Iron Man (Ramin Djawadi)

Cover

Who would have thought, looking back, that 2008’s Iron Man would be the thing to kickstart a universe? The titular character Tony Stark, a Bruce Wayne type with no inherent superpowers other than his wealth and intellect who tools around in a mechanical suit, had never been one of Marvel’s marquee heroes–but with their heavy hitters like Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four leased to other studios, Marvel gave him a shot at the big screen. With actor-turned-director Jon Favreau behind (and in front of) the camera and a career-redefining performance by Robert Downey Jr. in the lead, the film managed to deftly tweak the standard superhero origin story into something original, affecting, and funny. Iron Man was richly rewarded critically and commercially for breaking the mold, and the characters it introduced went on to define the Marvel cinematic universe.

Favreau’s previous two films were 2003’s Elf and 2004’s Zathura (it may seem like a miracle to land Iron Man with a resume like that, but Hollywood’s modus operandi of late has been to give untested directors superhero movies as a test of their chops), and both had scores by John Debney. For reasons that have never been clear Debney either did not seek or did not get the assignment, possibly because during the movie’s 2007-2008 production he had seven other films on his docket, including The Stoning of Soraya M. which was a labor of love for the composer. With the job open, Ramin Djawadi, an Iron Man fan since childhood, applied for and got his dream job. Djawadi’s credits, at the time, were primarily smaller films or additional music work as part of his mentor Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control Studios team. Djawadi was hired on the strength of some prior superhero work (for Blade: Trinity), a recent film for Marvel’s then-distributor Paramount (Mr. Brooks), and the fact that Zimmer himself followed his pupil as music producer while allowing him full use of the Remote Control team.

Djawadi began work by writing a then-traditional orchestral superhero theme, but Favreau had other ideas: recalling the heavy metal song “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath (a version of which eventually played over the film’s end credits), he pushed for a heavy rock and guitar influence. Zimmer, in his role as producer, also offered suggestions out of the superhero playbook he was in the midst of developing after 2005’s Batman Begins and the concurrently-developed The Dark Knight which would bow two months after Iron Man. As a result, Djawadi’s score plays like a mixture of Favreau’s preferred guitar sound and Zimmer’s “wall of sound” Remote Control approach, with the orchestral performances largely subsumed and dominated by those two styles.

The main Iron Man theme, such as it is, gets an extended rock-inflected performance in “Driving With the Top Down,” the first album track, and a somewhat more straightforward outing in the later “Vacation’s Over.” While it’s possible to hear echoes of the original orchestral theme Djawadi wrote, particularly in the latter, the end result is so overbearing, so over-processed with an extra-liberal slathering of faux Black Sabbath atop a rather rote version of the Remote Control sound that it’s all but lost. The music is certainly loud, certainly energetic, and has plenty of synths to reflect the technological nature of Iron Man himself, but the conflicting demands of the filmmakers and Remote Control left Djawadi essentially writing to the lowest common denominator of them both: neither particularly strong film music nor particularly strong rock music.

For Tony Stark’s on-again-off-again dalliance with his assistant Pepper, the score offers a love theme of sorts, most notably in “Are Those Bullet Holes?” and “Extra Dry Extra Olives,” but it’s so tepid and thin–perhaps as a result of being stripped down at either Favreau’s or Zimmer’s insistence. A “plotting theme” that eventually is used as a motif for the villainous Iron Monger is, again, so subtle and stripped-down that it barely registers. Rather than being theme-on-theme smackdowns or snarling menace like the best superhero scores in the Danny Elfman vein, villain-centric cues like “Arc Reaktor” (sic) or “Iron Monger” are either disappointingly violent noise or brooding nonentities.

It seems a little mean-spirited to blame Djawadi for the problems that Iron Man has as a score; he is clearly a big fan of the concept and was at the mercy of larger influences from the producer. But the fact remains that Iron Man is barely functional as a score in the movie and pretty unlistenable outside it. the score did, at least, get pride of place on the album release, sharing it with a few songs but, curiously, not the resounding instrumental performance of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” that dominated the end credits that most people probably remember. This could help explain its easy availability in used-CD bins, so there’s little monetary risk for anyone who wants to give Djawadi’s score a chance. It’s tough to recommend Iron Man to anyone but die-hard fans of the film or Remote Control enthusiasts, and it seems that the powers-that-be agreed: Debney got his shot at the concept with Iron Man 2, but it wasn’t until Brian Tyler’s Iron Man 3 that a composer was able to successfully create a memorable theme with the electronics, orchestral presence, and occasional cheek that Tony Stark demands.

Rating: star

Advertisements

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Klaus Badelt)

Cover

Turning theme park rides into movies may seem like a scurvy move, but in the remake-happy 2000s it was as close to originality as pre-Pixar-merger Disney seemed to sail at times. 2003 saw the Mouse House attempt to keelhaul movies based on two of its most popular and enduring theme park attractions onto the big screen: The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean. Despite starring a post Lord of the Rings Orlando Bloom and a crew of fresh young midshipmen mixed with salty sea dogs, no one seemed to think Pirates would plunder all that much swag in a genre still stunned by the wreck of Cutthroat Island. But Pirates had two things Mansion didn’t: veteran overproducer Jerry Bruckheimer and Johnny Depp, whose hugely enjoyable mincing comic performance as Captain Jack Sparrow shanghaied the show, earning him a shot at Oscar gold in the process. The film ultimately hauled in eight times as much treasure as Mansion, to boot.

Director Gore Verbinshki originally enlisted Alan Silvestri to score his film; the two had sailed together previously on 1997’s Mouse Hunt and 2001’s The Mexican. Bruckheimer, however, insisted on a more “modern” score and reportedly ordered Silvestri not to use prominent woodwinds in his synthesizer mockups; when Silvestri did so anyway, Bruckheimer decided have him walk the plank. The producer turned instead to Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control Studios crew, which he had sailed with on hits as diverse as Crimson Tide and The Rock in its former guise as Media Ventures. Zimmer and Verbinski had sailed together once before, on The Ring, but there was a catch: there was an extremely limited sailing season left in which to write the score, just three weeks, and Zimmer was contractually committed to Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai, which left him officially unable to sail for other skippers.

Zimmer navigated around the problem by charting his usual course: collaboration. He christend a suite of synthesizer mockups of the film’s themes before handing it over to his crewmates at Remote Control to be adapted and orchestrated. Klaus Badelt, Ramin Djawadi, James Dooley, Nick Glennie-Smith, Steve Jablonsky, Blake Neely, James McKee Smith, and Geoff Zanelli, longtime Zimmer sailors all, contributed music or orchestrations to the finished shanties. Due to The Last Samurai, primary credit for the score was given to German composer Klaus Badelt, who had sailed a bit for Verbinski the year before for The Time Machine; Zimmer was merely listed as a producer, but ultimately was just as much at the helm as in any of his other projects.

The score opens with the most nautical music for the film as Zimmer and his midshipmen offer up some themes in “Fog Bound” and the immediately following “The Medallion Calls,” a lively fiddle jig and a grandstanding, slightly pompous brass motif that both seem to represent Jack Sparrow. “The Black Pearl” gives the first slow intimations of the most enduring theme in the series for the rather dull character of Will, given a much bigger and more grandstanding performance in “He’s A Pirate” at the album’s close. These themes are attractive enough, and certainly have a jaunty swagger to them like a sailor getting his sea legs. The material for the titular black-sailed galleon and the undead pirates thereon is much less impressive, a rowdy collection of menacing sounds and blasts with a vague Andean lit, perhaps intended to represent the cursed Aztec gold of the plot (with Zimmer’s compass mistakenly pointing him to the Aztecs’ contemporaries, the Incas).

While the themes aren’t going to give Erich Wolfgang Korngold or John Debney a run for their doubloons, aside from the weak Black Pearl motif they’re functional. But the way they are played out has the effect of making them sound cheaper than a third-rate wooden leg, with Zimmer’s favorite technique from his Gladiator and The Rock days making an unfortunate appearance. By having large sections of his orchestra play in unison, and then adding in a synthesizer playing the same notes at the same time, Zimmer’s squadron of hundreds winds up sounding like a skeleton crew, and a cheap one at that. Far better to let the orchestra or the synths to have the deck to themselves with the other as support.

The haste with which the music was made occasionally makes parts of it sound like bilge from the holds of The Rock, Crimson Tide, and Gladiator, with the new themes overlaid and mixed in like watered-down rum. Not every pirate score has to lay a shot across Korngold’s bow, certainly not, and the jauntiness in the themes shows that Zimmer’s crew had appropriately piratey ideas of their own. But with so much that seems cut from the mainsail of past successful scores from the same cutthroat crew, Cap’n Zimmer seems to be saying that the same music that fit ancient Rome, Alcatraz, or the USS Alabama is suitable for piratey adventures without much manipulation. It’s the sort of thing that affects James Horner’s much more complex music at his worst, too.

It’s also a shame that the score’s scurvy crew didn’t see fit to plunder a few bars from the theme music George Bruns wrote for the park ride, “Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate’s Life For Me,” not even to accompany a character singing the shanty onscreen. And the one piratey score Zimmer and his buccaneers wrote before, Muppet Treasure Island, seems to be their only big score from the previous decade they didn’t refit. And it was the first of many such refits to come; by the end of the decade, many similar summer blockbusters would be flying Zimmer’s flag and bedecked in the same bilge, even as his crew’s later Pirates scores rediscovered their nautical roots.

Walt Disney Records shipped 45 minutes of Cap’n Zimmer and Long Klaus Badelt’s music in 2003, but like many soundtracks from their crew it was extensively rearranged for the album and the track titles often bear little relation to where in the film the music is heard–to say nothing about the amount of extra material simply thrown overboard. So while most of Curse of the Black Pearl’s themes can cut a jaunty dash with the best of them, the cheap sound and recycled timber in most of it–to say nothing of the barely shipshape album–the music is best suited for a quick scuttle to the depths. Cap’n Zimmer and most of his crew would be back, though, for the film’s three sequels–each a massive box office hit and an interesting scoring situation in its own right.

Rating: starstar

Iron Man 2 (John Debney)

Cover

2008’s Iron Man was a resounding commercial success and a critical darling, jump-starting a whole series of films based on other Marvel comic book properties. Jon Favreau’s direction, a smart script, and a winning performance by Robert Downey Jr. guaranteed that there would be subsequent films featuring Iron Man, and indeed Iron Man 2 followed The Incredible Hulk (which featured Downey in a cameo) as the third entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The 2010 film, which featured nearly all the cast and crew of the original, was perhaps the most disappointing film leading up to The Avengers; despite a healthy box-office take it was wandering and unfocused franchise maintenence, with little idea of what to do with its villains and playing up Downey’s antics to fill a bloated running time. Fans would have to wait until 2013’s Iron Man 3 for another truly satisfying solo venture for the heavy metal hero.

The original Iron Man had a disappointingly awful score from Hans Zimmer protege Ramin Djawadi that did little except accentuate the character with electric guitars. However, director Favreau had collaborated with John Debney on a variety of other projects, from Elf to Zathura, and the veteran composer was tapped for the Iron Man 2 assignment. Ever the musical chameleon, Debney ultimately chose to maintain a semblance of continuity with Djawadi by incorporating electric guitars (played by Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine, who had played on the previous score) while using his own thematic constructs.

Debney debuts two extremely potent thematic ideas in Iron Man 2, addressing the primary weakness of Djawadi’s score head-on. His theme for Iron Man himself is a heroic major-key march, accented by electric guitars with powerful brass, strings, hammered-metal percussion, and male choir. It’s an approach that evokes Jerry Goldsmith at his most instrumentally creative while still inhabiting the same sound world as the previous film. “I Am Iron Man” is the theme’s brief concert presentation, appearing during the film’s end credits, while Debney interpolates it triumphantly into “Monaco” for the scenes of Iron Man battling in the midst of a Formula One Race. “Monaco” alternates two strong, triumphant strains of the theme with snarling and discordant material for the villain.

Speaking of the villain, the film’s underused and oft-absent villain Ivan “Whiplash” Vanko is given an intense thematic identity of his own. Appearing over the film’s main credits in “Ivan’s Metamorphosis,” Debney unleashes a grandly Russian theme with a major role for dual male and female voices intoning lyrics in Russian. The piece is menacing and towers with Slavic personality with a strong support role for Morello’s guitars, and the dissonant electronic textures reappear frequently elsewhere (notably in “Monaco”).

Sadly, though, Debney’s themes are both the score’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. For as potent as the Iron Man and Whiplash themes are, Debney refuses to adept them consistently throughout the score. There’s no hint of either in the final confrontation cues “Iron Man Battles the Drones” or “Ivan’s Demise,” and outside of “Monaco” they are completely absent from the underscore outside the opening and ending credits. Why Debney did this is rather mystifying: he had a solid thematic base to build on, but either by accident or design he was unable or unwilling to do so.

The remainder of the music is more orchestral than Djawadi’s but is similarly a morass of guitars and synths front-and-center, reflecting little more than a moment-by-moment, blow-by-blow Mickey Mousing of the action. Cues like “House Fight MK1” are almost as unbearable as similar cues from the original score, made all the worse by the presence of far superior themes that go basically ignored. Ultimately the disappointment is almost more keen than with Djawadi’s score, since the former showed virtually no promising ideas to go along with its textural meandering. The inclusion of the “Expo Theme” bonus track is a plus, though, with the filmmakers cannily mirroring the Sherman brothers’ “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” song for Disney by drafting Richard Sherman himself opposite Debney’s orchestrations and arrangements (though the few muted references to the song in the underscore are another missed opportunity).

John Debney was able to improve on Ramin Djawadi’s initial effort in Iron Man 2, but due to his failure to adapt his own themes throughout his own score, the music falls considerably short of what it could have been and has to be regarded as a major disappointment, especially given how extensively Debney adapted Alan Silvestri’s themes in his concurrent score for Predators in 2010. It would take Brian Tyler to finally come up with a formula to marry contemporary elements with a strong theme in Iron Man 3, while Debney would not score another film of comparable statue for several years, unfortunately moving back to the dregs of comedy scores that don’t take full advantage of his talents. Pick up a few of the individual highlights on their own via iTunes or Amazon and skip the rest of Sony’s 70-minute score album (and avoid the “Music From and Inspired By” album completely unless you’re an AC/DC fan looking for 60 minutes of their greatest hits that don’t appear in the film).

Rating: starstar