Thursday, July 19, 2018

Spotlight On....Mission: Impossible

The newest Spotlight On is all about the Mission: Impossible film franchise.
In honor of the newest release, we're looking back score by score in the series.  Even with several composers over the years, each film incorporates the classic Lalo Schifrin television theme.  Read on...this message will self-destruct in five seconds.

Mission: Impossible (1996)
Music by Danny Elfman
Elfman entered scoring this blockbuster late into the game.  Elfman generally keeps the spy atmosphere with some fantastically quiet and suspenseful underscore.  It feels a bit out of Elfman's comfort zone, and doesn't immediately hook you in.  The Shifrin quotes are kept to a minimum and don't interfere with most of the score.   The final action track is the best in the score.  (Just listen to: Looking for "Job", Betrayal, The Heist, Zoom B) 

Mission: Impossible 2 (2000)
Music by Hans Zimmer
Both the film and score go bolder in this sequel.  Electric guitars and drum set bring the rock feel to the forefront, while Spanish-style guitar and vocal solos are also added in.  The bigger action scenes are underscored with some distorted guitar and techno-lite music.  Easily the weakest film in the series, the score doesn't offer much to standout from Zimmer's other 2000 works.  (Just listen to: Nyah, Injection, Bare Island, Mission: Accomplished)

Mission: Impossible III (2006)
Music by Michael Giacchino
After crafting the spy antics on television's Alias, Giacchino joined director JJ Abrams to the next big screen followup.  Giacchino shows off the orchestra in neverending action cues and creates tension with driving ostinatos.  New motifs and themes are added, as well as more Schifrin references.  The quieter moments for his love theme are also delightful.  (Just listen to: Helluvacopter Chase, Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Wall, Reparations)

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011)
Music by Michael Giacchino
Continuing where he left off, Giacchino continues more variations on Schifrin's original tunes and style.  The score incorporates the various globe trotting with heavy Russian and Indian sections.  Giacchino returns to motifs from the previous film, but the newer material doesn't leave a big impact.  The suspenseful underscore works great in the hair-raising Dubai climb sequence.  (Just listen to: Light the Fuse, Kremlin with Anticipation, A Man, A Plan, A Code, Dubai, Love the Glove, Putting the Miss in Mission)

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)
Music by Joe Kraemer
Making his splash into the franchise, Kraemer goes back to the Schifrin roots and creates most of the score by breaking apart and reconstructing familiar aspects.  Going back to the spy sound, the score is present without being too in-your-face.  Everything seems fresh - a modern action score without sounding like a modern action score.  Kraemer writes great material for the orchestra with new themes being some of the highlights.  (Just listen to: The A400, The Plan, Morocco Pursuit, Meet the IMF)

Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018)
Music by Lorne Balfe
Keeping directors for the first time, we get a change of composer with Lorne Balfe.  Known for his co-composing with Hans Zimmer, he brings a similar sound to the endlessly repetitive action cues.  Many cues end up feeling like they got away from a Christopher Nolan film.  While he adds more percussion, electronics and choir to Schifrin's melodies, Balfe's score doesn't have much of its own identity and doesn't go very far beyond the stunts it's accompanying.  (Just listen to: Change of Plan, Stairs and Rooftops, Escape Through Paris)  



Check out the others in the SPOTLIGHT ON.... series!

Friday, July 6, 2018

Top 10 Scores Turning 10 in 2018

Welcome back to a trip on the Musical Time Machine! What feels like just a few years ago is now 10 years old. Here's a look back at the scores of 2008 with my list of the 10 Best Scores Turning 10!

Let's start the ranking!


10. The Dark Knight (Hans Zimmer/James Newton Howard)
This sequel score is unique. Delving deeper into the sonic world created for Batman Begins, Zimmer and Howard split their work and focus on Joker and Harvey Dent, respectively. Utilizing more electronic elements combined with the orchestra gives the feeling of sound design more than traditional film score. The Joker material pushes boundaries in the genre, while some other aspects appear in past and future Zimmer outings. The sense of anxiety is persistent through the score - fitting the tone of the film, but making it a tough album for some to make through.


9. Speed Racer (Michael Giacchino)
Just like the main character, the score races through dizzying loops and turns. The retro styling brings it back to the old Speed Racer cartoons, and Giacchino faithfully incorporates the theme song throughout the score. Giacchino's styles jump from energetic action to quirky comedy to some subdued family moments. Like the film, it's a bit too much on the senses, but enjoyable in the end.


8. Hancock (John Powell)
In this modern twist of the superhero film, Powell mixes a jazzy swagger with modern action music. He also adds to the comedy with some light writing and interesting instrument combinations. The big rush comes at the finale where all the separate parts and thematic material start working together. The last two album tracks end the score with a bang.


7. Defiance (James Newton Howard)
Music conveys much of the dark tone in this World War II-set film. It's a quieter and more subtle score with beautifully written string moments and propulsive percussion and brass underscoring the action. The heart of the score is carried by the violin solo performed by Joshua Bell, which Howard uses to great effect. There are some standout cues on the album, which is worth a few listens to truly appreciate.


6. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (Harry Gregson-Williams)
Building on the musical world from the previous film, the score by Gregson-Williams feels more epic with its great use of orchestra and choir. The lengthy action cues match the more action-heavy film, but give time for Gregson-Williams to develop some original themes and incorporated new material. The music really supports and accentuates the dramatic parts of the film, and really help bring the adventure and heroics to Narnia.


5. Kung Fu Panda (Hans Zimmer/John Powell)
Zimmer and Powell really show off in this fun animated score. This score involves large themes supplemented with a rock feel, and enough cliche Chinese-esque melodies and instruments to fit the film. While they aren't separately credited, it certainly sounds like you could pick out each composers' contributions. The spiritual theme for Master Oogway is a standout and featured heavily in the following sequels.


4. Quantum of Solace (David Arnold)
Arnold continues his streak of Bond scores, following Casino Royale with more audacious action scoring. The traditional aspects of a Bond score are all present, with Arnold showing off the globetrotting with some exotic instrumentation. Some of the quiet moments stand out, as well as haunting reprises of Vesper's theme.


3. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Alexandre Desplat)
Desplat's carefully crafted score emphasizes the more magical aspects on top of the love story. The main theme waltz runs through the score along with several other dream-like themes. As always with Desplat, the gentle orchestration featuring harp, piano and woodwinds are heavily featured. To the turnoff of some, the score is rather quiet, intimate and seemingly mesmerizing.


2. Wall-E (Thomas Newman)
The opening of the film sets so much of the world, and Newman's music acts like a silent film score. The orchestral/electronic mixed with the vibrant instrumentation gives it a sci-fi feel when needed. The score carries the big moments of the Axiom's action in the second half to the most tender love story.


1. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (John Williams)
While the weakest film in the Indiana Jones series, Williams returned to form by incorporating new material and old themes. Overall, the score works better in the film than on album, with the jungle chase as the highlight. His swashbuckling Adventures of Mutt is still a mainstay at his concerts. It doesn't always recapture the magic of the original trilogy, but it's a great score.


Honorable Mentions:
City of Ember (Andrew Lockington), Frost/Nixon (Hans Zimmer), The Happening (James Newton Howard), Hellboy II: The Golden Army (Danny Elfman), Horton Hears a Who (John Powell), Journey to the Center of the Earth (Andrew Lockington), Milk (Danny Elfman), Nim's Island (Patrick Doyle), Rambo (Brian Tyler), Slumdog Millionaire (A.R. Rahman), The Spiderwick Chronicles (James Horner)

Extra Honorable Mention: Cloverfield (Michael Giacchino)

Any personal favorites of yours from 2008 that I didn't include?

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Quick Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story

Solo: A Star Wars Story
Music composed and adapted by John Powell
Music conducted by Gavin Greenaway
Additional music and arrangements by Batu Sener, Anthony Willis, Paul Mounsey
Music orchestrated by John Ashton Thomas, Geoff Lawson, Tommy Laurence, Andrew Kinney, Randy Kerber, Rick Giovinazzo, Gavin Greenaway
Music recorded at Abbey Road Studios

Han Solo Theme and original Star Wars music by John Williams
Adventures of Han conducted by John Williams
Adventures of Han recorded at Newman Scoring Stage
Album running time: 77 minutes
Available on Walt Disney Records

A mere few months since the last episode, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, we return to the Star Wars universe with this Han Solo prequel adventure.  Just like 2016's Rogue One, this has the A Star Wars Story anthology moniker.

A new theme for young Han Solo was composed by John Williams.  Several ideas by Williams became the track The Adventures of Han, which Powell incorporated heavily into his score once he was hired.  Powell also came up with a shortlist of new themes to use: a love theme for Han and Qi'ra, theme for Chewbacca, the gang theme, Enfys Nest's theme, and a theme for Lando's L3 droid.  Powell also incorporates several bits of past Star Wars material, mainly the Rebel fanfare and main title theme.     

The Adventures of Han is a combination of two ideas by Williams (Powell has referred to them as hero and searching themes for Han).  Stylistically and melodically it is similar to his work on The Force Awakens (I can't help adding the rest of Poe's theme onto this new one).  This arrangement has charging strings, and brilliant brass and woodwind flourishes.  I'm glad Han finally gets a semi-swashbuckling theme by Williams.  As the movie itself premiered, Williams conducted the cue live in Boston, and most likely live concerts in the future.  I can understand if people only want to hear the new theme by Williams, but those that continue listening to Powell's work will be rewarded.

As much of the opening of the film is introducing us to young Han, Williams' themes play a large part.  Meet Han incorporates the searching theme in an action setting over percussion and brass fanfares.  Corellia Chase fits the hero and searching theme into this big action cue.  This is a really fun swashbuckling cue - a type that Powell has been able to conjure for his previous films.  A flash of the Star Wars main title at the end reminds us what universe we're in.  Powell tends to use it as a "things to come/destiny" motif.  

Spaceport builds more upon the Williams material, with a little more suspense and menace as Han and Qi'ra aim for the exit.  In the most dramatic moment near the end of the cue, we're introduced to their love theme - interesting that it's first in such an arrangement.  Flying With Chewie underscores the beginning of Han's new life with Beckett's gang, whose theme appears in some quick trumpet bursts.  Han's theme takes off with some fantastic orchestration with the next section underscoring the forming of friendship between Chewie and Han.

Train Heist begins with a subdued opening before several roaring repetitions of the gang's theme, with some fun nods to the Imperial motif from A New Hope, and some heroic statements of Han's theme.  Marauders Arrive gives Powell a chance to branch out from typical Star Wars sound.  The exotic-sounding choir lends itself to Enfys Nest's group of Marauders as we follow them through the story.  Bits of Han's theme and the gang's theme jump into the action scoring, some of which is purposely frantic.

Chicken in the Pot is the sole source music as we're introduced to the luxurous rooms of the gangsters.  The song is a bit alluring and mixes music styles nicely.  Is This Seat Taken? changes styles to more light and exotic with really interesting instrumentation.  It includes some subdued flute renditions of Han's theme, Chewie's theme and Rebel fanfare, underscoring Han and Lando's sabacc card game.  L3 & Millennium Falcon introduces Lando's droid L3 with her own bouncy march theme.  Here Powell really stretches the score's textures.  As Han boards the Falcon, the chorus enters with bits of the Rebel fanfare and Star Wars main title.  Enfys Nest's theme appears again at the end.  

Lando's Closet gives the biggest statement of the love theme, and it's written like an old Hollywood romance theme.  Mine Mission contains a steady military march with a fugue-like feature.  Think a cross between 'March of the Resistance' and Chicken Run.  Various character leitmotifs fly in and out, but L3's theme plays a prominent role in this cue.  Break Out continues the same style with a few more allusions to Han's theme, an ultra heroic Chewie's theme and later the main title fanfare and Rebel fanfare combined with Han's themes.  The track ends with a sorrowful rendition of L3's theme.

The Good Guy expands on the love theme, but certainly less romantic than before and also includes some strong Enfys Nest choir.  Reminiscence Therapy is perhaps the standout track with Powell throwing themes from across the Star Wars films into the large action sequence.  All the original Williams themes are interestingly patched into Powell's writing - we hear the Death Star motif, main title, Rebel fanfare, 'Here They Come' and 'The Asteroid Field'.  Those themes intermingled with Powell's themes (and the new Han theme) fuel the large action cue.  Into the Maw continues the action with the roaring brass and percussion giving motion to the cue.  We hear a return of L3's theme, and the gang's theme among the orchestral gymnastics.  We build to the Star Wars main title as it mixes with the Rebel fanfare and Han's theme as our heroes escape in the Falcon.

Savareen Stand-Off adds some more interesting percussion and electronic textures to Enfys Nest's material.  Throat singing accompany the theme on flute as it underscores the Maurader leader's true intentions.  Good Thing You Were Listening incorporates dramatic renditions of the gang theme.  Dissonance returns in Testing Allegiance, and as our main characters clash we hear bits of themes in various arrangements.  We hear a nice moment of Han's theme with the percussion from the Mauraders.  The love theme appears one last time with a full piano solo.  The cue ends with a statement of the Crimson Dawn motif (the 3 notes that often accompany Dryden Vos).  The exotic sound of Dice and Roll signifies Han and Lando rematching their sabacc game.  One last large statement of the Rebel fanfare and Han's theme ends the album.  (Note: the end credits aren't on the album so it may seem a bit abrupt).

As you can tell from the album or my semi-breakdown, Powell naturally continued the leitmotif process that has become a Star Wars staple.  Compared to Rogue One with music by Michael Giacchino, Powell has the advantage of utilizing a new theme by Williams.  Perhaps that would be a challenge, but Powell has succeed in that manner.  The usage of older themes seem fresh in their arrangements and instrumentation.  The spotting of heroic moments are great, both for new fans or the die-hards.  FYI: Two little references to Williams themes don't appear on the album.  The layers of full orchestral material is thrilling as well as the new thematic material.  The orchestra styles are also expanding the landscape - from throat singing, tropical vibes to the percussion that Powell loves to use. 

There seems to be a bunch of missing music from the album, but it's a great example of what was made for the film.  It seemed pretty quiet in the film mix, so the album really is a good representation.  Whether you find the film divisive, this score really shines.  Bringing his all to a non-animated film, John Powell proved himself with this score to Solo.  I can only hope this brings him some more work in the franchise.  

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Top 10 Scores Turning 20 in 2018

Welcome back to a trip on the Musical Time Machine!  For this edition, we're looking just 20 years back...to the year 1998.  Here's a look back at the scores of 1998 with my list of the 10 Best Scores Turning 20!

Let's start the ranking!



10. Deep Impact (James Horner)
Just as he did with Titanic, Horner brought much of the humanity into this disaster film.  Rather than focusing on large action cues, the simple piano theme carries most of the dramatic arc of the characters.  Many cues sound like unused material from Titanic and Apollo 13 (among other bits of Hornerisms).  Some cues like The Wedding and the choral finale are high points.


9. The Horse Whisperer (Thomas Newman)
Newman uses a lot of sweeping orchestral material in addition to the softer flowing moments and swirling minimalist textures.  The more exotic instrumentation lends nicely to the film's setting (dulcimers, fiddles, and all types of guitars), while piano gets featured nicely.  Several short underscore cues don't add up to much, but the longer cues give Newman time to explore.  The great moments in Montana and Rhythm of the Horse stand out.  


8. Saving Private Ryan (John Williams)
Spielberg wanted more musical restraint than John Williams normally provides a film.  Keeping the rawness of the film, there isn't much sentimental or heroic writing in the score. Sometimes the most powerful sound is no music in a film, and it probably has the least amount of score for Williams.  There are some beautifully evocative trumpet solos, and some reflective string writing.  The standout elegy Hymn to the Fallen, with wordless choir, is perfectly served for the end credits.  Its power is still shown when performed in concert or used in a tribute.


7. The Prince of Egypt (Hans Zimmer)
To accompany DreamWorks' first foray into animation, they turned to Stephen Schwartz and Hans Zimmer.  With Schwartz writing songs, Zimmer created a score that accentuated the epic biblical story that added themes and arrangements of song melodies.  The credits read like a early who's-who of Zimmer's Media Ventures.  Lengthy tracks of score are dispersed among the original soundtrack (and collector's edition).    


6. Pleasantville (Randy Newman)
Newman brought a lot of charm to this delightful film.  He gets to show a more sentimental and nostalgic side, aspects that have also been touched on in some of his animated Pixar scores.  There are some lovely piano-led themes, and the score gives some of the magical touches to the film.  A great pairing of film director vision and composer.   


5. Les Miserables (Basil Poledouris) 
Poledouris adapted his composing style to the melodramatic and sweeping epic by focusing on strings and woodwinds.  The score tends to stay in the brooding, low registers.  Character themes appear and change as the story unfolds - grand, militaristic and somber, for example.  Interestingly, the soundtrack is divided into four suites (tracks) with long running times but with subsections within.  


4. Godzilla (David Arnold)
Independence Day and Tomorrow Never Dies showed off Arnold's large scale scores, but Godzilla seems even bigger.  Nothing is subtle - the monster motif (with choir), a large miltary theme, and over-the-top love theme. Of course, that's what makes this score so endearing.  At the unenthusastic box office reception, a score album was never released.  It took until 2007's La La Land Records release for it to finally shine.  It's bold, and tons of fun.  Shame action films aren't scored like this more often.


3. Meet Joe Black (Thomas Newman)
Meet Joe Black isn't a great film but it does have great visuals and a stunning score by Thomas Newman.  This score features some of Newman's most romantic themes and untypical long-phrased string melodies.  It still has some typical Newman trappings, but the highlight is the 10-minute long That Next Place.  [Bonus points if you only saw this movie to watch the Phantom Menace trailer.]


2. Mulan (Jerry Goldsmith)
Much of the epic scope and drama of Mulan comes from Jerry Goldsmith's score.  The rich textures, both Chinese and electronic, add greatly to the film.  Thematic material is strong (and are highlighted nicely in the Mulan Suite).  The songs and score really don't intermingle, with the soundtrack only using a handful of Goldsmith cues.  Would love to hear more of this score expanded and released in the future.




1. The Mask of Zorro (James Horner)
Zorro brought out Horner's most swashbuckling action score in years.  The album features several of the long, grand orchestral set pieces.  Horner deftly juggles all the action, sweeping romance, great themes and melodrama you expect with all the typical Horner panache.  Utilizing some of his old tricks in addition to the Mexican aspects keeps this score fresh and quite the ride to listen to. 



Honorable Mentions:
Antz (Harry Gregson-Williams/John Powell), The Avengers (Joel McNeely), A Bug's Life (Randy Newman) Lost in Space (Bruce Broughton), Shakespeare in Love (Stephen Warbeck), Small Soldiers (Jerry Goldsmith), Star Trek: Insurrection (Jerry Goldsmith), The Thin Red Line (Hans Zimmer), What Dreams May Come (Michael Kamen)

Any personal favorites of yours from 1998 that I didn't include? 

Monday, March 12, 2018

Top 10 Scores Turning 30 in 2018

Back to our musical score time machine!  For this edition, we're looking at 1988!  Here's a look back at the scores of 1988 with my list of the 10 Best Scores Turning 30!

Let's start the ranking!


10. Big (Howard Shore)
Shore nicely handled the comedy and drama of this now classic film. The score relies on a few lyrical themes typically on piano and strings.  He portrays the world of the characters with a wide-eyed innocence that makes this music a sentimental favorite.  This isn't the type of film or music Shore is typically attached to, but here it works so well.  His incorporation of Heart and Soul to his main theme is a great touch.



9. Scrooged (Danny Elfman)
Elfman lets his full identity show - this time with a Christmas twist that would appear several times later in his career.  This score elevates this Christmas film as it shifts around various tones and proved that Elfman could handle larger films.  It took until 2011 for a score release.       


8. The Accidental Tourist (John Williams)
The score is one of the most intimate of Williams and less known among his biggest admirers.  He primarily uses a single lyrical theme to follow the character, which he manipulates through orchestration to change the mood.  The often piano-led theme is primarily melancholic with a sweet romantic side.  


7. Rain Man (Hans Zimmer)
Taking a chance on a relatively new solo composer, director Barry Levinson allowed Zimmer to create a score that is a character just as much as the actors.  His mix of electronic keyboard effects and pan pipes melody is clearly the foundation of many future scores.  The impact of the score is still felt, with Zimmer performing the main theme at his live shows in 2016.   

6. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (Michael Kamen)
Matching the grand absurd fantasy of Terry Gilliam's film, Michael Kamen brought wild action and Baroque instrument styles.  The orchestral writing is complex, comedic and melodic, showing some more sides to Kamen's versatility.  The album is currently out of print and the film is somewhat forgotten, but it's a delight.


5. Die Hard (Michel Kamen) 
Even as he's known for big action blockbusters, Kamen's score isn't as completely memorable as the film itself.  There are some nice character motifs among the action, and also maintain a portion of the film's suspense.  Most of the standouts of the score showcase Kamen's arrangements of holiday tunes and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.  A score album was never released (took until 2002!), but these expanded releases give you a sense of the score as originally intended, before editing and incorporation of other film music.  


4. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Alan Silvestri)
Continuing their strong collaboration, Silvestri and Zemeckis combined the detective noir with the animated world.  The score matches the film's nature perfectly, and so well that the music almost doesn't work as well without the film.  Silvestri incorporated a Carl Stalling-esque approach to the animated world and a jazzy noir approach for our live-action hero - it works well considering the juxtaposition.  The recently expanded release soundtrack lets more of his original vision shine.   

3. The Land Before Time (James Horner)
Horner continued his foray into animation (after An American Tail a few years prior).  With this score, it's of the most mature for an animated film.  Horner dug deep into classical masterpieces for inspiration (and perhaps more depending on who you ask) and created symphonic-like sections for the film.  The sentimental theme moments with choir is a particular standout of the finale.  This continues onto the very rare album, with long but fulfilling tracks.    


2. Willo(James Horner)
One of his most melodically rich scores, it also is an exciting fantasy and adventure score.  Staying atop lists of favorite Horner scores, it still has a few detractions with the borrowed action theme, overuse of both the shakuhachi and danger motif.  Even within the expertly scored swashbuckling action, Horner was able to find some emotional magic for our main characters.  It's a score I find myself returning to over and over again.


1. Beetlejuice (Danny Elfman)
It is impossible to detach Elfman's score from the film.  This is a perfect example of composer and director being exactly in sync.  His zany stylistic choices still give work even with the film switching from offbeat horror to comedy.  The instrumentation and thematic material are still identified with Elfman today.  This score demonstrates that Elfman can summarize the style of the film within the first minute, making his main titles some of the most enjoyable around.    

Honorable Mentions:
Dangerous Liaisons (George Fenton), Grave of the Fireflies (Michio Mamiya), Gorillas in the Mist (Maurice Jarre), The Last Temptation of Christ (Peter Gabriel), Midnight Run (Danny Elfman), Rambo III (Jerry Goldsmith)

Any personal favorites of yours from 1988 that I didn't include?