014, every movie in the Marvel cinematic universe had been a financial success, whether unremarkable(The Incredible Hulk), respectable (Thor), or incredible (The Avengers). As a result, parent Disney took a chance on a film version of one of the more obscure comics in the Marvel back catalog: Guardians of the Galaxy. With a rotating ensemble that included, among others, a green space Amazon warrior, a hyperintelligent talking racoon, a motile tree that could only speak its own name, and a human from Earth abducted by aliens, the film was regarded as something of a gamble in Hollywood. No one knew the characters, the connection to the other Marvel films was tenuous at best, and conventional wisdom was that moviegoers wouldn’t accept the lightness of tone the material demanded in a major blockbuster. Writer/director James Gunn, a veteran of the Troma Pictures grindhouse of all places, put the lie to these fears by creating a movie critics compared to a post-Star Wars space opera, filled with humor, action, and memorable characters. The film stood out so much in the dearly blockbuster season of 2014 that it became the biggest hit of the summer and was second only to the bloated Mockingjay: Episode I in domestic box office receipts–barely.

James Gunn had only worked with one composer during his career as a filmmaker: Tyler Bates. They’d first worked together on Zack Snyder’s debut, the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, which Gunn wrote. The director’s solo debut, the indie horror film Silther, was similarly scored by Bates in 2006, as was Gunn’s 2010 sophomore effort, the violent and nihilistic superhero parody Super which probably got him the Guardians gig. Bates himself had worked steadily in film since the 1990s, with several high-profile superhero and fantasy/action films in the 2000s and 2010s, often with Snyder for whom he was composer of choice before being replaced by Hans Zimmer and his Remote Control studio for Man of Steel. Watchmen in 2009 was his most prominent superhero flick prior to Guardians, though Bates had done work on the 2011 remake of Conan the Barbarian, the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, and of course the comic book adaptation 300 in 2006. It’s safe to say that Bates enjoyed a somewhat negative view among film score fans thanks to his work on many of those remakes, which followed extremely popular scores by the likes of Bernard Herrmann and Basil Poledouris, and the controversy over 300‘s score, which incorporated near-verbatim quotes from Elliot Goldenthal’s Titus and proved to be a legal embarrassment for Warner Bros. Much like Guardians itself, the score was viewed with trepidation from fans.

Few of Bates’ earlier scores could be described as thematic, so it’s a pleasant surprise when he unveils a theme for the titular guardians, teasing it in “Quill’s Big Retreat” before letting it rip in “The Kyln Escape.” It’s a fun idea, and despite appearing in a fair number of tracks one wished Bates would use it more often: the theme, often with accompanying choir, soars in a way that none of the other music does. With its oft-prominent brass, the Guardians theme is probably closest to, of all things in the Marvel universe, Alan Silvestri’s Captain America theme–though it’s part of a distinctly un-Silvestri-like whole and certainly not in the ballpark of Bates’ controversial use of Goldenthal in 300. It gets some variations, as in the slightly more elegiac “Black Tears” and “The Great Companion.” There’s a secondary theme of sorts in “The Ballad of the Nova Corps” (complete with electric guitar accents) that appears here and there, though it’s not as boldly presented. “Ronan’s Theme,” for its part, is less a theme than a darker orchestral color with some electronic manipulations.

The music has a distinct Remote Control feel in some of its parts, with string ostinatos and choral crescendos straight out of the Zimmer playbook. It is probably a situation where, like Patrick Doyle, Bates was asked to emulate a certain sound, though several Zimmer associates are listen in the album’s credits. Regardless, the Remote Control elements are on the high end of that scale rather than the Battleship dregs, and Bates uses them alongside his themes to present a generally decent, if occasionally somewhat generic, sound. It’s worth noting that he plays the score absolutely 100% straight, with no hint at all of the film’s occasional goofiness, which is left to pop music. That’s not a criticism; it’s been known for years, ever since Airplane, that serious music can make funny moments all the funnier (and it’s worth noting that Star Wars, to which Guardians was often compared at release, didn’t have much “funny” music either despite its share of funny moments). The shimmering synths and children’s choir of “Groot Spores” and “Groot Cocoon” is probably the closest the score gets to any genuine silliness.

Bates writes diverse music, ranging from the harsh synths of “Ronan’s Theme” to the wonder of “To the Stars” and the Groot material. It’s a bit like Watchmen in that regard, the earlier score ranging from awe and wonder to grungy rock, and at times the Guardians score, again like Watchmen, seems to lack cohesion for all its diversity, mickey-mousing rather than offering a narrative arc. The presence of Bates’ surprisingly-good themes, something which was sorely absent in the earlier superhero film, and the occasional Remote Control walls of sound help the score hang together much better, though. Like most Bates scores one gets the feeling that there’s untapped potential in Guardians to let rip in a truly exceptional album; nevertheless, it’s a promising improvement from many of his earlier scores.

There were three albums pressed for Guardians: a song collection called Awesome Mix Vol. 1, a score album, and a 2-CD combination. Unlike most frisbee “music from and inspired by” discs, the retro tunes on Awesome Mix were an important and cheeky part of the film rather than generic tunes the record company was trying to move through association with a popular IP. Thus the 2-CD set might actually be the best buy for fans; it certainly has the best cover art of any Marvel album thus far, perfectly capturing the retro-futuristic aesthetic of the film. Whatever the album, Bates’ music is the best of his career: solid stuff, with a decent theme, that’s miles better than the muck he conjured for projects like The Day the Earth Stood Still. It stands as a more or less evolved version of Bates’ promising but disappointingly generic scores for Watchmen and Conan 2011, and if it doesn’t come close to the Marvel cinematic universe highlights of Brian Tyler (whose similar-sounding name led to no end of confusion during summer 2014) and Alan Silvestri, it at least avoids the doldrums of Ramin Djawadi and Henry Jackman. The best musical comparison to Guardians in the Marvel universe is probably Doyle’s Thor, and like Thor it’s a solid buy, and one hopes that Bates will build on this foundation for the inevitable sequel.

Rating: starstarstar

The Avengers (Alan Silvestri)

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Five years and five movies in the making, “Phase One” of the Marvel cinematic universe culminated in 2012’s The Avengers, the first true big-screen superhero team-up in the vein of a comic book crossover. With a cast of stars drawn from every movie in the series thus far (except the ever-troublesome Hulk, who was recast for the third time and debuted with barely a mention of his previous film), Marvel took the gutsy step of handing the production over to geek god Joss Whedon. Whedon was well-known for his TV work from Buffy the Vampire Slayer through Firefly, but The Avengers was only his second film. Still, acting as both director and collaborating screenwriter, Whedon was able to create a film so deft and balanced that The Avengers became the third-highest-grossing film of all time on its release and received better critical notices than any other Marvel film since Iron Man.

In constructing a score for The Avengers, director Whedon had plenty of options open to him, as each of the five setup movies had been scored by a different composer: Ramin Djawadi, Craig Armstrong, John Debney, Patrick Doyle, and Alan Silvestri. Whedon’s only previous film, the 2005 Firefly-concluding Serenity, had been scored by industry veteran and perpetual underdog David Newman, who had plenty of superhero experience of his own though his output had been tapering off through the 2010s with an increasing emphasis on the concert hall. In the end, though, it was all about theme: Marvel and Whedon wanted a grand old-fashioned theme to tie their film together, and only one of the previous Marvel composers had provided such a theme and used it in their film consistently: Alan Silvestri. On the strength of his Captain America theme and an enthusiastic recommendation from The First Avenger director Joe Johnston, Silvestri got the gig.

In discussions with the producers, Silvestri was instructed to stick with a theme for the Avengers and only a theme for the Avengers. Post-Batman Begins concerns about music being “intrusive” led to the producers’ dismissal of a leitmotivic score in the John Williams vein in favor of a score that had an “old-fashioned” theme in a more contemporary and “less intrusive” framework. Silvestri was allowed to pen a motif for Loki, the main villian, and to make sparing use of the theme that got him the job from Captain America, but mostly in fragments or short bursts to avoid being “intrusive” or competing with the main Avengers theme.

And, to be fair, the Avengers theme that Silvestri wrote fits the bill: it’s brassy and bold in a way that not many superhero themes are post-Batman Begins, and almost completely devoid of synths and other electronic accoutrements (though with a very large and very contemporary percussion section at times). Teased in “Tunnel Chase,” the theme explodes to the forefront in the “old-fashioned” way that Whedon and the producers wanted in “Assemble” before being sent off with a bang in the end credit suite “The Avengers.” The theme is an excellent one, but it is not used as often as it might be: it is frequently teased but only appears in full muscular form in a handful of key moments. The feeling that one gets from this, especially after the much more integrated theme for Captain America in Silvestri’s previous Marvel assignment, is that Silvestri is holding back from full-on action a la The Mummy Returns or Van Helsing–exactly what the producers wanted.

Speaking of Captain America, his theme is heard in some of the titular superhero’s most superheroic moments, though never in anything resembling the punchy “Captain America March;” true to the producers’ demands, the theme never competes with the Avengers theme. Though Silvestri was explicitly allowed to write a motif for the villainous Loki, it is a complete non-entity in the film and on album, mirroring the disappointing lack of thematic identity for the character in Patrick Doyle’s Thor (the character would need to wait until Brian Tyler’s Thor: The Dark World for an even somewhat memorable motif). Oddly, the only other bit of overtly thematic scoring goes to the Black Widow character, who gets a Slavic-tinged idea in the CD-exclusive “Interrogation,” the lengthy “Red Ledger,” and (briefly) “I Got a Ride.” While it’s nice that the only female hero on the team was given a theme of sorts–something John Debney had failed to do in her Iron Man 2 debut–once again the feeling one gets is of a composer holding back, scoring with the parking brake on.

It goes without saying that, given Marvel’s desire not to have Silvestri use themes for each hero, that none of the previous films’ themes by other composers are used in any way whatsoever. While this makes sense in some cases–especially since Iron Man had already been given two different sets of thematic material–it’s disappointing that Silvestri couldn’t have at least tipped his hat to one of the themes in much the same way that his own Captain America theme was given a brief shoutout in The Dark World. It also means that Silvestri’s fully-orchestral and skillful music for the remainder of the film, despite some highlights, feels oddly anonymous and neutered. It’s leagues better than a lot of the sound design and sonic wallpaper that has become de rigueur post-Batman Begins, but the scoring pales in comparison not only to Silvestri’s aforementioned fantasy action music but superhero scoring from the post-Superman and post-Batman 89 eras.

The Avengers was also the start of a relationship between Marvel, Disney, and Intrada Records: on all future Marvel releases, Intrada would provide a deluxe CD product at a premium price for collectors, while a digital album filled the iPods of everyone else. In this case, Intrada’s physical album features substantially more music, and some lengthened cues, compared to the digital download; it therefore stands as the preferred version of the music despite a $10 price difference. Be sure to avoid the “Avengers Assemble” coaster, which doesn’t feature a note of Silvestri alongside a group of pop songs which, if they appeared in the film at all, did so for three seconds on a jukebox blaring behind an alien space battle whale.

The Avengers winds up being a difficult score to characterize. On the one hand, it features perhaps the best theme of any Marvel movie to date. On the other, the theme’s sparing use and the relative anonymity of much of the supporting material–out of fear of being “intrusive”–makes the score feel like a missed opportunity. One wonders what Silvestri might have produced if he’d been fully unleashed on the project, or if the film had been during a different paradigm of superhero scoring. As is, it’s recommended for that glorious theme but a bit underwhelming elsewhere. Silvestri, despite scoring such a successful film, did not seem to get much of a career boost from The Avengers; he would be passed over for Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron, with only a few mediocre scores for regular collaborators to fill out the remainder of the decade. As with James Horner and Avatar, the success of Silvestri’s thematic approach made little headway against the current Hollywood scoring trends.

Rating: starstarstar

Thor: The Dark World (Brian Tyler)

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Bowing the Thanksgiving after Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World was the second post-Avengers Marvel cinematic universe sequel, and compared to its immediate predecessor it had a very difficult development. Original director Branagh passed on the project, and two more would-be helmers briefly warmed his chair before the studio settled on relative newcomer Alan Taylor, a veteran of several highly-regarded TV series but with a thin film resume. Casting was still another headache, as was writing, and the project turned into something of a revolving door for high-profile comings and goings. It’s a miracle that the final product is as enjoyable as it is, mashing up Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Portal 2, and the original Thor for another tale that is never afraid to let its ponderousness be deflated by its tongue in its cheek. It was successful to the tune of a bit more than its predecessor, but wound up getting lost in the scuffle between the popular Iron Man 3 and the acclaimed Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

The second Thor suffered its share of development problems on the scoring stage as well. Patrick Doyle bowed out with Kenneth Branagh to work on the latter’s disastrous Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit after some early talks, and director Taylor then settled on an unconventional choice: Carter Burwell. The cerebral Burwell was in the midst of his greatest period of box-office success due to his overachieving scores for three of the five risible Twilight films, but it was clear from the beginning that Marvel was nervous about his ability to carry a holiday superhero blockbuster. Indeed, Burwell was unceremoniously rejected from the project as it entered post-production and replaced with the composer who had been the producers’ choice all along: Brian Tyler. Tyler, fresh off his well-received score for Iron Man 3, thus accomplished the Hans Zimmer-like feat of scoring two superhero movies in the same calendar year.

Despite–or perhaps because of–the relatively short timespan in which he had to write it, Thor: The Dark World has many of the same building blocks as Iron Man 3. It combines a resounding theme for the hero with a scoring approach that seeks to merge the Remote Control “wall of sound” characteristics expected of all post-Batman Begins superhero scores with more traditional orchestral modes. Essentially, Tyler does his best to subvert the dominant Hans Zimmer superhero scoring paradigm while remaining outwardly loyal to it, an approach that worked so well for Iron Man 3 that it led to Tyler almost single-handedly taking over the Marvel cinematic universe. As such, the sound is “bigger” in almost every way compared to the original Thor: greater use of choir, a bigger-sounding ensemble beefed up with more synths, and hyperbolic actions sequences that out-rowdy the rowdiest parts of Thor–and, unlike Doyle, Tyler seems completely at home writing in this mode.

Many fans of Patrick Doyle were disappointed that his noble brass theme for Thor was not used by Tyler; stories vary, but either Tyler or the producers were unwilling to pay the re-use fees associated with the theme (and, to be fair, it’s doubtful that Burwell’s rejected score used it either). Tyler’s new theme often gives the primary ascending melody to a gigantic choir set against brass. One can hear some echoes or influences of the original theme within it, and if it’s perhaps not as strong as Doyle’s, Tyler uses it much more consistently and weaves it more deeply into his underscore. A rising secondary phrase within the theme is used almost as much as an accent, again almost always either taken up by or supported by a full chorus.

One of the major problems with the original Thor was its lack of thematic attention to the villains of the piece. With the slightly ridiculous addition of Dark Elves into The Dark World, Tyler does make some basic attempts to portray their depredations. Cues like “Lokasenna” and “Origins” combine a vague motif of snarling menace with a world music approach reminiscent of Tyler’s own Children of Dune with strong echoes of Howard Shore’s epochal scores for his own elves. Loki’s thematic representation is sneaky and subtle with harp accents (“The Trial of Loki,” “Shadows of Loki”), and while it’s certainly more recognizable than Doyle’s efforts at the same, one wishes that Tyler could have developed it into a fuller theme.

Much of the lengthy album is given over to muscular action cues that feature Thor’s theme, or variations thereof, in straightforwardly crowdpleasing fashion. There are no musical winks to the audience for some of the more goofy moments of the film, and no equivalent to the glorious “Can You Dig It?” from Iron Man 3, but it’s always tuneful music crafted with consummate skill. Tyler’s one concession to goofiness is in “An Unlikely Alliance,” where he inserts a brief blast of Alan Silvestri’s theme from Captain America for one of the film’s funniest moments–interestingly, the actual score for Cap’s own sequel has none of the theme, making Tyler’s use of it, in retrospect, a bit of a last hurrah. The album also concludes with one last piece proving Tyler’s increasing grip on the Marvel universe: a whirling, James Horner-esque fanfare for the Marvel logo that combines beats from Tyler’s two Marvel scores.

Much like The Avengers before it, Thor: The Dark World was primarily a digital release, with a physical CD pressing from boutique label Intrada intended primarily for collectors at a slightly higher price point. Unlike The Avengers, though, Intrada’s platter has no extra music; the digital-vs.-physical issue being solely a personal preference in this case. Tyler did fine yeoman’s work on Thor: The Dark World, especially considering the short time period he had to write it and the pre-production teething problems the film had. If his theme for Thor himself is a tad weaker than Patrick Doyle’s, the composer makes up for it with excellent integration of the motif into a score that’s comfortable in its own skin and has a set of stronger–if still somewhat underdeveloped–secondary themes. With 2015’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron next on his docket, Tyler proved with Thor: The Dark World that his ability to please producers and score collectors alike with Iron Man 3 wasn’t a fluke.

Rating: starstarstarstar

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

Carlito’s Way (Patrick Doyle)

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Though not a box-office success or a critical darling in its initial release, Brian De Palma’s gritty urban gangster movie Carlito’s Way met with a warmer reception on home video and is now considered a minor classic. The film was a departure from the excesses of De Palma’s earlier cult hit Scarface, and therefore presented a very different challenge than the one that confronted synthesist Giorgio Moroder for the 1983 picture.

De Palma has worked with an eclectic variety of composers including John Williams, Danny Elfman, Ennio Morricone, and others–aside from his on-again, off-again collaboration with Italian composer Pino Donaggio, De Palma has rarely used the same composer twice. For Carlito’s Way he teamed with rising star Patrick Doyle, the actor-turned-composer who had gotten his start with Kenneth Branagh. 1993 was Doyle’s breakout year in US cinema, with a score for the high-profile Stephen King adaptation Needful Things debuting alongside Carlito’s Way, and his success in those assignments would presage the composer’s back-to-back Oscar nominations in 1995 and 1996.

For Carlito’s Way, Doyle was required to write a very moderate amount of score, barely 40 minutes, and his music was forced to compete for space with scene-setting songs by musical supervisor Jellybean Benitez. The result is that Doyle’s music is most prominent at the start and end of the picture, and that the middle portions are given over largely to source-like music or short cues wedged in between Benitez’s chosen songs. Cues like “The Cafe” and “Laline” are practically source music in and of themselves, serving the film well but being stripped of most of their impact on album.

Doyle develops a few cues of action and suspense music as well, and these are typically gritty and rather sparse until the finale. Some low-key neo-noir is featured in the first part of “Carlito and Gail,” for instance, while action music is at the fore in “The Elevator” and “You’re Over, Man.” The action sound that Doyle uses is quite thin, often only a snare, piano, and marimba, keeping it from building much steam.

The major exception is the score’s centerpiece, “Grand Central,” which occupies a quarter of its short running time and is easily the musical highlight of the film. Doyle takes the anemic action themes from earlier cues and puts the full force of his orchestra behind it, creating intense and well-developed music that is really quite stunning. Modern film seldom allows such lengthy and developed cues, especially for action scenes, and however much Doyle’s pared-back action music might underwhelm earlier, in its fullest evolution it is breathtaking.

The final piece of the album is its most moving: a string-led elegy that opens and closes the album (and film) in “Carlito’s Way” and “Remember Me.” As lush and filmic as some of the middle cues are source-like, Doyle’s elegy is the emotional center of the film and album, and keen-eared listeners will hear in it many seeds of Doyle’s later work (“Death of Cedric” from Doyle’s later Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, for instance, is a direct lineal descendent of his gorgeous Carlito elegy theme).

While Patrick Doyle’s score for Carlito’s Way suffers somewhat from the fragmented middle portion of the album thanks to the film’s need for songs and source music, the “Grand Central” cue and the various iterations of the composer’s lush and tragic theme still make it a recommended purchase. Varèse Sarabande’s 40-minute score album (complete with the bland, generic cover art sometimes forced on the label by record executives worried about loss of sales for the song compilation) is still readily available, as is the aforementioned song compilation. For his part, Doyle would revisit the crime genre a few years later with Donnie Brasco, though such films would never form a major part of his discography.

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