Thursday, July 14, 2016

Top 10 Scores Turning 10 in 2016

Back to our musical score time machine!  I know what you're thinking . . . 10 years ago wasn't 2006, was it?  Here's a look back at 2006 with my list of the 10 Best Scores Turning 10!

Let's start the ranking!

10. V for Vendetta (Dario Marianelli)
Using a militaristic sound, Marianelli soaks dread into most of the score.  The more romantically scored moments are strong and show off the choir and solo piano.  The Tchaikovsky moments in the finale are worth listening for.      

9. X-Men: The Last Stand (John Powell)
This score is a full bombastic summer blockbuster.  Large orchestra and choir in many action cues with a new strong X-Men theme and fantastic theme for the Dark Phoenix subplot.  

8.  Cars (Randy Newman)
A mix of Americana, full Country, brass fanfares, electric guitars, derivative Newman/Pixar material and the usual Newman semi-schmaltz.  Director John Lasseter gives Newman plenty of room to paint the scene, as in the 'romantic' ride of Sally and Lightning McQueen.      

7. Blood Diamond (James Newton Howard)
Howard supplies the film with some emotional beats, dramatic tension and African style throughout.  His main theme is particularly notable in the finale.     

6. The Da Vinci Code (Hans Zimmer)
Strings are the focus in this mostly foreboding score.  Adding to the mystery religious-sounding elements are solo soprano, violin and cello.  While it's full of Zimmer-isms, the Chevaliers De Sangreal (main theme) is the highlight.

5. Mission: Impossible III (Michael Giacchino)
Using his best action and suspense spy chops, Giacchino added a modern edge while staying true to the Lalo Schifrin tune.  A countermelody, driving ostinatos and new themes work well but got improved on his next Mission film.      

4. Lady in the Water (James Newton Howard)
Here Howard shines in another Shyamalan film.  The orchestra, choir and piano often have a rippling/circular motion giving us a water effect.  Themes converge to a rousing climax in The Great Eatlon.  A great score to a bad movie. 

3. Superman Returns (John Ottman)
Ottman's addition to and adaption of Superman is probably best part of the film.  There are times where his new material shines, but when he tactfully uses the Williams Superman themes, it is magic. 

2. Casino Royale (David Arnold)
Another action score that reminds viewers of the past and the future.  It features less electronics than Arnold's previous scores, strong brass licks, ethnic location flair, and of course brief hints of the Bond theme until the very end.  

1. Pan's Labyrinth (Javier Navarette)
For this fairy tale within a horrific real world, the score is based on a haunting lullaby.  It is an often sparse score, using atonal brass and strings for some choice moments.  It is the way he transforms the lullaby so evocatively makes it a score that is hard to forget.           

Honorable Mentions:

United 93 (John Powell), The Illusionist (Philip Glass), The Queen (Alexandre Desplat)

Any favorites of yours from 2006 that I didn't include?  Comment below!

Friday, July 8, 2016

Quick Review: The BFG

Music composed and conducted by John Williams
Music recorded at Sony Scoring Stage 
Music recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy
Music edited by Ramiro Belgardt
Album running time: 64 minutes
Available on Walt Disney Records

Based on the 1982 book of the same name, John Williams and Steven Spielberg reunite for another film in their multi-decade collaboration.  (For those keeping track, this is film 27 together).

While this musical material is new, the whimsical and magical style can be traced back to several other of his film scores - namely Hook, Home Alone and Harry Potter.  His thematic style and orchestration lend themselves to live almost in the same musical world.

For The BFG, the main theme is for Sophie (highlighted of course in the concert suite at the end of the album).  This theme permeates the score, mostly used for sweeter moments.  The meaner giants, Fleshlumpeater, Bloodbottler, Bonecruncher, among others, have a theme (which I'll just call Fleshlumpeater Theme).  There is a waltz-like theme for the traveling between worlds that I'll call Traveling Theme.  A lovely Friendship Theme, a Nightmare motif and a Queen motif round out the thematic material.   

Overture (unused in the film), is a lovely introduction to the score.  Harp glissandos and flighty flutes circle around a lovely statement of Sophie's Theme.  The Witching Hour begins in a slightly subdued and slightly spooky, representing London at Sophie's orphanage.  The clarinet takes over a lovely melancholy theme with low string interruptions.  As Sophie gets taken, the music grows larger and more menacing.  

To Giant Country begins with a low woodwind motif used for giants before the music opens up to the waltz-like Traveling Theme, fitting with The BFG's large strides and making it dance-like.  Dream Country, where The BFG bottles up dreams, is represented by Williams in an impressionist way.  Long melody lines, bell trees and harp glissandos give the dream-like feel of the magical place.  Parts of this track match the atmospheric/calmed sections of E.T. and A.I.  Sophie's Theme gets a few lovely reprises, with trilling flutes and racing strings accompany Sophie chasing dreams.  She does catch a nightmare, and Williams introduces his Nightmare motif.  It's unusual for Williams to have such a long track on the soundtrack, but this captures a long stretch of the film.

Sophie's Nightmare stays on the darker side, giving full statements of the Nightmare motif, my favorite being in the muted trumpets.  Building Trust is a particularly nice Williams track, fitting in with warm, gentle feelings associated with a Spielberg film.  The piano leads Sophie's Theme, eventually growing to the whole orchestra.  There's a bit of cartoon side to it near the end with Sophie's Theme being played in the woodwinds.  Fleshlumpeater brings us the 'villain' theme.  The mean giants do eat humans, but the music keeps them in a threatening/bumbling comic tone throughout.  (Most listeners know this style from Home Alone burglars, Jabba the Hutt's theme, or Gilderoy Lockhart in the 2nd Harry Potter score).

Dream Jars has some really interesting writing for flutes (many representing the dreams themselves).  It has an impromptu feel and might feel out of place without the film's visual.  A solo harp takes over for a bit, before leading into a quick reprise of Sophie's Theme.  The mean giants material returns in Frolic, and launches into a full-on Strauss-ian polka with a grand ending.  Blowing Dreams introduces the Friendship Theme, a lilting and lovely theme. The flitting flutes return and the orchestra shares some touching underscoring with solo woodwinds.  Snorting and Sniffing features Sophie's Themes in some new statements and add to the bumbling giant music heard earlier.  

Sophie's Future is another tender rendition of Sophie's Theme for flute and harp and later transitions into the Friendship Theme before returning to a bigger statement of Sophie's Theme.  A truly beautiful lullaby-style statement of both themes.  The slightly sad tone returns in There Was A Boy, with Sophie's Theme and the Traveling Theme making appearances.  The Queen's Dream opens with the Nightmare motif which returns us to a more action style with some reprises of Sophie's Theme.  This track also includes the Queen motif, a regal horn chorale.

The Boy's Drawings begins with the flighty flutes and transitions to Sophie's Theme, a few references to the Queen's motif and the Friendship Theme.  This darker backstory isn't in the original novel, but gives Sophie's motivation to round up the mean giants.  Meeting the Queen jumps into the snare drum and a regal variation of the Friendship Theme.  The Queen's motif obviously makes an appearance in that same horn chorale style.  Much of the Queen's scenes in the film are used with some British tune arrangements (used in Barry Lyndon and arranged by Leonard Rosenman).  

An airy version of Sophie's Theme starts off Giants Netted, while the strings charge along.  The Nightmare motif appears with the Fleshlumpeater Theme getting a full statement.  Even then, the mean giants are given music akin to Captain Hook as they receive their banishment.  Finale brings us back to a sweet and tender arrangement of Sophie's Theme on solo piano.  The Friendship Theme gets a reprise before the wistful ending.  Sophie and the BFG is a 8-minute suite of themes, each getting a chance to shine - Sophie's Theme, Fleshlumpeater, Traveling Theme, Friendship Theme, Nightmare motif - with Sophie's Theme taking one last bow as the flute flits off once more.  

Most of my criticism towards the score is more towards the film.  The BFG film is a bit of a puzzlement.  It is more of a serious film with serious topics of loneliness, loss of friendship and I guess the main moral is don't judge a book by its cover (?)  Of course being a Roald Dahl book, his made-up words are supposed to be funny but seemed to fall flat.  And of course the whizpoppers (ie farts) are completely odd in between the serious atmosphere.  (There is one that is actually funny because who can't resist?!)  After all, in Willy Wonka the main characters burp themselves down from the ceiling.  

All that said, John Williams brings his magical touch back with this score.  And of course, along with that touch are echoes of scores of years past.  Most filmgoers will instantly hear connections to previous works, and it might be hard to separate, but this new score does have a new identity.  On a technical musical level, Williams brings a new level of writing - both challenging and deceptively simple.  The parts for woodwinds could easily fit into his concert works, with the flute taking a majority of the solos.  His new themes work nicely in the film and the album, while somewhat out of order, is varied enough for an enjoyable listening experience.  Is this the score and film people will remember for years?  Probably not - it sadly doesn't reach the emotional level and iconic spirit as some of their best collaborations.  Still, grab a bottle of Frobscottle and listen to a touching and masterfully written score by the best!                    

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Quick Review: Alice Through the Looking Glass

Alice Through the Looking Glass
Music composed by Danny Elfman
Music conducted by Rick Wentworth
Music orchestrated by Steve Bartek, Edgardo Simone, David Slonaker
Additional music by Chris Bacon, TJ Lindgren
Music recorded at Abbey Road Studios, London
Album running time: 76 minutes
Available on Walt Disney Records

2010's Alice in Wonderland was a great hit score for Danny Elfman, providing one of his best scores for director Tim Burton.  The film itself was a bit rocky, with questionable CGI and an overly complicated plot.  (It was, on the other hand, a massive 3D hit at the box here we are with the sequel).  This time, Burton is just producing and has The Muppets (2011) director James Bobin at the helm.  It is meant to match the look of the first film with bright colors still everywhere.

The main theme (Alice's Theme) was a breakout hit for Elfman and some of his best in recent years.  If you loved the theme and choir, Alice Through the Looking Glass has reprises galore.  The theme does go through variations aplenty, more so than the last film.  Also included prominently is the Little Alice Theme, used briefly in the last film.  Other returning themes include one for the Cheshire Cat and the Memory Theme (used at the end of the first film as she remembers her experiences in Underland).  For new themes, we get the Time Theme, a Russian-esque sound.  The elusive theme for the Hatter also makes appearances in spots outside of the Suite.   

Like the album for Goosebumps (2015), the score is arranged from tracks 1-20 as an album arrangement with the rest being "bonus tracks".  The album works as played, but below I've put them in correct film order for convenience.  Here's an album track rundown, perhaps giving you a sense of his thematic usage.  

The album begins with Alice, a 6 minute suite of the main Alice Theme in all its glory.  It transitions to the full statement of the Little Alice Theme, Time's Theme and the Memory Theme.  The latter theme (a bit reminiscent of Goldsmith or Shore is used for some of the poignant moments in the score).  Saving the Ship is the best cue on the album and weaves in Alice's Theme nicely.  It is heroic in moments, with standard Elfman strings and brass and bit more interesting orchestration.  Little Alice Theme even gets a brass-led variation at the finish.  

Watching Time is full of sliding strings representing the Cheshire Cat and clock-like material.  A ticking rhythm is throughout the cue as Time's Theme makes its first appearances.  It's a hard theme to catch, often blending into the orchestral texture. The cue ends with a strong statement of the theme.  Looking Glass begins with a few haunting reprises of the Little Alice Theme before getting into a flighty reprise of Alice's Theme among action sections in addition to solo vocals and organ.  To the Rescue is a short cue, starting with a fanfare and more of the Cheshire motif before adding a more somber choir section.

Hatter House begins with slowed down variations on sections of Alice's Theme. It's on the quiet side, a bit of melancholy is heard by instrumental solos, an ominous rendition of the Hatter's Theme, and ending with a pronounced statement of Little Alice's Theme.  The Red Queen stays in the low strings and woodwinds with some strong brass bursts before it picks up to action version of Alice's Theme. The Chronosphere breaks apart Alice's Theme to little bits, using it in a comedic setting.  The bulk of the track is epic action.  These large action parts are classic minor-key Elfman with swirling strings and choir.

Warning Hightopps returns to the reflective side, letting solo instruments take part of Alice's Theme.  Tea Time Forever is a bit darker, utilizing tolling bells but switching to a cartoony mood.  Oceans of Time is a sweeping cue, with the themes for Little Alice, Alice and Time all converging and blending.

Hat Heartbreak returns us to the celeste and some tender string underscoring.  Bits of the Hatter's Theme is tossed in, sometimes buried around other instruments.  Asylum Escape brings us back to Alice's Theme in full action mode.  Elfman's chance to bring the portions of the theme in this setting is a great choice.  Just like in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Elfman is showing his mastery of some great action material, using a large orchestra in new ways and still fitting in thematic material.  Hatter's Deathbed is a bit somber, with solos instruments taking parts of Alice's Theme.  A solo flute and then solo horn take over with Hatter's Theme.  Little Alice's Theme is taken over nicely with strings, harp and choir.  

Finding the Family is back to the sweet and tender celeste material heard earlier.  The music becomes a bit bolder with the entrance of the low brass.  Time Is Up is another great action cue - a big orchestral epic.  Time's Theme and Alice's Theme are tossed around throughout, and the action briefly stops for Little Alice's Theme.  World's End begins with a music box rendition of Little Alice's Theme and vocal soloist before a crescendo to the Memory Theme in its biggest statement yet.

Truth returns to the calm style from before.  Little Alice's Theme gets a touching reprise as does a sprightly Hatter's Theme.  There are some great moments in this track, led by Little Alice's Theme.  The Memory Theme gets a fitting reprise in Goodbye Alice, and that melody fills the entire track before the chord progression hints at Alice's Theme.  Kingsleigh & Kingsleigh is basically a choral reprise of Alice's Theme giving one last vocal "Alice!" before fading away. 

Seconds Song is a quick bit of a song that should remind listeners of Elfman's own singing on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Oz the Great and Powerful.  Friends United is a whimsical underscore with fragments of Hatter's Theme hinted at.  Time's Castle is a bit more mysterious (utilizing the Cheshire motif), ticking aspects before launching into Alice's Theme.  The Seconds shows off Time's assistants, using the metronome-esque metal sound to match their design.  Clock Shop is a dramatic moment of Time's Theme and a hint of Alice's Theme.  They're Alive provides some dark underscore for the backstory of the Red Queen.  Story of Time is a nice cue, with a mysterious rendition of Hatter's Theme blended with Little Alice's Theme.  Time's Theme makes a march appearance and Little Alice's Theme seems a bit more distant and daunting.  The album ends with the skippable pop song Just Like Fire (performed by Pink).            

For 'Looking Glass', Elfman added to his material from the first 'Alice', letting many old themes expand and have some variants.  Elfman purposely didn't add too many more new themes, instead expanding on themes relating to Alice's childhood (Little Alice) and the Hatter's theme.  His large action cues (Saving the Ship in particular) are some of the best material on the album.  

For track order, it will be something like: Track 2, 4, 5, 22, 6, 27, 23, 24, 3, 8, 11, 9, 12, 10, 26, 25, 13, 14, 7, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 1, 21

The Alice Theme is still the best part of both films and I'm glad it's reoccurring in this score.  The first Alice was one of Elfman's best recent scores and while this doesn't reach the same levels, plenty of aspects make this a great listen.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Scoring the Series: X-Men

Scoring The Series continues with a look back at the X-Men films.  In the multiple films over the years, there have been six different composers.  Here are the credits to each film with some scoring photos tossed in.   

X-Men (2000)
Music composed by Michael Kamen
Conducted by Michael Kamen
Orchestrated by Robert Elhai, Michael Kamen, Brad Warnaar
Recorded and mixed by Stephen McLaughlin
Recorded by the L.A. Allstar Orchestra
Recorded at Newman Scoring Stage (20th Century Fox)

X2 (2003)
Music composed by John Ottman
Conducted by Damon Intrabartolo
Orchestrated by John Ottman, Pierre AndrĂ©, Rick Giovinazzo, Damon Intrabartolo, Frank Macchia, Christopher Tin
Recorded and mixed by Casey Stone
Recorded at Newman Scoring Stage (20th Century Fox)

X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

Music composed by John Powell
Conducted by Pete Anthony
Orchestrated by Brad Dechter, Bruce Fowler, Randy Kerber, John Ashton Thomas, Suzette Moriarty, Rick Giovinazzo, Kevin Kliesch, Conrad Pope, Walt Fowler, Ken Kugler
Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy
Recorded by the Hollywood Studio Symphony

Recorded at Newman Scoring Stage (20th Century Fox)

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

Music composed by Harry Gregson-Williams
Conducted by Harry Gregson-Williams
Orchestrated by Ladd McIntosh
Recorded by Joel Iwataki
Recorded by the Hollywood Studio Symphony
Recorded at Newman Scoring Stage (20th Century Fox)

X-Men: First Class (2011)
Music composed by Henry Jackman
Conducted by Nick Glennie-Smith
Orchestrated by Stephen Coleman, John Ashton Thomas, Noah Sorota
Additional music by Chris Willis, Matt Margeson, Dominic Lewis
Recorded by Frank Wolf
Recorded at Newman Scoring Stage (20th Century Fox)

The Wolverine (2013)

Music composed by Marco Beltrami
Conducted by Pete Anthony, Marco Beltrami
Orchestrated by Pete Anthony, Rossano Galante, Mark Graham, Jon Kull, Dana Niu, Patrick Russ
Additional music by Buck Sanders, Brandon Roberts, Marcus Trumpp
Recorded and mixed by John Kurlander
Recorded at Newman Scoring Stage (20th Century Fox)

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

Music composed by John Ottman
Conducted by Jeff Schindler
Orchestrated by Pete Anthony, Rick Giovinazzo, Jason Livesay, Nolan Livesay, John Ottman, John Ashton Thomas 
Additional music by Kristopher Gee, Jason Livesay, Nolan Livesay, Lior Rosner, Marcus Trumpp, Edwin Wendler
Recorded and mixed by Casey Stone
Recorded at Newman Scoring Stage (20th Century Fox) 

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
Music composed by John Ottman
Conducted by Jeff Schindler
Orchestrated by Pete Anthony, Rick Giovinazzo, Andrew Kinney, Jon Kull, Jason Livesay, Nolan Livesay, John Ashton Thomas
Additional music by Edwin Wendler
Recorded and mixed by Casey Stone
Recorded at Newman Scoring Stage (20th Century Fox) 

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Quick Review: The Jungle Book

The Jungle Book
Music composed and conducted by John Debney
Music orchestrated by Kevin Kaska
Music recorded at Sony Scoring Stage
Music recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes
Original themes by Richard M. Sherman, Robert B. Sherman, Terry Gilkyson
Album running time: 74 minutes
Available on Walt Disney Records

Disney continues the new tradition of live action remakes of classic animated films, this time reviving 1967's The Jungle Book.  The original had a score by George Bruns, and songs by Richard M. Sherman, Robert B. Sherman and Terry Gilkyson.  Not unlike the previous live-action remakes, this film doesn't stray too far from the source material at all.  Mainly, that includes the use of the 1967 songs and quotes from the original score. 

The first two tracks are updated versions of The Bare Necessities (sung over the end credits by Dr. John and The Nite Trippers) and Trust In Me (sung in the end credits by Kaa actress Scarlett Johansson).

The score begins with Main Titles (Jungle Run) featuring an amazing new arrangement of the Mark Mancina's Disney castle logo (possibly the first appearance on album).  It segues into a bit of the exotic flute solo from the opening of Bruns' original 1967 score.  It transitions to the jungle run section, with wild percussion and bamboo flutes.  The brass have some moments to shine as the string section swirls around.  Wolves/Law of the Jungle is the first to introduce Mowgli's Theme, a long phrased melody that represents Mowgli and his home growing up with the wolves.  It's a beautiful theme that that begins in the woodwinds that grows to eventually add choir.  

Water Truce has an ethereal opening before getting into a jaunty section followed by a nice brass moment and another reprise of Mogwli's Theme.  Rains Return continues the jungle atmosphere through percussion and woodwinds, with the choir adding in.  Mowgli's Leaving/Elephant Theme begins with a sorrowful section with strings and woodwinds passing a melodic idea around.  It transitions to another bold statement of Mowgli's Theme.  The music grows even stronger as the elephants march by Mowgli and Bagheera on their trek.  

Shere Khan Attacks/Stampede tears right into the orchestra, utilizing brass rips, jungle percussion patterns and bamboo flutes.  The action material works really well here.  Kaa/Baloo to the Rescue is immediately disconcerting with the shimmering strings.  The exotic flute sound of the Bruns score relays most of Kaa's material.  The melody to Trust in Me loops and adds menace before the low brass and low male choir enters.  Even in the darkest moments, the main theme is repeated on a solo flute.        

Honeycomb Climb is a bit more playful and adventurous, using the bassoon to represent some of Baloo's comic moments.  The Man Village, a somber track, gives us more woodwind solos and another reprise of the main theme.  A sense of danger looms over the start of Mowgli and the Pit, adding to the drama of Mowgli's journey.  Before long, a tender variation of The Bare Necessities emerges.  Monkeys Kidnap Mowgli returns to the pounding percussion heard earlier.  Horn calls and xylophone glissandos add a new orchestrated texture not heard earlier.

Arriving At King Louie's Temple is full of suspense, staying ominous throughout (there's a bit in the middle that's reminiscent of the Ark music in Raiders).  Twanging percussion among high pitched strings keep the mood in check.  Cold Lair Chase gets the jungle percussion, choir and brass moving in another strong action cue.  The melody of I Wanna Be Like You gets a handful of statements in some ingenious variations.  The action continues in The Red Flower with a charging string motif.  The low men's choir is extremely effective as the rhythm pounds away.  The melody of Trust In Me gets a choir variation (this time just used ominously and not related to Kaa).  

To The River continues some of the darker elements heard in previous tracks.  The pulse-pounding rhythm continues through as the string motif and men's choir returns.  The main theme gets a very brief reprise.  The drama continues in Shere Khan's War Theme with his motif used among thrilling brass and percussion.  The stakes continue to be heightened in Shere Khan and the Fire.  The entire orchestra brings their all with the ranges of each instrument being explored.  Near the end of the cue, Shere Khan and Mowgli's themes come head to head.  

Elephant Waterfall brings back the elephant theme heard earlier, as they bring peace back to the jungle.  It's back to the noble somber style for the main theme, and it makes for a touching moment.  In Mowgli Wins the Race, Debney uses the variation of Bare Necessities from the trailer (arranged by The Hit House).  It's a great moment that Debney added onto, and while the track is short, it's a highlight for most fans.  The Jungle Book Closes gives us reprises of the main themes in a big sweeping style as the film ends.

The album ends with two more songs that are used over the end credits - the updated version of I Wanna Be Like You (sung by Christopher Walken).  The new lyrics are from Richard Sherman, who sat in for a few sessions with Debney.  Then we get another version of The Bare Necessities (sung by Bill Murray and Kermit Ruffins).  

This is possibly John Debney's strongest film score in quite a while.  Having a deep connection to the creation of the original animated film, he seems to have brought all he could to the score.  With the marvelous CGI animated...well...everything but Mowgli, Debney brought a sense of realness to The Jungle Book.  We connect with the animated settings and characters because of Debney's work.  From the serene jungle to its fiercest creatures and scariest settings, the score enhances that.  It also makes the score tell a complete story on the album - the full arc of our main character is explored.  

I have to also give large credit for blending the musical worlds of 1967 The Jungle Book and a 2016 listening experience. The way he incorporated the music by George Bruns worked well, and served almost as a guidepost and wink to those that knew what came before. The songs used in the film were a bit distracting from the largely serious tone, but of course I understand why director Jon Favreau had to use them.  Still, it's Debney's strong score that carries much of the film.  It has a little bit of something for everyone and worth tons of listens.