Sunday 21 August 2011

The Music Behind the Magic: A Decade of Pottering - Part 1

Since the Harry Potter books and films all have such long titles, I figured I was allowed one for a rough, entirely incomplete and biased retrospective of a decade (more or less) of Harry Potter films and their music. The eight films have had four composers along the way, but I (rightly or wrongly) find myself grouping them in pairs and so I'll deal with them two at a time. I'm in the process of re-watching all of the films and so it'll probably take a bit of time to complete the entire retrospective but I'm sure it'll be mildly interesting to one person. At least.

I suspect few people will need persuasion to consider the first two films and their scores together. Both films were directed by Christ Columbus and scored by John Williams. As a result of their prior working relationship (Home Alone, erm, Home Alone 2 and Stepmom), one must imagine that Williams was Columbus' first choice. I think at that point in his career, no fan of the composer expected him to launch another musical franchise. Notwithstanding the Star Wars prequels which were a continuation (of sorts) of a franchise, not many of Williams' late 90's scores had themes that hit home in the way his late 70's to early 90's output did. Harry Potter changed that run and Hedwig's theme - the first few notes are enough for even the casual cinema goer's recognition - became the defining musical accompaniment to JK Rowling's world.

One comment I have made on a couple of occasions, most notably in my review of Harry Gregson-Williams' score to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, is how easy it is to take someone of John Williams' talent for granted. Oddly named it might be, but Hedwig's Theme catches the ear instantly. Gregson-Williams can be a fine enough composer, but even a handful of plays of his Narnia score (and its first sequel) and I can barely remember any of the main themes. Williams' Potter music is, like so many of his classics, instantly memorable and not just to film score geeks.

Both scores are filled to the brim with other memorable melodies, but the tone is generally grandiose and there is little room for subtlety, but the insistence of the music gives both films much of their atmosphere. Almost every bit of Hogwarts seems to get its own theme - grand for the great hall, more gothic and scary for the outside - in a way that Williams has rarely done since the mid/late 90's. When it comes to taking composers for granted, it's too easy to forget that many of the B themes in Williams scores are better than a lot of composer's best material. True, after a while you can have heard a couple of the major themes one to many times and the dialled down use in later instalments was probably a wise move, but the series couldn't have started on a stronger musical footing.

Saturday 6 August 2011

Jig - Patrick Doyle

Patrick Doyle is having a busy year with two of the summer's biggest films (Thor and the upcoming Rise of the Escape Beneath the Battle Beyond the Planet of the Apes), but one that is likely to go under the radar are the 40 delightful minutes of Jig. Given that it's a documentary about Irish dancing, I was fully expecting some full on Riverdance action but, of course, Doyle is scoring the human drama backstage, not the competition itself. Therefore, while the tone is very firmly entrenched somewhat typical, film music Irish territory, but managing to sound a lot more authentic than most.

The focus is on a small ensemble; guitar, flute, violin and piano, with a delicate subtlety that is welcome after the bombast of Thor. The delicacy of the textures means it's something of a Celtic version of La Ligne Droit, although it is perhaps a little less memorable. The album closes with the lengthy Final Results, followed by a song with lyric by Doyle Jnr (male) and performed by Doyle Jnr (female). The results, like the rest of the score, are most fetching. In the midst of a noisy summer schedule, a charming and low key alternative.

Dance your way across to Amazon and jiggle your mouse once there.

Friday 22 July 2011

Captain America - Alan Silvestri

Alan Silvestri is (and sorry to Mr Silvestri for sharing) 61. Yes, 61. I remember when he was one of the "young" composers. God, now I feel old. Given that he's now at a time when most people are starting to hope to retire soon, one can't complain that he's slowing his output, with only one 2010 release - The A Team (shame it wasn't a bit more inspiring, if I'm honest) and one for 2011. Captain America is yet another in the seemingly endless stream of comic book adaptations that Hollywood is spewing forth (not to mention the series that have or are soon to be rebooted - Batman, Spider-Man, Superman). After the slight disappointment of Thor (Patrick Doyle) and the considerably disappointment of The Green Lantern (James Newton Howard), Captain America is definitely a distinct improvement, music wise (and the film has been getting fairly decent notices too).

The one thing that Captain America has is a(n) heroic theme. Yes, a theme. Imagine that. A theme for a comic book superhero. It's even actually quite heroic. Having said that, it's rather short - more of a fanfare than a full blown theme - but it's still very credible and quite memorable. That it has a couple of short quasi-concert versions (the final, titular, score track, and, if you buy the iTunes version, a fun marching band version). As you might expect for an origin story (they all seem to be, possibly because so few get beyond that stage), the first half barely features the theme at all, being rather more dark and brooding. In common with Super 8, the first half features perhaps just a few too many short, none too exciting tracks that don't really add much despite a few genuinely effective suspenseful cues.

Once the action proper kicks in halfway through, the tempo rarely lets up and Silvestri's patented action scoring comes to the fore. Perhaps the closest antecedent is The Mummy Returns (and a touch of Van Helsing), although Captain America lacks that score's broad selection of memorable themes. In any event, it's his bustling, epic action that he's employed to generally fine effect over the last decade. It's nice to hear some action music that sounds like it was written with an orchestra in mind rather than on a keyboard and multiplied up. The album rounds out with a retro 40's musical style chorus number composed (unexpectedly) by Alan Menken. It's slightly cheesy, but good fun. One wonders what Menken might have done with the whole film, his underscoring these days is generally top notch. In any event, Silvestri's score is solid with a decent main theme, even if the secondary material is perhaps a little more workmanlike. Solid if not spectacular.

Toss your discus in the general direction of Amazon to buy it.

Wednesday 13 July 2011

Super 8 - Michael Giacchino

I think Super 8 was my most anticipated score of the summer. Giacchino has turned into one of my "must have" composers where I'll buy everything he puts out, confident of it being worth the investment, with Super 8 at the top of the 2011 list. Therefore, it pains me to say that it doesn't quite excite me like I hoped it would. Several listens later and the first half still feels rather patchy, not helped by an inordinate number of brief, unrelated, but occasionally not hugely exciting cues. True, 30 second tracks can be a miniature epic of condensed genius, but more often they are incidental and that is largely the case here. The first half is largely suspenseful and feels a little laboured with so many short bursts of murmuring.

Giacchino presents several major themes which are typically memorable and delightful, although for some reason put me in mind of Howard Shore's score to The Last Mimzy, particularly in the finale track, Letting Go, which seems to be heading for an ET style finale, but never quite gets there. The fact that Giacchino doesn't do a great deal with his themes doesn't help matters. Indeed, lack of variation and invention in the use of his themes is surprisingly problematic in Super 8. Compared to the dazzling invention in Up or Ratatouille where the main themes are contorted and played with all over the place, Super 8 feels surprisingly pedestrian. The aforementioned Letting Go should be the point at which the main theme (or themes) get a full and glorious workout, but they are merely presented a few times getting a bit louder each time.

Perhaps it's unfair to have ET so strongly in mind, but the film clearly echoes Spielberg's classic and has been marketed as a throwback to those movies. Further, the trailer made excellent use of James Horner's Cocoon and Horner, for his faults, does a lot more interesting things with what is a fairly simplistic melody than Giacchino manages here. Elsewhere there's some fine action writing, World's Worst Field Trip, The Siege of Lillian and Creature Comforts are the major contenders, although it's not as structurally satisfying as some of his Pixar work. A three note motif that puts in mind Cliff Eidelman's Star Trek VI score doesn't help.

Sometimes, despite my slackness of updates, I try to put out reviews quickly to be ahead of the curve but halfway through my review of Super 8 I was disappointed at what I was saying so hoped that giving it more of a chance might help. It didn't. True, the various motifs that run through the score become more apparent with familiarity, but don't really form a greater, satisfying and more unifying whole. However good we want a composer to be - especially on a particular project - you simply can't will the music to be better than it is. Super 8 is not a bad score; there's plenty of energetic writing and a collection of memorable melodic ideas, but it doesn't push the material to the same extent as I know Giacchino is capable of doing and that marks it as something of a disappointment.

Go online in the mothership to acquire Super 8 from Amazon.

Saturday 9 July 2011

Cars 2 - Michael Giacchino

Pixar eventually had to make a film that didn't quite live up to expectations and general consensus is that Cars was that film. It's not that it's bad, but there's something that rings hollow about it; my money is on it not being set in a subset of our own world. Despite their fantastical settings, all other Pixar films somehow intersect our world so we can relate to them. With Cars, it's just cars living in a world that is otherwise like ours, but is filled with... well... cars. Fun, but difficult to relate to in any meaningful sense. Still, the kids loved it and even a classic films factory such as Pixar is allowed to make something a bit more fun.

Given that Cars was pretty much a self contained film, Cars 2 takes the characters and somehow turns it into a spy spoof thing. With cars. I hate to say it, but when a company can make something as inspired as Up, Wall-E, Toy Story or Finding Nemo, a spy film about anthropomorphic cars seems pretty weak. Guess I shouldn't prejudge, but hey, I'm a judgemental type. After Randy Newman's fine effort for the original, Michael Giacchino - who seems to be becoming in-house Pixar composer - picks up on the sequel. Given the lack of story continuity, the lack of musical continuity isn't especially problematic and Giacchino has form in the genre.

Perhaps expectedly, Cars 2 is a pretty fun action score with lots of 60's spy motifs running through it. Although other reviews have mentioned the British spy element, it sounds a lot less like Barry doing Bond than The Incredibles; maybe more the Persuaders or the Avengers. There's some comedy country for Mater (possibly Pixar's least endearing creation) and a little playful creeping about music which is something of a lighthearted take on his Mission: Impossible 3 music (a hint of M:I 4 coming out later in 2011 perhaps? OK, unlikely) to break up the action, but that does rather take centre stage.

The main three note theme gets a good work out (maybe a little too often, but we'll let it pass as it's good fun and is used in sufficiently varied ways to just about remain fresh) and the results are entertainingly action packed. After the Oscar success of the stunning Up and the gorgeous Ratatouille (his best for Pixar to date, for my money), Cars 2 wasn't likely to be another classic, but Giacchino rarely disappoints and Cars 2 is terrific fun; catchy, tuneful, carefully treading the line between pastiche, spoof and parody (if they aren't all sides of the same thing) with his usual consummate skill.

Drive on down to Amazon and buy it. Um... ok, maybe not drive, as such.

Friday 1 July 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 - Alexandre Desplat

...and so it came to pass, Harry Potter did (more probably than not, maybe he dies at the end... yeah, right) smite that bloke who can’t be named and probably will end up shacking up with some random C list character we haven’t previously seen much of and everything will be well. It seems like an age since the three variably talented kids set off on their magical adventures in Rowlingland. In fairness, they have got better (presumably much of Daniel Radcliffe’s improvement came from being on stage and undressed in Equus or being able to use his huge fortune to pay for acting lessons), but when it comes to the music, the series definitely front loaded when it came to talent.

The first four films had broad, dynamic and fantasty scores that set a tone that was then largely disguarded in the last four. Nicholas Hooper hardly set the world alight with his pleasant, but fairly slight efforts. After John Williams and Patrick Doyle, all but the best composers would have had trouble but Hooper seemed a pretty steep drop. We all hoped that Alexandre Desplat would provide a spike in quality when he took on the musical mantle for both parts of Deathly Hallows (HP7) but to many, part one was something of a letdown. Part two improves matters but it’s not the musical masterpiece everyone hoped for.

I’ve tried to work out exactly what it is that makes Desplat’s Potter contributions so disappointing and I think it’s that he takes it all a bit too seriously. Yes, these films are a long way from the frothy first couple but by parts 3 and 4, the films were pretty dark in places, yet Williams and Doyle, respectively, rose to the task admirably and managed to combine drama with fantasy. Ironically, Hooper's efforts for arguably even darker films are consirably lighter in tone. Desplat seems to have wanted to move into more gloomy territory and the result is that it's all a bit too subdued.

Even when the epic battles are playing out, Desplat sounds too restrained; whether it’s the orchestration or the mixing is hard to say. Even when the orchestra are going at it hammer and tongs with heavy percussion and brass, there’s a crystalline quality which isn't nearly as charming as it should be. A bit more density and heft might have worked better. Desplat’s penchant for delicacy serves him very well much of the time, but sometimes a bit of weight and grand guignol are required. You really do miss John Williams', erm, magical, touch. Even the slightly more promiment appearances of Williams' original themes only serve to emphasise how unmemorable Desplat's are. Only Patrick Doyle came close to matching the quality of Williams' work in this regard.

Having said all that and despite a couple of longeurs, HP7 part 2 is a distinct improvement on part 1. It is more heavily weighted toward an epic showdown rather than the low end noodling that plagued much of the first half. Then again, the (presumably) climactic battle between Potter and Voldemort still feels underwhelming. Compare it to (say) the climax of Revenge of the Sith and Desplat comes up short. Even compared to similar moments in earlier movies - notably Doyle's Goblet of Fire - and it's pretty listless. The final track is about as underwhelming as it's possible to get. The chiming brass finales of the earlier episodes may not be entirely appropriate, but the score just fizzles away to nothing.

This may all sounds like too much of a rail against Desplat, who is, after all, one of the finest composers around at the moment and one to give hope that film music isn't completely going down the pan, but it really isn't. Given that the director seemed happy with Nicholas Hooper's lightweight efforts (which are, I would add, actually very pleasing, just rather frothy and up against some strong antecedents), it's hardly surprising that Desplat's effort seems a little underpowered. Down the years, I would be surprised if much beyond Williams' original work will be remembered. Even now, film music concerts only include Hedwig's theme and that's hardly appeared for several movies, yet everyone still recognises it. A disappointing end to a once promising musical series.

Get on your broomstick and waggle your wand towards Amazon to acquire it.

Friday 17 June 2011

Green Lantern - James Newton Howard

I'm not sure at what point superhero/comic book scores started getting samey and kinda dull. My money is on Graeme Revell's average effort for Daredevil, but I could be wrong. If you work forwards from Superman, there's little drop in quality until well into the 90's after Messrs Elfman and Goldenthal stopped scoring for caped (or otherwise attired) heroic types. Perhaps only the X-Men franchise has kept its musical head above water, quality wise, although from the solid and edifying heights of John Powell, it's slipped down to the knock off Remote Control meets Powell by Henry Jackman (not singling Jackman out on purpose, just wrong place, wrong time). Even Patrick Doyle turned in a fairly average effort for Thor; still, I suspect he got a decent paycheck and it's no bad thing keeping ones profile high.

Having delved into the back issues of FSM, I've been slightly surprised at how highly rated James Newton Howard is. It's not that I think Howard is a bad composer, on the contrary, his Shyamalan efforts are excellent to terrific, but the rest is rather variable. He certainly didn't do a great deal to perk up Christopher Nolan's morose Batman pictures while working with Hans Zimmer and with Green Lantern he gets a solo comic book gig. At least Green Lantern is materially more exciting than his Batmans (Batmen?), with a broad and very Goldsmithian, fifth based brass theme. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear particularly often and even when it does, it doesn't quite hit the nail on the head.

One of Green Lantern's biggest problems (other than looking like, coming across as and generally appearing to be a second to third rate superhero and artwork that looks like it's from a spoof of the genre) is that good ideas in its score are swamped with electronics. Sections sound like the horrible overlays that plagued parts of Michael Kamen's otherwise rather good original X-Men score. Not that Kamen was responsible for them, merely obliged to suffer having them put over his orchestral score, but it was clearly a sign of things to come. Of course, while Howard has put the electronics in himself, they smother some fine orchestral writing. Green Lantern isn't terrible but it doesn't really distinguish itself in the pantheon of superhero scores. Once upon a time, each superhero had his (or her) own sound world, now there's not a lot that sets them apart. Here's hoping Alan Silvestri can do something a bit more memorable with Captain America. As it were.

If you can't find a CD shop with your lantern (green or otherwise), go and acquire it from Amazon.