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

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Henry Jackman)

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Captain America: The First Avenger had been a modest hit for Marvel in 2011, and the character had been further spotlighted in The Avengers a year later, helping to undo some of his long-term neglect in other media and bringing him new fans. As part of Marvel’s “Phase 2” lead-up to The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Cap got a sequel in Captain America: The Winter Soldier which traded in Joe Johnston for the Russo brothers and straightforward 1940s heroics for the paranoia and conspiracies of the 1970s. The Russo brothers–best-known for Community of all things–managed to combine the existing film mythos, explosive action sequences, and a timely question-the-power attitude into a film that resounded surprisingly well with critics. For their part, audiences took the film nearly $100 million north of its predecessor, outgrossing even rival Sony’s terrible big-budget The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

The Russo brothers claimed that they wanted a more “modern” sound for their outing, and in the film parlance of the 2010s, “modern” means Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control studios. Therefore, Alan Silvestri was not invited to return and instead longtime Zimmer associate Henry Jackman got the job. By 2014, Jackman was in the process of solidifying his mainstream breakout, with a series of scores with ever-escalating budgets that had brought him from Remote Control’s back benches to the A-list. His superhero score for X-Men: First Class had been serviceable with some highlights, and he had even replaced Silvestri in a franchise before, with his Remote Control style G. I. Joe: Retaliation succeeding the Silvestri’s more traditional Rise of Cobra.

As one might expect from the Russo brothers’ instructions to Jackman, the composer makes no reference whatsoever to Silvestri’s original Captain America theme. It was tracked in from the original score on a few occasions (most notably the introductory jogging scene) but Jackman never arranged the theme himself and none of the tracked portions of the theme appear on the album. It’s not surprising that Jackman doesn’t use the theme, as none of the composers in the Marvel cinematic universe has ever adapted another’s theme (outside of Brian Tyler’s momentary reference to Silvestri’s Cap in Thor: The Dark World) but it’s more disappointing because it was the best and most iconic theme the series had produced thus far. Jackman does fashion a replacement, heard first in “Project Insight” and “The Smithsonian” with its most prominent appearances in “Time to Suit Up” and “Captain America.” While it is essentially orchestral in character and has the requisite drums and brass, Jackman’s theme is never performed with the boldness of Silvestri’s, and it virtually disappears from the score for large chunks of time, either due to genuine absence or being buried so much under layers of synths and sound design that it’s simply not audible.

Action music is the order of the day, by and large, with The Winter Soldier filled to bursting with white-knuckle action that’s perhaps the most urgent and brutal of any movie in the Marvel universe thus far. With “Lemurian Star” and especially “Fury,” Jackman provides his version of the serviceable and thematic, if not necessarily exceptional, combat cues from the first film, and one can immediately see where the Russo brothers’ inspiration came from. There are titanic brass bursts straight out of Hans Zimmer’s once-innovative but now-tired Inception, synth loops and snarling electronics from John Powell’s once-innovative but now-tired The Bourne Identity, and constant aurally-unpleasant music-as-sound-effects from Steve Jablonsky’s Battleship. It works on an okay level, a basic level, on screen surrounded by taut explosions, but by “The Winter Soldier” and “Countdown” listeners will be wishing for even John Debney’s most underperforming orchestral mush from Iron Man 2. In doing what he was asked, Jackman created what is, on album, the most irritating collection of modern action film scoring cliches since the aforementioned Battleship and Captain Phillips.

The titular Winter Soldier often seemed lost in “his” own film, more of a pawn than anything, and the same goes for his thematic representation. If Jackman did in fact pen a theme for him, it’s lost under so many layers of synths that he needn’t have bothered; none of the Marvel films have had a strong musical identity for their villains, and the Winter Soldier’s thematic material is about as prominent and memorable as Ramin Djawadi’s Iron Monger material from the very first film in the series. The film’s true villain is represented by soft and murky music in “Alexander Pierce,” while the motif developed in The Avengers for the Black Widow hasn’t even an echo in the similarly turgid “Natasha.” The resurgent HYDRA organization is represented by still more vague churning when it’s not underscored by still more action music like the self-titled “HYDRA.” In fact, by the end of the lengthy Intrada album (which is the same as a digital download or a physical platter in all but cost) one senses that the directors’ instructions to Jackman were to avoid any overt themes or motifs at all outside of tracked-in Silvestri excerpts and the few instances where an equivalent was needed.

Jackman’s score thus stands out as the weakest link in the film, and unfortunately its success and the Russo brothers’ return for the upcoming Captain America: Civil War makes it likely that neither Silvestri’s theme nor any approximation of it will appear in Cap’s future adventures (and it remains to be seen if Brian Tyler, who referenced it in Thor: The Dark World, will do so again in Age of Ultron). Jackman is a capable composer with several creative scores under his belt, but in this case he met the Russo brothers’ request for “modern” with what is, in the film, essentially violent sound effects and what is, on album, a laundry list of the worst characteristics of the kind of Remote Control style textual and electronic scoring that dominates the blockbuster scene in the 2010s. It’s not the worst offender by any means, but the experience it offers on album is probably the worst of any Marvel film so far, even Ramin Djawadi’s underachieving Iron Man. And it goes without saying that seeing Silvestri’s traditional theme-based score that largely avoided the scoring cliches of its day succeeded by a score that embraces every last one of them is disheartening.

Rating: star

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

Iron Man (Ramin Djawadi)

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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

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Hans Zimmer)

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There must have been a time when there wasn’t enough gold left for the Spanish treasure galleons to keep making their voyages, but Walt Disney Pictures apparently thought there was enough precious metal in their Pirates of the Caribbean franchise to justify a fourth voyage in 2011. But not all of their crew signed on for the voyage; only Johnny Depp and exactly two of his fellow actors reprised their roles, and director Gore Verbinski jumped ship in favor of Rob Marshall (an odd choice for a skipper if ever there was one, his filmography before and since being dominated by movie musicals). Partly based on an unrelated novel and featuring such piratey staples as Blackbeard, zombies, and mermaids, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides was nevertheless savaged by critical broadsides and domestic audiences were hesitant to come aboard, resulting in tepid pox office. But there were galleons of gold overseas, which makes it likely that Jack Sparrow will sail again.

Even without Gore Verbinski at the helm, Admiral Bruckheimer was still in command of the squadron, which meant that the return of Cap’n Hans Zimmer and his scurvy crew of Remote Control Studios swashbucklers was never in any real doubt. The earlier Pirates trilogy followed Cap’n Zimmer’s 2000s methodology of extensive collaboration within his studio, but by the 2010s the salty German composer was much more interested in bringing in collaborators from outside his studio and using his existing crew and their style to bind together a much more disparate set of collaborators. From the authentic Gypsy jams of A Game of Shadows to the towering drummery of Man of Steel to the so-called Magnificent Six and their gummy attempts at webslinging in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, all of Cap’n Zimmer’s external collaborations began with On Stranger Tides and it was that style that would dominate his voyages for the rest of the decade.

For the film, a crew of experienced musical hands was recruited of whom few, if any, had any experience in the waters of film scoring. The appearance of Spanish personalities in the film led to the retention of the popular Mexican flamenco fusion guitar players Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero, better known as Rodrigo y Gabriela. Rather than relying entirely on his old mate Geoff Zanelli for choral arrangement, Cap’n Zimmer brought aboard respected American choral composer Eric Whitacre who was well-known in the concert hall for warm and complex choir pieces like “Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine” but who had also never written a note for film. Eduardo Cruz, brother of actress Penelope Cuz (who appeared in the film as Blackbeard’s half-Spanish daughter) contributed a tango. And the crew manifest also included Remote Control mates old and new: Ben Foster, Bruce Fowler, Ed Neumeister, Elizabeth Finch, Gavin Greenaway, Geoff Zanelli, Guillame Roussel, Jacob Shea, John Sponsler, Kevin Kaska, Matthew Dunkley, Matthew Margeson, Nick Glennie-Smith, Nick Phoenix, Rick Gioninazzo, Suzette Moriarty, Thomas Bergersen, Tom Gire, and Walt Fowler. If nothing else, the sheer amount of collaboration blew the other Pirates scores out of the water.

Whereas the previous voyages had each taken themes from the previous ones, there’s not much returning piratey material in On Stranger Tides. “Mutiny,” “Blackbeard,” and “End Credits” feature the most, with rather limp arrangements of “He’s A Pirate,” material dating back to Curse of the Black Pearl. Jack Sparrow’s theme sets perfunctory sail in “Guilty of Not Being Innocent of Being Jack Sparrow” It’s thoroughly outweighed by new material which has the same Remote Control “wall of sound” feel to it (achieved without the doubled synths of Black Pearl thanks to flat orchestration) but with none of the swashbuckling spirit and orchestral fireworks of At World’s End.

New material crops up in the form of a love theme for Jack Sparrow and Angelica, but it’s tepid waters at best; for all the hullabaloo over Rodrigo y Gabriela’s involvement as co-composers, their guitar-led contributions sound like Gustavo Santaolalla at his most wallpapery filtered through the trademark Remote Control sound. It’s got none of the lively life of the duo’s solo cruises, being instead reduced to so much ballast. The Blackbeard theme, credited to Cap’n Zimmer himself, sounds closest to the dire Kraken theme from Dead Man’s Chest washed ashore and picked by scavengers. Only a theme for the bizarre mermaids, appropriately heard in “Mermaids,” puts wind in the score’s sails thanks to Eric Whitacre’s lively and original choral arrangements, though they too sound rather similar to Remote Control material in other Pirates films at times, raising the question of why Whitacre was brought aboard at all. If nothing else, “Mermaids” and “On Stranger Tides” suggest, along with his solo voyages in the concert hall, that Whitacre might have a fine original score in him to write someday.

By far the longest CD in the Pirates series, On Stranger Tides offers 80 minutes of music…of which nearly half is utter bilge in the form of remixes. The sole remix thus far in the series had been awful, but hearing the music keelhauled in the same style for seven tracks at the end of the Walt Disney Records album is positively dreadful. As with all Cap’n Zimmer’s efforts, the 45 minutes of actual score is thoroughly rearranged from what appeared in the film as well. In the end, On Stranger Tides was a red-sky-in-morning warning for the Remote Control sailors: with dozens of cooks in the galley but ultimately sounding as bland and samey as watered-down grog due to the maneuvering needed to make all the collaborators cohesive. It makes one wonder why the new crew was even brought on at all, if their music had to wind up so soggy and waterlogged to fit together. Worse, Cap’n Zimmer would make the same mistake on voyage after voyage following this one: lining up a glittering list of collaborators and then proceeding to turn their efforts into bland mush that sounded like a listless version of Remote Control autopilot. Steer well clear of this reef.

Rating: star

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (Hans Zimmer)

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History is littered with trilogies that have spectacularly imploded with their third entry; Walt Disney’s gold galleon Pirates of the Caribbean franchise took the Matrix Revolutions route when it floundered, with a disappointing cliffhanger second entry followed by a terrible typhoon of a third. It’s never been more clear that a movie had begun without a finished shooting script than with At World’s End; characters’ motivations and natures changed between the films, many were killed off seemingly for no other reason than the writers had no idea what to do with them, and the ending was ludicrous enough to make one wish for the previous film’s unresolved cliffhanger back. Despite being a load of bilge, the film made the corsair trio of Bruckheimer, Verbinski, and Depp more doubloons than the Spanish Main–perhaps the truest act of real piracy in the series’ history thus far.

With Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End filmed gangplank-to-gangplank, it was no surprise to see the flag of Remote Control fluttering from the latter film’s yardarm and Captain Hans Zimmer at the helm of his usual crew of scurvy composers. Manning the guns again were Lorne Balfe, Nick Glennie-Smith, Henry Jackman, John Sponsler, and Tom Gire; the Icelandic corsair Atli Örvarsson joined the merry band as well. Interestingly, the list of orchestrators included both Zimmer stalwarts like Bruce Fowler but also Steve Bartek, former Oingo Boingo member and Danny Elfman’s usual orchestrator. Their fleet of dozens of soloists, conductors, and other assistants made At World’s End perhaps Zimmer’s most collaborative effort thus far in his captaincy.

As with Dead Man’s Chest, Zimmer’s crew brings a few new themes to the manifest while importing a boatload of old ones as well. The most prominent new shanty debuts in “Hoist the Colors,” and is a theme vaguely reminiscent of “He’s a Pirate” to represent the titular swashbucklers complete with lyrics. A boy soprano and chorus take up the tune to start with, but it gets some variations in the comical “The Brethren Court” and a building, rousing rendition in “What Shall We Die For?” Joining it is a love theme (though Cap’n Zimmer denied that’s what it was, one has to call a cutlass a cutlass) for the laughable romance in the film; though the love itself may fall flat, the theme is a fun if simplistic bit of sweeping romance and the only time Zimmer and his scurvy crew invoke Erich Wolfgang Korngold in either name or spirit. Together, these themes are by far the most nautical and piratey in the Pirates series.

Old themes return too. Jack Sparrow’s shanty, resembling its arrangements in Dead Man’s Chest moreso than Black Pearl, gets quirky and tortured airings in “Multiple Jacks” and “The Brethren Court.” Davy Jones’ powerful music box and organ theme reappears in a more tragic and orchestral guise in “At Wit’s End” and elsewhere, though with his Kraken killed offscreen for no reason its unpleasant waterlogged music thankfully stays on the bottom. And the defining theme of the franchise, “He’s a Pirate,” appears here and there as well, with its biggest moment saved for the start of the end credits suite in “Drink Up Me Hearties.”

At its best, Cap’n Zimmer and his mates put the old and new themes together with an organic flow that, while still clearly part of the Remote Control sound world, is much more nautical and orchestral than anything that has come before. The album’s crowning moment is “Up is Down,” which accompanies a particularly nonsensical sequence of the film with a lively pirate jig which freely mixes fragments of nearly every theme from the series up to that point. The massive 10-minute cues of “I Don’t Think Now Is the Best Time” and “Drink Up Me Hearties” offer more of this surprisingly thoughtful thematic mixing from Cap’n Zimmer.

It’s not all smooth sailing. “Calypso” is a weak recapitulation of some of the muddiest parts of Dead Man’s Chest, while “Singapore” has little to offer but rather stereotypical Chinese progressions. There are bits of “Drink Up Me Hearties” and especially “I Don’t Think Now Is the Best Time” are occasionally overwhelmed by the typhoon of Cap’n Zimmer’s trademark “wall of sound” to an extent that mitigates the newly christened swashbucklery and pleasing sailor’s knot of themes, though admittedly without plumbing the worst depths of Black Pearl or Dead Man’s Chest.

On the final manifest, with At World’s End Cap’n Zimmer and his crew of hearties probably got as close to a truly piratey sound as they could with the Remote Control method of composition. If it’s not quite a shot across Admiral Korngold’s bow, it is at least the best presentation of the best themes from the franchise with the “wall of sound,” electronics, and borrowing from past Cap’n Zimmer classics present but safely in the brig. As usual, the music on the hour-long album is extensively rearranged from that which appeared in the film, but even that is somewhat less egregious than its shipmates in the series. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End was a dreadful film, but it somehow inspired the best score of the series. Cap’n Zimmer would sail with the old crew once again for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, but it tacked against the wind and was nowhere near as much piratey fun.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (Hans Zimmer)

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The completely unexpected success of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie with audiences and critics made it inevitable that Captain Jack Sparrow and his hangers-on would sail again; $600 million in worldwide box-office gold and five nominations’ worth of Oscar gold was just too much plunder for the producers to ignore. So virtually the entire cast and crew, from star Depp to director Verbinski to overproducer Bruckheimer, was shanghaied back for not one but two sequels to be filmed back-to-back and released a year apart. This sort of filming had undergone a resurgence in the 2000s following the success of The Lord of the Rings, with The Matrix sequels taking the same route. Therefore, production began without a finished script, leaving the film feeling soggy and underwritten in many places, despite some memorable moments, and it concluded with a particularly poorly-done cliffhanger.

Despite its hasty genesis, the soundtrack to Curse of the Black Pearl had sold well for Walt Disney Records, and had helped cement Hans Zimmer and his scurvy Remote Control crew as the kings of summer blockbusters. No one was surprised when they reboarded the franchise for the second movie, Dead Man’s Chest, though some eyebrows were raised that despite the presence of “his” themes, Klaus Badelt wasn’t credited at all. With no contractual obligations and plenty of time to pen the score, Zimmer struck the false colors and took primary credit for the music, although as always the collaboration-minded German was assisted by his Remote Control hearties. Lorne Balfe, who would become Zimmer’s primary collaborator for the latter 2000s and 2010s, joined old Remote Control sea dogs Nick Glennie-Smith and Geoff Zanelli from the first film along with up-and-coming midshipmen Henry Jackman, Trevor Morris, Tom Gire, and John Sponsler.

The most memorable themes from the original Pirates sail into port along with them, with the dual silly/serious themes for Jack Sparrow reappearing right out of the gate in, appropriately, “Jack Sparrow.” The flighty and jaunty cello is punched up a notch for a much more satisfyingly piratey sound this time around, though it’s periodically shot across the bow by the usual massive orchestra with synth doubles that Zimmer adds to his provisions for every voyage. The Cthulloid villain of the film, Davy Jones, is given an affecting music box theme that builds to a satistfying, massive organ-led crescendo in “Davy Jones,” while the “He’s a Pirate” theme crops up in the rousing, if often eardrum-shattering, “Wheel of Fortune.” It’s all very rousingly piratey stuff, though “Two Hornpipes (Tortuga)” is the true delightful pirate leader of the album.

But for all that resurgent nautical lit to Cap’n Zimmer’s tunes, the music still has some sargassum-fouled doldrums. Chief among these is “The Kraken” which, despite some token nautical “heave, ho!” chants in the far background, is a crushingly powered-up power anthem scraped from the bilge of earlier and better-realized power anthems. In addition to his usual unison playing and synth doubling, Zimmer feeds the entire orchestra through an electric guitar amp, an idea that sounds swashbuckling in theory but in practice just seems to add an anemic faux electric guitar to the titular giant gastropod and its attacks. Add to that some painfully anonymous music in other places–“I’ve Got My Eye on You,” “A Family Affair,” “You Look Good Jack”–and you’ve got some of Cap’n Zimmer’s lowest soundings next to some of his highest shoals.

It goes without saying, too, that the 50-minute patchwork of the album leaves yards of mainsail left in the hold, with plenty of rearrangement into lengthy suites that often only vaguely resemble the musical block and tackle heard in the movie–to say nothing with ending on a truly dire remix of “He’s a Pirate.” It’s an improvement over the first Pirates, with a more genuine nautical spirit and better themes alongside better interpretations of old themes. But there are still a lot of places where Cap’n Zimmer and his scurvy crew couldn’t resist recycling or swabbing the decks with banal music. It wouldn’t be until their third voyage that the crew got their topsail and mainmast sorted out.

Rating: starstarstar

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Hans Zimmer)

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The powers-that-be behind The Amazing Spider-Man had a problem. While their remake/reboot had done well overseas, its paltry $200 million gross in the US was by far the lowest of any film featuring the web-slinger to date. With a sequel already greenlit, the producers and director Marc Webb needed to lure back fans who had felt, correctly, that their previous film had been unnecessary even in reboot-happy Hollywood. To that end, they stuffed The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to the gills: three villains, multiple subplots, hooks upon hooks upon hooks to tie into projected Sinister Six and Venom films, and an adaptation of a legendarily dark story twist from the comics–all in a package only six minutes longer than The Amazing Spider-Man. If that film had felt like a remake of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, its sequel was a remake of the (relatively) disastrous Spider-Man 3. Once again, international audiences flocked to see their friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, but the domestic grosses were extremely disappointing (less then the contemporary Captain America 2) and critical reviews were savage.

Danny Elfman, Christopher Young, and James Horner had provided generally outstanding music for the previous Spider-Man films, combining a firm orchestral presence with strong themes and hefty helpings of electronics where appropriate. For The Amazing Spider-Man 2, though, the producers turned directly to the current superhero kings of Hollywood: Hans Zimmer and his Remote Control studio. Since Batman Begins in 2005, Zimmer had been attached to most of the successful superhero adaptations cranked out by Hollywood, from 2008’s The Dark Knight to 2012’s Man of Steel. His philosophy of acting as a producer for a vast and disparate group of collaborators and his mastery of the media had made his textural scores, largely driven by simple ostinatos and motifs rather than traditional themes, discussed and debated to an extent unrivaled by any other composer in the 2010s.

In addition to being a music production studio, Zimmer’s Remote Control studio is also a PR outfit, and in the months before The Amazing Spider-Man 2‘s release, it was in full swing. With essentially a blank check from the filmmakers to produce something hip and popular, Zimmer reached out to the upper ranks of the pop music world for collaborators, and headline after headline followed their announcement: seven-time Grammy-winning R&B artist Pharrell Williams, straight from providing songs for the Despicable Me series; Incubus guitarist and frontman Mike Einziger; English recording artist and The Smiths mastermind Johnny Marr; Dutch electronica whiz Tom Holkenborg AKA Junkie XL; and, from Zimmer’s own stable of co-composers at Remote Control, Andrew Kawczynski and Steve Mazzaro. Dubbed “The Magnificent Six” on album covers and movie posters, those collaborators joined a further five Remote Control co-composers and five Remote Control orchestrators. Even for the collaboration-minded Zimmer, it was an unprecedented number of cooks in the kitchen, with every dollar of The Amazing Spider-Man 2‘s massive music budget on glittering display.

The part of the score that seems to have elicited the most reaction, positive or negative, is Zimmer’s use of dubstep and vocals for the film’s “main” villain Electro. As heard in “I’m Electro” and expanded upon in “My Enemy,” the Electro material is, like the composer breakdown, a bizarre gumbo of influences that mixes electronics that are far harsher and more contemporary than anything attempted by Elfman or Horner with vocals spelling out the character’s emotions (“He lied to me/He shot at me/He hates on me”) combined with Zimmer’s usual string runs. It’s a bit ironic that at a time when old-fashioned scores are being derided for being manipulative and telling the audience what they should feel, that Zimmer’s Electro theme tells the audience exactly what they should feel in so many words. Your response to the theme will depend on your tolerance for the unhinged and harsh, if creative, soundscape. Putting dubstep and vocals into a film score is an unusual nod to current musical trends, but it seems a little bit like putting disco into film scores in the 1970s: it seems hip and contemporary now, but will only serve to horribly date the movie once the dubstep craze of the 2010s fades. The Electro material is better as a villain theme than James Horner’s non-theme for the Lizard, but it pales in comparison to Danny Elfman’s solid Green Goblin and Doc Ock themes, as well as Christopher Young’s mournful Sandman music from Spider-Man 3.

Spider-Man himself does get a theme, his fourth in twelve years, first heard in “I’m Spider-Man.” Commentators have compared it to Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” though Zimmer’s music is far obviously more grounded in electronics, which are far more present than even Elfman’s most contemporary music, to the extent that the theme sounds like a nightly-news fanfare, an Olympic torch relay, or Vangelis (often to the point of sounding almost laughably cheesy). There’s also a love theme of sorts as in “Ground Rules,” “You Need Me,” or “I’m Moving to England,” and it’s there that Zimmer’s approach is closest to that of Elfman and Horner, with soft piano colors over ambient electronics and soothing orchestral washes, though the electric guitar is often given by far the most prominent role and the electronics, whether as atmospheric synths or intrusive pulses, are ever-present. The mix is such that even in the cues with a heavy orchestral presence, it’s all but overwhelmed by electronics, guitars, or both.

The less said about the material for the Goblin character the better – it’s essentially warmed-over leftovers from Man of Steel and a half-dozen other Zimmer scores, relying on the usual heavy ostinatos rather than the snarling menace of Danny Elfman’s original theme (or Christopher Young’s variations thereof). The most interesting thing about Zimmer’s themes, though, is that they are not utilized nearly to the extent or with the deep integration of Elfman, Horner, or Young. Whatever your feeling on the overall quality of his Electro, Goblin, Spider-Man, and love themes, Zimmer and his collaborators do not weave them into the musical DNA of the film, and there are none of the titanic hero theme vs. villain theme struggles which characterized Elfman and Young’s work. The balance of the work is electronic and guitar music that is strongly in the Zimmer mold, sometimes highly enjoyable, sometimes not, but with only the veteran overproducer’s sound to tie it all together. And there are many times when he fails to do even that, leaving the music to degenerate into a series of sometimes attractive but often disjointed pieces, each vying with the others to sound the most important.

Ultimately, Hans Zimmer and his sixteen credited collaborators did what they were asked to do: infuse popular names in contemporary pop music into the current dominant superhero soundscape, and market them aggressively as a musical experience alongside the film. As is so often the case, listeners’ feelings about the Zimmer sound will strongly influence their reactions (much as those same fans may have reacted to all the Hornerisms in The Amazing Spider-Man). But even taking that into consideration, Zimmer’s employment of his themes leaves much to be desired independent of the themes’ quality, and the effort often feels disjointed and piecemeal despite the composer’s attempts at using his overbearing style as musical glue. Whatever their flaws, Elfman and Horner produced cohesive scores, and even Christopher Young’s patchwork combination of his own themes and Elfman’s felt more organic. The music produced by Zimmer & co. is serviceable, perhaps even crowdpleasing, but ultimately feels more like a concept album than a fully fleshed-out score. At the time of the film’s release, it was available both as a standard CD and a “deluxe” product with a second disc and flimsier packaging that doesn’t play nice with CD racks. With The Amazing Spider-Man 2‘s middling box office returns the direction for the already-scheduled third and forth movies in the series is murky, but it’s a good bet that, given the amount of media attention he was able to command as part of his scoring process, that Hans Zimmer and his collaborators will unfortunately be the musical voice of the series for some time to come.

Rating: starstar

Gridiron Gang (Trevor Rabin)

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Gridiron Gang was a 2006 sports film which depicted, with considerable dramatic license, the story of the Kilpatrick Mustangs–an American football team made up of teens convicts from a juvenile hall. Though it’s doubtful that the actual 1990 Kilpatrick Mustangs came close to resembling the ones in the film, and their coach certainly had little in common with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the film was a solid performer in the “inspirational sports story” genre.

The 1990s Trevor Rabin presents a contrast to the composer in 2006 as well. The former member of Yes had transitioned to writing film scores in the mid to late 1990s and had exploded onto the scene with multiple high-grossing blockbusters like Armageddon and Enemy of the State, often working in collaboration with members of fellow former rocker Hans Zimmer’s Media Ventures (and later Remote Control) studio. But by 2006, Rabin’s biggest Hollywood collaborators, Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer, had largely moved on to using Zimmer and his associates for their films. Rabin responded by taking his distinctive sound into new genres; his success with the 2002 film Remember the Titans in particular leading to a profitable sideline for sports stories like Gridiron Gang.

Rabin provides an effective sound for the film that mixes his action style of the 1990s, the same one that had a significant influence on the development of the MV/RC “blockbuster sound,” with more relaxed and acoustic material more reminiscent of Thomas Newman than anyone. Much of the meaty 55-minute album is taken up with very sincere and functional, if unspectacular Americana in the vein of The Shawshank Redemption, albeit simplified and streamlined to fit Rabin’s compositional style and instrumental choices. It’s the sort of soft inspirational music which is very easy to do adequately but very difficult to do well.

There are, of course, definite moments when Rabin’s 90s action style comes rip-snorting to the front–most notably in the three lengthy “We’re Better Than This” cues that punctuate the album. Rabin moves, not always gracefully, from his Americana sound to his Wall of Sound–orchestral players blaring in unison and managing to sound like cheap synthesizers
in the process (another element that was developed by Rabin’s former MV/RC collaborators). While this music is noisy and satisfies the dramatic requirements of the film, it has some baggage: it sounds very dated, with Rabin’s techniques on display here little different from those he used in the 90s, and thanks to the ubiquity of the MV/RC sound it manages to appear almost like a knockoff (despite the fact that Rabin has been practicing his own blend of masculine music as long as Zimmer and company have).

Ultimately, Gridiron Gang is an adequate, if somewhat underachieving, score that plays it safe. It provides exactly what the film requires, no more and no less, and does so with Trevor Rabin’s distinct style. Given the unavailability of many of his best sports scores on album (like the aforementioned Remember the Titans and Coach Carter), Gridiron Gang also serves as the most easily obtainable representative of the composer’s sports score style. Thanks to copies of the score being remaindered by Varèse Sarabande to the Family Dollar chain, in fact, Gridiron Gang is often available for as little as three dollars.

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Matchstick Men (Hans Zimmer)

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From its early days as Media Ventures to its current dominance of Hollywood blockbusters as Remote Control, Hans Zimmer’s musical studio and proteges have a reputation for giving producers exactly what they want (albeit often at the expense of what they–or the film–really need). What director Ridley Scott wanted for his light and quirky 2003 film Matchstick Men was Nino Rota, specifically the sound that the award-winning Italian composer had conjured for director Federico Fellini during the latter’s purple period. Unfortunately for Scott, Rota had died in 1979; rather than approaching Danny Elfman, the latter-day master of that sound with a heavy (and admitted) Rota influence, the director approached his erstwhile collaborator Zimmer.

Zimmer had a long history with Scott, with their collaboration stretching as far back as Black Rain and Themla & Louise, with such blockbusters as Gladiator, Hannibal, and Black Hawk Down under their belt. But, true to Scott’s desires, Zimmer and his army of collaborators provided a highly quirky and Rota-esque score for Matchstick Men, full of nervous and off-kilter energy to match the odd and obsessive-compuslive lead character. In fact, Zimmer and his Remote Control crew went so far as to license Rota’s theme for the Fellini film La Dolce Vita, which appears in six tracks and serves as the score’s defining motif.

While the Remote Control crew can’t compete with Rota’s keen melodic sense, the resulting score is fun and breezy with only the slightest traces of Zimmer’s “wall of sound” technique. Relying on specialty sounds from whistling to beatboxing to accordion, the composer and his confederates succeed in establishing just the sort of European mid-century sound that Scott wanted, even when not directly quoting or adapting Rota. There are a few places where the rather dark and troubled twist of the film is addressed–“Shame on You” in particular–but for the most part the music is handled with a deft, light touch common to Zimmer’s Remote Control comedy and animation scores (and often notable absent from his blockbuster efforts).

A fair portion of the Varése Sarabande album is given over to licensed music that further enhances Scott’s tone of choice and generally fits in well with the original and adapted score Zimmer and company craft around it. Despite the film’s contemporary setting, a pair of period pieces from Mantovani, the master of easy listening orchestral music, mesh nicely with the Rota-esque material despite having a much less pristine sound. Two Latin pieces by the Herb Albert & The Tijuana Brass serve a similar lively purpose, as does the single George Fornby song “Leaning on a Lamp Post.” The only overtly vocal song (aside from whistling and beatboxing, naturally) is the Bobby Darin staple “The Good Life,” which opens the disc. It’s to the album’s credit that, unlike most scores that are interrupted by songs or source pieces, Matchstick Men remains cohesive despite the embarrassment of cooks stirring the musical broth.

In short, buy Matchstick Men on the lengthy (and, thanks to the label’s Family Dollar inventory clearance, very cheap) Varése album for some of Hans Zimmer’s most affable music in years–a throwback in many ways to his early 1990 days as a scorer of contemporary romantic comedies like Nine Months and a style that is arguably a much better fit for him than superhero films. Matchstick Men would prove to be (for now) the final collaboration between Zimmer and Scott; after bowing out of Kingdom of Heaven in favor of Harry Gregson-Williams, Zimmer would be supplanted by his former protege Marc Streitenfeld as Scott’s composer of choice. Streitenfeld had served as music supervisor for Matchstick Men and Kingdom of Heaven, and would go on to score Scott’s next five films with very mixed success.

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