Saturday, January 28, 2017

Quick Review: La La Land

La La Land
Music composed by Justin Hurwitz
Songs composed by Justin Hurwitz, lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Music conducted by Tim Davies
Music orchestrated by Justin Hurwitz
Soundtrack running time: 45 minutes
Score album running time: 52 minutes
Available on Interscope Records

One of the most talked about films in the 2016 season was La La Land. Director/Writer Damien Chazelle teamed up again with composer Justin Hurwitz after their breakout film Whiplash (2014).  Music is just as much a major component in this film, with large musical numbers harking back to the old Hollywood studio musical days.  This story tells the industry ups and downs of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) the jazz pianist looking for a club of his own and Mia (Emma Stone) an actress wanting her big break.  

The music and songs weave the story together and there are two album releases - soundtrack with all the songs, jazz source cues and score highlights, and the score album with no songs.  Naturally, there is a bit of overlap between the two albums with tracks appearing on both.  For the full experience, you'd have to make your own film arrangement playlist.  For now, I'll look at them separately but write about how the thematic material from one album expands into the other.

Much like the Disney Renaissance films,  the score is extensively linked to the songs.  Almost every song's melody is incorporated into parts of the score.  Here are the songs and their connections:
Another Day Of Sun - a Hollywood theme for their aspirations
City of Stars - Sebastian's Theme
The Fools Who Dream - Mia's Theme

The melody from A Lovely Night appears through the score, while Mia & Sebastian's Theme is the love theme heard prominently in the film.    

Let's start with the songs:
Another Day Of Sun starts the film off with a large production number on the freeway.  The infectious toe-tapping song introduces us to the Hollywood Theme and introduce the jazz instrumental influences, solo vocalists, big band large orchestra, samba feel, and large choral arrangement.  Someone in the Crowd continues the Hollywood big band style with fast paced action on screen with Mia and roommates dressing up to go on the town.  After a dance break and softer/slower section, the music roars back with a big chorus finish.  
A Lovely Night is the song that Mia and Sebastian flirt through.  Hurwitz's song echoes the styles and harmonies of old tunes, and the lyrics reflect the "totally not in love with you" style from 1940-1950s musicals.  The dance break gives orchestra time to show off with cute musical syncing, also fitting for that nostalgic feel.  City of Stars straddles the line of score as and song as the melody represents Sebastian's Theme through the film.  This version features piano, other orchestral bits and Sebastian singing longingly.  The next reprise of City of Stars is a duet and the lyrics represent their budding romance.  The piano accompaniment is stronger, but still features the minor key pattern - unusual for a tune between lovers.  It seems that this song is the breakout of the film, mainly because its thematic usage.

Start a Fire sounds like it should be out of place in this album, and it's on purpose.  It's a John Legend song, and he appears in the film as a band mate of Sebastian.  Funny enough, the characters are supposed to hate the song, but it's another catchy song for us.  The Audition (The Fools Who Dream) is Mia's standout song.  It comes in the film where we almost forget it's a musical - her song is spun out of dialogue as she sings it tearfully right to the camera.  I'll also add City of Stars (Humming) to the song list, it's exactly that - a guitar and humming rendition of City of Stars.  

And on to the score:
Mia Gets Home is a very short cue, but shows off a hint of Hurwitz's jazz instrumentation -  vibraphone, woodwinds, piano and celeste.  Bathroom Mirror/You're Coming Right? is upbeat with guitar, piano and drum set and feels like an extension of his song material.  Classic Rope-a-Dope is a bit of Mia's Theme on vibraphone with a few other instrumental flairs.  

Mia & Sebastian's Theme introduces their Love Theme, a gentle waltz on piano which is expanded as a large scale piano solo.  Stroll Up the Hill features more vibes, celeste and piano in this short flighty cue.  There The Whole Time/Twirl continues the previous orchestration and quotes moments of A Lovely Night.  Bogart & Bergman is an airy rendition of Mia's Theme heard later in The Fools Who Dream.  This charming arrangement features woodwinds on the melody, cascading celeste and pizzicato strings among others.

Mia Hates Jazz features Sebastian's Theme on guitar.  Herman's Habit is a full-on jazz tune, fitting right into the jazz club they visit.  Rialto At Ten seems like the same style jazz tune, but a chunk of it is the melody from A Lovely Night.  The short cue Rialto repeats the same A Lovely Night refrain on vibes.  Mia & Sebastian's Theme (Late for the Date) is a piano-led version of the theme, building to a thrilling statement of the theme in the string section with piano rippling arpeggios in the background.  Planetarium is one of the standout moments of the film as a result of the fanciful imagery and music.  At the beginning, flutes play off of each other before Mia & Sebastian's Theme takes off into a dreamy dancing waltz.  The orchestra builds several times before the fantastic full Disney princess-style statement of the theme.  The clarinets twirl the characters down (literally) with some playful musical banter between pizzicato strings and woodwinds that lead to a large final note.  

Holy Hell is another short cue with flitting woodwinds, light strings on a charming melody.  Summer Montage/Madeline brings the Lovely Night into a full jazz/big band setting giving the ensemble members a chance to shine.  It Pays brings the Hollywood theme (Another Day Of Sun) to the jazz setting with a killer sax solo.  Chicken on a Stick brings the Hollywood theme into another arrangement with vibes and celeste taking the majority of the melody.

City of Stars/May Finally Come True is the only song to make the score album, but this extended version contains an orchestral interlude.  Chinatown is light underscore with framework hints of the Hollywood theme under the celeste and vibes.  Surprise is a jazz number with trumpets in the foreground.  Boise uses the City of Stars melody, although this is sped up and swinging.  The piano carries the tune, with a saxophone solo adding a fantastic layer.

Missed the Play has a very paused rhythm with an appearance of Mia & Sebastian's Theme.  It's Over/Engagement Party has an extended intro on the score album, and then goes into a piano-led somber version of the dance break from Someone in the Crowd, making this version stand out compared to the happiness of earlier.  In its short time, The House In Front of the Library references Mia's Theme and Sebastian's Theme.  You Love Jazz Now returns us to the chorus and verse of A Lovely Night while Cincinnati fits as jazz club source music.  

Epilogue represents one of the highlights of the film letting the music, direction, choreography, costumes, art direction, et al really shine.  A 7-minute medley of the film's music, it starts with Mia & Sebastian's Theme and the lush, waltz variation before going into the Hollywood/Another Day Of Sun material and the Someone in the Crowd interlude before transitioning to Fools Who Dream (Mia's Theme) which almost becomes a different tune by changing the orchestration and it feels sunnier and more lilting than ever before.  A jazz rendition of Fools Who Dream takes over, with a short trumpet cadenza-like passage.    We return to Mia's Theme and when the chorus arrives, it becomes a thrilling magical moment.  City of Stars and the Love Theme are reprised, but the piano seems distant and bare.

The End is one more glimpse at the Love Theme with the choir and orchestra crescendoing to a final chord.  Credits brings us an orchestral arrangement of Another Day Of Sun with a larger sound, vocals and a few trumpet solos.  This cue is by far one of the catchiest tunes to walk out of a theater to.  The album ends with Mia & Sebastian's Theme (Celesta), with the celeste almost sounding like a dreamlike music box.          

This score is one of the only one like it this year.  Some listeners have made comparisons in film and score to The Artist which was also a critics darling in 2011.  That score felt more pastiche than Justin Hurwitz's work on this film.

One thing that I always look forward to is song-to-score continuity.  When one composer tackles it all, it can flow evenly between and the parts mean more as a whole.  For example, the Alan Menken scores of the early 1990s, use this method which also takes its inspiration from the Broadway tradition.  In this film, Hurwitz also takes the jazz source music into the same level as original score (and also sometimes sneaking in a major melody in).  

He's matured a lot since Whiplash (2014) with Tim Simonec writing a bunch of the in-film jazz music.  The score cover credits Hurwitz as "Music Composed and Orchestrated by", which is a great to see with the crafting of the orchestra is essential to this film.  The instrumentation makes it not sound like any recent score.  The jazz arrangements are also fantastic and played by some of the best (Randy Kerber as featured pianist, Wayne Bergeron on trumpet and Dan Higgins on sax, among others).  Credit also goes to lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (known also for their Broadway musical work).  So many lyrics fly by and it's worth seeking them out to catch them.

In this throwback/homage/nostalgic film of classic Hollywood and French musicals, the music carries a lot of weight.  I found Justin Hurwitz's music sticking the landing at each moment, crafting a handful of melodies and utilizing them from the saddest moments to the brightest dance breaks and all the romance in between.  As the film sweeps at just about every awards ceremony in 2016-2017, I'm thrilled to see lots of recognition to this excellent score. 

Monday, December 12, 2016

2016 Original Score Awards Roundup

Here's the 2016 Roundup of Original Score nominations and winners from various associations. Winners will be marked in red and updated regularly!


Jackie (Mica Levi)
La La Land (Justin Hurwitz)
Lion (Dustin O'Halloran, Hauschka)
Moonlight (Nicholas Britell)
Passengers (Thomas Newman)


Arrival (Johann Johannsson)
Hidden Figures (Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams, Benjamin Wallfisch)
*La La Land (Justin Hurwitz)
Lion (Dustin O'Halloran, Hauschka)
Moonlight (Nicholas Britell)

Arrival (Johann Johannsson)
Jackie (Mica Levi)
*La La Land (Justin Hurwitz)
Lion (Dustin O'Halloran, Hauschka)
Noctural Animals (Abel Korzeniowki)

Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (Kristopher Carter, Lolita Ritmanis, Michael McCuistion)
*The Little Prince (Hans Zimmer, Richard Harvey, Camille)

The Red Turtle (Laurent Perez Del Mar)
The Secret Life of Pets (Alexandre Desplat)
Sing (Joby Talbot)



*La La Land (Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul)
Runner-up: Jackie (Mica Levi)


*Sing Street
Runners-up Tied: Jackie, La La Land


*La La Land (Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul)


*Jackie (Mica Levi)


*Jackie (Mica Levi)


*La La Land (Justin Hurwitz)
Runner-up: Jackie (Mica Levi)


Arrival (Johann Johannsson)
Jackie (Mica Levi)
*La La Land (Justin Hurwitz)
Moonlight (Nicholas Britell)
Noctural Animals (Abel Korzeniowki)


Arrival (Johann Johannsson)
Jackie (Mica Levi)
*La La Land (Justin Hurwitz)
Lion (Dustin O'Halloran, Hauschka)
Noctural Animals (Abel Korzeniowki)


La La Land (Justin Hurwitz)
Gary Clark, John Carney (Sing Street)


Arrival (Johann Johannsson)
Jackie (Mica Levi)

*La La Land (Justin Hurwitz)
Lion (Dustin O'Halloran, Hauschka)
Moonlight (Nicholas Britell)


Sunday, December 4, 2016

Quick Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Music composed by James Newton Howard
Music conducted by Pete Anthony
Music orchestrated by Pete Anthony, Jeff Atmajian, Jon Kull, John Ashton Thomas, Philip Klein, Peter Boyer, David Butterworth, Jim Honeyman
Music recorded by Shawn Murphy, Peter Cobbin
Music recorded at Abbey Road Studios, London and AIR Lyndhurst, London
Album running time: 72 minutes (+25 minutes Deluxe Edition)
Available on WaterTower Records

Branching off the world of Harry Potter, the Wizarding World continues with the adventures of Newt Scamander.  Both a spin-off and prequel, we meet Newt entering New York City in 1926.  He of course has a briefcase of fantastic beasts, some of which escape and threaten to expose the American witches/wizards to "muggles", known as "nomaj" in the USA.

For the score, director David Yates enlisted James Newton Howard, not a stranger to some large orchestral and magic-filled films.  As of this writing, they are planning to make this a 5 film series with hopefully Howard continuing to score each one.  This new franchise gave Howard plenty of thematic opportunities - an overarching Wizarding World theme, a lively theme for Newt with heroic variations, theme for Newt and Tina's friendship, Fantastic Beasts fanfare, a jazz-inspired theme for nomaj Kowalski, and of course several motifs for the various creatures.   

As the Warner Bros logo appears in the Main Titles, John Williams' Hedwig's Theme gets a brief nod.  As the film's title appears we hear the first appearance of his Fantastic Beasts fanfare which goes from magical to menacing.  Newt's Theme appears as a lively and optimistic string ostinato and the fantastic sweeping second part which ends the cue.  

There Are Witches Among Us/The Bank/The Niffler begins with some choir which launches into the Wizarding World Theme, a mysterious swirling theme which appears several times throughout the score (and most likely in the following films).  Hijinks ensue when the creature the Niffler runs amok in a bank.  The Niffler is given a comic motif as it intermingles with the first phrases of Kowalski's Theme.  The second part of Hedwig's Theme appears (which hardly has shown up in post-John Williams 'Potter' scores).

Tina Takes Newt In/MACUSA Headquarters gives more grand statements of the Wizarding World Theme that match nicely with the entrance of MACUSA's building.  A more lilting and light version of the theme begins Pie Or Strudel/Escaping Queenie and Tina's Place.  The orchestration keeps things in the magical realm - bell trees, glockenspiel, woodwinds and celeste.  We briefly hear Newt's Heroic Theme as well as jazzy comic beats for Kowalski.

Credence Hands Out Leaflets gives us the dark side of the magical world with long-held strings and an electronic rhythm to it.  One long sequence is represented in the track Inside the Case.  We experience the interior of Newt's suitcase and the various creatures that appear inside.  The first magical discovery is the Thunderbird motif, which gives way to both parts of Newt's Theme.  As they explore more lands inside the case, different creature motifs begin to emerge leading to another large reprise of the Thunderbird motif.  The music turns darker with the introduction of the Obscurus and ends on a tender moment for clarinet and piano.  

The Erumpent has some unique underscoring and unique orchestration.  The music turns comical as it becomes a charming waltz.  It later transforms into an action cue complete with snarling brass.  In The Cells returns to the darker serious tone heard earlier.  It's a bit hard to pick out the theme for the dark wizard Grindelwald, no doubt it will be expanded on in future films.  There is some great writing in Tina and Newt Trial/Let's Get the Good Stuff Out/You're One Of Us Now/Swooping Evil.  (Winner for longest track title on an original soundtrack??)  The dark atmosphere turns to an action cue with driving rhythms and racing strings and a great moment with Newt's Heroic Theme.

Gnarlak Negotiations brings us to the jazz world again, as we see a wizard and goblin speakeasy with our charachters trying to get help in finding the Demiguise creature.  A rousing but brief reprise of Newt's Heroic Theme ends the cue.  The Demiguise's musical motif features some exotic instrumentation in The Demiguise and the Occamy.  The Occamy music is a bit more threatening in tone, but the music is full of energy as Newt's Heroic Theme is reprised.  A Close Friend introduces the Friendship Theme, a touching piece for strings, harp and chorus.  

The Obscurus/Rooftop Chase gains intensity as the orchestra crescendos.  The strings and brass clearly have plenty of work in this action cue.  While it keeps the drama of the chase, it never gets too musically busy.  He's Listening to You Tina brings the Obscurus theme to an emotional scene with some serious string underscore. 

Relieve Him of His Wand/Newt Releases the Thunderbird/Jacob's Farewell is the longest track on the album, consisting of a good chunk of the finale.  As the villain's story is carefully wrapped up for now, the bleak tone is brought into the light with the Thunderbird motif mixing with Newt's Theme in another majestic moment.  Howard brings back the Friendship Theme, recalling some of his work for Maleficent.  This emotional half of the track is spectacular, and the last part of erasing Kowalski's memory is quite touching.  Kowalski's Theme returns in full jazz piano and drumset form - a fresh start.  Newt Says Goodbye to Tina/Jacob's Bakery brings back the Friendship Theme (perhaps to turn into a love theme in the future?).  One last reprise of the great Kowalski's Theme also offers a hint at the sweet theme for Kowalski and Tina's sister as the film ends.  End Titles begin with a strong start and segues into the reprises of Newt's Heroic Theme and his rousing second theme before the track fades away.

The bonus tracks are welcome additions to the score (and those willing can add them to the correct chronological order in the album).  A Man and His Beasts is a suite of the Wizarding World Suite - the theme that really doesn't appear much in the score itself but thankfully gets plenty of variations including one for jazz clarinet, muted trumpets and sliding trombones.  Soup and Leaflets is more of the darker material for Graves and Credence.  Billywig and The Demiguise and the Lollipop are shorter cues featuring some tense magical moments and the Fantastic Beasts fanfare.  I'm Not Your Ma features more of the Credence and Obscurus underscore that works great in the film but not entirely interesting on album.  Blind Pig is the source song (music by Mario Grigorov, lyrics by JK Rowling, sung by Emmi) for the speakeasy of the same name.  It's a nice moment in the film to include as a bonus track.  Newt Talks to Credence is a bit of mysterious underscoring.  End Titles Pt. 2 gives one of the lilting magical renditions of the Wizarding World Theme before leading to the larger choir rendition.  Kowalski Rag is a suite dedicated to all varieties of arrangements of Kowalski's themes ending with the dirty jazz and sweet Kowalski/Queenie love theme.  

James Newton Howard should get a lot of credit for this new musical world he's started.  If you haven't noticed, the motifs and themes are seemingly endless for just one film.  Not being a part of Harry Potter - but still connected - gave Howard a musical sense and inspiration that worked to his benefit.  His establishment of these ideas is exciting to see and of course to see in the subsequent films.  Standing up to past Harry Potter scores, this score and themes match nicely in tone and orchestration.  Howard uses the large symphony orchestra and choir to really showcase all varieties of style and instrumentation.  A totally interesting score that is worth many repeat listens.              

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Quick Review: The Magnificent Seven

The Magnificent Seven
Music composed by James Horner & Simon Franglen
Music conducted by J.A.C. Redford, Carl Johnson
Music recorded at Newman Scoring Stage, 20th Century Fox
Album running time: 76 minutes
Available on Sony Classical

The making of the score to 2016's The Magnificent Seven is a little more interesting than the score itself.  

The film itself is a Western retelling of the original 1960 film (which of course was a reinterpretation of the 1954 Japanese film Seven Samurai).  There were 3 following films in the 1960s-1970s and all were scored by the great Elmer Bernstein.  The Magnificent Seven theme is iconic in its own right, used in commercials, parodies and almost every Western pastiche that followed.  This score does reference the Bernstein theme (but more of the identifying rhythm) throughout the score...but more on that later.

More importantly, this is James Horner's final music for a theatrical film.  He had just completed Southpaw (2015) with director Antoine Fuqua and The 33 (2015) before his untimely death in June, 2015.  After reading the script, Horner started sketching themes and musical ideas to work on with collaborator Simon Franglen.  After Horner's death, Franglen and Horner's usual team consisting of music editors and orchestrators recorded those ideas as a present to director Antoine Fuqua.  From that moment, it would take a small group of collaborators to compose a new score for the film, while being sensitive and honoring the material that Horner composed.  One could boil that down to a new score containing the musical spirit of James Horner - worked on by the people that worked with him.  

Naturally the score is filled with many Horner-isms. It's hard to tell how many he would put in himself, or how many got added by Franglen and team.  The main theme, you could call it the New Magnificent Seven theme doesn't appear in its entirety until about halfway in the album.  Rather than a traditional rousing Western, the theme is noble and somewhat stirring.  

Most of the score fits the doubtful and slightly melancholic vibe set by our villain Bogue and his abuses on the town of Rose Creek.  His snakelike theme appears through many cues, but never latches as an intimidating theme on the album.  The many other reoccurring motifs are the echoing trumpet triplets (an effect that can be traced back to some of Horner's earliest film work).  The tinging percussion, female vocals, danger motif and breathy shakuhachi appear in multiple cues while guitar strums, banjos and hand claps add a bit to the Western flavor.  Of course, a major source of inspiration is the Elmer Bernstein rhythm which appears through many cues, but makes a broad statement near the end as it mingles with the New Magnificent Seven theme.  Those looking for the rousing Bernstein Western style will probably be disappointing, as this score is more minimal and modern in its approach.  

Those modern "gritty" moments don't have much to compare to the grandiose Western scores so many of us are accustomed to.  That isn't director Fuqua's contemporary approach.  While it works with the film, most of the score seems like a chore to listen to.  There are great moments - the Western swagger and sweeping melody does happen, just infrequently not large enough.  For a good sampling of the score, listen to Rose Creek Opression, Volcano Springs, Town Exodus/Knife Training, Seven Riders. The signs of Horner's touches are all throughout the score - something that makes it enjoyable to listen for.  Franglen and team crafted an interesting score, although it's a little too sloggish for me until the fantastic final cue where the score's identity finally shines through.  Still, it's a fitting farewell to one of the greats of film music.  

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!